COACHING JUNIORS AT COMPETITION
What can you do on match day?
By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
Coaching kids and juniors can be far more rewarding than coaching elite athletes since there are none of the big egos and bad attitudes, just a lot of fun with the odd tears of disappointment (hopefully theirs not yours). But coaching mat-side at a tournament is very different to coaching in the dojo.
In the safety and relative serenity of the dojo, the coach can talk directly to his or her judoka making suggestions and subtle modifications to techniques and tactics. Club training is where the coach can work with a competitor or team on their techniques, competition tactics, and even review video of other competitors. The coach also has the option of videoing the team doing randori for additional player analysis.
At the novice and junior levels, this training should focus on doing good judo with lots of commitment to big attacks; not the scrappy tactics, competition grip fighting, and negative judo often seen at the senior levels. The goal is to build a foundation of good Kodokan judo.
However, at a tournament, those same players who were calm and collected in the dojo may become nervous and distracted. For the coach, this makes effective communication under the stresses of shiai extremely difficult. Competitors will be focused on their next fight, their opponents and, in all likelihood, will not hear anything the coach says from the sidelines. This can be attributed to stress-induced tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.
Changes in IJF rules have also restricted mat-side coaching at tournaments, except when the referee has called matte, creating a break in the action. This is to rein in those out of control, red-faced coaches who insist on bouncing out of their chairs and yelling incessantly at their players and even the referees.
So, the topic of this article is what can a coach do at a tournament that hasn’t already been covered in dojo training?
Baring any nagging injuries, if the athlete has followed the coach’s training program religiously, then he or she should be going into the competition at their physical, technical, tactical and psychological peak. That may be a lot to expect of novices and juniors, but they should still be drawing confidence from the coach’s advice, preparations, and presence. They should be arriving at the shiai organized and eager to fight, not nervous and apprehensive. They should also have been trained on the mat etiquette related to bowing, entering, and leaving the competition area.
There is no arguing that match performance is directly influenced by pre-tournament training and preparation. Nothing prepares the athlete more, mentally or physically, than knowing that they have done everything humanly possible to prepare for the competition. But be assured, the competitor is still looking to the coach for moral support and guidance on the big day, even if that big day is just a local tournament.
Suggestions for coaching novices and juniors on match day:
- Have a game plan built on past experience and a professional approach to athlete development and competition. Peak your athletes early so that they can taper the week prior to competition. This will help with muscle recovery and limit sports injuries.
- The younger the players (under 8 years), the more the coach should work to ensure they have FUN at the tournament. As they get into their teens then the focus shifts from just having fun to training and competing with a more serious mindset.
- The coach should sweat all the details long before match day, ensure registration paperwork is in order, and know the current competition rules.
- Don’t forget your coaching credentials and be sure to attend the pre-match referee & coach briefing. At bigger tournaments these may be the night before and after the draw meeting.
- Nervousness is contagious, so by being organized and confident your players will also feel calm and confident. You are the professional that they are looking to for guidance.
- Establish a pre-tournament routine for your players or team that begins with selecting their judogi and packing their gear bags the night before the competition or prior to travel. Then arrive early; don’t be late for registration and weigh-ins; ensure players re-hydrate after weigh-in; and allow time for taping, warm-ups and stretching.
- Motivate & energize your players during warm-up time. Again, reassure your player that he or she has done everything necessary to prepare for this competition. If they have not put in the hard work and preparation, then their expectations should not be too high.
- Treat each player as an individual. Different players have different needs and personalities. If your player needs to talk, then talk to them. If they prefer to quietly focus or listen to music, then give them that time and space.
- Know what you are trying to achieve. Emotions are powerful forces, so try to channel the athlete’s emotions accordingly. Select your words of advice and encouragement carefully, using positive affirmations in the form of Do’s not Don’ts. By saying “don’t do this or that” you are encouraging defensive fighting which will draw accumulated shido.
- Keep pre-match advice simple and focus only on what is effective. Match day is too late to introduce new ideas or techniques. (At a recent shiai that I attended I saw a father (not a sensei) in the parking lot trying to teach his six-year old soto-maki-komi. A technique the kid had not learned in the club.)
- Study the draw and encourage your players to study their opponents. Time doing reconnaissance is never wasted. Ask questions such as, “What do you think about your next opponent?” “Have you noticed any weaknesses?” “Do you have a plan?”
- Make small adjustments for each opponent. You don’t have time to make major changes to how your player fights, but you can remind them of the strengths and weaknesses of their next opponent. “Watch out for his grip & go yama-arashi”
- Just be there for your player (mat-side). If the player is well trained and well prepared, then the coach is only needed for moral support. A supportive face in an emotionally charged setting.
- The coach can make notes on his or her player’s performance for review back at the dojo. For example, if the player continually loses to osaekomi-waza, then there may be a need to work on newaza avoidance or escapes. Or if a player is accumulating shido for non-combativity or grip avoidance, then that too can be addressed in training.
- Even better, have a friend or club member video all the matches for your club members for review back at the dojo. Video replay can provide valuable information on both the club’s team and their opponents from other clubs.
- Never belittle a player’s performance on the mat. It probably took a lot of courage just to step up to the line. There is nothing worse than seeing a self appointed coach berate a player for losing or just walking away with a look of disgust on his face.
- Save the critiques for back at the dojo, and know how to turn a loss into a positive learning experience. “Listen, your attacks were strong in matches 1 & 2, but what could you have done better in the semi-finals?” or “You didn’t seem comfortable when your opponent took a left-handed grip. Would you like to work on that this evening?”
A final word on competence and professionalism….Competence comes from experience and being a serious student of judo, teaching, coaching, and athlete development. Professionalism is how you go about applying that experience and knowledge. If you aspire to coach at the nationals, or internationally, then get into the habit of dressing and acting like a professional, even at the local junior shiai level. Shorts, tank-tops, and ball-caps are out. Slacks and a polo shirt with the dojo or team logo would be ideal; clean jeans are acceptable, as are team track suits (sweats). A coach should also set an example for his players by knowing the rules, being polite and respectful with the officials and referees, and by following the appropriate mat etiquette.