As I’ve said repeatedly, this journal is a reflection of my personal interests. If there hasn’t been much new material posted, it’s because I’m not working on new techniques. Rather, I’m returning to “old” stuff and working on it again, a process I started months ago.
I’ve also been working on aspects more fundamental than revisiting techniques: the training methods themselves. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to train. I want to make the most out of the time I spend on the mats.
In a previous article, I talked about how to get the most out of drilling. But drilling will only get you so far. There is still a gulf between these static repetitions and using these moves in sparring. Making this connection, being able to get techniques in motion, can be one of the biggest problems faced in learning, especially in the beginner and intermediate levels.
Most leave it up to mat time, experience and determination to solve this. Keep showing up, drill and spar enough and it’ll sort out. That’s as it should be.
But is there an easier, smoother way to do this? Can you engineer and control this process? Make it less mysterious? Can you ease students into it without lowering standards of performance?
I think so. That’s what you’ll about read below.
But before we get into it, there are a few terms and ideas I want to review, since they’re important to understanding this topic.
Whether or not you use (or even like) the neologism coined by Matt Thornton, the concept of aliveness is one of the most important aspect of learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or any combat sports. And while I’m not a fan of making up new words by adding “-ness” to them, I am willing to forgive it in this instance since the term is very useful for my purposes.
Aliveness tends to be ham-fistedly summed up as “resistance” or “sparring”, but that’s a crude way to look at it. It is more accurately defined as “realistic timing, energy and motion that does not follow a set pattern.” For deeper descriptions and discussions of the topic, you can read What is Aliveness? and Why Aliveness? or watch any number of videos, all by Matt Thornton of the Straight Blast Gym.
If you’re already doing an “alive” art like BJJ, it’s easy to take aliveness for granted. It’s built right in. You simply show up at class, follow directions, spar and away you go. Nothing wrong with that.
Where it becomes valuable to understand aliveness is when you want to explore the learning process and refine or improve your training methods. That’s what we’re doing here, so take the time let the idea sink in. Once you grasp the roles timing, energy and motion play in learning, they open up a lot of possibilities for creating new drills and coaching methods.
Straight Blast Gym has a few other terms and concepts I’ll borrow. Again, they’re not new inventions, but they never claimed to be. If you find yourself thinking “But that’s what we do already”, you’re probably right. It just happens that SBG used the clearest terminology to describe this process, so I’m going to stick with it for ease of description.
The I-Method is a way of teaching material in stages, each of which is conveniently an “I” word: Introduction, Isolation and Integration. They break down as follows:
Teach the technique and explain how it works. Repetitions without resistance until the students understand the move and can do it smoothly.
Have the students do live drills that focus on the material they just learned and begin adding aliveness. Work the student up through several levels of difficulty so he grasps how to apply the move against a resisting opponent.
The students are free to spar and try whatever they want (within the rules) but with the encouragement to incorporate the skills they just learned.
Of these three stages, the one most relevant to our interests (and my favorite) is Isolation. This is what fills the gap between drilling and sparring. “Reps with resistance” as some call it.
Isolation training is a simple idea, which is both good and bad.
The bad is that it’s easy to overlook, undervalue or take for granted. Like how basic techniques get blown off because there’s “not a lot to it”, this concept can get ignored. You may need to take a serious look and put it to use before you appreciate it.
The good is that with its simplicity comes versatility, making it a very powerful learning and coaching tool. With flexible thinking and creativity, you can apply it to almost anything: techniques, positions, transitions, submissions, attributes, strategies and concepts.
Once you’ve got a firm handle on it, you’ll likely find you can use the isolation stage to create drills that focus on skills that are otherwise difficult to develop. You’re able to handpick the material you want to train and quickly come up with a way to drill it against resistance.
To get the most out of this though, it helps to have several more concepts in mind.
Inherent to the I-Method is the concept of progressive resistance. Each stage naturally builds up into the next. The training partner goes from supplying little more than a warm body to offering limited amounts of resistance and ultimately all-out sparring. This can be divided into further stages of resistance.
This concept of gradual increases can also be applied to the other factors of learning and training, such as complexity, difficulty, athleticism, etc. You want to start low on the scale and ramp up, which each stage building nicely into the next.
Before we get to exploring how isolation training and progressive resistance go together, I want to first illustrate a few points.
I have found it useful to visualize the learning process as a line graph, and so I’ve plotted several below. Keep in mind that these are rough approximations but they’ll give you the general idea.
This first graph gives an imagined ideal for how training should run.
The training starts at a zero of complexity, resistance, difficulty, etc. then rises at a steady pace. It starts simple and easy then keeps getting more and more demanding. The dashed lines are meant to show the potential for variation, up and down.
The problem with ideals is how often they don’t translate to the real world. So while this is a useful way to think about teaching, don’t get too hung up on seeking “the perfect” way. Keep it in mind, use it as a guide line, milk it for all its worth, but don’t stress out over it.
With the “ideal” as our frame of reference, we can now look at how BJJ is normally taught.
Training starts low but quickly advances into high levels of resistance. This steep cliff face is usually what makes or breaks beginners, where they have to suffer through it or quit. While it is a ruthless enforcer of natural selection, I blame this for the high attrition rates in BJJ.
There’s an argument to be made in favor of this. Many instructors and students take pride in how hard BJJ is, how it’s not for everyone. It’s a trial by fire and only the best and the toughest stick around. To do it any other way seems like a cop out, especially if you paid your dues this way. Why should anyone else have it easier? We don’t want to lower our standards.
The counter-argument is that BJJ should be for everyone. How is it supposed to work for the smaller, weaker man (like we always hear advertised) if he’s being crushed and driven away by the rougher guys at class? Is “pride” really worth a gym that limps along with just a couple “tough guys” instead of a large student body of normal men and women? But how do you have it so each type of student can train together?
With any luck, intelligent use of isolation drilling, progressive resistance and gradual increasing difficulty can create a training environment where the competitor and the everyman can learn and improve alongside each other.
Here we fill the space between drilling and sparring with fleshed out isolation training. This is where we give the students a chance to try what they’re learning against a moving person and run them up through several levels of difficulty and resistance before they get to sparring. They can work on their coordination and timing and get a feel for the move before moving to a higher level.
The “steps” up through the isolation stage show how you can use a series of drills (or the same drill in multiple ways) to build up to sparring.
For example, you can simply make them start from the position you’re learning that day and tell them to start at 25%, with the person doing the moves told they can only really try what they learned that day while the training partner moves around but pretty much lets them do the moves. Then tell the training partner to go up to 50% and not let them get it as easily. Then bump up to 75% and get them both really fighting for it. Then finish out at 100%.
The success-to-fail ratio I go by is 7 out of 10, meaning the person should be able to get the move around 7 times out of 10 during the easier learning stages of isolation training. Lower and it’s too easy; higher and it’s too hard. The 7/10 ratio means they’re having enough success to get a feel for the move but still getting realistic resistance (for the stage of learning). If you see someone only getting a move only 2 or 3 times, you should probably lower the resistance or difficulty until they get it, then ramp up once they get it.
Simplicity vs Complexity
The slope of these graphs is affected by many factors — more than I’ll try to pin down right now. Simply think of all of the things that can make training easier or harder.
Two related factors can sum up a lot of variables: simplicity and complexity. These are opposite ends of the same stick (to steal another Thorntonism). You can account for a wide range of skill levels by creating drills of varying levels of simplicity or complexity.
For example, a class full of beginners should probably be kept towards the simple end of the spectrum, not just in what they learn but in the types of drills they do. They’ll most likely lack the sensitivity to go at a lower level of resistance and so (picture the graph here) the difficulty rises rapidly. You can get a handle on this and push the graph back down by limiting them to simpler isolation drills. This way you can worry less about them going ballistic since they’re not allowed to go off into strange or awkward situations (which is when many injuries occur) and their training partner can keep learning.
Specificity and Scope
People (especially beginners) sometimes have trouble sticking to the isolation drill. They get to fighting and things get crazy and they just keep going. They might get a good position or almost have a submission and not want to give it up. Likewise, someone (often a higher belt) may “fail” at their goal for the drill but keep fighting out of pride, not wanting to “lose” to a lower belt. In any case, they’re missing the point.
This isn’t sparring yet so you can keep them on a leash. Stress the purpose of the drill and the specific positions or skills it is developing so they know what they’re working on. When they start getting into strange positions, have them ask themselves “Is this within the scope of the drill?” Restart if it’s not.
Don’t be afraid to reset the position repeatedly. “Winning” and “losing” isn’t a big deal and don’t give them time to mope or gloat. Just restart and go again and again.
That said, there are times when something unexpected may happen that’s worth letting run out. It may be a new position you hadn’t thought that shows potential. It may be that someone put themselves in a bad spot and you want them to suffer a bit so they know to not do that again. Use your judgment.
Since I became enamored with making graphs, I drew up ones for a few more scenarios.
Traditional Martial Arts
Stances, solo repetitions, forms and katas, one and two-step sparring, and highly restricted point sparring. While these can get quite complex and difficult, they don’t involve realistic amounts of resistance so they don’t reach the same level.
Flow (or slow or tempo) rolling is when both training partners agree to spar at a lower intensity. They usually don’t hold on to any one positions for long, feed each other sweeps, hang out in funky positions, release submissions, etc. The idea is (as the name implies) to learn to flow, relax and explore new things. It can be a useful training tool, since it makes for a good warm-up and it’s a safe way to roll when injured. But taken to excess it can lead to sloppy technique and bad habits.
This graph illustrates what I consider the biggest problem with how self-instruction is done in clubs and garages. It’s usually a quick and sloppy show-and-tell of techniques from books, DVDs, the internet, etc. then a ton of sparring. While this can be quite athletic and gives you enough experience to deal with someone who knows nothing, it skips most of the learning process.
That’s it for now. Let me know how you’re able to apply this to your training and teaching.