Your Drills Should Be Uglier” states the title of Marshal D. Carper’s recent article in Jiu-Jitsu Magazine, and I agree.

Marshal teamed up with Trevor Ragan of TrainUgly.com to apply modern research into motor skill development and skill acquisition from other sports to our art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Give it a read if you haven’t already.

 
Now let’s talk about ugly practice. In studying the fields of motor learning and sports training, you run into common themes:

  • Create a rich sensory environment that pushes the student up to the edge of their ability.
  • Students learn best through trial and error that allows for self-correction and timely coaching cues.
  • Small failures or confusions may be frustrating in the short term, but they teach valuable lessons.
  • Meaningful practice requires full focus on the present moment.

You may recognize many of these concepts from a few years back when I reviewed The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. His follow-up work, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, condensed his thesis into chewy self-help nuggets. Most of his tips are good, though a few raise a skeptical eyebrow, especially those that hold up myelin as a holy grail. (Read my review of The Talent Code if you want my criticisms.) But overall it’s full of good ideas.

In Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, the author talks about block versus random practice, the same topic Marshal and Trevor cover in their JJM article. I will review How We Learn soon, but its explanation of block and random practice was my favorite section, so let’s talk about it now.

Carey gives the example of women learning badminton serves. The women were split into two groups to practice three serves–short, medium and long. One group practiced each serve 20 times before moving to the next type (block practice). The other group practiced by performing serves called out by the researcher, but still performed the same total number of each serve (random practice).

The initial results were what you might expect: when tested shortly after practice, the women who did block practice performed better. This would be a terrible story for proving my point if it ended there. It doesn’t, of course.

When tested again later, once the initial practice had a chance to wear off, the random practice group performed better, retaining their skills.

Many more studies have shown this same pattern: block practice gives the illusion of faster improvement in the short term, but skills gained through random practice last longer.

The explanation is that block practice quickly devolves into rote repetitions that fail to develop the other skills needed for spontaneous performance. Block practice becomes “practicing to be better at practice” or simply “practicing for practice.”

One interesting quirk to know is that, per Carey’s book, when surveyed on which type of practice they preferred, people choose block practice. They like block practice because it’s less confusing and they can see a clear improvement from the first rep to the last. Unfortunately for them, the brain prioritizes learning how to deal with the problems caused by random practice. That sense of frustration is good for driving improvement, but not necessarily for going home full of self-satisfaction.

 
So how do you incorporate random practice into your training?

The good news is that “random” practice is baked right into BJJ with our daily sparring. We also love our “king of the mat” games and positional sparring. Matt Thornton has explained this as aliveness in martial arts for a long time now, and his organization Straight Blast Gym has a wealth of smart coaching/training methods that stem from this understanding of what makes good or bad practice.

The downside of using only sparring as our random practice method is that it can be difficult to get in enough “reps” of a technique, especially beginners who can’t dictate the positions of the match very well.

For those familiar with The Talent Code‘s chapter on soccer, this would be like trying to learning ball handling and passing skills only by playing full games. Yes, you may learn it eventually, but you also spend a lot of time waiting for the ball to make it to you. But games or drills that speed up the time between reps and put players’ feet in contact with the ball more often can do a better, faster job.

Try this at your next open mat:

  • Pick three or so related techniques you want to learn. Perform the techniques a few times to make sure you’re doing them right.
  • Now have your training partner call out any of the techniques at random. Perform the rep and reset back to the starting position. Do this for reps or for time.
  • Your partner doesn’t even need to call out anything if you’re working on a main technique and counters to its counters–they just need to do the counter (e.g. cross knee guard pass, cross knee to backstep, cross knee to long step).

This can be a great warm-up before free-for-all guard passing games or sparring. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!

My next post on this topic will go over games you can run as a BJJ coach to incorporate more random practice into your classes.

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