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January 9, 2024

The Sound of Team Spirit: Easton Kids Coach, Emma Sojo

Tatyana Grechina

The Sound of Team Spirit: Easton Kids Coach, Emma Sojo

Hearing your name chanted by your entire team to the backdrop of competition buzzers and cheers, the announcer over the intercom, your entire body flushes in anticipation. Everything else fades away, and you hear only your name echoing over and over inside your head. 

Emma Sojo

Leading the team spirit in song stands Coach Emma, screaming the loudest. She wants to make sure you remember how awesome it feels to stand on the mat, to hear the support in your bones, and how uplifting and rewarding it feels to be part of a team. 

Kids Coach Emma Sojo, 23, has trained with Easton since 2010, when she and three of her siblings found Easton’s former Aurora location after her first academy closed. She began assisting kids kickboxing classes at age 12, and over the years Emma has become a vital part of our Kids Program as an irreplaceable coach, an MMA competitor, and the unofficial amplifier of Easton’s team spirit.

“In my own personal fighting experience,” says Emma, “I’ve heard and imagined people chanting in my head and visualized it. When it really happened, it was so gratifying. It felt special to have people support me and put it out so vocally!” 

Along with her technical martial arts expertise, having competed dozens of times and at high-level tournaments such as PANS, Emma pulls from a range of personal experiences to inform the way she moves as a guide between the adult’s world and the child’s. Maintaining her connection to both ends of the spectrum has allowed her to not only bridge the gap but tap into magic that only a conductor can create.

Some of her first experiences in a dynamic group setting involved choir, drumline and playing trumpet in her high school’s mariachi band! 

Emma started drumline in elementary school and loved the sense of home and community it gave her. At the time she didn’t have many friends, but she really liked her music teacher. She’d spend her lunch hour in the music classroom, sitting with the younger grade’s students and helping grade papers or teach the kids. Since marching band practice conflicted with her BJJ training, Emma went into mariachi band and played trumpet all throughout high school. 

Today, conducting the supportive energies and good vibes for her Easton’s Kids competitions, from local and regional to Kids PANs at a national level, Coach Emma calls every voice in the group together to create the bigger sound – Easton’s team spirit. 

Sneak peek into Coach Emma and her corners just before the fight. Colorado Combat Club. The Brighton. Denver, CO. 6/23/23. Photos +  caption: Adrian Nigel @fighters.eye.

Entering the world of martial arts

Emma first began studying martial arts at age six. At the time, she found herself getting bullied for a speech impediment, and she wanted the confidence to start defending herself. Two of her  brothers and sisters wanted to try it too, so her parents put them in a self-defense class.

The kids program of the little hole-in-the-wall fighting gym they put her and her siblings in had a little bit of everything – krav maga, grappling and boxing. When they first began, Emma remembers having almost no other girls or small kids in class. At six, she was one of the youngest in a program of mostly teens besides her brother who was three and sister, eight. 

The coach was intense and pushed them hard, and it made Emma even more tough and determined to get through it. Being the smallest among the big kids also gave her a sense of confidence as she battled the same challenges together with them. She even did her first competition the same year she started training!

Outside of the confidence and skill that martial arts instills, it’s the team spirit, Emma tells us, that builds a family. Everyone there has chosen to give up their time to do something hard, and they don’t know anything about you except that you’ve done the same thing. 

“Kids want to have fun and feel like it’s easy to be part of the group,” says Emma. 

To this day, Emma still talks to those she grew up training with. Birthdays and holidays became filled with the coaches and training partners who showed up far beyond what the mat required. That family connection you develop through time spent in the trenches together becomes the foundation for the community you build. 

Emma after she won her first Muay Thai fight at 16 years old.

How to teach kids

Emma knew early on that she wanted to teach. When she turned 11, she was able to switch over to the adult Kickboxing class, and it freed up some space during kids class time. The other coaches would let her be their assistant and help teach the newer students in the kids class. 

“I just wanted to help,” says Emma. “I’ve always thought that everyone should learn BJJ! They should teach this in school; it should be a standardized thing.” 

Growing up as one of eight children, Emma quickly developed a strong passion for working with kids and the ability to build bonds with her students. Having spent the majority of her life on the mat with different coaches, she also used her experiences with coaches she’s had to reflect on her own inner child during those times.

While the tough attitude of her first coach worked for her, every kid is different. As a coach, having a different approach for different ages becomes key to everyone’s success. 

Emma with her two brothers and sister, from when they went and won at Kids PANS.

Kids develop at different speeds, so you’ll always have little kids that excel and can handle being treated a little older, but in the end a four year old needs to learn BJJ as a four year old. When you adjust your standards, you can meet them where they’re at.

“With the kids, everything is a game and you want to win and have fun,” says Emma. “If I have the Little Tigers on the mat, I’m going to be so energetic that if they’re not ready to pick up their energy, we’ll play little games.”

She’ll not say a word and just start doing weird things, or run and have them do red-light, green-light. If they don’t have much energy, Emma might lead them through a silent game which gives them a way to ramp up – to run around and get into some grappling. 

As a coach, you have to carry the kids’ energy, be the hype man. Have confidence in them and they’ll give you back confidence. If you believe in them, they’ll believe in themselves ten-fold. 

This hype-energy should also make its way into praise and correction, as you tell them to keep doing the specific things that are working, while making suggested corrections for improvement.

Take the time to engage with your students. Learn their names, talk with them through the year and over the months. Emma tries to stay away from discipline if she can. Instead, she pulls the child aside to check in. Take the time to ask, ‘Do you know why I’m doing this?’

Kids need lots of reminders; when you yell at them without any actionable plan, they’ll simply go back to doing the same thing. If you just tell them to “stop” or “pay attention,” they’ll never learn or really know what they’re doing wrong.

“You can’t hold them to the expectation of doing different things,” says Emma, “if you don’t tell them what they need to do to change.”

If you make sure they understand why they’ve received a correction, they can integrate the change in an open, positive way. If they look intimidated, Emma makes sure they know she’s not mad at them, to get the fear part out of it. Kids shouldn’t fear corrections, but they should feel their importance. 

It might be a quick conversation, but it will take repetition for them to remember. Don’t get frustrated, and give vocal reminders frequently. Tap into your inner child and remember that everyone is a big kid with lots of experiences. 

Building rapport for life

One of the most crucial things for a kids martial arts coach comes down to building rapport with the kids. In martial arts, a lot of times kids are forced to come in and already don’t want to do what their parents are telling them to do. 

When you’re able to break that ice and get them to laugh, they’re immediately more willing to start interacting with you. Even if they don’t get on the mat that day, they’re at least willing to have a conversation. 

This interaction is what we call rapport building – even if you just talk to them about their day, that’s fine; they know you want them there and not just to do BJJ. The message you want to leave them with is: We want you to be here and feel comfortable.

Even if you can’t get them on the mat that first day but build up rapport instead, if you invite them back, 80 percent or more of the time, kids are willing to come back and do another class. 

“They don’t care how much we know,” says Emma, “until they know how much we care.”

When you build a relationship, it makes it easier for kids to trust you and makes them feel more comfortable to be in the more vulnerable states that Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai frequently put you into. 

Starting a martial art can feel intimidating for a number of reasons, and it helps to have someone that can level with you and not expect you to go at the same rate as everyone else. 

Sometimes, the best way to hit it off with a new, shy kid doesn’t even involve talking about Jiu Jitsu or Muay Thai! In fact, forget about why they’re there. 

Connect on another level – introduce yourself and ask them their name. Focus on making them feel comfortable, and one day they might find themselves in Florida, screaming their friends’ names at the top of their lungs behind the competition mat at Kids PANs!


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