You may have heard of “Deliberate Practice”. It is the gold standard method for developing expertise.
Anders Ericsson is the guy who coined the term and did all the research into expertise that has since been popularised in books like Outliers and Talent is Overrated. Unfortunately, for us, it requires a field that is already well established, where optimal training practices are known.
The Suzuki Method for learning the violin is one such form of deliberate practice. Follow the steps, do the work, under the watchful eye of a skilled instructor and after a prolonged period you will be an expert.
People have been playing violins for centuries and have had the time necessary to develop optimal practice, culminating in programs like the Suzuki method. Jiu Jitsu is a sport in its infancy (particularly no gi jiu jitsu) with a huge range of training methodologies. Some are excellent and some are not so much.
Although many coaches and teams are pioneering a more thorough systems based methodology and regularly producing world champions. We have a long way to go before we reach the deliberate practice level in the sport of jiu jitsu.
That being said the way in which you train or practice anything can be improved even without the established deliberate practice structure provided you follow the principles of purposeful practice.
Purposeful practice (deliberate practices unruly little brother) is defined by 4 principles that will enable you to consistently improve in any discipline over time. There will be a degree of trial and error involved as optimal training methods are developed but with time creativity and commitment to the four principles outlined below you never have to stop getting better.
4 Principles of Purposeful Practice
Always have an aim for the practice
The first step in improving in any field is often to identify the aim of the practice. If you are drilling in your own time you should make the effort to actually decide what it is you want to improve. If you are in a class structure your coach may state the aim and if not hopefully its self evident. Maybe you will be working on finishing the bow and arrow choke from the back or resetting your guard from the headquarters position.
Having an identified aim for the practice allows you to determine whether or not you have used your time well. If your aim is to improve your ability to recover half guard from side control and you were able to do so more effectively after the session you have evidence that you have improved.
Whatever the aim is there will be smaller components that comprise the overall goal. In our half guard recovery example one such component, which is vitally important, could be getting inside the cross face. Establishing set aims makes the game smaller allowing for more detailed understanding of positions and techniques. This is more effective than going through the motions and hoping to get better by accident.
This is pretty obvious, but unless you are giving what you are doing your full attention you are probably limiting your ability to improve. This is particularly common in group classes where the material may not be to your liking and you are with all your friends. There is a social aspect to jiu jitsu and its important but if your training partner wants to tell you all about some gym gossip while you are trying to figure out a crab ride sequence, they are inhibiting your ability to improve. Try to keep talk focussed on the task at hand.
Since having kids I have come to value my training time much more due to its scarcity. I can no longer spend all day in the gym training and farting around in equal measure. I come in with an aim for the practice and focus on achieving the steps that will allow me to complete the task… usually.
All this planning and focus is not going to help if you are doing movements incorrectly. This is why it helps to get feedback. You can get feedback from your coach, your training partners and yourself. When you are comfortable with a technique you have mental representation of how it should look and more importantly what it should feel like. What separates expert performers from the rest of us is often the quality of these mental representations.
If your mental representation for what you are working on is refined enough you will feel when you’ve done a bum rep and can alter accordingly. Feedback from training partners and coaches is also invaluable, some of the best guys I have trained with are constantly asking training partners how a movement felt, where was the pressure and how they could improve.
Gettting outside comfort zones
Living in the land of good enough is positively delightful, you don’t have to think that hard and you get to play your best stuff. The jiu jitsu hierarchy, and the social status engendered by that, makes tapping out to lower belts unpleasant for many people in gyms where that culture exists. This promotes the automated “A game” approach that preserves egos but kills improvement.
To improve your overall game, finding weakness and working on them is imperative. This will often mean letting people onto your back to work defence there or getting your guard passed while playing a new type of position.
It is important that you don’t get too far out of your comfort zone. If your training partner is a 100kg black belt and you are a 65kg white belt looking to develop side control escapes, this might not be the right plan unless you have spoken about your aims before hand.
Putting it all together
In our bow and arrow example we have established an aim. After rolling, a few of your training partners have noticed getting to the back might not be the problem but staying there and winning the hand fight is where you are coming up short.
With this feedback you have identified the main ways you lose the back and what is preventing you from completing the choke. You do some research and talk to your coach and figure out a couple of back retentions and hand fighting drills that may help. You drill these techniques until they become smooth, then work on several drills to improve retention and hand fighting.
Drilling with progressively resisting opponents bridges the gap between compliant technique practice and live rolling. After a few weeks of focused practice you have greatly improved your ability to finish with the bow and arrow choke. So much so that your training partners are bailing to mount rather than have you any where near their back. Maybe its time to start working on your ability to hold mount and finish from there?
Taking your training seriously and following the principles of purposeful practice will take your ability to murder hug folk to a new level.