Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice

Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice

As a jiu-jitsu player one of your primary responsibilities is acquiring new skills to further enhance your game and bring a greater of level of enjoyment to your jiu-jitsu practice.
There are many ways to classify skills. However, when discussing jiu-jitsu you’re primarily concerned with improving your motor skills.
Successful motor skills are determined by the quality of movement above all other considerations.
Psychologist E.R. Guthrie (1952) defined skill as the “ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and a minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy.”
Skill can also be defined as proficiency, facility or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training, experience or as a result of practice.
Your goal then is to arrange your training session in a manner that promotes learning and solidifies the desired skills so you can successfully recall those skills at a future date.
This is known as motor learning.
Motor learning is defined as changes in the body’s internal processes that determines ones capabilities to produce a motor skill.
All learning requires repetition and rehearsal. Proper rehearsal is the greatest contributor in acquiring new motor skills.
It is helpful to view your training session as a practice and you as the practitioner, that being said, there are several ways to arrange your practice session to accelerate you ability to learn new movements.
Two such arrangements are known as blocked practice and random practice.
Usually, your training session will consist of several distinct movements. In a blocked practice session you spend several minutes repeating only one skill.

For example, you would spend 15 minutes on the straight armlock, 15 minutes on the straight kneelock and 15 minutes on a rear naked choke. You would not mix the order of these drills.
In a random practice session, you would rehearse those same three drills but in a mixed format, rotating each drill and never repeating the same movement twice in a row.
Blocked practice is more effective during the actual training session leading to greater practice results. You’ll be more successful and able to repeat those desired skills more efficiently while only focusing on one drill at a time.
However, performance of the skill is enhanced at a future date if random practice is chosen.
This phenomenon is known as the contextual interference effect. Basically, the need to mentally and physically recall each movement at random creates a deeper impact on the long-term memory. This deeper impact is more resilient and easily summoned in future attempts at performing the same skill.
This act of reacquiring skills from the long-term memory is known as retrieval practice.
Two other ways to arrange a training session is by using a constant practice or a varied practice.
A constant practice session involves only one variation of a chosen exercise or skill; for example, only teaching the armlock from guard as opposed to also teaching it from mount or crossside in one session.
A varied practice session involves teaching several variations of the same skill or exercise. 

Once again, research shows that initial learning is enhanced by the use of constant practice. However, varied practice is more beneficial to the performance of new skills and performing those skills at a later time. This is known as a greater learning result.
Basically, the use of varied practice prepares individuals to adapt more easily to similar skills that have not been pursued prior.
These four arrangements may appear to be the same on the surface. However the distinction between blocked/random practice and varied/constant practice is the use of variations.
Blocked/random practice addresses several skills within one training session, such as takedowns, armlocks and legocks, only changing the order of the skills.
Varied/constant practice addresses several variations of only one skill.

It is possible to further enhance the motor learning process by combining random and varied practice sessions.
This is accomplished by assigning several variations of one drill but in a random order.

For example, you would perform a single-leg takedown, kimura and armlock all within one training session, mixing the drills to ensure that the same variation is never performed twice in a row.
One more possible method to enhance motor learning is to add an additional non-related skill into the training session, such as inserting pull-ups between sets of varied armlocks.
By combining these different forms of practice your overall motor learning will be greater than if you were to utilize only one form of a practice arrangement.