Class Stories: The Power Of Differential Learning For BJJ


Create A Difference

Xander, 7, is always up for a challenge. 

So I asked him to stand on the foam roller for five seconds. 

He went for it with his best effort. 

“How long did you stand?” I asked. “About three seconds,” he guessed. 

My thought was that the time was close to 3/100’s of a second. 

I had him try several more times. Each attempt his body would shake like a thin reed battered by a hurricane. 

He couldn’t stand for even a second or two. 

(Xander has been training at the gym in private, no-contact sessions to stay safe during COVID. We are working on his fitness so he will be strong and burly when we return to regular group Jiu Jitsu classes.)

So, how do you get better at something that is difficult for you? Through repetition, motivation, desire, effort? Is it through patient practice with the hope that each time will be a little better and closer to perfect? 

I used to not have a satisfactory answer. 

My own personal style throughout my life was usually to try harder.  

As I got older, I listened to experts and learned about “awareness” and “deliberate practice.” 

I used to employ this style when teaching. Slow down, pay attention, focus, relax. All these are words that are used by coaches to get athletes to embrace the learning process. 

Learning is an inherently difficult and frustrating endeavor, you are told. Hard work. 

Now, I hope, I know better. 

Learning Should Be Fun

We are told that repetition is the key to success. Through repetition you build muscle memory. Practice makes perfect. 

In my more than 10 years of coaching Jiu Jitsu, I’ve found this to be completely untrue. 

Research is also showing this way to be less effective than believed. 

Your brain learns by doing, not by thinking about doing.

Your brain responds to fun and play. Your brain really responds to movement and variety.

Your brain learns through differences.

Science Talk: Differential Learning is a method developed by Wolfgang Schollhorn, chair for Training and Movement Science at University of Mainz, Germany. Differential learning is an alternative to deliberate practice. In it, the goal is to increase “noise” and variability in training by challenging athletes in novel ways. In one study, Schollhorn had soccer players kick the ball at the goal by putting their arms in the air, behind their back, on top of their head. He also changed the size of soccer balls and had them approach the kick by hopping on both legs, hopping on one leg and zig zagging. Ted Kroeten on his blog, Joy Of The People, explains differential learning: “Athletes did not develop through repetition but through the cultivation of superior body listening skills (or cognitive perception) and because of it have developed a higher level of movement adaptability (cognitive flexibility). The best sport movements are not grooved through repetition—just the opposite…”

Kids Jiu Jitsu Training
Xander Dasgupta, 7

“You look like a different person! What’s the difference?” 

Variety Over Repetition

I knew that Xander would never learn to stand on the foam roller through repetition. He wasn’t ready. For balance and stability, you need strength. For learning, you need variety.

In addition to differential learning, I feel very lucky to have found the McGill Method, a set of exercises to develop strength, stability, and balance for a strong and healthy body. I’ve been combining the two for great results. (For more, read: Jiu Jitsu Workout, Backed By Science, For Lifetime Training.)

Xander and I worked through a series of movements designed to “turn on” his muscles. 

We cycled through planks, push ups, bird dogs, dead bugs, side planks, and bear crawls—each one a different challenge to the nervous system’s ability to balance and stabilize. 

“You ready to try again,” I asked. 

“Ok,” he said. 

One foot, two feet. He stood straight and still, like a statue. 

I counted. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. 

Ten seconds! 

“You look like a different person!” I said. A big smile crossed his face. 

“What’s the difference?” I asked. 

He’s 7. He didn’t know. 

I did. Create a difference in how you train and you will see. 

Kids Jiu Jitsu Fitness Workout
The power of difference: Xander balances on the foam roller.

All About The Revolutionary Training Method We Use At Zenyo​

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