Monday, January 16, 2012

Motor learning, part 1

Like many grapplers, I wonder what I should be doing to get better at jiu jitsu, especially in this nebulous baby blue belt realm. Training consistently is essential, but I've learned that after a certain point, it's not merely a matter of spending more time on the mats. I would probably enjoy doing jiu  jitsu twice a day, everyday,  because I truly love the sport. But unfortunately there is a limit to what my brain can process and what my body can recover from (currently, I am walking around with a limp and a busted nose and can't quite straighten my right yeah, every now and then I make myself take a day off). 

I talked to my instructor about this, and he non-judgmentally told me the following - "There comes a point in time when you stop simply waiting to roll and start focusing on retaining techniques." I am sometimes caught spacing out in my own little world during instruction...and then I need to see that move "one more time" or I need help from other students to replicate it.

Plenty of emphasis is placed on adjusting BJJ to one's body type. What works for someone tall and lanky is not the same as what works for someone short and stocky or someone thick and round. This is well accepted and I often play around with how to make moves work for my body type. But what I have not given much thought to is adjusting BJJ to my learning type.

I  have always had what my family calls "the drooling starebees" - the propensity to lose focus and basically gaze off in space. I did very well in school, so attention issues have not been much of a detriment in learning for me. However, most academic subjects don't rely heavily on visual memory, which is basically my scholastic Achilles heel. In school, my verbal memory could more than compensate.

But when I had to take neuroanatomy in grad school, I got a taste of what it means to struggle academically. I found myself  completely unable to picture anatomic structures in the brain - so I had to find another way to learn the material. Instead of retrieving an image of the cuadate nucleus, for example, I had to memorize that it was part of the floor of the anterior horn of the lateral ventricle. I couldn't picture it, but I could memorize a verbal description of where to find it.

The same is true for me in jiu jitsu. It is very difficult for me to watch a move and then replicate it based on visual memory. This is why I rarely watch jiu jitsu videos - it's too inefficient for me to learn this way. Luckily, I train at a gym where moves are well explained and details are emphasized. Otherwise, I'd really be lost.

To replicate a move during instruction, I've found that it helps me to verbally describe to myself what is being done ("The same side hand grips the sleeve.." etc). Then, after practice, I cement these words in my memory by writing out the details in my top secret jiu jitsu journal. But during a challenging roll or especially durinng a tournament, there's not enough time to walk myself through the steps. I have to move fast, before my opponent can counter what I am doing. So in order for me to use a move realistically, it has to first be committed to my muscle memory.

And that's the only way that I really learn jiu jitsu.

The principles of motor learning are familiar concepts for me, because I use them all the time at work. I put evidence-based thought into speech therapy targets, so my students can make the most progress possible. But, I'm now going to give the same thought  to my own jiu jitsu learning.

Smart scientist folks have studied how to most effectively forge muscle memory. This research can be used to more efficiently learn any motor skill, including jiu jitsu. Stay tuned to hear more...


  1. Hey! Great article. It's nice to see more therapist types involved in BJJ (I'm a paeds OT, myself). Just wanted to point out a bit of a misconception re: so-called "muscle memory". I know that's the term people use, but it's more neuromuscular facilitation.

    I recently wrote an article on drilling in BJJ (–-The-Art-of-Drilling) that you might find interesting.

    But what I didn't touch on, you do here (which I LOVE, btw!): Each student of ANYTHING needs to figure out how they learn best. And each teacher of ANYTHING needs to help each student figure that out as well. And then modify how they teach so that the students can learn better.

    Here's an simple little quiz to help you figure out what kind of learner you are:

    It can totally apply to jiu jitsu.

    Personally, I'm like you - I need to write everything down. I break down every video I watch, every seminar I go to. So while I learn visually to some degree, it's the verbal/orthographic portion that makes most sense to me. Then I can reall drill the technique and learn it kinesthetically which then enables me to teach it to others...verbally, visually, or kinesthetically!

    Full circle :D

  2. Thanks for sharing your article. It was very helpful. I especially like your suggestion about drilling your game plan