Better, Stronger, Faster – A Strategy on How You Learn BJJ

It goes without saying that when you turn up to a BJJ class you are going to be exposed to new techniques and that to effectively progress in the art, you will need to retain as much of this as possible. Sometimes this can be harder than it seems, the ability to really understand and perform a complex move and then be able to translate it into effective use against a resisting opponent is no easy feat.

This is where the development of a skill of learning how to learn really comes into play. That is, the ability to hasten the ‘absorption’ of a technique by using various strategies to strengthen the learning process. By working out and working on ways to increase your ability to learn, you will find that there will be a higher probability that techniques are internalised and retained.

This ability is developed through having a conscious learning strategy, ongoing reflection and continual investment of effort. While the development of this meta-skill is no walk in the park, it will increase your ability to master any skill set in life. By not developing this ability, you may find for a given degree of time invested, you may not be seeing an optimised performance outcome. To put it even more simply, even though you are being exposed to many techniques in BJJ, they just damn well don’t stick!

Part of learning effectively as an adult is not being a passive entity that is fed information, at some point you need to have an idea about how you want to progress and what goals you might have for your learning. I also believe that you need to have an attitude of responsibility, it is not up to the coach to ‘teach’ a certain technique to a level of virtuosity. You need to own the process and have a very concrete idea and process in place for how you are going to achieve mastery.

So how do you go about developing the skill of ‘how to learn’ for BJJ you may ask? Well the answer is that it will differ for everybody as there are many pieces to the puzzle. Below, I have outlined a hierarchical learning strategy that I have found has worked for me. This has been adapted from my experience as a strength coach, sport science researcher and Physiotherapist.

The following sequence can be applied to new techniques that you are learning/want to learn. In general, I would start with stage 1 and progress as far down the chain as possible. Stage 4 is somewhat optional depending on the technique in question and some people may prefer to move it to an earlier place on the chain (or even not at all). Stage 5 could be the aim for any movement that you want to feature as a core component of your game.

1.Repetition Consistency

‘I’m going to drill this new move continuously with the time that we are given to do it, I want to really understand the move well enough on a conscious level so if I had to go away and practice by myself, I could.’

The outcome of this stage is that I can walk out the door and I have retained enough information to be able to consciously work through the technique consistently if not fluently. Writing down the elements of the technique in a training journal (if you have one) works well here.

2. Repetition Efficiency

‘Ok, so I can do this move myself without someone looking over my shoulder, but it feels clunky with lots of pauses between.’

‘Let’s see if I can drill this move to smooth it out without missing any vital components of the move.’

At this level, I would want a degree of flow to occur and a decrease in reliance on conscious thought, early stages of automaticity is the goal. Practicing mindfully at a consistent, comfortable speed without relying on strength seems to be key to facilitate this.

3. Repetition Effectiveness

‘So looks like I can perform this move in a smooth, consistent manner.’

‘Can I get this movement to a level of effectiveness where it could be used against someone resisting in a rolling situation?’

‘I want to increase my successful hit ratio relative to failed attempts. What can I learn from my failed attempts?’

‘I need to analyse [the effectiveness] and address deficiencies.’

While I may have got the movement flowing, here we need to address real world effectiveness and work out how to make it work. This is the place for good old problem solving to come into play and a stubbornness to work through the difficult teething stages where failure rates are high.

Here you can also learn how to cautiously deploy your physical attributes (i.e., strength, flexibility, speed) to scale up technique effectiveness.  

4. Repetition Symmetry

‘Ok, I can pull this move off without someone looking over my shoulder, I have had luck in rolling and resisted drilling using this move effectively but I can only really do it on one side.’

‘I’m going to work my weak side and aim to get both sides as close to par as possible.’

‘Can I get this move good enough on my weak side as to be effective?

The aim is to bias rolling and drills to the required side with special emphasis placed on this stage for defensive positions such as guard and escapes.

5. Movement Internalisation and Early Stage Mastery

‘I can do this move reasonably well, it feels smooth, I don’t really need to think about what I’m doing, it works, and I can roughly do it on both sides.’

‘It seems like it is time to get this move even more ‘battletested’, let’s see if I can apply it from positions other than textbook.’

‘Can I get to the stage where I can apply the move to varied circumstances? (e.g., opponent in different positions, using different grips, being more dynamic).’

‘Can I use or add elements of the move as needed with minimal conscious thought as to be able to adapt parts of the movement on the fly?’

‘Can I make this technique unique to me, can I make it mine?

This is the stage of a lifetime and would require a high level of self-analysis, coach-based feedback and countless hours of application. It would also be of benefit to seek out and practice techniques that share similar elements in order to increase the ability to use the move in a highly variable and adaptable fashion.

As we are all individual with different learning styles and different goals for studying BJJ, you will have to work out what works for you. Hopefully this gives you some ideas of how you can go about forming a ‘learning strategy’ of your own to maximise your time on the mats!

A bit about the author – Christian is a martial artist with experience in grappling arts such as Judo and Submission Grappling. He is currently ranked as a BJJ Blue Belt. Christian is a Physiotherapist with a Doctorate in Exercise and Sport Science and also works as a personal trainer with a focus on functional strength training.