Good intention alone is rarely enough to guide students through the crowd to reach the championship. Differences between body types as well as personality types require expert knowledge on how to tailor support and class structure to help trainees get the most out of instruction.
Not all clubs, however, have a firm grasp on what constitutes suitable support. In many cases, any study on coaching or teaching is completely missing, despite how essential it is in understanding how students perceive, receive, and learn. Psychology is not intuitive, and no one is able to see beyond their own preferences without conscious effort. This results in schools where coaches can only help students with the same build and personality they themselves have. That pushes every other student to the periphery. Sadly, in most cases, these coaches indeed think that everybody different to themselves is not cut out for success.
There are quite a few common themes, noticeable amongst clubs run by trainers without teaching and/or psychology education, that trigger shame and self-blame or push students into traumatic situations. For those who compete, it’s essential (and for those who don’t, it’s advised) to take a deeper look into the treatment they receive within a club because toxic coaching causes a lot of damage.
Let’s go through the most common themes:
#1. You know what’s wrong with you? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you / The problem with you is… / What you have to fix is…
This approach is a classic example of emotional abuse. The coach who uses this phrase is taking the role of a judge, despite the fact that given the emotional distance from which they teach, everything they say will be based on superficial features rather than a deep knowledge of the student’s circumstances. Accordingly, it makes the student feel watched and judged.
Additional issues with this approach:
- Without specifically being asked to impart judgement, unleashing a personal opinion on a student (and typically a negative one) is a humiliating experience for the student, especially when done in front of the rest of the club.
- Focusing attention on someone’s weakness is proven to decrease performance. Our focus narrows our mind by more than 90%. When talking about what is missing, the focus zeros in solely on the flaws, while existing skills are left to deteriorate.
- This attitude also forces the coach’s definition of ‘wrong’ onto the student. In many cases, they even tag the students with pejorative labels long term, practically naming them after their physical or mental attributes.
For example, lines like ‘your problem is that you’re getting upset too quickly’ is a personal judgement of the student based on the coach’s picture of what is ‘too quick’ and what is ‘upset’. This shows a lack of understanding of core differences between individuals and will shift the student’s focus from self-development to self-questioning.
#2. You still don’t know… / You were shown several times…
This shame-inducing stance usually comes from a mix of simple laziness, a lack of ability to build an effective class routine and an attempt to get rid of the responsibility of teaching. It’s a whole personality attack, just like the one above, implying that the trainee is incapable as a fighter. This is very often combined with gestures of disappointment, such as shaking the head or a ‘giving up’ wave. It is hard to describe the damage it causes, despite being sold as a ‘motivational push’.
Abuse and humiliation are never motivational. They further drain the student, commonly to the point of giving up, which only serves to fulfil the coach’s expectation and provide them with an excuse to leave the student weak.
Just to be clear on the responsibility of a coach: The student is there for the teaching, and a technique is successfully taught when the student gets it. Simple as that. It’s not about demonstrating something three times and expecting everyone to get it; show every student as many times as they need.
#3. I’ll tell you when you’re ready to compete
Competition readiness is a personal journey. The only thing a coach can tell from external factors is whether you have the basic set of techniques relevant to your belt level. If that was all that’s needed to compete, this whole website wouldn’t exist. The lack of understanding of what it takes to make someone competition ready and the strong power game coming from these comments make a lot of students think twice.
#4. Everyone should compete at least once, it’s an event, just try
A competition is an event for a prepared fighter, but it can result in trauma for a nonprepared fighter. The brain doesn’t differentiate between a staged attack (competition) and a real attack, and to an unprepared fighter, this is where the trauma will stem from. The opponents are not your buddies; they are not careful—they themselves expect the worst and will attack accordingly. The number of injuries incurred in a competition is very high, and the emotional damage can be crippling.
Every tournament produces a great number of people leaving the tatami with those glassy ‘what’s happened to me’ eyes, hardly able to walk, disoriented and shaken to the core. Those are the faces of traumatised people. The experience of helplessness and incapability stays with them as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which takes years to recover.
Selling a tournament as a lightweight social event anyone could benefit from is flat out dangerous.
#5. I’ll push you
This particular phrase is common in the personal training industry, and what it does is it takes responsibility over the students’ self-development. From that moment on, it’s not their business how they progress, it’s the coach’s. This is a risky game because it is unlikely that the coach has all the specific details, such as injury history, specific sensitivities, draining life responsibilities, etc., about every student. This is also because a lot of issues that could get in the way of training are not discussed with the coach, being too personal.
In most cases, it’s about two to three months until the shallow judgment of the coach starts to burden the student and expresses itself in decreasing motivation. The student’s best choice in most bases is to make excuses and disappear from training to get the control back over their journey.
#6. You’re thinking too much… / You overthink
Overthinking is a personality trait, not a choice. It is often referred to as neuroticism. Some have a higher score, some lower by default. We talk about it a lot in the tournament preparation series due to its fundamental role in lost fight recovery and confidence building.
But the context in which it usually comes up is very interesting. It’s the response of a coach for a hesitating or questioning student, who wasn’t shown what to do in enough detail. It’s about lack of trust between student and teacher.
In terms of learning style, there is also a huge difference between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts jump into it right away, trying to figure it out on the go. To the unaware coach, this seems like a more promising student than an introvert, who tends to observe before trying out a new technique, avoiding injuries that in the long term actually slow the progress of extroverts. Some clubs incorrectly associate these learning styles with intelligence, where introversion is read as higher intellect and overthinking as a sickness of intellect. As a result, these clubs openly favour less intelligent students, stating they work harder. In reality, both types of students work hard and will reach the same goals at the same time, if treated fairly.
#7. Never question yourself, it’s wrong
This is like telling a person with chronic depression to cheer up. A self-questioning thinking pattern is linked to deeply rooted beliefs that come from our early nurturing environment. Telling someone to ‘don’t do’ something instead of asking them about their worries is a problematic approach on its own.
If a coach wants to help, they need to direct the student to the right materials that can support them and build awareness of their thinking patterns, providing a strategic method for dismantling those patterns.
#8. Be more confident
Confidence, in a nutshell, is one’s trust in one’s ability to do something successfully. We discuss the formation of this trust in the tournament preparation series in a dedicated chapter due to its popularity and the misunderstandings around it.
This common line—‘be more confident’—suggests that it’s a personal choice (which it is not), that it only takes a couple of words to change how much someone believes in themselves (which it doesn’t), and that it’s necessary to be successful (which it is not).
Unprepared coaches often use confidence like fairy dust, throwing it into a student’s eyes to cloud their vision of reality. When the dust settles—and under the pressure of a tournament, it settles fast—they’ll be hit with the harsh reality that simply telling themselves they’re good doesn’t do the job.
Confidence is not a silver bullet anyway. Confidence won’t solve your problems; it won’t pay your bills; it won’t engrain the techniques into your muscles. You will still need to do the work. At the end of that work, you’ll find yourself comfortably doing what you’ve done before a hundred times, and that is called confidence.
#9. Leave your ego out
Ego is our first line of defence against external exploitation and its internalised form, our complex. If students would indeed leave their ego out of the club, they would be doormats.
In terms of its average size, ego (👉) is actually a small, powerless little thing. This is not to say that it cannot run amok, but in most cases, what is labelled as an ‘ego issue’ is commonly a natural response for a boundary intrusion. Or in other cases, the complex takes over and starts a compensating scheme. In the first case, the ego did its job; in the second case, the ego lost against the complex.
In the club, when trainers see emotions operating, they often label it as ego without a second thought, while in reality, most displays of emotion are caused by a boundary intrusion. This is extremely common in grappling arts due to the whole art being based on a full body intrusion. Fighters play by their own principles which do not always match those of their opponents.
For example, if my drilling partner suddenly jumps on my chest to try out something they’ve seen on YouTube, I experience abuse as I’m obviously unprepared. My ego will step up and launch a defensive anger response to stop my partner from doing the same thing again. If my anxiety were stronger, it wouldn’t let my ego act on my behalf: I would swallow the abuse, and my opponent would keep trying dangerous moves on me until I get really hurt. Additionally, my interest in staying in the dojo shrinks, due to becoming others’ dummy, and after a while, I will drop out of training completely.
What some trainers don’t understand is that by telling students to ‘leave their ego out’, they’re actually compounding the very process—over-emotionality—that they’re trying to avoid, by shaming the ego and feeding the complex.
#10. You don’t put enough into it
This is another common example of ‘pulling up by putting down’. It feeds the student negativity in the hope that it will fuel them. The hope behind it that the student might read it as ‘I know you have much more in you’ and will take it as flattery. On the surface they might do so—at least, they will respond as if this is the case. Underneath, however, since it belittles their efforts and puts external expectations on their shoulders, they shift further into self-questioning.
The best a coach can do is to give the credit to the students that they’ve put all they got that day, after dealing with life itself, into the training. This is respect, this is motivation.
#11. You’re improving because you had a good teacher / I taught you well
This shows complete disregard of the student’s personal achievements, while turning all the attention towards the teacher. Considering how complex it is to make progress in martial arts, it’s clear who the hero of the story is. Even though the process does require a good coach, those who are good coaches don’t need to inject their self-advertisement into their students.
The above listed themes are the main reasons behind the high churn rate of many clubs. These are very draining mistreatments, some of them so ubiquitous that it can be quite hard to recognise them without conscious effort.
I would advise every trainee to take a break for a month or two every now and then. These breaks offer a great opportunity to let the dust settle and see what’s actually happening in the club. Due to the strong show-up pressure most clubs create, however, fighters often only step away when injured or when losing motivation. To be fair, even those breaks are very useful for evaluating one’s relationship with their club, letting the learning settle and starting with a new approach at a new dojo if necessary.