Fighter’s Perspective: Raising the next generation of martial artists

“Coach Roxanne, can I choke you, please?” I look down. There, beautiful dark-haired Aleena stares up at me. Her eyes sparking with love and…

By: Roxanne Modafferi | 4 years ago
Fighter’s Perspective: Raising the next generation of martial artists
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

“Coach Roxanne, can I choke you, please?”

I look down. There, beautiful dark-haired Aleena stares up at me. Her eyes sparking with love and anticipation. Her head only comes up to my hip. “Of course!” I say, kneeling down. Aleena positions herself behind me, snaps on a killer rear-naked choke, and squeezes. My hand is already raising to tap the second she starts. Whew. Having successfully strangulated her teacher, she skips off to play tag with the other seven-year-olds before class starts.

Aleena and Scarlett double-back mount Roxy

In order to put a stop to sneak attacks – children suddenly throwing themselves on me without warning (knocking off my glasses or poking me in the eye) – I’ve made a deal with them: I will ALWAYS let them choke me… as long as they ask super politely. To be honest, nothing would make me happier than a tribe of choke-loving Roxy-students marching through the grappling tournaments and bringing home medals. The more they practice something, the better they’ll get, right? I’m offering up my personage for the betterment of my children.

When the clock strikes four, I call, “Line up, guys!” and the 4-7 year olds – who have been running around like crazy – assemble in a line, sitting Japanese-style on their knees.

“It’s jiujitsu time! Whoohoo!” I scream, throwing my hands in the air. Half my normal students let out a whoop in answer. The newbies just stare at me quizzically. We’re celebrating…why?

“Remember,” I continue, “don’t use jiujitsu outside the gym, unless someone attacks you first.” In my mind’s eye, I’m transported back to my own childhood Judo class; sixteen years old, listening to my sensei Mr. Chandler give us the same speech. I repeat it almost word-for-word (with some of my own alterations to simplify it for younger kids). “We don’t want anyone to get hurt by accident. Right guys?” Most of the well-trained students reply, “YES, MA’AM!” They can repeat my words back to me if I quiz them. It makes my heart so happy. “In class, if somebody taps you, you have to let go really fast. Because we aren’t trying to hurt each other, just make each other give up. We have to be nice to our classmates so we can have fun training together. Right guys?”


“Good,” I say. “We’re going to say our class promise. Ready? One, two, three…”

“I will always do my best, and I will never fight angry,” they chorus.

I want them to be Jedi, not Sith; learn to control their emotions. They bow their hands and heads to the floor Japanese-style, and then leap up, ready to start class.

Serena ties Violet’s belt while big sister Scarlett gets her seat-belt grip.

When I came to Syndicate MMA about six years ago, I discovered they were in need of an assistant jiujitsu teacher—on Wednesdays and Thursdays for the 4-7 year old kids class. I stepped in to help Chris, who was an assistant to head instructor Alberto. I was an assistant’s assistant. I trained MMA in the morning, ran home without really resting, repacked my bag, then headed back for the 4:00 class. I had eight years of experience teaching ESL (English as a second language) in classrooms in Japan, but the gym environment is completely different from classroom management. My former experience helped me not be afraid of the kids, though. Because they can be scary! Ask any new kids teacher!

The first time I stood up in front of a class, I thought: Omg they’re going to eat me like little piranhas. I feel so old and uncool right now. How am I going to get them to do what I say?

I learned teaching for BJJ from Chris. I also tried to observe Alberto when I could, and visited a friend, Evan Dunham’s school, and watched his class. Sometimes if Chris was sick, I would lead Wednesday’s class. I learned many juicy disciplinary techniques observing them. If the kids misbehaved, he’d make them do push ups! Cool! I liked that! (Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to choke kids out if they are naughty). The really little ones can’t physically do push-ups, though. They end up keeping their arms straight and humping the floor, so that doesn’t always work.

Another teacher I observed, Damien, made the class run around the room if they got disorderly, or fought in line. “Running? Fun!” they thought at first. Three minutes later, and listening to him shout, “Don’t stop, keep running!” the kids probably hated it and wondered when the suffering would end. They collapsed in a lumpy potato-shaped circle, exhausted, more than ready to watch the next technique being taught.

For my part, I brought in the ‘corner’ technique.

When I was very young, the worse punishment that my parents EVER did to me was – are you ready for this? – to make me sit in The Black Chair in the living room. Little kids can’t sit still; sitting there, doing nothing was horrible. I’m sure if the authorities had discovered my parents using such a terrible torture on their four-year-old, there would have been consequences. I probably sat there for 40 hours one day. (They told me it was only five minutes, but I’m sure that’s a lie.)

Now, when I see a kid do something really bad – like hit another kid, or continually disregard me – I say, “Go sit in the corner.” I’ll leave them there for 5-10 minutes, looking super unhappy, until I let them back.

Three years have passed since my days as an assistant’s assistant. Life has happened, and our two 4 o’clock teachers have ended up leaving. I took over the little kids jiujitsu program and created a curriculum and promotion system. I’ve planned and carried out holiday events. I’ve also become the main assistant to Rick Davis, former UFC fighter and now full-time fifth grade teacher. His discipline and caring seriousness reminds me of my sensei, Mr. Chandler, and I love working alongside him. He teaches the 5:00 class, for kids from eight to thirteen years old. That’s actually my favorite age group. They learn the techniques faster, and I can have actual conversations with them about important things, like anime and video games.

However, teaching really young kids is an important skill. Even though it takes a lot of energy I feel it’s my duty, and such an honor! Running that class is not just about teaching jiu-jitsu. It’s about raising children to be good human beings. I have to teach them how to behave and interact with each other appropriately. Really, jiu-jitsu is my second priority. I see all the kids who step onto the mat as if they were my own for an hour, and I adore them. I don’t want to raise fighters. I want to raise martial artists who can fight if they want to.

We’ve had a lot of kids grow to a competition level and win at tournaments. My heart is full of pride and joy seeing their success.

Ky and Ayden at the NAGA tournament 2019

My best friend and assistant coach Serena describes jiu-jitsu in ways kids can understand. “It’s like sitting on your teammates without them sitting on you first,” she tells them. She’s good at visuals, and I’ve started keeping that in mind when I teach. To demonstrate the Americana/keylock, I tell the bottom kids to hold their arms like a cactus. “Do The Happy Cactus!” Serena will call out. To get the kids to level change to do a double leg, I tell them “to elevator!” (Being an English teacher, I’m authorized to make verbs out of nouns if I want to.)

It’s not all fun and games, though. Some kids get scared, squished, bumped, twisted, limbs wrenched, choked out, and then start crying. Go figure. This is a combat sport. It’s our job (usually Serena’s, if I’m busy orchestrating) to tell the kids that they are okay, and that pain, blood, and tears are normal. I tell them that if they have band-aids and taped up fingers and toes like Coach Roxanne, they’re cooler. Serena usually pulls up a sleeve or pant leg to show the kid one of her bruises from that day’s training, or starts telling a story about how she was punched in MMA class. When they get to see and hear about our own injuries, kids usually stop crying pretty quickly and rejoin class.

Kids say the darndest things, and as a result I say things I never expect to ever say. “Okay, you can choke me first!” a happy squeaky feminine voice rings out behind me. “Coach Roxanne, I ate a hamburger for lunch,” says a boy, after I ask if anyone has any questions about the guard pass. “Student X, stop hitting student Y with your belt,” I scold. And “Student Z, stop eating your belt.”

The kids have a tendency to mess around by pulling on each other’s belts, or worse, swinging theirs around their heads—threatening to whip the unsuspecting eyeballs of anyone in a two foot radius. I punish them severely (Push ups. Alone. In the corner.) One day recently, I caught multiple culprits, so when we lined up at the end of class, I said to everyone, “Okay guys, so why do I tell you not to touch each other’s belts?”

I glared at a six-year-old student, who quickly withdrew his hand from his neighbor’s belt. “Because it’s rude,” came the correct answer from down the line. “Because it can take away our powers!” another student called out. What? That’s…brilliant! I paused and look at Coach Bethany sitting beside me, wondering if I should confirm that falsehood to ensure compliance.

She spoke up first, “Yes, that’s exactly why…” she started.

“No way!” the belt grabbing student cried out. “Because my power lies deep inside of me and can never be taken away!” Serena, Bethany, and I burst out laughing. “Dang, that would have been a great idea, too. Thanks a lot, kid!”

Training MMA has its ups and downs, but I know that in the afternoon I can forget all that. All I have to worry about is being a good role-model for my students. Even if I can’t do a super-flying-squirrel-armbar-attack from z-guard, at least I can do that. I’m greeted by smiling little munchkins wanting to hug me and sometimes choke me! I have to focus on them 100%. It clears my mind, and cleanses my soul.

Scarlett, Raina, and Roxy

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About the author
Roxanne Modafferi
Roxanne Modafferi

Roxanne Modafferi is a former UFC fighter with 19 years of MMA experience. She’s fought for titles in the UFC, Strikeforce, and Invicta. A jiujitsu blackbelt, she teaches jiujitsu at the gym, and English in the classroom. Roxanne has self-published three books in addition to contributing articles for this site. In her free time, she watches anime and plays video games (Twisted Metal, Skyrim, etc).

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