The Freddie Roach Problem

In jiu-jitsu, we frequently—if not relentlessly—talk about the importance of having knowledgeable and engaged instructors and the power of having committed and talented training partners. An instructor helps you to uncover blind spots and learn new techniques, while your training partners force you to test and retest your game, forging your skills as a jiu-jiteiro.

Despite the known importance of good instruction, as a sport we have a tendency to equate talented competitors with talented instructors. On the other side of that coin, we have a tendency to evaluate a jiu-jiteiro’s skill (or even their worth) by how well they can roll against us. Are there exceptions to this generalization? Sure, but I can’t help but see that the most populated and most in-demand seminars are the ones hosted by the latest and greatest competitors.

As a sport, we should be doing more to find and bring attention to the Freddie Roach-level instructors among us.

If you’re not familiar, Freddie Roach’s coaching resume includes the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Georges St. Pierre, and a long list of exceptional boxers that carry a lot of weight in the boxing world. As a competitor, Roach won his fair share of fights, but he was nowhere near the level of his famed students. Some might even describe Roach’s overall career as lackluster.

Yet, world champion fighters sought him out as a coach.

In MMA, Greg Jackson’s career is in line with Roach’s. He was never famous for competing himself, but his consistent coaching prowess has become legendary. We can find examples of great coaches who were not great players across all sports, and at the same time, we can find numerous examples of great players that made for very poor coaches.

Jiu-jitsu is making a slow shift in the right direction with an increased emphasis on the role that coaches like John Danaher and Paul Schreiner play in creating elite competitors and in advancing the art. Progress, however, is slow. Here are some of the reasons why we hear more about great competitors and very little about great coaches:

  • There’s no money in jiu-jitsu. Earning a living as a professional grappler is nigh impossible, so nearly every competitor turns to teaching to make ends meet. While there’s nothing wrong with this practice, the high-profile nature of vocal competitors is likely to drown out the non-competitor instructor quietly running his gym in some corner of the world. We simply don’t have enough headline space, yet, for both.

  • Jiu-jitsu team structure is strange. When Manny Pacquiao prepares for a big fight, he is also not splitting his time with teaching. Because Pacquiao is able to dedicate 100% of his focus to competing, where he is training and who he is training with becomes more noticeable and interesting. If you’re a Mendes brother, sure, you train with the Atos team, but at the end of the day the Mendes brothers are associated most with their own academy. Where we hear that Pacquiao flew to train with Freddie Roach in boxing, we get highlight videos of the Mendes brothers teaching students or whooping on visitors.

  • No, really, jiu-jitsu team structure is really strange. The high level of fluidity of jiu-jitsu teams and associations makes it difficult to distinguish collections of great competitors from great competitors bred by great coaching. For example, Gianni Grippo was a standout when he trained under the Renzo Gracie banner, and he was arguably even more of a standout under the Marcelo Garcia banner. Now that he is with Cobrinha, how much of his success can we attribute to any one coach? On another note, is Atos dominate because of high-level coaching or because they lock some of the already established best grapplers in a room every day and make them fight each other? These factors make it difficult to track trends in performance in the way we might in other sports.

  • The nature of jiu-jitsu competition is significantly different from other sports. Our current competition scene is high-volume, high-frequency. In boxing or even in MMA, the gap between high-profile match-ups makes it more visible to viewers when a fighter has changed or improved, which in turn can lead to more conversations about coaches and training. Jiu-jitsu competitors compete, compete, compete, and do so across a handful of organizations and rule formats. The current competition field is so broad and varied that tracking and analyzing it is difficult.

  • Our own input as fans. As fans of the sport, we have a tendency to ask, “Who is the best?” instead of asking, “Who is producing the best?” Again, this is starting to trend in the right direction, but our own capacity to be star-struck by a World Champion grappler still works against exceptional coaches getting their due.

What do you think? Are we not giving enough attention to the great instructors in the sport? Who are the great instructors that you think we should be paying more attention to?