Dear Jess, my coach is making me crazy.

Dear Jess,

I’m keen for a bit of advice.
My gym is great. My team are outta this world – but my coach is making me crazy. Recently he made changes to our schedule and removed some classes due to a lack of attendance.
I look on facebook, and though the class was removed, he has updated images of him and his friends at the gym, training, at that same time that the classes were to be offered.
I was so upset because my work doesn’t allow for much flexibility and taking away a class then going above and beyond for people he likes is annoying me so much.
In addition I am paying an arm and a leg to go to this gym.
I am told his coaching is old school. From what I can see he can’t even explain basic movement properly. It is hard to take him seriously, if at all, when he doesn’t seem to take me seriously.
I’m close to a belt promotion and I’m worried that if I move gyms, I will miss out.
I love bjj (brazilian jiu jitsu) and training at the gym generally but idk how much more I can take. Any help/advice would be great!
(Name withheld)

Dear (Name Withheld),
Throughout my career I have heard from many students seeking my advice on what to do about feeling hurt, frustrated or let down by their coach. Very often when I do I’m speaking to a white belt 4 stripe or blue belt 4 stripe (for non BJJ people this is a time of promotion to the next level of belt) or an athlete preparing for (or having just completed) a training cycle or competition cycle/prep/fight etc.
The timing of these conversations are not a coincidence at all. There is SO much stress for so many people surrounding their initial belts, or competition. Emotions are high, the need for emotional support is at an all time high. Reassurance is sought after. Expectations are set and often not communicated (by both parties) and if these expectations aren’t met, resentment, disappointment, distress etc are experiences that are common, predictable and not surprising. For either party. Especially common if the results or outcomes of the task/promotion/competition are not what the athlete or coach were hoping for. A loss for a competitor. Seeing a team mate promoted when they themselves were not. Not performing or conducting yourself in a way the other was expecting… the perfect storm for a point of failure in communication.

In this time of vulnerability, what were small points of disagreement or contention can become huge under a the filter of emotion. Gecko to Godzilla. This high stress time is when great relationships could potentially become strengthened and bonds formed if the parties work together but unfortunately also, where some will potentially fall apart..
It is for this reason now that within my work with the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community, I no longer answer queries or letters seeking advice about belt promotions as assumed expectations, personal perception of performance and dedication, comparison to others, feelings of outrage, disappointment and entitlement (from a subjective point of view) can rarely be avoided in the discussion. The person seeking my help very often ends up upset if I highlight any of these issues. The potential to damage my own relationship with this person is too high a risk and not one I am personally willing to take. It is too delicate a subject, at the wrong time and when emotions are too high. The result is too important to the person involved. Even more so if I raise the issue that their belt (and whether or not they should have been graded already) really shouldn’t be a subject of distress or obsession. The big picture fades to insignificance as the immediate goal of feeling seen, soothed and safe takes over for the athlete in distress.
I am being asked for help with emotions when I am really only qualified to offer advice toward practical solutions but that can very easily feel hurtful and cold to an athlete in emotional distress.
I happily discuss promotions with students that are nowhere near one & are aware of that fact. Emotions are rarely involved and we discuss goals, technique and avenues to progress.

Part of this journey is in knowing yourself better. Understanding and being honest with yourself about your motivations can be a hard won yet rewarding insight. Are you asking for clarifications to sooth your emotional state or are you in fact seeking information for progress?
Both are valid experiences, but it is important to remember: differing motives will result in differing outcomes.

It is hard to see this at the earlier belts or during your first competition prep experience, but is clear as crystal further into the journey.
What I can tell you now, with utmost sincerity is: none of this is worth hating on your coach about or damaging a relationship that is important to you.

So. Things I know (after years and years of running a gym and being coached in sport also).

Your coach isn’t completely failing you.
He/she has provided you the gym and team you adore. He/she has created a stable structure and environment for you to utilize weekly for training. He/she has organised the mats, equipment, the facility, schedule, payment structure and admin, staff and routine and taught for years and years so that established team that you joined could grow healthy and stable enough to welcome your arrival.
Behind that is a world of marketing, cleaning, rosters, effort, administration, passion, coaching, small business development & management, rare holidays, missed social/sporting/financial opportunities, retirement from competition/self focus, sacrifice, hard work and good intentions. Years of no doubt.
Beyond that he/she spent many, many years on the mat gathering the information, trying and testing, putting his/her body on the line, competing, networking, travelling, trying and failing, gathering experience, study, courses, development, learning all of the information that he/she offers to you daily and during class.
The team you love, he/she created. And if he/she didn’t, he/she is a part of it. If his/her technique is shit (outdated or limited or whatever), it’s shit but something he/she is doing well is bringing you all together. Maybe that’s his/her forte? I don’t know. But he/she is for sure involved in creating an environment you enjoy, even if it’s hard to see right now while you’re feeling let down.

From my perspective, as a gym manager, community leader, mentor & part time coach, I am mostly giving my time to people that want something from me. My information or IP in form of how to be part of my team (financially, physically, mat rules, etiquette, culture, where the toilets are, how to tie your belt, where you should buy your uniform/equipment, how to enter a comp, what weight division you should enter… the list is vast because my experience is vast. You and many others benefit directly from the knowledge I have gathered in these areas and am willing to share. I am an asset to you. Even if my technique (or your coaches) is deemed poor or inadequate by you, it too becomes a point of comparison and marker for your standard to be raised. If you see me as flawed and you choose outgrow me, I played a part, even if somewhat small, in inspiring you to do so.
My technique (which has taken me years to earn, at my own expense and the expense of relationships with family, friends, partners). My body to roll with. I try to roll with everyone but understandably, I’m out numbered. Often I can’t roll the entire class. If I miss you tonight, just let me know tomorrow. I’m trying my best I promise you.
My time. If I’m rolling with you you’ll ask for my feedback. You’ll ask me technique questions and expect them to be specifically catered to your needs and understanding. The rolls and interactions are all about you. Rarely is development or contribution focused on me. (I’m not talking you personally I mean yous generally lol).
Sure I’m getting paid to be there and lead the class (because that’s the business exchange and contract we’ve entered into) but all of these things as mentioned go above and beyond what you’re paying for, and that is group based tuition in the form of teaching a class.
For both of us, expectation has exceeded the boundaries of coach and student. It is a two way street.
Underneath all of that, I love this sport. I have been in love with this sport for many years. Very likely many more than the students I am teaching (that in my eyes have only recently fallen in love & started their own journey). Though their love for BJJ is no less worthy than my own, simply because of years involved, its seems easily forgotten that I, just like you, want to learn and develop and grow (as an athlete, leader and person).
I am you, but years from now. Just like you, I want to roll. I want to learn. I want to get better. And fast! I want to be inspired, developing and progressing. I want to be in it too. But it’s not about me during your time, and I have worked hard to make the transition to acceptance because what started out as a hobby for me became my career a long time ago.

If a friend turned up and wanted to roll on a day I was free (regardless of how recently I changed the timetable to free up that time), I would go and train with them and create some time for me, not during your time because I understand that would be unfair to you. I would organise my time and get to training without people that look to me as leader especially because I own the gym. I’ve worked my whole life for that opportunity and freedom. I work hard each week on others and would jump on the chance to further develop my own training and become MORE of a resource to offer my students.
Rolling? At my joint? With my mates? With people that are high level/my own level/higher level than myself?
Best. Case. Scenario.
I carry all the responsibility and benefits that come with running a gym just so I CAN roll with my friends and with athletes that push me. That’s kinda my goal. That was what I dreamed of when I was you.
And if I had a good time I would post on social media. Yep. I would (I do in fact).

If I were your coach I would for sure be investing in some of my own time in myself and my own development, especially if my students were talking about me as incompetent at basic instruction or unable to take me seriously. I would be upskilling or investing in my development at any moment I could and I would hope my students could recognise it as the investment in all of us that it is.

Honestly, I don’t feel your or any experience like this is a bad one. I think it is as simple as expectations being misaligned with what is being offered. With that comes an exciting opportunity to understand yourself, your coach and others better, which is wonderful (not woeful).

I’ve had coaches that are no longer inspired to train or roll. They’re bored out of their minds after too long in the sport, have been giving and giving so long their cups are empty. I would have traded for any coach in the world that was still keen on rolling. Even if it wasn’t with me. Because at least he/she is still showing that they are inspired or interested.

Some take home tid bits:
Coaches can’t be all things to all people.
They won’t be at all your competitions. They won’t be able to cater to all your needs. This is a fact. A hard one to hear but a fact.
They’re like a parent with 100 children that ALL think they need more attention. It is an almost impossible task for one human, let alone a team. Plus most coaches aren’t employees so they are running a small business on top of that already overwhelming role.

I know all of this now as the coach & manager. I also know because my heart was broken at white belt (going to blue) then again at blue belt (going to purple), prior to and post a few different important competitions (every competition felt like the MOST important one to me, lol). I remember truly believing that my coaches were in the wrong because they let me down. I thought I was deserving of more than they offered me. I went through (not limited to but including) rage, joy, disappointment, blame, happiness, pride, anger, hurt… at times it was a very upsetting for all of us.
It was emotional.

Looking back, my expectations were not realistic. If I had have taken a step back to see what was actually being offered and the amount that I was receiving already I might have made a more informed and closer to objective choice as to whether or not that coach or team fulfilled my specific needs, I could have saved everyone drama. I didn’t. I chose to be offended and hurt instead. I don’t have regret because I have learned from the experience but for sure I would have handled things differently if I had the option to go back to the start and approach things again with this knowledge.

My thoughts are now, if you truly do not align with the gym or the culture on offer or the coaches approach, you should leave. I say this not because he/she is a poor leader or coach and is failing you, but rather when what is being offered is not what you want or won’t become or change to something you want, it is simply not the right place for you. If this is your situation you should take some time to define what your needs are and then seek exactly that. Pay your hard earned time and money for that. Invest wisely (mind, body, spirit and finances). Make a list, go shopping, ask questions, do research, visit gyms, take your time, consider your options and make a well informed decision.
Either way, sticking around (while hating on a place or person) only because you feel you’ll get a belt/title/win if you do, well that’s not the best of intentions.
Leaving a gym doesn’t make you a traitor or a creonte (Brazilian Jiu jitsu people use this slang term in the BJJ community for traitor) if you are leaving for the right reasons. Loyalty includes being true to yourself and your direction. Respect includes leaving a gym because you are not the right fit for the culture. We often forget this when judging a student for leaving. Sometimes the team is benefited by a student’s departure. As is the student.

For those concerned that leaving a gym will mean you miss out on a promotion (belt ranks, to assistant coaching role etc) :If you’re deserving of the promotion the next gym will award it to you promptly and (in my opinion) would be the transparent and tactful way to handle things if you feel you need to leave (for whatever reason). Leaving just after accepting a belt or promotion would be a self serving choice. No judgement, just raising the fact.
But what if you want to stay but want things to improve? What if you still have hope and you don’t want to leave?
Speaking to your coaches or management about some of your distress as an experience (not an accusation) might bring you closer to understanding each other & find some resolve.
My suggestion is to try to start sentences with “I am feeling…”, “My experience has been….” rather than “He/She did/didn’t”…”He/she should have…”
Maybe no one even knows what you’re going through? Maybe the coach was unaware of your needs? Now is a great time to share. Organise a time just after class and without distraction of others or tasks for either of you.
I say after class because I believe everyone is at their best after a good session. Training highs and good vibes.
Prior to class your coach may be focused on the class ahead and unable to give you their full attention.
Outside of class schedule is also an option but I can’t guess your coaches schedule at all. Asking them at the beginning of the week ‘Do you have time to chat to me after class some time this week? I’ll need a few minutes and would prefer we aren’t interrupted if that’s cool?”
Ask in person. Not via text or messenger or email. It is important to you, so adding the personal aspect will help you both.

Let me break it down: I don’t like stay at someone’s party and hate on them while drinking their booze and opening their presents unless I am willing to find a way to make amends and move forward by being honest about trying to find a positive way to change the situation (for all involved).
As soon as I know I am in a situation that has become unworkable I leave because even though I have been judged harshly by those that feel loyalty is the only priority (and labelled disloyal as a result) I would rather leave if I am unsuited to my surroundings than stay and be ungrateful or, even worse, create a toxic environment, politics, resentment or ill will.
I would argue that the definition of loyalty to greater good OR self is one that is subjective. Why? I have weathered a great deal of politics and drama because of my decisions to leave gyms but my conscience is clear because I did. I have been truer to those coaches and teams in my leaving, than if I had have chosen to stay. Of course, it is a difficult decision but for me it has been the right one. You will absolutely know in your core being if staying and trying to work it out is the right one or if leaving is. But only you can make that decision.

If leaving: dust settles, time passes, everyone moves on eventually.
If staying: people can change, things can get better, communication is key.
With love & hope that you’ll make some great choices, develop as a person and athlete and find joy in your journey,

Jess Fraser
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt, Head of Australian Girls in GI

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