Learning Brazilian jiu jitsu has been the greatest challenge of my life. It took me 14 years to earn my black belt and I’ve devoted the last six years to teaching others this wonderful martial art.
Yet, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Few other martial arts present the complexity required for mastery like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Students must be proficient while standing and on the ground, attacking and defending, with submissions and escapes, on top and on bottom. Each new position has dozens of technical possibilities.
So it’s no wonder learning and improvement in this martial art can be difficult, slow and frustrating.
Beyond the technical aspect of learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or any combat art, the additional element of sparring creates a dimension of complexity. Many students can demonstrate perfect movement and control only to watch it all fall apart during intense sparring.
I learned this first hand watching many of my students display excellent technical proficiency but struggle to employ basic skills against tough competition.
Watching this struggle led me to a question. Were my teaching methods achieving the results I wanted?
The answer was no, and the effort to bridge this gap opened the path to a new way of structuring our jiu jitsu classes at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore.
A Way Emerges
I discovered this new method with a class called “Submission Friday.” I wanted to create a fun day, as a reward for all the hard training of the week.
I focused on submissions and how to get into them. I linked everything together in a series of sequences that transitioned through many different positions.
The techniques were simple: arm drag, arm bar, cross choke, collar choke from the back, kimura. They were techniques that most everyone already knew, even the white belts.
I kept explanation to a minimum. I tried not to demonstrate. I listed the technique sequence, to a look of surprised faces, and asked them to work through them for the next 45 minutes. This was something completely new for them. They were used to instruction and demonstration and imitating movements they were shown.
To my surprise, the “teaching” — though I did much less of it — was more effective than any other way I had tried.
I was astounded by the results. Class looked almost the exact opposite of what I had grown used to seeing.
Normally, we would focus on a block of technique, go over main points in detail. Students would progress in their execution and by the end of drilling, would look really good performing the move. Then many of them would not be able to duplicate that ability in sparring.
On that first Submission Friday, the opposite happened. Students looked somewhat awkward and clunky in drilling technique, but in sparring they performed significantly better. They also had a lot more fun.
Not only that, but each week they got better and better. The learning transferred to all aspects of jiu jitsu, not just one position.
An older and less technical blue belt actually caught one of the competitive blue belts in one of the submissions we had been practicing. This almost never happened. Both of them had a somewhat stunned look on their faces.
I didn’t understand exactly why my Submission Friday class was producing such good results, but it was obvious that it was.
Then, I researched the topic of learning extensively and I figured out what was going on.
I discovered four scientific strategies of effective learning and coaching. They are:
Four Keys to Successful Learning
• Have students try to solve problems before showing them how.
• Mix up practice with different techniques instead of concentrating on a block of related material.
• Space out the frequency of material so students have time outside of the dojo to absorb new information.
• Force students to recall earlier instruction and use frequent low-stakes testing to reinforce it.
These four key points of overall learning are covered by Peter Brown in his book Make It Stick, The Science of Successful Learning.
The book lays out a program counter to most of the ways that jiu jitsu is taught in schools throughout the world. It eschews methods like easy learning, expert demonstrations, and high-volume repetition and drilling of techniques.
“The uncomfortable reality is this,” Brown writes, “the most effective learning strategies do not feel productive, whereas the less effective strategies we often favor create illusions of mastery... Mastery requires understanding of the concepts behind a (subject), connecting them to what you already know and elaborating on them in your own (way). For memory to be durable, you need to periodically practice retrieving it.”
Those Friday classes were a major shift in the way that I taught my classes.
I had learned in a traditional method. Each day, the instructor would demonstrate a new set of techniques for us to drill. Then we would spar. This method seemed to work fine for me, but many students struggled.
I started questioning its effectiveness when I started teaching myself. I would show things I thought were simple only to be met with confusion from students.
I began to question expert demonstrations in teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when I discovered the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, a scientist and martial artist who opened the first Judo dojo in Paris in 1935. Through him, I started thinking about new ways to approach delivering techniques to students.
All of this came together in the Submission Friday class. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this one class encompassed all four key learning strategies at once.
The results were incredible.
I felt like I was working less, but the students were gaining more. That is one of the great paradoxes of learning.
“The best way to make learning stick is to focus less on getting knowledge into the brain and more on getting it out,” Brown writes. “This is because we learn best by trying to retrieve an answer and this holds true even before we have been taught what the answer is. The struggle to figure it out opens the mind to gaps in our knowledge and helps to embed new learning, connecting it to what we already know, and making it easier to get hold of again when we need it later.”
Mixing It Up
In those Submission Friday classes, I had stumbled across a process called interleaving.
Interleaving is basically mixing skills up and teaching in a more random way than using specific, detailed blocks of information.
“Spaced or interleaved practice can be arduous and the resulting performance can be ragged. It feels less productive than massed practice, where the gains are immediately evident but the rapid loss of knowledge that follows is not,” Brown writes.
“Arguably, interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deeper and more durable learning.”
The theory is that mixing up skills and focusing on a big picture -- instead of concentrating in on fine details -- lead to a deeper understanding of the material. This was definitely my experience with teaching in this way.
Some research studies have found that interleaving often outperforms blocking by 25 percent in the short term and 75 percent in the long term. That is an incredible difference.
And it explains why an older recreational blue belt in jiu jitsu, who had been attending Friday classes, could submit a much tougher and younger competition athlete who had not. The older student was starting to see a more complex picture leading to quicker reaction time and effective application of technique.
Forcing Recall and Testing — Randori
Sparring (randori in Japanese) is the most immediate and decisive test in the dojo.
The difference between technical and practical learning manifests itself most readily at this time. Students now need to put what they know to work against resisting opponents in adverse circumstances. This training is the hallmark of true combat arts. Whether it is boxing, muay thai, wrestling, jiu jitsu, or mixed martial arts, all legitimate and effective arts engage in sparring.
The practice has been around for thousand of years, but its standardization is attributed to Judo founder Jigoro Kano.
“To practice randori is to investigate the complex, mental-physical relations existing between contestants…The powers of attention and observation, imagination, of reasoning and judgment are naturally heightened, and these are useful attributes in daily life as well as in the dojo,” Kano writes in his book Kodokan Judo.
The main observation that led me to change my teaching style and start following the four scientific principles of successful learning in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the failure of block learning in randori.
Students who had been prepped with block learning seemed less certain and decisive when faced with resistance and a moving opponent. Their learning seemed shallow, with less connections, and easier to knock loose.
Brown writes that repetition and “massed (block) practice (like cramming or single-minded repetition of a new skill) are the more commonly used strategies, but are less effective than people believe.”
Back when I assessed the performance goals of my teaching, I concluded that I was falling short. I like to tell my students that “there are no bad students, only bad teachers.” When I took this advice to heart, critiqued myself, and made adjustments, new and wonderful things started happening.
“When students are always ‘successful,’ they limit their understanding of the concept to the isolated practice and cannot develop the broader understanding needed to apply the skill in other situations,” writes Angela Singer in an article on the Mentoring Minds blog about interleaving learning.
Once I started incorporating interleaving learning into my teaching style, the students’ ability and creativity took off.
Sparring became a place where skills could shine.
Spacing Out Practice — Sharing Less Information
Once I switched from the traditional way of running a jiu jitsu class — introduction to a technique, followed by a detailed breakdown of the technique, which is then followed by sparring — I still had to address problems in technical application.
As much as I would like to change this protocol, I realized there was no way around block learning in jiu jitsu.
Block learning can be characterized as easy learning. According to Brown, the information embeds in short-term memory and then quickly disappears.
Two examples remind me of exactly this phenomenon.
One day a talented purple belt told me that he had watched a video online. He proclaimed the technique he saw a “game changer.” He wanted to use it during sparring before he showed it to me. After class, I asked him how well his “game changer” had worked.
“Not at all,” he said. Not even against white belts.
We had a good laugh about that.
More recently, I worked individually with a good blue belt. We focused on countering underhook escapes from side control. I showed him a technique that I had seen used by Marcelo Garcia, one of the greatest jiu jitsu competitors of all time.
My student really liked the technique and applied it with precision.
A week later, I got to train with him and noticed he was not blocking the underhook at all. I instructed him over and over to block the underhook. We took a break and I showed him the technique he had just “learned” last week. He had already forgotten it. In the past, I would have felt critical of the student.
Now, I realized that I had presented him with information that was not relevant to his jiu jitsu. I gave it to him in an easy way and he had forgotten it.
These two examples show the illusion of easy learning.
Now, I try to use block learning less frequently. I space out the timing of information and I challenge students to recall what they’ve learned before and to find a solution on their own. Then, I show them my ideas for how to fix their technical troubles.
In Make It Stick, Brown says that working in this way helps the brain to knit together solutions in the long-term. He writes that the ability to distill key ideas, organize them in your mind, and relate them to what you already know is called “structure building.” This skill contributes to “concept learning and complex mastery.”
Brown uses the analogy that the mind is like a forest. The more one goes into the forest to retrieve information, the better he is able to create a path to that information.
The effort will really “make it stick.”
Putting It All Together
Learning never ends.
In the quest for “maximum efficiency and minimal effort” in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there are always new discoveries to be made.
This is also true for instructors.
Now, each of my classes has become an experiment in how best to stimulate learning, recall, application and long-term memory.
At Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore, we try to mix up our objectives, use problem solving and forced recall and, of course, frequent testing in the form of randori.
We practice in big arcs of techniques and transitions — takedowns, passes, escapes, sweeps and submissions — to help the brain make connections and fill in knowledge gaps.
Students are constantly challenged to recall lessons and try techniques without first being given the answer.
Since changing my teaching to using these learning strategies, I’ve seen significant improvements in my students. Mostly notably, they are all able to spar better and feel comfortable on the mat much sooner.
They also enjoy class more.
Focusing on the four scientific strategies for learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has helped them progress more toward mastery rather than short-term fluency.
And maybe one day they will earn black belts, too.
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
John David Emmett is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an interest in movement and the Feldenkrais method. He teaches at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.