Athletes vs Non-Athletes

Athletes vs Non-athletes 

Before I even continue with this, just note that although I am a jiujitsu practitioner (blue belt), I’m primarily a Taekwondo teacher( 3rd Dan) meaning my perspective is someone coming from a traditional striking art talking about a grappling art and martial arts as a whole. Also, this is going to be a long yet enlightening blog.

Ask yourself…. why exactly did you start training Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Muay Thai or any other discipline for that fact (or at least why would you proceed to pursue practicing).

Some people reading this might answer that with simply wanting be good in a street fight or wanting to take up cage fighting….perhaps weight loss or self defense.

If you answer with anything along those lines, your intentions for training are different than about 75% of the people/kids that’s learn Taekwondo from me and my partners.

Some of you are now asking “well why are they training then?” To those kind of statements I will say that you’re asking because you are thinking from what i call an “athlete’s mentality.” I’ll explain further into this blog. 

But with all of that being said, when teaching someone any martial art, a teacher needs to know the purpose of why a new student is trying to train. Not only to see if they’re in the right place but to see the specific reason why they want to get into whatever martial art. Are they doing it for self defense, exercise, get into cage fighting, specific competition, for their profession or just want to learn some stuff they saw in a movie. 

Being a teacher myself I have a few types I’ve discovered:

A. Fighters/competitors 

B. Self defense 


D. People who want to do cool stuff 

People don’t realize this but knowing the purpose of why somebody trains is essential. You can’t treat everybody exactly the same. That’s where so many gyms and academies have failed in the past. If you move too fast, some students in the gym won’t be able to keep up and quit from discouragement. If you move too slow, then some students will get bored and go somewhere else. It’s literally the reason why gym owners lose so many students. You can’t make a cookie cutter system or way of teaching that’ll fit for everyone. STOP TRYING!!!!

It’s one thing to have a place specifically for guys getting ready for fights or cardio fitness but to try to cater to everyone, at exactly the same…… it’s a recipe for failure. No matter if you classify A,B,C or D; anybody can fit into two big main categories. Athletes and non-athletes.

Major point. When I’m talking about athletes and non-athletes I’m NOT talking about physical or athletic ability AT ALL. It’s a mentality! 

I have students that are athletic that I don’t consider athletes and not-so athletic students who I very much consider athletes. It’s a mentality. 

Now I’m referring to is not what coach Din Thomas’s four classifications of the athlete, the fighter, the artist and the competitor. Thomas mentions these classifications on the the Joe Rogan Podcast and Phil Daru’s show. (Links below)

However, in the way I organize students, everybody that Thomas is talking about is what I refer to as an athlete.

The fact that these people are willing and working with the intention of stepping into the cage or some other for of competition automatically makes them athletes. If you tell a non-athlete that they are scheduled to take a fight or a match, they might give a reluctant or scared response. If you tell an athlete that they have a fight scheduled their response is “well duh, what else am I supposed to do.” Athletes are the type of people that I could give a combination to hit the bag with and I can leave to go to the convenient store and come back with that person doing exactly what I told. And that’s some of the main differences. Once again, it’s a mentality.

Usually, athletes will fall into the A and B categories and non-athletes will fall into C and D but any category can be an athlete. I’ve have met plenty of people who are C’s and D’s and who are athletes. I know a mom who gets killed in the same Muay Thai class as me and hits conditioning harder than most of the guys; performing every single rep of a push-ups or ab workouts. I also coach a brother and a sister who specialize in creative forms that would be beyond upset if injury ever barred them from doing tricks and dynamic kicks.

Of course, this should not shed a negative light on non-athletes. Non-athletes are good. Non-athletes and athletes need each other. Non-athletes and athletes can both learn from each other. I’ve learned light stretches from older students or training partners on the mats fo exercise and they help me now through muscle pain and injuries. Both are necessary to make a gym or academy run smoothly. Unless we’re talking about a facility that run completely off referrals and pro’s, a gym financially need its athletes and non-athletes.

Those coming into the gym or academy go fitness, physical therapy, find new experiences, conquering fears, finding confidence or trying cross off a goal on their bucket list can be an asset to the gym just like the people who go out to fight under the gym’s name. Aside from toxic people who cause constant drama or the one trying to find their next lover or those seeking to steal money in some way, everyone has a place in the gym.

In particular, a Taekwondo academy (and yes I’ll get to jiujitsu) will face ridicule by other styles for having students mostly under the age of 15 and usually not the greatest at sparring or fighting. Then I go back to the question I put at the beginning of this passage. The answer simply…. becoming a fighter is not why many of them have taken up martial arts. It’s not the style or academy so much the reason why students seem undisciplined (although there are some places that definitely lack discipline) but it’s rather the pool of students that decide to walk through the door.

For instance, a lot of students in my gym are the type of kids that couldn’t hang with the pace of a football or a soccer team whether it be in a physical, mental or emotional capacity. Some of our students are the ones that are the targets for bullies at school. Some students don’t quite relate with most other activities, crowds or cliques to be sociable with. Others may have certain disabilities and are seeking avenues to help overcome those setbacks. Others just straight up have too many behavioral issues. Although, some can have the potential to be good fighters or competitors, it’s not likely with the population. 

I could easily have some students work pads, mits and bag drills until they’re a sweaty mess at the end of a 45-minute period………. but I will have still failed my job as an instructor. Once again, that’s not why parents enrolled some of the kids and teenagers to my gym. Some parents don’t give a crap about their child gaining a fighting prowess (some might even laugh at this idea). Teaching things like discipline, respect and focus need to be installed into their psyche to not just help them with martial arts but just life in general. A lot of things that parents feel are missing in their child’s education and upbringing. We as a society have even witnessed professionals and high profile athletes never make it over the hump due to simple issues of discipline and lack of focus. 

So that goes back to once again, not quite treating everybody with the same exact remedy.

For younger kids classes, a lot of activities are rewards based and some activities are made to resemble games (martial arts related of course). For teens and adults, they want to leave huffing and puffing while being drenched in sweat. So usually the older classes are more intense and focus on getting a workout. And as you can imagine, the standard isn’t the same for everyone. A 7-year-old who  can barely jump an inch off the ground is going to have a different standard than the 16-year-old who is already doing 7-hit kickboxing combos on the mits.

I even have a student who started as a teenager and continues as an adult. I wanted him to have more of a challenge instead of just the normal Taekwondo tournaments that we require for black so we set up a Muay Thai smoker for him. I was already teaching him how to utilize leg kicks and knees so it wasn’t a problem to make sure his boxing and Thai clinch game were at least operable. Since he excelled in sparring and fighting, we thought a fight with punches actually going on the face with one of the local kickboxers. And the fighter we found already had a pretty impressive record. Despite the experience gap, my student was older and picked up things fast. My student held his own and even managed to win the judge’s decision.

Even with other older students, the same can’t be done. Putting our student in the smoker fight worked because he’s definitely an athlete. It would not have worked with other students I have. Another student that i personally worked with a lot when it came to self defense had a large amount of emotional trauma throughout their life. After taking a few light hits while sparring and there would be tears streaming from their eyes. Another student who was extremely shy had a similar issue with sparring. This student even took up wrestling in school but would cry under the intensity and discomfort of grappling with her teammates.

There’s no way students who mentally break from friendly sparring (no punches to the face I might add) could handle the grind of a kickboxing, Muay Thai or even MMA fighting. Even MMA coach, Dewey Ramsey, likes to state that “not everyone has to be a cage fighter.” When exploring Kuk Sool Won, he mentions that it’s good that there are other avenues of sparring so that everyone gets some type of practice without way overstepping their comfort zone(Link below). I even like to think that different types of sparring, point karate and Olympic style Taekwondo, can be beneficial for kickboxers and MMA fighter to sharpen attributes. Once again, not everyone needs to be a full-contact fighter. That may not be the reason they take up martial arts.

We have students that come for all sorts of reasons. We have a student who had a near-death experience and has been struggling to get over the fears and regain confidence (a lot of progress has been made by the way). Another student some years back was born with muscular issues and wanted to play soccer. After working with my gym for a number of years, that child eventually became mobile enough to join a team; didn’t even stay to earn black belt because after gaining something more important. 

So, FINALLY we get to how does this concept of athletes and non-athletes apply to the world of Brazilian jiujitsu. Well the beauty of BJJ is that there’s not a huge difference between how the athletes and the non-athletes practice. Don’t get it twisted, a day-one student probably won’t keep with a class full of blue and purple belts working De La Riva guard overall, classes don’t have to be heavily adjusted like a taekwondo class. High and low belts do largely the same warm-ups (if high belts participate), stretches and developmental exercises. Usually everyone is practicing the same technique or technical series for the day. And normally it’s not a crazy leap to instruct someone who can handle more to go a little further. 

Demographics also play apart in teaching. Since most practitioners tend to be 15 years and older, people on the mat tend to know why they’re on that mat and usually are the ones that pay money to be on that same mat. It’s not as necessary to “babysit” people (although adults can be stubborn and younger people can carry a dangerous chip on their shoulder). In recent years there has been an increase in younger ages enrolling in BJJ with growing popularity of the art. 

BJJ is not a natural choice for younger ages because to put it in a blunt manner…. it’s not as flashy as many striking styles like karate, capoeira and kung fu. Some kids want to do the cool stuff (a lot like D types). Other kids and competitors are seeking effectiveness. If it gets the W, who cares if it’s flashy. In fact, the easier the better! 

I’m not saying that jiujitsu academies don’t have specific classes for competitors. But one of the biggest differences between athletes and non-athletes in the style is largely intensity. Which is also the beauty of a martial art that translates to “the gentle way.” Being able to manage the intensity is why people love BJJ. 

I’m getting ready to roll with my favorite training partner:

“I’m gonna go 95% and crush into the crevices of the mat and brag y’all about it over drinks.”

I’m going to roll with this white belt I outweigh by 60lbs:

“Go 40%. Only use pressure I need. Try techniques I’m not comfortable with yet.”

I have to roll with the black belt Professor: 

“I’ll go 110% and do my best to delay the inevitable smashing; tapping to a technique I never knew existed or thought was possible from that position.”

That ability to control intensity is what makes BJJ so enjoyable for so many people. If someone wants to do light work, they can do light work and still be productive. Someone can have a great workout going 50%. Practitioners can keep it technical if they want. If you don’t feel like switching to murder mode, you certainly don’t have to go to murder mode. However, if you want to go to murder mode, it’s very much possible. The style provides accessible options for fighters, fitness addicts, self defense enthusiasts, pure hobbyists, people seeking weight loss and people with physical professions. 

Providing options for both athletes and non-athletes.

So before you judge styles or other practitioners, it’s important to keep in mind why someone might be practicing in the first place. It can put life in perspective.

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