The Spaced Repetition Learning Technique

Over the last year, I have become obsessed with language learning and have been studying and reading about language learning science as much as possible. I’ve brushed up on my Portuguese, picked up quite a bit of Italian for our stay in Sardinia, and some basic Japanese for our current trip through Japan. I’m a jiu-jiteiro at heart though, so it wasn’t long before I started drawing parallels between learning a language and learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Learning jiu-jitsu is quite a bit like learning a language.

At first you build your basic vocabulary. These are the moves you picked up in fundamentals class: upa escapes, armbars from closed guard, cross choke from mount, etc. Then you start learning common phrases. In BJJ, this means learning common chains, like elbow knee escape into a scissor sweep into a cross choke. As you progress further, you start putting your own sentences together. They are clunky at first but you refine them as you use them in live situations, going back and forth with another speaker or with an opponent.

Finally, you become fluent.

Spaced repetition is a widely used memory technique that helps you keep what you've learned strong in your mind. This is why language learning apps like Duolingo or Memrise are so effective. The way it works is you review each word or phrase you've learned in spaced intervals. Initially it’s in very short succession, and then you do it again the next day. Once you internalize it, you will be able to go a long time without forgetting it.

So let’s go into a the grappling realm with this concept. Have you ever gone to a seminar where the instructor is really excited and decides to cram way too many techniques into a two hour period? You barely get to drill each technique for a minute or two before moving on to a new technique. The next day you are lucky if you remember one. Meanwhile, whenever schools decide to adopt a move of the week, you get a lot reps, which makes you much more likely to remember the technique in the long term.

We can also apply this idea to your personal training schedule as well. If you only train twice a week, you have to cope with long intervals between training sessions, making it much more difficult to retain moves. You always see these types of students stagnate and struggle to move up the ranks compared to students who are able to train more often, and this is one of the reasons why.

What I have taken away from learning languages and learning BJJ is that I need to try and refresh ideas and positions at least once a week. No matter what I am working on, I will pick a few rolls and work on certain things I don't use much on my game at the moment, like closed guard, de la Riva, or spider guard. This way when I come back to them they feel fresh, and I'm not a rusty mess getting passed left and right. Also, whenever I attend a seminar, I make sure to set up some drilling time to go over every move from the seminar a few times and get reps in. Otherwise, I am lucky if I retain even one of the moves.

Hopefully you can put spaced repetition into practice, whether you are picking up Portuguese or trying to finally add leg drags into your game. Th key is repetitions, in quick successions at the beginning and with greater intervals afterwards. Don't let yourself forget something you worked so hard to pick up.