Mind Games: How Memory Works on the Mats

How to Get Better Faster

Many people are drawn to jiu-jitsu because of the challenging mental aspect of the game. Knowing how your brain processes information can help or hurt your learning and performance. This article will give you the tools needed to maximize how much of today’s training session will make it into your game tomorrow or 10 years from now.



Pay Attention!

There are three components to your memory: sensory register, working memory, and long term memory. The sensory register is for the immense amount of sensory input you are experiencing anytime you are not asleep. The number of things you are aware of is small, and each input only stays in your sensory register for about two seconds. Unless you pay attention to it, you will not even remember that it occurred. For example, on your trip into work or practice today, you passed an infinite number of cars, road signs, billboards, and businesses. But you probably don’t remember the color or model of most of those cars or what the road signs said specifically. Unless, however, you drive a classic car and see another ’57 Chevy, then you might remember that car because you paid attention to it and because it has personal significance to you. In order to move something from the sensory registry, with its measly two-second duration, to your working memory, where you have any hope of remembering it, you must attend to it. It turns out that your mom was right when she said, “Pay attention to me! If you don’t listen to me, you will forget what I said!” as you were trying to watch your favorite show and pretended to be listening to her at the same time.

Your Plinko Slots

Information that you attend to moves from sensory register to your working memory. Working memory is the place where you will process information for action or storage. You can process about four things at a time in your working memory, each for about 5-15 seconds. Think of your working memory as having Plinko slots or like the TV channels on your grandma’s old black and white TV. As soon as you attend to some stimuli from your sensory register, it moves into your working memory and starts taking up one of those four slots. When all of your slots are full, this is called cognitive overload. You simply cannot process anything else until you take action on one of the existing four. Being overloaded is what is likely happening when you can’t recall the steps of a technique or make mistakes during sparring.

Picture yourself in class, gathered around your professor who is showing a new technique. If you are aware of the music in the background, it is taking up one of your slots. If you can smell the gi of the guy next to you, that’s now taking up one of your slots. If the two students behind you are talking while the professor is demonstrating and you are thinking about how rude they are, that is taking up one of your slots. So, by the time you get to your professor’s voice and what he is explaining, plus the visual of the technique, you are out of slots and don’t remember what he said to do. You clap hands and get with your training partner only to be frozen in the first position trying to recall what was just taught to you.

Size Matters

Chunking will help you seemingly increase the capacity of your working memory. Chunking is accomplished when you have practiced something enough to see a series of steps as one. For example, there was a time when opening a knee slice pass included recognizing that your partner was playing open guard and had his legs in the air, stepping inside the open legs of your partner, placing one hand on his hip or belly and the other on the opposite inside knee, ensuring the elbow of the hand on the hip or belly was tucked to your side and your shoulder was below his knee. You were probably taught to bring your passing knee to the mat, over the thigh you have pressed to the mat, then step wide with the other pointing the toes of that foot toward your partner’s head, grabbing the bottom collar and using your head against your partner’s jaw to turn his eyes away. As you came through and freed your leg, you took the available underhook or captured the head to begin a cross-face and side control. That was at least a dozen steps, and now that you know you have only room for about four of those at a time, you can understand why you might have started setting it up alright, and maybe even got the slicing knee to the mat, but weren’t able to hold the remaining details in your working memory, making a mistake which allowed your partner to recover guard or take your back. However, now that you have used the knee cut hundreds of times, you no longer see the technique as a dozen or more steps. You have chunked them together into the opening, the pass, and the finish. Those three steps, made of many but now combined into just three, are easily accessed and executed within the limits of working memory. You even have a slot left over for addressing your partner’s response or acknowledging your professor’s coaching during the technique. The value of drilling is that it helps you to chunk the steps of complicated techniques more quickly, seeing the many steps now combined into just a few, which can be easily accessed by your working memory.

Never Forget

Deliberate strategies must be used to move information from your working memory to your long term memory, where both capacity and duration are unlimited. Unless you develop dementia or a memory disease such as Alzheimer’s, you can remember an infinite number of things forever, IF the information actually got into your long term memory. Elaboration is one strategy for moving information to your long term memory. Elaboration strategies include relating new information to something you already know. For example, if you are being taught to underhook the leg as you move to set up the X-Guard, and your professor says to bring the leg onto your shoulder and pinch with your ear to keep it there, you might not remember if this is an overhook or underhook and do one or the other about 50% of the time, fumbling over which is correct. However, if this wise professor says to “bring the leg onto your shoulder and hold it like holding a boombox from the 90s”, you may very well know exactly what that feels like if you ran around your neighborhood blaring music that made your parents cringe or watching music videos of the same! Because you have related the cues for successful positioning of the leg on your shoulder to a specific time in your youth, you will be able to get to the proper position straight away each time this position presents itself to you in rolling.

Make It Work

Strategies you can use for increasing your memory of the details presented in class include controlling your environment, drilling, and relating new information to what you already know.  Minimize distractions by moving closer to the front of the class to avoid watching what everyone between you and the professor is doing, turning your phone to silent, and avoiding loud music in the gym. Drilling is useful for increasing working memory capacity because it chunks steps of techniques into sets of steps that your brain sees as one, making more slots available for processing new information. And relating new information to things you already know in regular life helps to move information from your working memory into your long term memory where you can access it next week or many years from now.

Just Four Things

Cheaters may never win, but here is a cheat sheet for how to maximize your memory and get the most from training:

  • Control your environment; turn down music, don’t fuss with your belt, stand close to the front
  • Pay attention by looking at the professor, listening to the instructions, and taking notes after class
  • Practice until you can chunk together several steps as one step in your mind’s eye
  • Relate new instructions to ideas you already know well

About the Author: Heather Davis holds a doctorate in Educational Psychology from USC and is the Paramedic Program Director at UCLA. She is a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and trains in Los Angeles under Tim Peterson at Robot BJJ which is an affiliate of One World Jiu-Jitsu by Giva Santana.

EducationMINDMind Games

Heather Davis holds a doctorate in Educational Psychology from USC and is the Paramedic Program Director at UCLA. She is a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and trains in Los Angeles under Tim Peterson at Robot BJJ which is an affiliate of One World Jiu-Jitsu by Giva Santana.

Leave a Reply