What your Jiu Jitsu Coach doesn’t want you to know?: The Purposeful Practice Series Part 1

Apologies for the click bait above, I know its terrible and I feel dirty.

So, you have been training for a while, you are a regular at classes, you do the techniques/drills and assume you are getting a little bit better every time you step on the mat.  Its probably safe to say that most people doing Jiu jitsu expect this to be happening and this is what they pay for with gym fees.

As Jiu jitsu coaches we tend encourage the idea. Just turn up and you will get better. When you guys turn up and give us money, it allows us to continue doing the job we are passionate about and buy luxuries like food. Consistency and mat time are hugely important, but unfortunately they do not constitute the complete picture.

What we don’t want you to know is:

It is entirely possible to train for years and years without improving significantly.

Thanks to the popularity of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, it is now culturally accepted that the more you train, in your chosen discipline, the better you will be. The 10 000 hour rule popularised by Gladwell posits that if you amass 10 000 hours in any discipline then you will have reached the expert level. This 10 000 hour rule is so ubiquitous it even has a Macklemore song. The problem is that it is wrong on several levels.

Let’s suppose you picked up on learning Jiu jitsu from watching the UFC. Getting elbowed in the head is not your bag but Jiu jitsu looks fun.  You find a gym with a good reputation, buy a gi and watch an instructional on how to tie the belt, so it doesn’t look like a flappy dong.

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You attend the fundamentals program for a while and you eventually get to the point where you sort of know what is going on and can join in with the sparring classes. You still aren’t very good but your more experienced training partners will let you apply techniques if they are performed correctly and you get your first taste of what the sport should feel like.

You are still fuelled by that initial motivation that got you going in the first place and you keep putting in the hours. Learning something new is fun and you are engaged in the process. The training partners that helped you in the beginning now must try harder to stop you applying techniques and the new guys see you as one of the more experienced athletes. You understand the main positions, concepts and have internalised your go to techniques.

Eventually with more practice you get good enough that training is fun, you can apply your techniques automatically and you understand the food chain, you know which training partners you can dominate, hang with and which will smash you. You have reached a comfort level at which you can turn up for practice and just enjoy yourself.

This comfort level can be reached at any stage of competency, but once you have reached this level and your performance is automated – you have stopped improving. You are doing the same positions every round and a lot of the time this works for you, but some of the more experienced guys have noticed you can’t remove leg lassos or struggle with knee cuts, and they use this knowledge against you. But this only happens with the purple belts and above and nothing works against them anyway, so you don’t let it bother you.

Training is tough, its satisfying, you are well on your way to clocking up hundreds and thousands of hours, but you aren’t improving.

It is important to stress that this is not an indication that you have reached some sort of innate, insurmountable plateau in your abilities. Everything that has been observed in the science of expertise indicates that such immutable limits do not exist. It is always possible to keep going and improving, unfortunately its not always easy.

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For the past year I have been working on my guard retention which has been an area of weakness for me. It has been a brutal, ego crushing experience. The techniques are not as fun to drill as a bolo and I was murdered by everyone in the first few months. It still a work in progress but I am much better than I would have been had I simply played my automated, comfortable A game.

In the next few parts of this series we will look at how to specifically train with purpose in order to keep improving as an athlete. Remember improvement is always possible at any level, all it takes is attention, engagement and a willingness to make yourself do things that are uncomfortable….in a jiu jitsu context….not like weird stuff.

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