The following article was written for Fight Quality by Greg Wootton, a UK Muay Thai fighter, personal trainer and Coach.
The relationship between a coach and their student is a very special thing. Built on dedication, solidified through loyalty and sealed by faith it is a unique element involved in sports. However, combat sports can be separated from the others by the intricate and intimate requirements of a coach in martial arts and fight sports.
It remains similar to other sports in that the coach’s ability directly affects the student’s chances of success and failure. But the difference is this: failure, and even sometimes success, in a combat sport can mean a lot of pain with the student’s health and safety on the line. You don’t realise this the first time you walk into a gym or training centre and meet your coach. Yet, they are somebody who can give you a glorious and pain free victory or a literally agonising defeat. Unknowingly, the student who pledges their allegiance to a coach has also put their own safety and a fair amount of trust into their hands.
A good coach genuinely cares about their student. This often equates to countless sacrifices on the student’s behalf of which they will probably never know or realise. Missing weddings, family gatherings, dinners, birthdays, you name it – a good coach will forgo these occasions in order to be there for the student when they need them most. It is a sacrifice that can be all consuming. It’s every morning, every evening and nearly every weekend. The commitment it takes to produce a fighter is monumental. It is a commitment that can only be surpassed by the fighter themselves. It must all be worth it standing in the limelight sharing a moment of glory with a student you taught and made their dreams possible. Or even if there’s no glory in a student’s career, surely watching them grow as people and develop noble qualities partly due to your investment and teachings is equally as rewarding.
A bad coach misuses the student’s trust. They take a pure martial art or sport and bend and alter it, teaching it in such a way that flatters their own ego, and suits their own motives. They essentially make themselves deities in their student’s eyes. When someone has placed their faith and trust in you it’s all too easy to use it to manipulate and mislead. This can result in a student being ill prepared for competition, and as a consequence, getting hurt. Or, it could just result in the student never meeting the true essence of the martial art they think they are learning. It can be hard not to idolise the teacher for introducing something so life altering and positive into their lives. Separating and distinguishing the greatness between the martial art and the teacher can be tricky and is a process that can take years.
The student too can easily abuse the lessons. It can provide them with a weapon to bully and effectively tarnish the art and beauty of the sport. They can use the skills they learned on those that haven’t. Success in a combat sports can also change people in many ways. With the rise of social media some fighters are placed upon pedestals and given a celebrity status. Egos grow and arrogance is born. They may forget those who also invested the same 10,000 hours of work, on the sidelines, out of the shadows of fame. Sadly, humility and modesty don’t sell tickets anymore. Larger, louder and more entertaining egos are encouraged now more than ever. Perhaps it’s the coach’s responsibility to instill the timeless character traits associated with martial arts: humility, respect and honour. Although how much of a student’s behaviour can be influenced? Regardless of how these traits are cultivated a student who conducts themselves with honour, dignity and respect must also signify a great coach regardless of the outcomes of competition.
The majority of teachers in combat sports have once competed and had fights themselves. To not only become accomplished in a particular subject but also acquire an in depth understanding of it – you have to have practiced it yourself. There is no substitute. It is passion that calls one to fight and it is the same passion ( in many cases financial necessity is also a cause) that leads them to coach and to teach. The alternative – coaching without ever having fought – sometimes isn’t fair. Can you really tell a fighter to get up when you’ve never known what it feels like to be knocked down? Can you really send them out to battle when you’ve never engaged in war yourself? Some things you have to experience in order to fully comprehend. Match making and picking your student’s fights or competitions is another vital element intrinsic to being a great coach. Deciding when a student is ready to be put in with the lions has serious consequences. Too early or too late can have a huge impact on their career. It’s all about knowing your student well enough to pick the right timing. If you’ve been there yourself to some degree, you may have more insight and foresee the right moment.
For all the mental and physical toughness required by both teacher and student, the student – coach relationship is actually quite a fragile thing. A student, at anytime, can decide to throw in the towel on the sport. A coach has little control over when the fighter decides to quit or end their relationship. All the coach’s sacrifices and hours of investment is a heartbreaking thing to let go of. A career ending injury may also bring a break to the partnership and friendship. A smart and responsible coach will also know when it’s best to advise a fighter when to hang up their gloves and let the youngsters have their time. Sometimes a coach must realise his own limitations and let their student go on to new pastures where they have more opportunity or chances for success. That must be a sobering day, similar to a parent having to part with a child for their own good. Alternatively, there are coaches who have egos larger than their students who may have difficulty watching their students surpass their own achievements. Yet for all the unfortunate circumstances that may break this special bond there are still many relationships that are positively fulfilling and both decide to mutually part ways after an illustrious and inspiring career. There are many ways this fragile relationship can come to an end. But as we all know, all good things do and change is the only constant in life.
Often the bonds created between a student and their teacher are similar to those of a family but without the obligations of blood ties. These bonds are forged through sharing blood, sweat, tears, years of sacrifice and love. The student – teacher relationship within combat and fight sports are unique and brittle, living in the hands of both parties equally. If you are a student, my advice is to find someone you respect, like and believe in, as they will influence you massively and play a bigger part in your life than you will know. My advice as a coach isn’t worthy yet as I haven’t been in the game long enough. What I do know from being on both sides is that students and coaches share a lot of great nights, challenging times and a connection that many people aren’t lucky enough to ever come across.
Greg “The Prodigy” Wootton is an athlete, personal trainer and coach from London, England.
Take a look at the other articles written by Greg here.