What do we mean by effective drilling?
I define drilling as the intentional focus on a single technique or scenario, repeated many times, with progressive resistance. It is while drilling you get to accumulate time in the positions you are looking to develop, without having to deal with an opponent determined to murder you.
If you are struggling with the gyms lapel guard wizard, it will be difficult to develop counters to this if they are the only athlete who plays that game. In any given training session you may run into this scenario only once and then spend the rest of the round trying to scrape them off your back. Whereas the lapel guards player may get to their favourite position every round.
Similarly if you are struggling to finish from back control, developing this skill is difficult as you may only get to the back a few times per training session. Effective drilling can help to address asymmetries like these.
What is the purpose of effective drilling?
Drilling is used to address issues that arise in sparring/competing. While drilling you are developing offensive and defensive options that you intend to use. Spending a few months drilling the berimbolo has limited value if you are never going to attempt it in sparring.
Taking the time to drill your own stuff is a rewarding endeavour. Autonomy can make BJJ much more enjoyable and productive, as you start to take ownership over how your game develops. Over time you will start seeing yourself as a knee cut guy or a collar and sleeve specialist and will constantly be looking to develop these specific positions.
Another reason to get interested in regular drilling is to help Bridge the gap between knowing a technique and applying it against a resisting opponent. One of the factors that differentiates the skill levels in Jiu Jitsu is the speed at which positions are identified and counteracted. You may just be setting up a lasso omoplata but your more skilled opponent has already anticipated it and is well on their way to cutting through your guard. The bottom player in this case has not bridged the gap between being able to correctly perform the technique and utilising it against a skilled opponent in live sparring.
Sparring happens at a fast pace and there is no time to stop and analyse what went right or wrong. By the time you get to breakdown how things went you are onto the next round and the specifics of what happened in previous rounds are easily forgotten.
Drilling allows you to engage in problem solving and set parameters that limit the speed and options of your training partner. You take a a game which is massive in scope and make it much more manageable. You can start in a specific position, request different reactions from your partner or let them freestyle at a slower tempo. These are two simple ways to bridge the gap between repetitions and high paced sparring.
The Stages of effective drilling
Stage 1: Introduction:
When introducing a new technique to your arsenal, it is important to go slow.
Work sequentially through the various parts of the technique until you end up in the final position. If you are particularly nerdy you can start trying to figure out the purpose of each component of the technique, before things become too fast. Having a conceptual understanding of why you are doing everything that you are doing can really level up your Jiu Jitsu.
Stage 2: Repetitions:
Once everything is in the right order, you can work on removing the pauses that naturally occur when learning a technique and strive to get as much fluidity as you can at a slow tempo. Once there is fluidity, speed can be added gradually until it becomes a viable option in sparring.
Stage 3: Troubleshooting
This stage is used to address reactions your partner may give to defend against your newly honed technique. A constant dialogue is important here and you should be asking “what would you do here?”, “how would you stop me doing this?” etc. Many athletes will give up on a movement, as one frame is disrupted or when the opponent unbalances them. There is usually a simple way of reestablishing your position and continue your cycle. Troubleshooting rounds are a great way to figure out how to maintain your position and deal with an opponents counters.
Stage 4: Positional sparring
This is where you really gain ownership of the technique you have honed. You set the starting position and work to nail what you have been working on versus a resisting partner. Any time the position changes you restart back to the starting point. Resistance and speed are gradually increased until you are working as close to live sparring as possible.
What to drill..
This boils down to the classic want vs need. Instagram is great for informing us of what is cool and what we want to drill, but it is your actual sparring that will inform what you need to drill.
If someone was cutting through your De La Riva guard with ease then it would be wise to spend some DLR troubleshooting rounds with that person. Do you struggle when your partner stands up in open guard? Then It may be time to introduce and rep some basic collar and sleeve. If everyone is using the turnout escape versus your inside heel hook, learning to chase the back from that position will be invaluable.
Building your game outwards from an established foundation is often more manageable than developing something completely unrelated to what you already do.
It is also important to spend time with a position to really develop it. Making progress is difficult if you are doing something different every round or training session. Spending 1-3 months working on a broad topic like De la Riva Guard or outside passing is a useful time frame to operate with.
Drilling has very little point when it doesn’t produce results in live sparring so use your time wisely.
A quick note on focusing on reps
Nearly every article, I researched on the topic of drilling had this possibly apocryphal Bruce Lee quote.
“I don’t fear the man who has practiced a thousand kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced one kick a thousand times”
The implication here is that to really master a move you must accumulate reps in the thousands, ideally at least 10 000. It’s hard to argue against the idea that doing more of something making you better at it, but there must be a point of diminishing returns.
The majority of folk who train BJJ are not professional athletes and there is a lot of stuff to potentially learn. Even the most diligent driller are killers advocate will never accumulate 10 000 reps of everything, on both sides.
The focus on reps can often be detrimental to the technique itself. If you plan on accumulating 1000 reps you may find yourself going through the motions and ultimately bypassing important details just to get the reps in. There are also some techniques that simply do not lend themselves to speedy applications, I’m thinking slow pressure based half guard passing here.
There is also the fact that it is extremely possible to develop a new technique with absolutely no drilling at all. One way in which this occurs is when there is a big skill difference between two training partners. The more experienced player is often engaging in a form of drilling while sparring. This is one of the reasons why you can see guys improving even if they haven’t drilled anything or been to a class in years.
The point I’m trying to convey here is that yes do lots of reps if you like, but if you lack the time, or find it boring you are probably not going to do it. For me an hour drilling reps will drag, whereas a hour consisting of a few rounds of reps, troubleshooting and positional sparring will fly by and my mind will be engaged the entire time.