It’s almost a curse word. It’s the worst part of class, next to warm-ups. You may wish you could skip it and get on to the fun stuff.
Yet drilling is a necessary and important aspect of learning, regardless of how loved it is. You’ve got to build muscle memory somehow.
The disdain for drilling likely comes from what it entails: repetition. To some, this might as well be a synonym for “boring”. And that’s what it is when you approach it as a chore, instead of a valuable tool for improving.
If you drill like a robot, you’ll no doubt find it dull. You’ve got to invest thought into the activity to truly benefit. While I can’t promise it’ll make drilling any more fun, I think I can give helpful advice on how to make it more meaningful.
These are the questions I ask myself when drilling to keep my mind active.
The hips are king. Practically every technique and skill in BJJ (or any sport or physical activity) is built around the hips. You can never go wrong by analyzing what your hips are doing.
You may be surprised to find how many moves come down to the hips. A collar choke or a guillotine may seem to be all in the arms, but the setups don’t work and real leverage doesn’t come until you know how and where to use your hips.
Is my hip movement smooth enough?
Is my hip placement correct?
Did I rotate my hips far enough?
Are my hips heavy enough?
Gross Motor Skills
Moving outwards from the core, you can look at the next largest elements of the technique: what are your limbs is doing?
Try paying attention to each limb individually, making sure it plays its role to the fullest. Look at them altogether and see if they’re working in sync. Tie this into the last point and see if and how each limb contributes to your hip movement.
What is my left arm doing? My right?
What is my left leg doing? My right?
Did I move each in the proper sequence?
Which limbs are moving my hips?
Posture and Grips
Closely related to your hips and limbs are your posture and grips. They are the other defining characteristics of a position and its techniques.
Make sure you’re starting in proper posture. Make sure you’re grabbing the right spots at the right times.
Am I in proper posture?
Are my neck, back and hips in proper alignment?
Should my back be straight or bent?
Where does each hand go?
Every technique is built on fundamental principles. Once you grasp the technique, you can try to reverse engineer it. What is the most basic reason it works? Use what you learned earlier by analyzing the hip and limb movement, etc. to reflect on this. Try to reduce it to its essence.
Look at the physics involved. Think of the technique in terms of patterns and flows of movements. Think of it in terms of space, weight, supports and levers.
Look at the anatomy involved. Why did you use each part of your body the way you did? Why did you manipulate his body like that?
Look at the strategy involved. What was the advantage of what you did? What was the disadvantage?
If the moves you’re learning form a series, look for unifying principles between them. How does this move relate to the last?
How does this sweep attack their base and posture?
How does this armlock compare to others ones?
Crossing their arm makes them extremely vulnerable.
A guard pass is when my hips pass the line of their hips.
With all of the major components of the technique down, it’s time to develop your attention to detail. Accuracy in seemingly minor details can make the difference between “okay” and “highly skilled”.
Refine your understanding of the technique. Make mental notes of the little things. Try to spot something you missed before. Discover nuances.
I should grip just above the elbow, but no higher or lower.
My posture is stronger if I turn my elbows in.
I actually make it harder if I escape my hips too far.
Do I like claw or pistol grip more for this?
Once you’ve got the mechanics down, and if you have time, try asking what if? and troubleshooting the technique.
It can be just as valuable to know how not to do a move. By “breaking” it and observing what happens, you can gain greater insight into the technique.
Try doing a repetition where you purposely leave out a step or don’t do it as well as you should have. Compare this with a properly done one.
What if there are several equally valid ways to do a move? Test each and see what you find.
What happens if I don’t rotate my hips enough?
What if I’m lazy with this leg?
What if I grip over here instead?
What if I do this first?
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Consciously try to improve each repetition. Make each one better than the last. Don’t be happy with a sloppy technique. Seek perfection.
This can take a lot of self-discipline. You’ve simply got to stick to it. It may not be the most exciting part of training, but it can be very rewarding, and I think you’ll find it’s worth it in the long run.
No amount of static drilling will make you good by itself. You’ll eventually reach a point where you won’t be benefiting as much as you could, and it’s time to move on.
The problem most people run here is having their beautiful technique falls out the window as soon as they spar, which is why my next piece will be on bridging the gap between drilling and sparring.
When i was “garage grappling” i knew that drilling was important, it was just dificult to stick to the program when my training partner just wanted to roll. Now I actually train BJJ, it is a part of class so I have no choice, and I actually like drilling, trying to get every tiny detail of a move into place, even if i already “know” the move. It just increases the percentage of it to make some minor adjustments to get it “right”
I recently had an interesting experience training “muscle memory.”
Basically I drilled some simple moves with my instructor in a private lesson. Boy, was that different from group drilling.
First, it was a lot faster paced. There were no breaks while the group drilling halted for the instructor to correct something or add something. I was on a timer and I was told to do as many of each drill as possible in the two minute period allocated to each drill, and to execute cleanly, but not perfectly. To focus on being in the 80% and not the 100% zone (where the move would work 8 times out of 10 against the average training dummy).
In group class I strive to do each drill as technically perfect as possible, but here the goal was to stay in the 80% zone despite fatigue and disorientation and boredom – to let the body take over and move on its own. At first I thought I could do better than 80%, at the end of most clock cycles I was happy to hit 40% of a technique and muscle through the rest.
It was amazing how training like this brought hidden bad habits to the surface. You’d think the repetitions would get better, but after a while my mind would let go and “bad habits” would just surface and I’d have a “d’oh” moment. Towards the end of training I didn’t even care that I’d recognized a bad habit, I just hit the next rep as best as I could.
Habit. That’s muscle memory. When you drill enough to have “good habits” even when you aren’t really paying attention or you are trying to pay attention but adrenalined out or gassed out, that’s muscle memory.
(Question to myself: why are bad habits – hardly trained as such – so hard to get rid of, and good habits so hard to ingrain, despite conscious effort and careful drilling?)
I agree with all the self-discipline necessary to adequately learn a move as a reference point. But I think that to ingrain muscle memory takes a different, “mindless” kind of drilling. I think we have all experienced that fatigued, I’m not making it happen, stage and don’t like it. That’s why drilling into the fatigue zone is so despised.
The little (intellectual) guy in charge isn’t in charge anymore, and the little (muscle memory) guy that takes over is resistant to learning. But unless you wear out the little professor, the little fighter won’t take over.
Having the instructor as my training partner helped a lot, compared to training with classmates. A good training dummy is highly underrated. If a move was screwed up, I knew it was purely my fault and not an unskilled training dummy. It I pulled off a move, it wasn’t because an unskilled training dummy was giving it to me that time. A skilled training dummy keeps up a consistent, dialed in resistance level and always positions correctly.
IT’S VERY, VERY HARD TO FIND ANYONE TO DRILL WITH YOU LIKE THIS. Most people think drilling is just figuring out the missing pieces in a particular technique, or doing enough so it feels a little smoother than it did at first. Drilling mind-numbing reps at mind-fatiguing speeds is something most of us don’t want to do.
But, IMHO, you can make progress one of two ways: (i) do a fun number of reps over many years, mixing up techniques and jumping around; or (ii) drill, drill, drill, in which case you’ll get better faster but people will avoid you at the academy (because you are SO boring to practice with).
My goal for the remainder of the year is to drill mount and side control escapes until I start doing them in my dreams.
I asked my instructor why he didn’t train me this way at first. He told me I would have stopped coming if he had, but this is one of the best ways to learn.
This is one of your best articles. A lot of moves are based on the same skills. E.G. Shrimping. So drilling these moves would help a lot of white belts.
What I also like to do is change the way I drill more complex moves. Sometimes I use lots of repetition, other times I mix it up like using a deck of cards. I like a lot of active drilling from situations, ther times I use deader movements when I’m confused or need more throught before more live drilling.
Now, after having said that throwing numbers (reps) at a technique is THE way to go, I have to backtrack and have to defer to Aesopian for emphasizing form in this article.
Last week during my private lesson, my coach had me throw numbers at techniques I had already drilled in the traditional manner – slow, careful, make sure you know what you were doing.
So it was refreshing to throw a lot of quick reps at these techniques and see how they worked under that sort of pressure. Quite frankly, I was pleased that I was pulling them off without thinking too hard about it.
But last night was different. My coach gave me some new techniques. These were also basic, simple techniques, but they were techniques I haven’t learned well yet, or were altogether new to me. So suddenly I was pretty lost and couldn’t throw reps at them the way I was doing last week. I wasn’t hitting them 80%, I wasn’t even doing them right.
What Aesopian said. Where are your hips? Which way are you escaping? Where are your grips? If this part of your body goes that way, should the other part of your body go this way?
I had to ask my instructor to kindly backtrack and go through each move in detail first, let me practice the moves very slowly and let me “describe” the move to myself so I would remember the steps. Otherwise I’d have nothing to drill with.
Then we gradually picked up the pace, then finally we turned the timer on and I threw numbers at the technique – but at a much reduced pace compared to last week. Oddly enough, a little cleaner, because the slower pace allowed my “conscious mind” to double check and correct on the fly (so that “conscious mind” can be helpful after all – too bad there’s only time for “habit” in a hard sparring match).
When I came home last night I re-read this article and I have to agree with Aesopian’s “learning outline” and defer to his basic approach. The steps Aesopian outlines are definitely the things I have to do in order to get a basic grasp of a technique before I can start throwing high, rapid numbers of repetitions at it in drilling.
In addition, Aesopian’s steps are what I’m going to need to constantly improve my techniques. It’s impossible to get all the fine points the first few classes that introduce new techniques. I have to keep revisiting new techniques (heck, all of them, since all of them are still new to me) and relearn them, force myself to look at them with fresh eyes each time – which Aesopian’s outline helps me to do.
Then I’m going to also have to make the jump between consciously directed techniques and instinctive execution.
BTW, my instructor said something funny. He said he is constantly amazed how I will screw up a simple technique, but then turn around and surprise him by executing, much better, a technique he considers more difficult. He also told me that most of his students “get” a move without breaking it down into as much detail and explanation as I seem to need, but that we all end up in the same place. It’s just a different way to learn, and makes me generally better at learning in private lessons than in group classes.
That, by the way, is one of the advantages of private lessons. Besides a good training dummy, you get customized pace and emphasis.
And now, so I don’t have to write another “oops” comment, I will admit that I am mindful of Aesopian’s final comment:
“The problem most people run here is having their beautiful technique falls out the window as soon as they spar, which is why my next piece will be on bridging the gap between drilling and sparring.”
Yes. I’ve never been able to apply a technique I drill that day to a subsequent roll – except where the instructor is leaving the door open for me. Partly because my fellow students in group classes are attentive to those moves and shut them down – but that’s no excuse, because I’ve had class drills put off AGAINST me in sparring sessions that follow. I think the main problem is my mental attitude….
We started doing a lot of specific sparring late last year (i.e., guard v.s. guard pass, rear mount v.s. rear mount escape, etc.). It was a great addition. Unfortunately, that apparently meant that the drills had to go (classes now tend to go: warm-up, instruction, specific sparring, free sparring).
Ironically, the one drill that we still do are a few sets of judo throws and single leg takedowns. Personally, I’ll take drills over “warm-ups” anyday …
I actually like drilling, and get really bored with people who just want to roll all the time, making the same mistakes again and again. The only bit of class I *hate* is the sort of non-specific warmups where you do endless pushups and squats for no reason. In every ‘serious’ class I’ve been to – London Shootfighters, Gracie Barra combat team – warming up’s just about doing a couple of rounds of shots, shrimping, forward rolls and the like, not trying to give you a workout. I can do pressups on my own time.
I am a beginner myself and for the most part I have to say I like drilling. My biggest beef with the instruction I am receiving is that I am not getting enough chance to repeat any skill or technique that I learn to the point where I can comfortably feel like I have it “down”. I am considering remedying that problem with some private instruction now that my girlfriend also wants to learn. I will get to go over all the basics again and really start getting some of those techniques down. Anyways, this is a great site Aesop! Most of the technique is over my head, but I find it interesting to at least know what I am seeing when I get the chance to see other people roll and compete.