Walk into a typical Jiu Jitsu class and tell me what you see. Students warming up with exercises that may or may not be related to the techniques that day, practicing some techniques that may or may not be related to each other. Finally, everyone’s favorite part of class – live sparring or rolling. Often, the higher the belt rank, the more of a class a practitioner feels he or she can skip. The cliché is the purple belts that skip warm-ups. And by the time some students reach brown belt, they’re skipping techniques all together.
Unless an academy has a glut of upper-belts, it’s difficult to reach the threshold where having an advanced class can be sustained, forcing experienced practitioners to get their technical repetitions through sparring alone. If this sounds familiar to you, you probably need to incorporating more drilling in your training. Many schools are moving away from the “move of the day” model described above, and have a more structured curriculum with defined bench marks to gauge student progress. Additionally, a renewed emphasis on drilling has reached the mainstream of Jiu Jitsu practice.
Drilling is vital for the development of a Jiu Jitsu athlete. Particularly for the advanced belts, where the difference in the success or failure of a technique is often a minute detail or a fraction of a second in timing. Of course, sparring, technical development, strength training and conditioning all play major roles in an athlete’s success, but drilling is one of the often-overlooked elements of training that anyone can do more of to improve.
Andre Galvao on the importance of drilling
The recent surge of interest in drilling likely arose with the success of the Atos team, among others. While drilling has been a key component of many teams tournament preparation few have been as vocal regarding its importance. The Mendes brothers frequently mention how drilling brought them to the heights of the Jiu Jitsu world. Andre Galvao has stated that 80% of his classes are drills, while only 20% is rolling. So it’s no surprise that Galvao has written the best (only?) Jiu Jitsu book dedicated to drilling, entitled, “Drill to Win.” And footage of the Mendes brothers training brings to light the central role that drilling plays in their development.
“Since we started to train BJJ we have been drilling positions at every training session. The biggest mistake we can see in the schools is that the students are drilling lazily. Always do your best. If you drill wrong, then you are training to do wrong. If you are training to do wrong then during the fight you will also do the position poorly.” – Mendes brothers
The most unusual thing about Jiu Jitsu is that a case for drilling needs to be made at all. Almost every top athlete uses drilling in their preparation regardless of their sport. Our closest combat-sport brethren in wrestling and Judo understand drilling an integral aspect of skill development. In Judo drilling only the entry to tachi-waza, or throwing technique, is known as uchikomi. repeating the integral transition into a throw develops speed, timing, precision, and aids the Judo athlete’s development to a greater extent than completing the entire throw, with less impact on the uke as well. Because wrestling and Judo are non-commercial martial arts relative to Jiu Jitsu, there isn’t as much of a need to cater to the comfort and attention spans of the students. Also, since Jiu Jitsu was refined in Brazil, the sometimes-lax training environment there can lead to students who focus on rolling more than any other training tool.
What is drilling, then? And how can we apply it to our own development? Drilling can apply to any repetition of technique, although in practice the best drills tend to focus less on the minute technical details and more on repetition, speed and proper movement. I find the most effective drills will not necessarily involve a completed technique, but a truncated pathway to allow one person to achieve as many repetitions of a key segment of the technique is a defined time frame. Additionally, drilling two techniques together, such as a sweep and a guard pass, or a back-take and a submission, is a great way to reduce the pauses between your techniques that can give your opponent an opportunity to catch their breath or escape.
Repeating a movement or technique will create motor memory or “muscle memory” in colloquial terms. Motor memory is thought to involve the creation and consolidation of pathways that encode techniques in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates smoothness, timing and accuracy to movements. Sounds like the ideal thing for learning Jiu Jitsu. When a technique is frequently performed the control of the series of movements involved becomes increasingly non-conscious. This last point is critical for Jiu Jitsu development. If a technique is performed sub-optimally – sloppy, slow or infrequently – two things can happen.
First, the technique will require conscious effort to carry out, wasting precious microseconds as you decide how to grip, how to position your weight, etc. Your opponent that has drilled more than you doesn’t need to use their mental resources focusing on the details of the technique, and is able to free up their attention to planing and implementing their next attack. We’ve all had the sensation of grappling an opponent above our own skill level, where it just doesn’t feel like we can keep up to the adjustments they are making. We cannot see and make decisions fast enough and we are quickly overwhelmed. Drilling can be the difference between getting lost in these scenarios and holding one’s own.
Second, and more insidious, is that repetitions that are not perfect can lean to the consolidation of bad motor memory. This happens a lot when people only practice during sparing, and don’t work to do the technique in the most correct fashion, but settle for the one that they can force to achieve their goal. Once this technique is consolidated in motor memory it takes even more effort to re-learn the correct way. Whoever first said, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” knew their stuff. Originally a military term referring to shooting drills, the idea that in Jiu Jitsu it is ideal to master the gross movements of a technique through deliberate technical practice, then to fully integrate the technique into motor memory through fast, non-conscious drilling.
In addition to building motor memory, drilling can also have benefits for cardiovascular and mental attributes. Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but when your legs and lungs are burning and you’re only half-way through a set of guard pass drills, it becomes clear how high-intensity drilling can be the difference-maker in your tournament preparation.
What duration or number of repetitions is optimal for motor learning? There’s no way to know for sure, due to the lack of research on the subject. I would suggest, “as much as possible without ignoring other important aspects of your development” as a reasonable guide. Some within the Jiu Jitsu community have latched onto ideas expressed by the popular New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell that indicate ten-thousand hours of mindful practice is necessary for success. This value has also been discussed in Jiu Jitsu circles as ten-thousand repetitions. While an admirable goal, there is little actual research to support this claim. In fact, some of the researchers with whose research Gladwell supported his claims have published angry rebuttals. More repetitions can actually be harmful if, as stated above, they are performed sub-optimally. It’s better to quit while the movements are performed with speed and precision than slog through a few dozen extra faulty reps because of a misunderstanding.
Drilling has two main uses. For the beginner Jiu Jitsu student, an instructor can design a drilling program to familiarize his or her students with the fundamental movements of the art. Advanced practitioners can use this time to drill techniques specific to their game, that wouldn’t be as useful to a student that’s just starting out. Many instructors are incorporating drills into their Jiu Jitsu programs already, but one of the biggest benefits of drilling is their use in self-directed development. To apply drills in a self-directed program, students may take advantage of their school’s open mat or find some time in their gym’s schedule when the mats are not in use and gather some like-minded teammates to work with. Make sure to speak with your instructor first, both to get critical direction as well as prevent any tension that could arise.
If you’re still not sure of how to proceed in your own development, it will be of value to watch Lloyd Irvin describe Lloyd Irvin’s Micro-Transitional Drilling System. Basically, after Irvin had the foresight to bring the Mendes brothers to his academy to teach, the Atos competitors described their drilling strategy. This evolved into the idea of drilling submission entries during common positional transitions. Irvin gives the example of setting up the clock-choke early in the transition between the double-under guard pass and the opponent’s turtle position. It is easy to apply this idea to the common positions and submissions that we use every day.
Another great resource for drilling is the plethora of online instruction that is currently clogging up the web tubes. Two of the better options for online instruction include MGinAction.com by Josh Waitzkin and Marcelo Garcia, and MB Online by the Mendes brothers. For free video instruction, it is difficult, both in quantity and quality, to top the drills described by Jason Scully on his youtube channel and on his website. Additionally, Lex Fridman has an excellent series of articles on drilling. And of course, Galvao’s “Drill to Win” is the gold standard for drilling resources.
Over the last two months my friend Cedric and I have instituted an informal daily drilling session at our academy. It has allowed us to drill techniques that apply to our specific games. Cedric has an amazing open guard. When he leads the group, we focus on techniques that may not be appropriate for beginner students, like the dozens of berimbolo variations that exist. When I lead the group I tend to focus on a mix of guard passing drills and transitions. Our instructor has been very supportive of our efforts, and they have been paying off in terms of linking together our techniques and improving our timing.
For example, although I’ve been playing spider guard since white belt, I’m presently investing time in improving my technique, speed and combinations through drilling this position. The omoplata is a solid option from spider guard when your opponent circles under your hook in an attempt to pass the guard. To drill this technique, my partner grabs the pants allowing me to pull their arm into an omoplata. I first learned this technique from watching Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles compete and have been working it into my game with some success. This is just one of the many drills that I’ve been incorporating into my self-directed Jiu Jitsu training.
Tips for a good drilling session:
Drilling is a fundamental aspect of both group-based and self-directed Jiu Jitsu development. To encourage more Jiu Jitsu athletes to take drilling seriously The Jiu Jitsu Laboratory and DSTYR:SG are offering extra incentive to get in the gym and drill.
For the next month we are holding a drilling contest. Send us videos of you and your training partners drilling your favorite techniques to be entered in a draw to win either a Jiu Jitsu Laboratory prize pack or a DSTYR:SG swag bag including T-shirts and stickers. All you have to do to win these highly sought-after items is do what you should be doing anyway: drilling!
- Send a video to the Jiu Jitsu Laboratory or DSTYR:SG by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or commenting on this article.
- The video should contain you or your teammates drilling a Jiu Jitsu move of your choice.
- A brief explanation about the drill would be helpful, but not required.
- After 1 month we will sort through the entries and draw two grand-prize winners and two runners-up. Grand-prize winners will receive either a Jiu Jitsu Laboratory T-shirt and sticker, or a T-shirt and sticker from DSTYR:SG.
- Runners-up will be sent a sticker-pack from either blog.
- Submitted videos may be included in a future post unless otherwise requested.
- Good luck to everyone who enters and keep in mind the reason for the contest: to encourage everyone in the Jiu Jitsu community to dedicate themselves to drilling just a little bit more.