Do you really need endless drills to improve your technique?
I’ve heard, over the years, many coaches and students talk about muscle memory and the benefits of endless repetitions. And I must say I don’t usually agree with them, and not only because I hate endless drilling and think this takes away much of the beauty and pleasure in jiu-jitsu.
I should quote a French sport scientist here, Pierre Parlebas, who makes a very important distinction, between psychomotricity and sociomotricity. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is, thus, a sport with sociomotricity, meaning your bodily movement needs to adapt to the bodies and bodily movements of others, namely your training partners or opponents. In javelin throw, by contrast, you have only psychomotricity, as your movements only depend on the material culture at play (equipment, javelin and so on). If in throwing a javelin you can develop what some people call automatisms, as nothing ever changes and you can repeat the movement over and over again to achieve mastery and perfection, in BJJ it is never the case. The partners or opponents have different bodily types, different gear, different ways of moving and responding to your movements, and thus the best thing you can do is understand them and develop movement patterns or schemas to respond to those. It is thus much more important to identify, prevent and adapt than to repeat the same movements over and over again.
You need to train your body to move in specific ways, though, you need to know how to attack an armbar, switch to a De la Riva, apply a bow and arrow choke, but you should focus on movement patterns and principles more than on specific, very granular techniques, drilled endlessly. So what should or can you do instead?
Thematic drills are a great starting point to learn a technique, but you should focus on making them complex rather than specific. The more you focus on a specific part of the movement, in the beginning, the more likely you are to lose touch with the broader context. You can drill an armbar attack, for instance, or a specific guard pass, alternate your partner’s resistance degrees and focus on understanding how you should move and why, how to position your body and your weight, where you need to pay specific attention and where you don’t, as well as on understanding what you should do if something goes wrong.
If you only drill on a cooperant partner you get aikido (joking, guys, or am I?:).
This is the next level for improving a technique. Themed sparring can mean, for example, only sparring guard passes, or attacks from the mount. This particular exercise allows you to get an even better understanding on what works from a position and what doesn’t. Once again, focus on finding solutions, and remember to switch partners as often as possible. There are so many different bodily types and approaches to jiu-jitsu you want to get as much experience and exposure as possible.
Full sparring with lower belts or lighter opponents
Beginners are a great learning tool, if you know how to use them. If you can’t apply a technique in a sparring session with someone less experienced than you, use it to figure out what’s wrong and find a solution. You should experiment as much as possible with lower belts and lighter opponents, especially if that means getting out of your comfort zone. Get caught into submissions, do everything that’s wrong and try to innovate. Always ask yourself what if and do it!
It is much more important to understand and apply the basic principles of jiu-jitsu and relevant patterns of bodily movement than to be able to demonstrate specific techniques. Luckily, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is still an evolving art and there is no fixed curriculum. Technique is constantly changing and new types of fighting keep on making their appearance. Just think about all the types of guards out there and their constant evolution: closed guard, half guard, butterfly guard, spider guard, deep half, half butterfly, quarter guard, octopus guard, De la Riva guard, 50/50 guard, worm guard, donkey guard and so on. In a few years the list will get bigger but although techniques keep increasing the body remains the same. Our bodies all move in the same ways, we still have four limbs, and innovation has its limits. This is why you should stick to understanding the basics, and by this I mean superior bodily positions, grips and submission mechanics. This is all you need to grow.