Learning BJJ: On drilling and more – Part 1

bjj learning Does practice make perfect? An integral part of BJJ class is the repetition or “drilling” of techniques. The discussion of whether to drill or not resurfaced with Kit Dale’s explanation of why he doesn’t drill. He makes some good points on the potential problems with devoting too much time to drilling: over-predictability and “bad” muscle memory. It is important to prepare for the different reactions and factors like strength, flexibility, weight, etc. These problems are a part of the psychological process of error learning.

Error learning is the process of inadvertently learning to do something incorrectly. The common way to drill is with similar sized partners with little resistance. In repeating the same motions on the same people, we might limit ourselves by only learning to perform in certain way. Sloppy drilling is even worse; the body learns to move incorrectly. Drilling without sound principles is a quick way to pick up bad habits that come back to haunt you. The same is true in repeatedly using a technique without proper form while rolling.

The underlying idea of error learning is that we learn while we do, whether you want to or no. Every act of jiu jitsu enhances, reinforces, or overwrites our understanding of the art. Repeating techniques helps retain and develop our comprehension of techniques. Perfect practice makes perfect. The beautiful thing about mistakes though is that if we can recognize them and correct them, we create solutions instead of reinforcing errors.

Based on this principle, the key to improving our jiu jitsu is to do it often, do it to the best of our abilities (aka don’t be sloppy), and identify mistakes to correct them. It all boils down mat time and what you make of it.

We learn jiu jitsu by doing jiu jitsu, and drilling is a part of that. I think some upper belts and high level competitors can get away with drilling less, but drilling is crucial to developing proper understanding of the movements and concepts behind techniques. Many, if not most, black belts still advocate it. It is an important part of learning for lower belts and I’ve noticed that white belts who drill often tend to improve quicker, though most white belts seem disinterested in serious drilling.

The essence of drilling is repetition. It isn’t just practicing technique. It should be high rep with each rep executed with good form and speed. Drilling isn’t productive if it isn’t taken seriously. I’ve watched wrestlers and judokas practice, and they are meticulous with their drilling. They drill everything from just entries to the full execution of a technique. By drilling the same technique from different angles and positions, you develop the sensitivity to use the technique in different scenarios. Even if you haven’t drill that specific exact position, you will have a thorough enough understanding of the underlying principles (body position, weight distribution, force application, etc.) of a technique to apply it.

Kit Dale’s approach of positional training, like starting in a guard, passing, and resetting, also relies largely on repetition. Through this process, he is still repeating movements and techniques. However, instead of one technique per “drill”, he repeats multiple (e.g. various guard pass attempts, entries). This training has more spontaneity and transitions than typical drilling, but is that reason enough not to drill? It seems like once something is not called drilling, it gets more exciting and people are more likely to do it.

Drilling, positional training, rolling, etc. are not separate entities; we can consider them as a continuum of BJJ training.

How your training is structured will depend on you (during open mat) and your professor (during class), keeping in mind that the ideal structure can and will change over time. Sometimes you might benefit from more drilling and other times not so much. BJJ Hacks has a great series on how pros train. One thing that stood out to me was how Kim Terra and his training partners regularly change the format of their training sessions. While the top competitors might train differently, but they are united in their innumerable hours of dedication to the art.

In part 2, I try to break down my interpretation of the continuum of BJJ training and the advantages of each aspect.