Drilling with Chaos

Drilling with Chaos

The traditional approaches to teaching athletes are wrong.

Some time ago, I came across the field of motor learning (likely due to long discussions of technique and theory with Matt Kirtley), which eventually to discovering and interviewing one of the up and coming advocates of motor learning: Trevor Ragan. You can read Ragan’s taste in motor learning in my first interview with him for Jiu-Jitsu Magazine.

Folks like Ragan, and his cohort of coaches at all levels of sport (including the Olympics), argue that the classic approaches to training athletes is inefficient and lacks long-term efficacy. The latest in motor learning theory argues that block drilling—doing the same technique over and over—has limited returns because the practice environment and format is extremely artificial relative to the competition athletes are training for.

Okay, in English, right?

Not to put words in Ragan’s mouth, but someone like him would argue that shooting 50 foul shots in a row is not good practice. In a game, a basketball player never shoots 50 foul shots in a row. Instead, the player runs around the court for 10 minutes, gets fouled, and then has to take the foul shots with an arena full of people watching. On top of that, play will resume after the second shot.

The block drilling—do 50 repetitions of one technique—does not adequately prepare the athlete for the chaos of the real thing, but it looks good and it feels good. Unfortunately, once we understand how the technique should work, the returns on the repetition start to diminish if we do not scale up the chaos.

In order for us to become better instructors, both for our students and for ourselves as the ultimate masters of own training destiny, we need to introduce more game-like chaos into our training. In the average jiu-jitsu class, we drill moves against unresisting partners, and then we roll. I would argue that this methodology skips over the huge gradient between those two points and often leads to frustrated students.

This is what a gradual introduction of chaos will look like for a new technique:

  • Practice the technique on an unresisting partner
  • Practice the technique on different body types of unresisting partners
  • Practice the technique as a part of a trigger deal (explanation below)
  • Practice the technique against an opponent with gradual resistance (the uke gives you just enough resistance that you have to do the technique correctly but does not shut you down instantly)
  • Isolate the sparring position with a less skilled opponent (start in guard with a white for example)
  • Isolate the sparring position with a progressively more skilled opponent (ramp up the difficulty)
  • Apply the technique in live sparring against less skilled opponents
  • Apply the technique in live sparring against progressively more skilled opponents
  • Apply the technique in lower tiers of competition
  • Apply the technique in elite tiers of competition

Note: These last two points assume that your end-goal is competition. If it’s not, disregard.

That’s a hell of a gradient! Sometimes, following this model consistently when you are a jiu-jitsu instructor is a challenge, especially as people drift in and out of classes and are not locked into a practice schedule the way that athletes in traditional sports might be. However, we can still aspire to apply some of it, and we can encourage our students to use the model in their own training to make open mats even more productive.

Two of the easiest additions to make to your class as part of this model are trigger drills and isolate sparring.

Trigger drills are straightforward to set up: Pick two or three possible reactions in a position, and ask your partner to randomly give you one of those reactions. They are not actively resisting you in this drill, but they are forcing you to identify the correct move for the situation. As the idea of “game plans” and “systems” has grown in popularity, we have seen more of this thinking laid out in things like mind maps and flow charts. If my opponent puts his arm on my chest, I armbar. If he puts his hand on the mat, I Kimura. If he reaches back to my legs, I triangle. And so on into more advanced positions.

Isolation sparring is exactly what it sounds like. Start in the position you want to work on, and identify a clear point where that position ends so that you and your partner can reset. You and your partner can increase and decrease resistance with this drill, but the more important part of isolation sparring is that it puts you in immediate proximity to the techniques you want to improve. In classic class formats, if you work on back control all class but then start rolling from your knees or from standing, the chances of you getting to the position you need to practice are slim (or if you do, you have very little time left in the round to work on it). Isolation sparring puts you right there.

With the right intent and diligence, you can make chaos a more effective part of your training routine, but I have to warn you that chaos comes with an important theme: Failure. The point of this approach to training is to force you out of your comfort zone into situations that force you to think and to learn. In that process, you and your students will make mistakes and get things wrong. In many ways, that’s the point of the training, but if that mentality is not properly framed (especially for your students), the experience can be frustrating.

I hope this helps you get more out of your training, and I hope that it inspires you to take a fresh look at how you train.