Updated: May 31, 2020

How to use mental repetitions to speed up your jiu jitsu development while we await the return of BJJ classes...

With the current global pandemic still causing turmoil across the world and most of us continue living without our regular fix of BJJ classes, for months now we've had to resort to online classes, wrestling with a makeshift grapple dummy or simply drilling techniques on our own. However, physical training and repetition isn't the only way we can keep our jiu jitsu on point. Below is a blog I wrote last year about mental training visualisation; I'd say it's more relevant now than ever...

Practice makes perfect; we’ve all heard that before, because it’s true. The only way to become capable or proficient at any particular skill is to practise it as much as possible, especially a physical activity like playing a sport or instrument. Putting in the repetitions will exponentially increase someone’s ability – the more you practise the better you get. In order to master a skill or truly excel, however, takes an even longer time. A rule of thumb popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success states that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to truly master something, to become an expert, which supposedly adds up to about ten years. Yup, that long.

Now, we all know how long it takes to be considered an ‘expert’ in BJJ. If a black belt is the marker of someone who has reached a skill level of relative mastery – even though we all know mastery in this game doesn’t really exist – then according to Gladwell’s theory we black belts have laid down at least 10,000 hours of practice over the years, which is probably about right. But, do all these hours necessarily need to be physical mat time; time spent drilling techniques and sparring round after round? Arguably not. Another notion of Gladwell’s is: although nothing beats good old fashioned physical repetition, mental rehearsal or ‘visualisation’ can increase our ability to learn new skills by up to 50%. So, if that’s the case – can we use visualisation to improve at something as both physically demanding and mentally challenging as jiu jitsu? I reckon we can.

Whether trying to learn a second language or simply studying for school exams, we’ve all repeated words, sums, phrases etc over and over in our minds in order to memorise them. Say, for example, you’re giving a best man’s speech or making a company presentation, repeatedly rehearsing what you’re going to say in your head before the time comes to actually deliver it will only increase your chances of not screwing it up. I think the same applies for BJJ. I’m not talking about law of attraction-style visualisation here, when someone might imagine themselves hauling in multiple gold medals at major competitions in order to give themselves the psychological edge. I’m talking about accelerated learning; committing physical skills to memory by playing particular actions over and over in your mind. Movement meditation, if you will.

Take learning a new technique for example: a guard pass or submission. During a typical class your instructor will verbally introduce the technique he or she wants to show you, hopefully put it into a bit of context of how the position relates to the grander scheme of a jiu jitsu fight or roll, and then demonstrate the technique a few times before everyone breaks off to practise it with their partners. Ten minutes later another layer or variation is added to the technique by the instructor and everyone adds that to their repetitions. Shortly after, when coach is satisfied with everyone’s capability of performing the techniques, it’s time for live sparring, which is exactly the moment that everyone drops what they have just learned like a hot potato and goes into frantic survival mode.

My argument is: if we take the time to mentally repeat positions and visualise techniques we’ve learned in class, they will stick much faster; quickly becoming part of our technical repertoire and hence adding to our overall knowledge and skill level. So, in order to apply visualisation to our accelerated jiu jitsu achievement unlocking, here are a few steps you can try:

Step one: Find a spot

Luckily, visualisation can be done anywhere. Ideally you’ve got a quiet place where you can concentrate without distractions, your gym or dojo before class would be perfect, but your bedroom, garden, local park or even just sitting on the loo will also do.

Step two: Zone out

Sit down, lie down, strike a yoga pose, whatever you like, as long as you’re comfortable and can zone out from any interference around you for a few minutes. Closing your eyes will allow you to focus properly, but if you’d rather just go into some sort of drooling middle-distance stare, depending on your surroundings that can work too.

Step three: Choose technique

Now you need to choose a technique or sequence of techniques that you want to focus on. Whether a guard pass you’ve recently been taught or drilled in class or a submission you’ve studied online, just make sure you already know it well enough to break it down into a series of clear steps or movements.

Step four: Mental drilling

Ideally your chosen technique would be something you’ve drilled before, even only briefly, so you know it’s within your ability and, more importantly, it actually works. Once you’ve broken it down into steps, imagine yourself carrying out those steps with a partner – even better if you can draw on memories of doing so. Then, try to bring the movements into sharper focus and describe the steps to yourself in your head, as if the imaginary you is following clear instructions and repeatedly executing them perfectly.

Step five: Mindful sparring

Once the ‘inner you’ has drilled the movements or techniques several times, now try to simulate putting them into action in an imaginary sparring session. Think about the whole process of a roll, from the fist bump to the initial exchange, and now slot your chosen technique into the context of a typical sparring situation: decide how to move into the correct position to begin the technique, and then imagine yourself smoothly executing it, step by step with speed and precision, making that blurry, shadowy figure of a partner you’re sparring with wish they’d never turn up to class.

Once you’ve followed the above steps and snap back into the reality around you, it may not feel like you’ve accomplished much, that you simply closed your eyes for a few minutes looking like you were about to nod off. But, by repeating these mental rehearsals you will have embedded a series of movements somewhere into your subconscious, ready to draw on when the time comes to drill them in class or use them in sparring. You will still need to commit the techniques to muscle memory, but as the mental memory has already been taken care of, you should be able to connect the dots within much fewer physical drills and your decision making in the heat of sparring will be much faster.

If nothing else, the simple act of taking a few minutes out of your day to practise our increasingly waning skills of deep focus and concentration while drowning out all the attention-stealing distractions of modern living, is only a good thing for your mental health. At the very least, you, my friend, have just meditated.

Words by Si Tutton

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