Sunday, January 29, 2012

Motor learning, part 2

So how do movements become so automated that we do them without a braincell of thought? Nerds will tell you that motor learning occurs when muscle movements are practiced to the extent that they become habituated and no longer require language mediation. What the nerds mean is that if we practice something enough, we will be able to do it without thinking. The motor learning that occurs is stable and long-lasting, so whatever our pursuit, it becomes "just like riding a bike."

I took violin lessons from kindergarten through 3rd grade and I gotta be honest with you - I sucked. My best friend was well on her way to becoming a child prodigy and there I was - practically tone deaf but slowly stringing along, oblivious to the cringed faces around me when I played. I had no future in music; even if I worked my ass off, the best I could have hoped for was to become a mediocre player. I took up swimming, found a new obsession, and never touched a violin again. No one complained. The world was a more harmonious place.

...until last month. At a talent show, a friend of mine gave an impressive violin performance, which reminded me of my musical years. I mentioned to him that I had played in elementary school, and he handed me his instrument and said "here, play something." Without thinking, I picked up his violin and gave an off-key, cringe-worthy rendition of Jingle Bells.

I hadn't touched a violin in over 20 years and I sucked more than ever - but somehow I remembered how to play. It was the worst Jingle Bells my friend had ever heard, but it was still, recognizably, Jingle Bells.

If you wonder how this is possible, nerds can tell you more about how this motor learning business works: movement memories are represented in the mind as mental structures known as schemas. These schemas become strengthened with repeated experiences, so they can be easily accessed in the future. The set of movements required to play Jingle Bells or armbar from guard are represented by different schemas in the mind. When motor learning occurs, behavior becomes consistent, flexible, and efficient.

Ok, I'm sold! Schema-tize me! I would like nothing more than to form mental blueprints of all my favorite BJJ moves so that I can sweep, armbar, and choke at will. Bad-ass ground fighting assassin, here I come!!

But the nerds won't let me have it. Forming motor schemas takes a while. I am told that it occurs in three stages:

1) cognitive stage - performance gains are rapid, inconsistent, and impermanent. You are in the process of acquiring the skill, but a ton of concentration is required. When I drilled X guard sweeps this week, I was absolutely in this stage. I could talk myself through it, but I was slow and clumsy.

2) associative stage - performance becomes more accurate and consistent, but still requires some thought. After drilling X guard for a while, I might use these sweeps against brand new white belts. However, I would still have to talk myself through them. If I tried them against people of a higher skill level, there is little chance they would work.

3) autonomous stage - little if any conscious thought is required. If I ever get to this point with X guard, it would become a go-to move for me in tournaments. X guard is not really applicable to street fights, but self-defense moves must fall under the autonomous stage in order to be viable. Under the adrenaline of attack, you can only count on your most practiced, automatic defenses to be at your disposal. I am not going to wrist lock someone who grabs my clothes, unless I have drilled it successfully 100 times in practice.

Fortunately, the nerds have come through for us. They have studied how to most efficiently arrive at this most holy autonomous stage. Stay tuned...and I promise not to play anymore violin.

RIP Helio Gracie
October 30, 1913 - January 29, 20009

In the words of my instructor Jake:

Three years ago, one of the greatest geniuses to ever live left us. Grandmaster Helio was an example for all of us to follow. An innovator. And a man of honor. The greatest way for all of us to keep him alive is to carry on the work that he began and share jiu-jitsu with those that need it. Not jiu-jitsu for points or medals, but jiu-jitsu as a lifestyle. As a way of empowering the weak and giving tools for anyone to feel safe wherever they are regardless of their size, gender, or age. Thank you for everything Professor. You are missed.
Grandmaster Helio Gracie
October 30, 1913 - January 29, 2009

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...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pink jiu jitsu

Several thoughts went through my head as I watched and rewatched this video:

1) I want one of these gis.

2) I think all women should learn jiu jitsu. It's the best way to defend yourself against a stronger male attacker, outside of carrying a handgun or learning to run really, really fast

3) If this is what gets women into the sport, I'm glad this program exists. Not all women are comfortable training with men off the bat. It's understandable. We don't want to get hurt and, let's face it, boys can be gross.

4) In my jiu jitsu utopia, I would have no shortage of men or women to train with. As it is now, I place a very high value on the few female training partners I have. See my previous post, lady grapplers, as I wax on about how nice it is to train with other women. It can be a competitive advantage and a source of camaraderie. But if I had to choose between only training with women or only training with men, there is no  doubt I would choose the latter.

My thought is this - If you are training to defend yourself against bigger, stronger attackers, it makes no sense to avoid training with men.

My favorite training partners are those that roll calmly and respectfully with me. They help me learn and they help me get better. I appreciate it when guys of my skill level don't try to over power me with strength, but instead try to beat me with technical jiu jitsu. These are the people I want to roll with 90% of the time. It took me a while to learn this lesson, but when I train with smaller girls, I try my best to tone down my hulk smash. In practice, I want to be technical, rather than bulldozing people with size and strength.

However.....this isn't entirely realistic. A drunk jack ass who grabs me in a bar is not going to be calm and technical about it.

I'll admit, sometimes I go home and bitch. "New guy so and so came at me like he was trying to kill me!" As I have talked about before, it can be hard to roll with brand new people (although now that I have put some time in, I'm secretly starting to like it). All they have is strength, adrenaline, and speed. I try to match it with technical (for a lowly blue belt) jiu jitsu.

And when jiu jitsu wins out, that's how I know that what I've been doing actually works. It's the big, strong new guys who try to kill you who keep it real.