From the Court to the Mat
At this point, I hope that you can see how the work of a basketball coach might apply to jiu-jitsu. When we do a traditional armbar drill from guard, we limit ourselves to the doing end of the equation. Having technical proficiency is essential to our success to be sure, but if we fail to get repetitions with reading and planning, our armbars are likely to miss their mark in live rolling or in competition.
Just as Ragan was unlikely to end up in the exact spot of the gun-return with no coverage in a game, you are unlikely to end up with your opponent’s arm in the exact position, with no resistance, as when you drilled. This is what makes you a zoo tiger. Your armbar looks smooth and fluid behind the curated walls of a block drill, but when things get ugly, when you are in the wilderness of a live match, you fail to retain the gains that you saw in training. “When nothing changes from rep to rep, you only get to read and plan on the first rep. Everything after that is autopilot,” Ragan says. “The technique is important, but you have to read and plan for it to work in a game.” After sifting through the science and working with dozens of athletes, Ragan’s recommendation to coaches and players is simple: Have a growth mindset and get as many game-like reps as possible.
These two recommendations are intertwined. A growth mindset—which Ragan pulls from the research of Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor—is the understanding and acceptance that real learning and true growth occur at the edge of our comfort zones. If we are not challenged or are unwilling to face challenges, we are unlikely to improve. This mindset is critical in motor learning because accumulating game-like reps means failing, a lot. If you are not making mistakes, you are not challenging yourself enough to experience measurable improvements in your performance as an athlete. Block drills limit the likelihood of failure. Random drills force you to face and learn from failure, so you need the right mindset to reap the benefits.
Incorporating Motor Learning into Your Training
According to Ragan’s reasoning (an interpretation from a humble purple belt instructor)having jiu-jitsu students do a block drill of 40 armbars in a row will have relatively low retention. To make it more game-like, we would need to randomize the practice. We might have students:
• Vary the position of the target arm so that it is never in the same place twice.
• Ask the uke* (or partner) to alternate right and left arms at random.
• Randomize the pressure and posture angles that the uke gives.
• Periodically swap partners to give students exposures to different body-types.
• Incorporate the armbar training into a larger trigger drill where the student must choose between attacking an armbar, a triangle, or a Kimura based on specific variations in position.
• Isolate the guard position during live rolling and encourage students to focus on setting up an armbar.
It’s important to note that Ragan advocates simplified block drilling for introducing new techniques, especially in the case of less experienced athletes, but he advocates spending 20 repetitions or less in block mode before introducing randomization. The random variables do not need to be extreme, especially at the beginning of skill acquisition, but they do need to give the athlete practice with reading and planning as well as doing. Even though motor learning research has been growing for decades, relatively few coaches employ it in practice. Motor learning looks messy, so it takes some faith in the research to believe that athletes will come out the other end better for the challenge. Motor learning also requires more creativity on the part of coaches. Block drills are easy to set up and manage. Random drills that isolate the right skills are more difficult to design. “It’s really easy to coach the way you were coached,” Ragan warns. “Just because a team or athlete won a championship with traditional methods does not mean that better ways to learn and train do not exist.”
UKE – A Japanese martial arts term for the person who “receives” the technique or in Judo for instance is being thrown.
According to the principles of motor learning, we should reconsider a few trademark jiu-jitsu drills in an effort to incorporate more reading and planning into classes.
• Solo-shrimping up and down the mat is a great way to introduce the basic skill of shrimping, but in the long-term it is not very game-like.
• Guard passing drills where the winner stays and the loser returns to wait in line gives the best grapplers more reps against less challenging competition and forces the least experienced students—who arguable need to improve the most—more practice waiting in line than actually training.
• Large batches of block drills like swinging armbar drills and side-to-side Kimura drills might be great for fitness but most often send grapplers into “auto-pilot” mentally, requiring little to no reading or planning.
• Classes composed primarily of students alternating drilling the same technique back and forth at the same tempo and on the same unresisting partners.
Wrap it Up
To learn more about motor learning, Ragan’s work, and becoming a jungle tiger, visit TrainUgly.com. As more sports adopt this approach to coaching and training, we are likely to see a new evolution in the jiu-jitsu community as well.