Drillers make Killers! (And other common myths in our sport)
Ask any coach or practitioner of Jiu-jitsu why they drill, and most will inevitably offer some typical rationales like ‘muscle memory’, ‘perfecting technique’ and the ‘importance of repetition’. And given these intuitions and beliefs, it’s unsurprising how much training time is allocated to drilling in our sport.
The following case is certainly not intended to slander these understandings, at least certainly not from a student’s perspective. Drilling after all, seems intuitively necessary, and this consensus has long been fostered and supported by the industrialized education and learning systems that dominate our culture.
What this post does intend to offer, is a relatively contrarian perspective, and to provoke discussion and push back. While challenging this dominant paradigm in our sport is no easy endeavor, the case to be made for drilling becomes equally challenging, if one has even a superficial understanding of skill acquisition and motor learning research.
The concept of ‘muscle memory’ does not hold up well to scrutiny. And while it is easy just to dismiss muscle memory by stating that muscles don't have memories, I’d rather acknowledge that I do understand what people mean when using this term. That stable motor patterns, kinetic chains and biomechanical synergies, can be developed through repetitive movements and the myelination of neuronal pathways in the central & peripheral nervous systems. That, with enough repetition, movements and ‘techniques’ will become more efficient, stable and automatic. However, if one were to grant that this is what's going on when we drill, what follows is a couple of problems that need considered.
- Note: The case for a repetitive drilling approach might be stronger for certain sports and activities that are judged entirely on aesthetics or a technical standard. Jiu-Jitsu however, is a highly dynamic and complex sport and isn’t judged on either criteria.
First off; that even a compliant drilling partner will never be in the exact same position twice, how might creating an idealized motor sequence or pattern work? If it were truly a “muscle memorized movement”, what then happens when a training partner or opponent moves, resists, or more realistically becomes non-compliant.
Might this ingrained muscle memory movement be adapted and adjusted on the fly? If so, doesn’t this contradict the whole endeavor of trying to establish and develop a stable and idealized technique in the first place?
Certainly, there are frameworks and theories that support the idea of developing more ‘generalized motor patterns’ that are adaptable, malleable and allow for deviation. Schmidt’s GMP (Generalized Motor Programs) certainly provides wiggle room for the muscle memory advocates. However, even with said wiggle room, it is logically at odds with the drilling and refinement of an “idealized technique”.
It's worth noting that the validity of GMP’s has been increasingly challenged over the years, even by Schmidt himself, who acknowledged that the theory fails to adequately address how these motor programs are stored, initiated and modified in highly dynamic and complex Interactive sports (like jujitsu).
The muscle memory crowd cannot have it both ways. Rigid, idealized techniques are either learned and stored through rote repetition and executed when needed. Or more flexible generalized motor patterns are developed through drilling then adapted to ever changing environmental demands. If it is the latter (which is likely much closer to what is actually going on), then the case for ‘perfecting’ a technique through drilling begins to unravel further.
Again, muscle memory advocates can’t have it both ways. A technique can either be ‘perfected’ and automatic, or it allows for situationally specific adaptability. But it cannot be both.
The rationale for perfecting technique also doesn't pass the sniff test. It should be obvious that in a highly dynamic, fast paced and complex sport (like jujitsu), perfect and ideal memorized techniques will be rendered relatively useless, as both grapplers are in a constant state of flux. In fact, the whole concept of a perfectly repeatable technique was largely debunked many decades ago, in part by Soviet scientist Nikolai Bernstein who demonstrated that even elite and highly skilled performers who could perform consistent movement outcomes, never moved the exact same way twice.
One of the hallmarks of highly skilled performers, is their ability to achieve a movement goal via an abundance of creative and novel ways. This flexibility and creativity (often coined as ‘dexterity’) that underpins skilled movements is largely at odds with the endeavor and rationale for drilling ‘idealized techniques’ through rote repetition.
Techniques should not be confused with skills. Skill requires adaptation, creativity and successful context-specific problem solving.
Importance of ‘Repetition’.
Of course! We absolutely need the repetitions. There is no disagreement here. However, the context of the repetitions matter. Each repetition should be an explorative opportunity and a moment to ‘learn’ from the outcome of the effort. Learning to move skillfully is largely a process of trial and error. During passive rote repetition of a technique, the corrective intrinsic and internal feedback that is crucial for learning is significantly dampened. ‘Did it work’ or ‘did it not’ is really the best guide for learners to correct and refine their movements. More so than the typical external feedback from a coach or supervisor.
This is essentially the issue with supervised static and passive drilling. The rich corrective and authentic feedback are removed from the activity. This robs learners of the very information they need to facilitate their development.
Additionally, there is a very real opportunity cost associated with drilling techniques passively. The ‘driller’ isn’t only robbing themselves of the rich corrective feedback, they also rob the passive and compliant training partner a learning opportunity as they wait for their turn to drill.
Fortunately, the alternative to this method of rote repetition and passive drilling is easy and requires no reinvention of the wheel. Neither is it a revolutionary new concept. In fact, most gyms and training environments already employ it. It is simply live situational goal-orientated sparring. It’s just employing the unscripted resistance of a non-compliant training partner. It is calibrating movement and exploring solutions to game/sport-based problems.
From a skill acquisition perspective, passive drilling has very little value. Its necessity just isn’t supported by contemporary research. Again, most of us already allocate time to ‘live drilling’ (which I consider to be constrained sparring). This is great. Situational sparring is actionable at all experience levels too. The skill level and competence of the student shouldn’t matter. These sparring activities can be scaled to meet the learner where they are and at the appropriate challenge point. And when designed properly, information rich practice activities can help tease out all techniques and strategies required to develop a robust and adaptable skill set over time.
Finally, scaled, and constrained live sparring games are so much more fun and engaging than boring repetitive drilling. So go ahead. Ditch the drills! They ain’t doing much for your game anyway!
The other common myths (in title) I’ll address another time. One turd in the punchbowl was enough today. But there are strong cases to be made against; ‘Fundamentals’ being a prerequisite to get on with the sport. Highly detailed coach demonstrations. Isolated practice activities and warmup routines, and group lesson plans and curricula.
As I opened with. I very much invite pushback and rebuttals. Insults are also acceptable. I only ask that you spare me the strawmen, what-aboutisms and personal anecdotes. Come back at me with science please.
Much love, learn how to learn, find your own style and thrive at Jiu-Jitsu.
I understand it’s important to support my perspective with evidence and science. For anyone who has ever questioned the value of one-sided passive drilling, I have included a bunch of resources and links below, pertinent to skill acquisition. Thank you to all that lead and do the heavy lifting in the sports science space. I am happy to contribute to bringing awareness and sharing the research within my community.
- Representative Learning (practice) Design.
- The myth of muscle memory
- The myth of the one correct technique
- Blocked vs random practice
- Variability of practice
- Attention, intention and calibration
- Repetition without repetition
- Perception action coupling
- Transfer of motor skills
- Teaching vs learning
- Ecological dynamics for sport
- Self-Organization in skill acquisition
- Internal vs external focus of attention
- The opportunity costs of static drilling
- The body has little interest in what the coach has to say
- Prescriptive vs non-prescriptive instruction