The Hamster Wheel
We spend a lot of time on the mats training our technique. Most of us spend an appreciable amount of time training off the mats trying to get stronger, faster, more explosive, more flexible and more mobile.
However, many of us don’t put the same energy into our out of gym endeavors that we do on the mat.
Don’t read that and think I am saying “you don’t work hard” because that’s not what I am saying.
If all you do is roll, you will improve at rolling because you are performing that endeavor.
When you start JiuJitsu, you are bombarded with many new movements. Not only are the movements new, but they are complex because they require simultaneous firing of your body in mechanical formats that you are probably not used to.
Just Train “More”
But do you know why you are improving?
What is making your timing, vision, mechanics and movement economy improve?
Many trainees struggle to understand this concept. I see the same questions over and over again in forums.
New trainees realize the same challenges that their predecessor training partners have already faced.
They don’t know what they don’t know and the advice usually given is “just train more”.
Think about this. If you go to the gym for hours to lift weights and moving around from machine to machine haphazardly and wondering why your not getting stronger.
Maybe you’re getting some residual fitness out of that practice, but you have NO IDEA why you are or are not improving towards your goals. And if you don’t even have goals, that’s another issue I tackle in this article.
You may not even understand why you are having success in your rolls. You may have just been successful at chaining your sequences of techniques together and not even realizing it.
This is an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanics you are using and the nuances that can make your technique sharp and crisp, as well as creating the shortcuts into your system that you may not even realize exist today.
This will accelerate your learning process multiple-times over.
Follow the 3 D’s: Deconstruct, Decompose and Drill
I view any exercise or technique as a new drill. And I view drilling as a way to sharpen the sword.
Sharpening the sword may mean improving your technical execution of anything in order to improve on your timing, accuracy, velocity, strength, explosiveness, endurance, flexibility, etc., depending on what you are objectives are.
We all know that in order to get better at something we need to practice. That’s true, but from now on, you won’t have to practice without a purpose.
Start with these definitions.
Deconstruct: the analytic examination of something (as a theory) often in order to reveal its inadequacy.
Decompose: to break up into constituent parts. This means following a method to logically ask questions in order to achieve your objective (i.e., a submission, a sweep, or an escape).
Drill with Discipline: Drilling with sloppy technique or half-assed mindfulness is a waste of your time. Make the most of your time by being very present in each and every rep, every movement, every technique. Drilling with discipline is covered more here.
To simplify this further, this is a way to
- Begin with the end in mind,
- Break it down into mechanical pieces,
- Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, and
- Refine the mechanics and make it better and better over time through thoughtful drilling/practice.
Here’s an example.
When you teach a new trainee an armbar from the closed guard for the first time there are many simultaneous techniques you are trying to convey to the practitioner.
Common questions include:
- Where do I put my hands?
- What should I grab?
- Where do I put my feet?
- When do I open my guard?
- What do my legs do?
- What if my opponent doesn’t let me [x]?
- Do I pull or push?
- What if they stack me?
The list goes on.
This is a normal part of the learning process. But there is a way to get those questions answered more quickly.
Follow these steps of the “3 D’s” to begin drilling towards mastery of any new technique.
1. Examine the concepts related to the anatomy (strengths and weaknesses)
Begin with the end in mind. With the armbar (from the closed guard), know how the elbow breaks. I have trained with blue belts (and even some purples) that don’t know how the arm breaks. They just know how to get to the end-game holding pattern.
If we begin to examine every movement with this in mind, and asking WHY things are effective (e.g., the elbow breaks in the direction the thumb is pointing), then everything else you do begins to fall into place around that.
2. Break down the major muscle movements & the underlying mechanics used and to gain control of the position
Break down mechanics. What movements do you need to make to get to the end-state of the move?
With the armbar from closed guard, you have major movements occurring with the hips and legs.
Your hands are controlling your opponents posture or are attacking the arm (back of arm control and wrist control).
What controls do you need to have in place?
Control the upper arm (humerus): When you want to execute an armbar, if you can control the upper arm (the humerus) and the wrist, you have a far greater chance to improve your submission rate. Controlling the humerus gives you control over the primary mechanics of defense (elbow movement).
You should also know by now that if the tip of your opponent’s elbow is below your hips (even though you control the radius and ulna) you don’t have the armbar and are at risk of losing control.
Control the wrist (thumb direction): Allows you to control the thumbs direction which for finishing the submission.
Control their posture: With the armbar from closed guard, you can finish the movement when the opponent is extended away, or if they have stacked into you. Using push and pull techniques will allow you to execute wither option. How do you control your posture? It’s mostly through the movement of your legs to initiate and your arms to pull or push.
‘Leverage’ Physics: For the armbar, you are creating a first-class lever. The fulcrum needs to be placed within the humerus, close to the load (the persons body). This means your hips and thighs are nestled at the end point of the humerus near the armpit). When you lock that up, you limit the defensive options of the arm being pulled out meaning you reduce ther effectiveness of the body to produce force (bicep curl). When you have thumb control at this point, you use your hips to add a load at the end of the arm to perform the submission.
3. Drill with precision
When you begin putting this all together, start slow.
Much like jumping into the weight room for the first time, you don’t load the bar with weights. You learn the mechanics of the technique first, then you slowly add weight to the bar over time. You can get away with errors more when you’re not using resistance.
Pro tip 1: Get feedback from your team mates and coach on how to improve even the most basic of techniques. It will pay dividends in the long run as you move through the next progressions below.
Pro tip 2: Use the SLO-MO setting on your camera to evaluate your technique. In this video, I am practicing a flying/jumping knee. I can go over with a more skeptical eye all of the mistakes I’ve made, and also note what appeared to work well toward by end game goal of landing that strike in a certain location.
4. Add attributes to your drills after you master the mechanics
Attributes are things like strength, speed, explosiveness, flexibility, etc. Each of us is predisposed to having certain natural attributes. My natural attribute is strength-based. It took many years of training to NOT use strength as my “go-to” attribute during sparring. How did I do it? I studied the movements associated with grappling, slowed down my sparring using defensive techniques, and worked on the movement economy.
For example, a haymaker punch is a wild swing at the fences. Add the precision of stance, timing, footwork, postural integrity and precise punching technique with those attributes and now you have a powerful left hook (think “Iron Mike” in his prime).
Watch this video. A young Mike Tyson goes through the mechanics of the combination before adding explosiveness and speed to the punches.
5. Drill with purpose
Now that you have the framework in place for knowing how to do the movement mechanics, and you can add your attributes to them, don’t hold back. When you drill, you should be giving it your all. Adding a later of sport-specific conditioning to the refined technique has an exponential effect on your effectiveness. This is where the elite separate themselves from the average.
This video or Marcelo Garcia explaining his training philosophy showcases this well. After a more subdued 1 minute round, he demonstrates the second round with the intensity that is testing his and his opponents limit.
My recommendation? Pick some basic techniques to start with. Something like bridging or shrimping, and work on that yourself. Over time, add a few more movements into this method and add a partner to give you light resistance so your precision can be explored.