Repetition is the mother of learning. Everyone knows this, and that’s why we stress the importance of drilling. Every high level competitors in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and every other sport puts in countless reps. But not all reps and drilling are equally valuable, and once you look into the science of motor learning, it turns out we can fool ourselves into feeling like we’re getting better when we’re not. So what can we do to get better reps and learn faster? That answer is in block versus random practice.
My goal here is not to explain all the research behind this, but if you are interested, Jason C. Brown lays it out in his article Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice. What I want to do is give you examples of how you can run drilling in your classes or open mats to implement more random practice through the use of games and positional sparring.
To borrow from Japanese martial arts like judo, we’ll use the terms tori and uke to describe the student who is executing and succeeding at the technique (tori) and the student who is on the receiving end (uke).
Once the students have a basic sense of the techniques of the day, have them start in the initial position and move around with partner at a low intensity. The coach calls out a technique (either by name or by numbering them) and tori goes for it. Once tori accomplishes their goal (or fails to the point of no recovery), they reset to the starting position and keep moving around with uke, ready for your next command.
Tell the uke that the purpose is still to have tori succeed with their moves most of the time and to not make it impossible. The uke can give them a few freebies (successful reps with no real resistance) to get them warmed up, but then pick a certain way to challenge them and see how they handle it. Once tori is dealing with it well, you can either raise the intensity or add more challenges. Uke can make it more challenging as tori succeeds. If tori is a beginner, their uke may need to tone it down. As a coach, you can pick what these counters are if you don’t want to leave it up to the students to invent their own.
You can start at a low level of resistance and gradually raise the intensity by telling the uke to go harder, e.g. “Start at 20%... OK, now 50%... Finish it out at 75-90% or more.” Beginners usually lack the ability to judge how hard they are going, so you may just tell them to do specific counters (“Now try to stiff arm them so they can’t pass.”) instead of expecting them to be able to improvise.
To cut down on the time spent waiting for every student to finish the move and reset before you can call out the next command, you can tell the ukes to individually call out the moves to their partners. They do not need to do it in any order, and in fact it should be fairly random or even repeat the same move two or more times in a row sometimes so tori does not get to go into autopilot.
If the techniques depend on certain triggers (i.e. reactions by their partner), then the uke does not even need to say anything and instead feeds their partner the trigger so tori has to learn to see the opportunity for themselves
To make it into a conditioning drill, you can make students jog around the room, then when you call out a move, they grab their partner, drop to the floor, both do a rep, then get back to their feet and keep jogging around the room. You can mix in solo movements or exercises like technical stand-ups, push-ups, etc.
A common problem with positional sparring is that the partner knows exactly what tori is going to try to do, and students can let their ego take over and feel like having the move of the day work on them would be humiliating. Even if they do not, tori may just not have a good grasp of the technique and stumble trying to put the whole sequence together. You can fix this by doing reps with resistance where tori gets to start the rep against a non-resisting uke, but at a certain agreed upon movement in the move, uke fights back. You start near the end state (for example, right before the sweep, pass, takedown, etc. is above to be finished) so tori has a near 100% chance of finishing it. Then you move the “fight” moment early in the technique, repeating this until you get to where they are just doing positional sparring without any special rules.
These are just a few examples of how you can run classes or your own practice to get more random practice and therefore more long-term motor learning occurring. Once you get the hang of it, you can make up your own games and drills (grills?) for any technique, position, or sequence.
If you have any questions about how to run these, or you would like to share how you already do this, I would be very happy to hear from you.