Why Jiu Jitsu Practice Is Not Rocket Science

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Learning The Scientific Way
Jiu Jitsu practice is an amazing challenge. But, as they say, it’s not rocket science.

I’ve been teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for ten years now. I’ve seen some amazing changes in students that only can be described as total transformations. 

I’ve also seen students remain relatively unchanged for years. I’ve wondered why. 

Learning Brazilian jiu jitsu is an incredible and amazing challenge. But, as they say, it’s not rocket science.

Many times I’ve said exactly that to questioning students.  “Man, it’s not rocket science. Bend his arm the wrong way!” And though Jiu Jitsu practice might not be rocket science, I’ve found that it involves a lot of neuro-science.

Movement is the only way we have affecting the world around us.

– Daniel Wolport

Why We Have Brains

So lately I’ve found myself studying brain structure, cognition, and motor control theory – vastly complex subjects for me – to help simplify the learning process for my students. So that no one gets left behind. I’m trying to answer questions like: What happens inside the brain as it learns new things? What are the best ways to foster learning? Where do we stumble?

These questions may seem somewhat simple on the surface. However, they are incredibly complex. They speak to fundamental questions of why we have brains in the first place. 

The purpose of our brain is to move our bodies. “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only – that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements,” writes Daniel Wolpert, a professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge and a leading researcher on human motor control, in an article on the Kavli Foundation blog

“Movement is the only way we have affecting the world around us… I believe that to understand movement is to understand the whole brain,” writes Wolpert. We have a brain “for a reason, and that reason is action.” 

The most basic problems of human existence are answered by movement: How to get food, how to communicate, how to reproduce, how to protect ourselves. The evolutionary purpose of our movement is to solve our problems and increase our chances of survival. 

But what constitutes good problem solving and how do we work to achieve that goal?

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How The Brain Solves Problems

The brain solves problems based on guesses, according to Wolpert. 

He and other movement scientists are beginning to believe that the brain solves problems based on predictions and anticipation more so than feedback. Wolpert says that the brain compares sensory data to past experience and weighs probabilities to direct muscles – hundreds of which can act simultaneously — toward a desired action. The brain does not necessarily wait for a feedback signal to prompt that action. It guesses what that signal will be in the future and acts before receiving feedback. 

“What we’ve shown is that people are extremely accurate at predicting…” says Randy Flanagan, a neuroscientist at Queen’s University in Canada, who has worked with Wolpert on studies of motor learning. “Humans are not particularly fast, and we’re not particularly strong, and we receive sensations about the world with considerable delay,” Flanagan says. “The way we manage to be successful in the world is through prediction.”

Improving Prediction In Jiu Jitsu Practice

How do we make better predictions? 

The best way is through practice. But the best form of practice is based around increasing our ability to problem solve rather than to repeat a move time after time. This is the myth of “muscle memory.” 

“Muscle memory” is similar to the idea proposed by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov — who is famous for his experiments with dogs and associated with the term Pavlov’s dog. 

A competing theory to Pavlov’s was proposed by another renowned Russian scientist named Nikolai Bernstein.  Bernstein studied manual-labor workers in the Soviet Union. He is credited with creating the word “biomechanics.”

Bernstein developed a competing theory to “muscle memory.” He coined the term “repetition without repetition.” He showed in his studies that workers were never able to perform identical tasks in exactly the same way. 

In an article published in the journal Science Direct, Mark Latash — a professor of kinesiology — commented that “the notion of “repetition without repetition” was crucial in the arguments of Bernstein against the then dominant theory of Ivan Pavlov. According to Pavlov’s theory, performing a movement many times led to strengthening of neural connections in the involved neural pathways, resulting in movement automation.

“According to Bernstein, since every time the involved pathways were different from each other, no such “beating a path” through the central nervous system was possible.”

Improvements in performance, then, are probably due to increased skill in prediction and problem solving. 

Latash goes on to say, “So, what is repeated when a person executes the same task again and again? It seems that the only answer is: Solving the problems posed by the task again and again. The redundancy of transformations at different levels of the neuromotor system and the inherent variability of both neural and motor variables leave no room for repeated patterns of any single variable at any level of analysis. Learning to improve behavior in an ever-changing environment may be viewed as a major requirement for survival in the process of evolution.”

This is a radical break from tradition. Many accepted motor learning ideas, like “mental maps” and “muscle memory,” do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. At Zenyo, we have incorporated these ideas as the framework to guide our training. This revolutionary approach focuses on learning as a a process of self-organization in a complex dynamic system guided by individual and environment inputs. This allows us to focus our training on the benefits of “repetition without repetition.”

“Dexterity is not confined within the movements or actions themselves but is revealed in how these movements behave in their interaction with the environment, with its unexpectedness and surprises.”

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What Is Effective Practice?

Bernstein theorized that it is impossible to repeat the same move the exact same way. 
One day in class, I said the same thing. One of my students commented that I sounded like Greek philosopher Heraclitus. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” Heraclitus wrote. 

Movement expert and judo black belt Moshe Feldenkrais also believed this to be so. He said you can never repeat the same movement, that each new repetition is a completely new thing. But there is no disputing that repetition of a move, technique, sequence or skill leads to improvement. 

What is accomplished by repetition in training and practice, if not “muscle memory?” According to one researcher, repetition improves our motor ability to solve problems.  

Richard Magill, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, published a training manual on Bernstein’s View of Optimal Practice Conditions: The Concept of “Repetition Without Repetition.”

Magill writes that “the processes of practice … consists in the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems. Because of this, practice, when properly undertaken, does not consist in repeating the means of solution of a motor problem time after time, but in the process of solving this problem again and again by techniques which we changed and perfected from repetition to repetition.” 

In a previous blog post, I noted the success of variable practice in learning Brazilian jiu jitsu and martial arts. This is also called interleaving practice. Interleaving shows notable improvement in long-term performance compared to learning material in concentrated blocks: for example, learning three chains from a guard submission.  

I believe this is because interleaving practice works to elicit one of the four key learning strategies discussed by Peter Brown in his great book Make It Stick, The Science to Successful Learning. That learning works best when trying to get information out of the brain rather than putting information into the brain. Getting information out improves our ability to predict, to problem solve and to simplify in the face of complexity.

Magill noted the irony of this kind of practice. “More practice variability leads to more performance errors in practice than less variability – but fewer errors during ‘test’ performance.”

In my time using variable practice with my students at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu, this is exactly what I’ve witnessed. Students look less sure and perfect during variable drilling but as soon as we switch to sparring, the opposite is true. Students look much sharper and make fewer errors. Their predictions are better, their attacks are better and their defenses are much improved.

Problem Solving Under Pressure

All this focus on learning is to accomplish the goal of having effective jiu jitsu that works in all circumstances and situations. We test this through randori or “free training.” 

Our focus on learning as the path to find the best solutions for problems is highlighted during sparring. We encounter all options and possibilities during randori. Students immediately feel whether they pass or fail this test.

“In randori one can never be sure what technique the opponent will employ next,” writes Judo founder Jigoro Kano, “so we must be constantly on guard. Being alert becomes second nature. One acquires poise, the self-confidence that comes from knowing that we can cope with any eventuality.” 

However, randori is also the place where students can stop learning, stop looking for new solutions to problems and develop a stagnant, fearful style of jiu jitsu. When students are overwhelmed during sparring, the fear and stress can lead to shutdown. 

Feldenkrais notes this anxiety causes a physiological reaction in all of us. It will cause a person to lower his head, crouch, bend his knees and halt his breath. He describes this state as a “pattern of flexor contraction” and notes that “the individual reverts to passive protection of himself when lacking the means, or doubting his power, of active resistance.” Feldenkrais talks about this in the chapter titled “The Body Pattern of Anxiety” in his book Body and Mature Behavior

Hyper aggression and “spazzing out” is the other extreme displayed during randori. 
Finding a middle ground where students are challenged but do not descend into passivity or predictability is tough. It’s possible for randori to quickly descend from what we want — mutual welfare and benefit, the ultimate attitude set for training by Kano —  to an all-out scrap for victory.

See how Zenyo uses the constraint-led approach with a focus on psychological safety to create an environment where both partners can flourish in training. Take Your Jiu Jitsu Game To The Next Level 

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Force Escalation In Training

A common pattern in rolling during Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is for partners to request to train “light” only to be met by what seems like another student going for the kill. Each then blames the other for escalating the roll. 

Professor Wolpert designed a study that might explain why sparring can quickly change from light rolling to all-out war. The study arose from watching his two children fight in the backseat of his car. Both of them would blame the other for escalating hostilities. 

In his study Wolpert discovered that “whenever you are getting sensations based on your own movements, you will subtract some of that from your own perception.”

In an article published on the Kavli Foundation website, Wolpert confirmed the hypothesis with a force experiment. Two subjects were asked to tap a nob. One would tap, then the other would be asked to match the force used by the first subject. The study found that the force of the taps increased 40% at each exchange. Subjects did not realize how hard they tapped and thought the other person went harder each time.

As an instructor, I believe this is what I observe all too often in sparring. One person is not attuned to his aggression level, the other raises aggression to meet the higher level and the cycle continues until students are going all out. 

Just last night, this exact thing happened during training. I gave the assignment for one student to attack and one student to only escape. I cautioned students to use only 20% effort. Gradually and then quickly, one pair was engaged in full-blown sparring with no concept of the goal. I stopped them and asked them at what level they were we training. They answered 50% but were going much harder than that! 

Trying Too Hard

I believe it is these processes that lead to force escalation and inefficient learning in training. The reason why is a law called Weber Fechner. 

The law is a proposed relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and the intensity or strength that people feel. As far as jiu jitsu is concerned, it means that you can not notice small and subtle differences if you work too hard.

Intense effort interferes with your ability to see, predict and create good solutions in training. You get trapped in trying. Relaxation is a higher order skill than action. That is why I always coach my students to relax. It is through relaxation during intense effort that students problem solving ability is not stunted. 

As the great movement educator F.M. Alexander stated, “Trying is only emphasizing the thing we already know.” 

In studying jiu jitsu we directly address problems related to the fight for survival. This can provoke intense responses, many that occur beyond the conscious level. 

This is why I stress to my students that we want to solve our problems — apply our jiu jitsu — in the most efficient way with the least amount of effort. This is Jigoro Kano’s principle of seiryoku zenyo. This increases our chances of survival on the mat and in the real world. 

As jiu jitsu legend Saulo Ribeiro likes to say, “If you’re late, you muscle. If you muscle, you tire. And if you tire, you die.” 

"Not only did instructions not enhance learning, as compared with no instructions, but they even degraded learning.”

Problems Related To Problem Solving

Brazilian jiu jitsu is a complex puzzle with an infinite number of possibilities based on vast variables. If we try to find a solution for every problem, we could never succeed. 

That’s why I like to coach students to focus on problem solving related to the big picture. 
Feldenkrais writes in 
Awareness Through Movement that this way “will be a quicker and more efficient approach than the correction of single actions and errors in mode of behavior, the incidence of which increases as we come to deal with smaller errors.” He compares working to correct individual actions rather than the whole to like playing an instrument before it is properly tuned. 

So much of Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo and wrestling can be broken down into a focus on specific movements for specific body parts — where to place a hand, where to get a grip or how to angle the leg while passing. Focusing on these small details in coaching students, however, can produce a negative result. 

In a study by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf, Director of the Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, they saw this effect of overcoaching. Wulf concluded that too much focus and attention on detailed mechanics can have a negative effect.

“Perhaps even more important,” Wulf writes, “there is also evidence to suggest that the learning of motor skills can be degraded if the learner pays too much attention to his or her performance.” In addition, they also found that “not only did these instructions not enhance learning, as compared with no instructions, but they even degraded learning.” 

In Make It Stick, Brown also noticed the same effects. The research tends to suggest that learning is best achieved when it is self-directed and the coach or teacher does not interfere with the process too much. 

Making The Most Of Jiu Jitsu Practice

Brazilian jiu jitsu is all about attuning to your partner and adapting in the moment. Athletes with the ability to navigate through an unpredictable environment will have the best chance for success.

Diverse training and variable practice help the brain to be able to make better and better predictions with repeated exposure to situations.

Once students realize the learning process, they can transfer those benefits to other areas of life. They can learn effective, efficient ways to solve many problems. Treating training as a path for learning can make it fun and rewarding and something students can do for the rest of their lives. 

This is the approach I take at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.

This is something that Feldenkrais regularly stressed in his teachings. “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains.”

Learn More: Jiu Jitsu Classes In Baltimore For Adults And Kids

All About The Revolutionary Training Method We Use At Zenyo​


Daniel Wolpert at Ted Talk http://youtu.be/7s0CpRfyYp8

The Co-ordination and Regulation of Movements by Nikolai Bernstein Science Direct. (Effects of practice and adaptation by Mark L. Latash, in Fundamentals of Motor Control, 2012.)

Brain Stimulation Anna-katharine Brem1, … Alvaro Pascual-leone12*, in Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2013 (Robertson, 2009). 

Enhancing The Learning of Sport Skills Through External-Focus Feedback by Gabriele Wulf in Journal of Motor Behavior

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