You Learn Even on the Bad Days

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is tough -- physically, mentally, emotionally. Most people quit, and those that don’t can still spend years feeling clueless.

If you feel that way, I have good news for you: You’re learning even on those days where nothing seems to go right and you mess up every move you try. We learn a lot from frustrating failures, even when we don’t realize we are. Our brain is chewing on problems, often outside of our awareness, until one day when we have an “a ha!” moment, seemingly out of nowhere.

To explain this, let’s talk about your brain and how it learns new skills.

First, let me introduce you to two terms: procedural learning and implicit learning. Procedural learning is “repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity.” Similarly, implicit learning is “the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned.”

The opposite is explicit learning, where each detail is clearly defined and explained to you. In BJJ, this is when teachers demonstrate step-by-step techniques and explain what they are doing. This is a necessary part of learning too, but it’s not the whole picture.

You need to develop traits like timing, awareness, intuition, instinct, and cunning. Those are hard to teach explicitly. They just take time and experience. A teacher can try to share his or her insights into them, or create games and drills that help develop them, but most of the learning is up to how much time you spend getting tossed around on the mats.

Motor learning and sports science has what’s called the “model of the desired future” or the “future model.” The future model is your brain’s way of trying to match up what is happening now with what is likely to happen in future. It constantly updates predictions based on where you are in space, the people, objects and obstacles around you, in what directions and how quickly you and everything else are moving, and how you need to act to achieve your goals. This is all automatic.

When you first start learning a new activity or sport, your brain gets to work trying to match your previous experience up to future predictions. Through trial and error, it sees how accurate its predictions were. Successes show it was right, and failures mean it needs to improve its predictions. Those failures are especially important because they show you where you have the most opportunities to improve.

The future model does most of its work below the level of consciousness. It’s about swinging at fast balls, dodging linebackers, and hitting a sweep at just the right moment. It’s about action that happens too fast for reason to justify. Its job is to make you take correct actions without hesitation. When people talk about the “flow state,” where you are acting smoothly without thinking about it, that is when the future model is at work.

All this science-y talk is to say that when you are practicing a complex activity like BJJ, much of the learning happens outside conscious awareness, especially during live training like sparring. We give this process names like “building muscle memory,” but muscles cannot remember anything. It’s all in your brain, but not every part of your brain works in words and autobiographical memories. You may not be able to explain it and you may not even know it’s happening, but as long as you put in focused practice, you are learning on one level or another.

Try imagining this:

You’re a demigod flying around over an expansive ocean. Your power is to pour endless amounts of dirt from the sky. (Awesome power, right?)

You want to create islands, so you start dumping dirt into the water. It just sinks down and you don’t get an island. The water is too deep and dark and you don’t know how far down the ocean floor is.

But you are a patient demigod, so you keep flying around, pouring dirt into the water, confident your efforts will be rewarded.

One fateful day, a little mound of dirt breaks the surface. You’ve got the start of your first island. This one grows quickly and it gives you hope.

Soon more islands pop up elsewhere. They expand into each other and form connections.

Before long, your map has expanded to have large continents and you have even started forming mountain ranges.

You still have more ocean to fill and you always will (did I mention the ocean is infinite in all directions?) but now you have firm land to stand and build on.

This concept of “filling in the ocean” is one I have used for years to view the long commitments that you need to make to improving at BJJ. Each day you go train, you are pouring another bucket of sand into the ocean. You cannot be sure when or how you will receive the fruits of your labors, but persistence and patience will pay off in the end.