Drilling is important. Your success in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu directly relates to the time you spend performing quality drills. The learning curve in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is steep and many new students quit before they develop a basic understanding of the how to learn the art. The adage of “learning how to learn” is critical to your success. New students get hooked on the adrenaline of the “free” roll. Eventually, the adrenaline is replaced with the frustration of being tapped repeatedly, and the student quits or sets off on the never ending journey of finding the latest and greatest technique promised to turn the tide of frustration.
They key to unlocking the mystery of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is drilling.
In this article, we present a framework for drilling to help the student survive the learning curve and develop an understanding of the techniques and skills required to “learn how to learn.”
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do in life. There are no overnight successes. It takes years of dedication to fully grasp and appreciate the depth, complexity, and organization of the art. To simplify the complexity of learning the art, there are three key characteristics that must be explicitly understood.
1) Open Environment
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu environment is an open environment. An open environment is one in which the participant cannot predict with a high level of certainty the external forces acting upon him. A simple example of an open environment is driving on the freeway. You have no control over vehicles entering and exiting the freeway or driving in your vicinity. You can only act and react based on the observed movement and perceived intent of the vehicle drivers. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu environment is much the same in that your opponent is free to act in any fashion within the rules and you must act react accordingly. The ability to predict opposing movements does not come by magical osmosis but through the intimacy gained by drilling the technique. Just as you predict a drivers intent to change lanes by reading their signals, you can predict the movement patterns of your opponent by reading his signals. The best way to develop the ability to predict these movements is through drilling.
2) Externally Paced
Jiu-Jitsu is externally paced. An externally paced environment is one in which the timing of the performance is not completely controlled by the performer. Building on the driving example, you have no control over the speed of vehicles on the freeway. The speed of other vehicles dictates the speed of your vehicle such as when in a traffic jam. Your vehicle speed also influences the speed of other vehicles as well. In Jiu-Jitsu, neither opponent has complete control over the pacing of the techniques performed. Each opponent must work to influence the pace or react to the pace appropriately.
Jiu-Jitsu is highly interactive. Both participants act and react to each other for the entire length of the match. It’s important to note that the interaction occurs at the physical and mental levels with each participant attempting to assert and maintain physical and mental control over one another. Interactivity is often referred to as resistance in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The takeaway is that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu occurs in an unpredictable environment at varied speeds with full resistance.
The Drilling Framework addresses the preceding three characteristics in a manner that allows you to focus on the technique at hand outside of the highly dynamic nature of the live Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu environment. By controlling the variables, you can focus on the important aspects of the technique without the distraction of the environment.
The Drilling Framework is intended to provide the practitioner with a self-sufficient and scientific approach to learning new skills. The framework does not focus on specific techniques. An understandable, repeatable, and executable framework is more valuable than any one particular technique. As you progress, your body changes. Age and injury change your ability to perform techniques. The sporting rules regarding legal techniques change as well. Except basic modifications, the Drilling Framework should remain the same. It is a conceptual guide that provides the user with a structure for achieving an explicit goal and producing a tangible skill in a self sufficient manner.
The Drilling Framework is designed to minimize the variables in the learning environment with the intent of producing successful results in a consistent manner. If you’re not seeing consistent results, resist the urge to cast the technique aside in search of a better one. Instead, check your variables. Adjust one variable and try again. Continue to troubleshoot the technique in this manner until you’re satisfied with the results. This approach allows you to better measure your success, adjust your drilling environment accordingly, and add consistency and familiarity to your learning environment.
The Drilling Framework is built on the following variables. Keep the variables constant when starting. The design is for each drill to start in a tightly controlled environment. Once you develop mastery of the technique in the controlled environment, the variables can be adjusted with the goal of executing the technique during live full resistance training.
(Drilling Party = person performing the drill)
(Drilling Partner = person opposing the drill)
1) Closed Environment
The initial learning environment should be closed. The Drilling Partner should react in a predictable pattern every time with minimal variations. This allows the Drilling Party to focus on the essential movements of the technique without having to predict the movements of the Drilling Partner. This environment can slowly open up over time and become less predictable as the Drilling Party becomes proficient with the skill.
2) Low Reactivity
The Drilling Partner should offer low reactivity. This means the Drilling Partner should offer only the necessary resistance required for the Drilling Party to execute the technique. The resistance level should start and remain very low until the Drilling Party masters the essential aspects of the skill. Only then should the Drilling Partner add resistance.
3) Internal Pacing
The Drilling Party should control the movement speed of the drill. As the skill level increases, the Drilling Partner can modify the pacing of the drill by adding resistance and opportunity windows for the Drilling Party to execute the technique. This helps the Drilling Party develop the timing and recognition ability necessary to execute the technique. This becomes more important the closer the Drilling Party gets to executing the skill in a live environment.
Other considerations specific to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Practice the drills in multiple sessions. It will be easier to learn the new technique over several sessions than one long session. Don’t confuse the Open/Closed Environment Continuum with the High/Low Reactivity Continuum. The Open/Closed Continuum deals with the predicability of the environment and the High/Low reactivity addresses the resistance level offered by the parter.
The first component of the drilling framework is your goal. A goal can be simple or complex. A simple goal represents one movement. An example of a simple goal is “learn the inverted armbar. A complex goal is conceptual. An example of a complex goal is “learn how to escape side control.”
A goal should address one of the following.
1. Improve a strength
2. Improve a weakness
3. Learn a new technique, skill, or movement
Having an explicit goal will guide you in your selection of drills.
Determine how you’ll measure the success of your drilling efforts. Your success measurement should be explicit and measurable. An example of an explicit success measurement follows.
“To be able to execute the armbar from guard against at least one opponent at the next local tournament.”
This section is not intended to point out specific drills but instead focuses on how to select appropriate drills based on your goal. The key to drill selection is specificity. The drills you select to should be directly related to your goal. If you’re unclear of how a drill relates to your goal, the drill should not be selected.
Start with simple movements and progress to more complex movements. Select movements that are discrete (have a distinct start and finish), simple (requires little attention span), and a low element of organization (few moving parts). Once the initial movements are mastered, move on to more advanced movements.
It is imperative the you execute the movements in the proper manner each time. Poorly executed drills develop poor skills and the realization of your goal will be deferred. In other words, don’t waste your time. Perform the technique correctly each time. Ask your instructor to show you how to execute the technique properly if you’re unsure.
If the goal is to learn a complex technique, break the technique into smaller discrete movements and drill the movements separately. Once the individual movements are mastered, the practitioner can put the movements together and drill the unit as a whole.
The proper starting environment for a new drill is closed (highly predictable movements from the Drilling Partner), low reactivity (low resistance), and internally paced (Drilling Party sets the pace).
As the Drilling Party develops the ability to execute the technique, the environment variables can be modified. The environment should become more open (less predictable pattern of movements from drilling opponent) with higher reactivity (more resistance) and externally paced (drilling opponent attempts to dictate the pace).
As discussed previously, the Jiu-Jitsu environment is highly open and externally paced, with high levels of reactivity. The live Jiu-Jitsu environment is not conducive to improving strengths and weaknesses or learning new techniques.
Controlling the environment variables allows you to focus on the most important aspects of the technique at each stage.
In the beginning stage, the focus should be on learning the essential body movements of the techniques. As you master the basic movements of the techniques, the focus shifts to being able to execute the technique in an open environment against higher levels of resistance.
Stage 1 – Learn the Basic Movements of the Technique.
Drill the technique with predictable movements and no resistance from your partner.
Stage 2 – Learn to Execute the Technique with Resistance
Drill the technique with predictable movements and slowly add resistance. Have your partner gradually add resistance until he can no longer add resistance without becoming unpredictable in his movements. The focus here is to understand the leverage and force necessary to execute the technique against a resisting opponent.
Stage 3 – Learn to Recognize the Windows of Predictability
Drill the technique with unpredictable movements from your partner. Your partner should not have to offer high levels of resistance when beginning this stage. The focus is on developing the ability recognize the windows of opportunity to execute this technique. Your partner should offer slow pacing first and gradually increase the speed until it is similar to a live environment. Drilling in this manner helps you develop the ability to predict movements in slices of time 1-5 seconds in an otherwise unpredictable environment. This is where you develop the ability to be 2-3 movements ahead of your opponent.
Stage 4 – Execute the Technique in a Live Jiu-Jitsu Environment
This is the final stage where you focus on executing the technique against a fully resistant opponent. This can be done in open mat or as part of a drilling session. Put winning and losing out of your mind when you’re working in this stage. The important thing is to make attempts to execute the technique. Use the prior knowledge you’ve gained with the technique in the previous stages to help you recognize the opportunity, pacing, and interactivity levels necessary to execute the technique.
Drills can be performed in whole or part. The nature of the drill in question should dictate the modality. Simple movements can be executed in whole from beginning to end. Complex movements may require you to break the movements into smaller parts that can be executed and reassembled.
The type of session can be broken down into massed or distributed sessions. Your level of conditioning and experience dictates the type of session. Massed sessions occur without break and continue until the you master the skill. Distributed sessions have several breaks and the skill is learned over several sessions.
Typically, the drill is repeated for a number of repetitions or a set time.
Fitts, P.M., & Posner, M.I. (1967). Learning and skilled performance in human performance. Belmont CA: Brock-Cole.