Remember that technique?

Recently I’ve had several discussions about how well students remember the techniques or classes that they have been to.

Memory is an interesting thing. Especially when applied to a physical skill like jiu-jitsu.  It turns out that memory is a term we use to cover a multitude of different activities in our brain. So perhaps if we can better understand memory we will better understand  how we apply our memory  to jiu jitsu  techniques.

The neurosciency stuff.

There are a number of different ways to view memory but one useful way to think about is that there two types of memory. What is called episodic memory, and then implicit memory. So what’s the difference? Well episodic memory is as the name suggests memory of episodes in our lives. So for example, if I ask you to think of what you did last New Year’s Eve, you would probably pull up an image or a  memory of a particular episode. Who you were with, some of the things you did, maybe even how much you drank.

However if I’ve asked you to actually perform a task, say for example riding a bike or driving a car, the chances are you will not be drawing upon episodic memory. You be drawing on implicit memory. In other words the memory of how to do something,  the memory that gets coded in through activity.

This distinction was brought into stark relief through the study of psychology’s most famous patient.  He was known around the world as HM (HM recently died in 2008 – the most researched man in psychology).   After a childhood accident left HM afflicted with terrible epilepsy, his neurosurgeon sought to reduce the effects by removing a particular part of the brain known as the hippocampus (the surgeon later admitted he had no idea what effect this would have an it was an experimental move).

As a result HM’s amnesia abated, at a catastrophic cost to his memory.  He had developed anterograde amnesia.  What that meant is he could not form any new memories after the time of his surgery. In other words although he could remember his early life (episodic memories)  he could not form any new memories from after the surgery.  He could not even recognize himself in the mirror as he aged

While tragic for HM this condition  provided a wealth of research opportunities for psychologists. They were able to, test HM on his ability to perform over a range of tasks over time despite, having no memory whatsoever of having done the task before. And of course they had a subject that was delighted to perform the same tasks over and over again every day – to him it was new and exciting every time!

What the researchers discovered, was a very clear distinction between these two types of memory They would sit on the patient in front of a computer screen and asked them what was in front of him.  Having never seen a computer before the surgery, he would  describe it as a telephone typewriter or something of that nature. They would then give him  a simple range of tasks –  like rotating shapes to fit a certain pattern. Although HM had no memory of having done these tasks before, there was a very clear improvement in his ability to perform the tasks over time. In other words the memory was being coded in implicit memory, but not episodic memory.

What became even more interesting was,  being sat for the first time that day in front of a test he had performed many times before, the researchers would sometimes ask HM what he thought he should do in this test. HM’s answer was consistently “I have no idea”. Researchers then asked him to take his best guess at which point he would often take a “guess” which was very close to the specific instructions they were about to provide.

In other words although he had no memory of having ever done the task before, somewhere in his brain was still the knowledge of exactly how to go about doing that task.


So how does this relate to learning jiu-jitsu?

Well we learn in a couple of different ways one is episodic memory. Think back to the last John Will seminar you attended for example. There may be certain parts of the seminar that you remember very clearly, and others which have not been emblazoned across your episodic memory in quite such detail. However in arts like ours it would seem to be that implicit memory is much more important episodic memory.

In other words what does your body remember about how to do the techniques? Sometimes we will perform techniques and will not even remember where we learned them. So how do we increase our rate of  implicit  knowledge.?

Well if HM’s case is anything to go by repetition seems to be the key. Drilling. But this blog is not meant to be just another preach around the importance of drilling.   I think we are all already aware of that.

Rather I think it’s useful for us to take it easy on ourselves with how much you remember sometimes after classes. I have always been an advocate of using training notebooks to jot down pertinent details of things we might have learnt, be they technique related, or simply related to concepts and learning lessons.  However I often see students start to berate themselves for the fact that they can’t remember what was taught even last week. Perhaps one lesson HM teaches us is that, as long as we are on the mat, coming to training, and doing repetitions, we need not worry about whether we “remember all this stuff”.  The point is that some structures in our brains will be remembering whether we are aware of it or not. So you want to get better at jiu-jitsu? The key seems fairly simple –  come consistently to class, focus on doing repetitions and the learning takes care of itself.

One more thing

One final word on implicit memory.  When we apply techniques from implicit memory in our sparring I believe, that we have a slightly different experience than when replaying techniques from episodic memory.

For example – imagine you’re in the middle of a roll, and you notice a situation which you link, via episodic memory, to something learned in a previous class or seminar.  ”oh it’s that technique we learned”.   Then you apply that technique.  You now get a real sense of improvement and competence “hey I did that thing we learned last week!”

This is because you are consciously aware that you have applied a new technique to the given situation and therefore you consciously understand that learning and improvement has taken place.

Interestingly I think it’s a little different sometimes when our responses on the mat come from implicit memory. In other words if we are not linking what we do into specific classes we remember taking, sometimes we are not even aware of our own improvement.

I regularly see beginners on the mat  complain about not feeling like they are improving, not feeling like they are not doing any better in sparring than they did previously. And as the coach both watching and rolling with them I can see and feel significant improvements. Moreover when the knowledge is coming from implicit memory it seems be more fluid, – there is less delay between the trigger and the response. So you could say in many ways that this the best form of learning because it just flows out of the persons game as if it was a natural thing.

And yet if we’re not really looking out for it we can miss the fact that we are improving!

So I guess the message is simple. Come to class, drill, and be prepared to step back from your rolling from time to time to really notice what you’re doing now that you weren’t doing six months ago.  Even if you don’t remember having learned it. See you on the mat.

If Somethings Worth Doing…

At the last official rolling session for the  year I found myself reminded of some great advice I once read.

Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly… first.

Which when you think about it is absolutely common sense. When we first do something new, chances are we’re doing it poorly.  We know this. And we know that with practice and time we start to get better and better until we achieve full competency, and then on to mastery. That’s a fairly well understood and straight forward process. So why do we see so many people (including ourselves) bailing out before we get to that point?

Simply because doing things poorly (in the learning stage) is uncomfortable. It challenges our view of ourselves as capable and effective individuals.  We don’t want to be poor we want to be great. And so we tend to protect ourselves from experiences that make us feel less than great.

Like learning new things.

So the question is – is it worth going through the discomfort of doing something poorly? Most of the time if we ask ourselves this question the answer is a resounding “yes!”  The trick is remembering to ask that specific question.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly – at first.

Case in point. The other night I was rolling with a student and just as we touched hands he let me know he was focused on being more “ju” in his rolling (being softer and less strength based).

I was pleased to hear that as its exactly what I would have picked for him to focus on. However as the roll progressed I found myself thinking “if this is soft I’d hate to feel hard..”.

To be fair there were times when I could feel attempts at softness but they didn’t tend to last very long. The problem was apparent.  He really wanted to go soft, but not at the expense of “losing” the roll”.  He wanted to develop a softer rolling style but not at the expense of doing poorly. You can guess the result -  as soon as he was under threat, the strength came back in.

Anytime you’re working on something new in your game, a new sub or sweep or even just a new rolling style, going lighter or slower, or more flow -expect that you will not be doing as “well” for a while.  I put the inverted commas there because it does depend on how you judge “well”.  If you’re judging your rolling by who dominated, who was tapping etc then you will feel like you’re taking a backwards step in the learning phases.  However if you’re judging your rolling by asking yourself if you were doing something that gets you closer to having the game you want – then you may have tapped out 8 times and been stuck underneath but still judge the roll to be successful because you forced yourself to uncross your ankles in pursit of an open guard game.

If something is worth doing its worth doing poorly.

Or to put it another way – the reason people sometimes don’t develop is that we’re not prepared to let go of who we are in order to become who we want to be.

So with a new year looming in our sights it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are we prepared to try being poor at for a while…


Have a Game Plan (and maybe stick to it)


That’s Interesting…

As I peruse the latest event results posted on this page, I notice somethign interesting.  The various successes reported, be they MMA or BJJ  have something in common.  They all describe someone working to a game plan.

It got me thinking about game plans, for BJJ, for MMA, for life.

Any good coach will tell you as you’re preparing for competition it’s important to have a game plan.  At the very least a basic idea of what you want to achieve, what positions you are trying to get to and what you want to do once you’re there.

One of the tools that is closely connected to game plans  is visualisation. Pretty much any top athlete on the planet now uses visualization as a training tool -a practice that, as far as we can determine started with Roger Bannister. Bannister was the first to break the 4 minute mile despite accepted beliefs at the time that it was physiologically impossible to do so.

So if we accept the importance of visualization as a training tool,  having a game plan can help structure your visualization training.

Some assembly required.

So how do you build a game plan?  There’s a couple of different models.  One is a very linear approach.  For example in a BJJ match, here’s how I’m going to start, here’s how I’ll take down, this is the position I’ll end up in and this is how I’ll finish.  You have now have a clear structure to the match you can visualise.

But there’s an obvious flaw.

Fighting, wrestling, competition is a chaotic environment.  There’s other factors involved (most notably your opponent) which can get in the way of your carefully crafted script.  And if your plan is too narrow, once you end up off plan you may find yourself lost, unsure what to do next and therefore a bit panicked.

So the next layer of sophistication is to have a plan that is more encompassing. Rather than starting at the start, start at the end. Think about your preferred finish and work out how to get there from a variety of different places. If I want to finish with a rear naked choke from back for example, do I have a path to get the back from mount, from guard, from side control (top and bottom) from half guard etc etc. Now wherever I end up I am still “on plan” and it’s simply a matter of executing.

When top athletes visualise their events (for example a track and field star thinking about an 800m run), they will visualise every conceivable eventuality. If they’re in the lead early on, if they stumble at the start line, if they’re boxed in by other runners etc etc. So that when it’s time to run the race whatever unfolds they have already experienced it, it’s already familiar and they know how to get from that point to the end goal – crossing the line first.

And then of course you can have branching plans. Rather than having all roads leading to rome (e.g. back choke) you have a separate plan or way to finish from every position.  To take an extreme and inspirational example it’s said that Jean Jacques Machado really doesn’t care how you attack him because over time he’s had so many seperate game plans they have all melded into one. So whatever the attack, he has a response ready to go which could feed into a variety of game plans. Or to put it another way he’s worked so many game plans to the point where he no longer needs one.

This is also how Rigan Machado was able to go into a match with a world class judoka and ask John Will to pick a finish. So broad is his library of game plans he was confident whatever John chose (omoplata, left arm), he had a path to that outcome from any situation.

Beware positive thinking.

That may seem an odd thing coming from me. Maybe it’s more accurate to say beware of certain types of positive thinking. Because the research shows some positive thinking is very helpful, whereas other types are not only not helpful but potentially harmful. And the difference can be quite subtle. Here is one of the pitfalls of visualising a game plan that I’ve seen. A tendancy to focus only on “positive thinking” to the point where competitors refuse to entertain the possibility that they may be losing – on the bottom, or getting hit with a flurry – for fear “negative thinking” will make it so.  So they never consider how they will deal with being on the back foot.

This is not so much positive thinking as wishful thinking.  Those that were around in the mid 90′s would have heard alot of this from the world of  Traditional Martial Arts (“We don’t fight on the ground because you’ll never get us there”.  Oh really?)

Much more useful is to go there, imagine you’re under mount, or facing a barrage of punches, but to see yourself working out of it, turning the tables and taking the initiative.


So what’s the point?

That’s all well in good if you’re into competition.  However, for the amount of time effort and resources we devote to our training, if getting  better at fighting people is all we get out of it  return on investment just doesn’t stack up. Particularly when you consider fighting is a skill that most of us are not likely to need off the mat.  However as anyone that’s been training for a while can attest, the true beauty of training is that the lessons translate directly to our off the mat lives.

So how does the idea of a game plan fit off the mat.  Obviously there is a parrallel with goal setting.  I’m sure we’ve all heard various accounts of the importance of goal setting.  And yet at the same time it turns out some of the studies that are quoted around goal setting (e.g the “yale” study) turn out to be urban myths.  And when I look at my life, and conversations I’ve had with others, I can’t help but notice something else.  Often the biggest opportunities have come out of no where.

And what about visualising success?  Of course there’s The Secret, the pop psychology phenomenon which everybody was citing after an appearance on Oprah. The Secret will tell you to simply visualise what you want (more money, great exam results, that perfect partner) and the universe will “manifest” it for you. However as John Will is fond of saying – if you put a picture of your perfect house on the wall and visualise it every day the only thing that will manifest is a family of spiders behind the picture. And John’s scepticism is backed up by the research. It turns out if you spend a bit of time visualising those great exam results every day, you’re actually *less likely* to get good marks. It seems that the visualisation tells your subconscious you’ve already accomplished the goal – so it decides there’s no need to work for it!

So while most would agree it’s important to have a game plan for life it’s clear we need to be careful about how we go about setting that plan.

Visualising the successful outcome, that winning moment, getting the job, opening the results, is great for creating an emotional incentive for the work. However just visualising the outcome is not enough.  We need to have a clear idea of the end point and then get serious about working backwards to the “how”. That then needs to become our point of focus. Rather than day dreaming about how nice it would be to get those great exam results, we need to focus on today’s study plan, or even better, that page of text in front of us right now.

Or to put it more succinctly, visualize the outcome to connect you the “why” at an emotional level, and then focus on the process to create the “how”.

From there it’s a question of execution. There’s a number of factors and unexpected complications that may need to be overcome in the pursuit of any goal.   So we have to be aware enough in the moment to both notice any barriers early, and change tack accordingly (just like on the mat!) Sometimes there are more difficult obstacles to overcome. The goal may not be “ecological” (i.e. it doesn’t fit in with the rest of your life very well), you may have some unconscious part of you that is resistant to the goal for some reason or you may have  ingrained limiting beliefs that are holding you back..

In these cases, just like on the mat, a coach can help iron out the wrinkles and get everything aligned.


Too Focused?

Another thing to consider is how  a game plan that is too narrow can restrict your options. On the mat for example, if I’m absolutely focused on hitting omoplatas this month I’m probably going to ignore, and not even notice all those opportunities for chokes. That’s ok on the mat.  But if we become too obsessively focused on a narrow goal set in life – what more important things can we be missing out on? How many people have pursued “financial security” so single mindedly they sacrifice any quality time with the family for whom they are supposedly working. Or are so intent on that next step in the specific career they have mapped out that they don’t see other and perhaps more exciting career opportunities right in front of their face.

As BJJers move from blue to purple one of the things we look for is a shift from a single minded attention on executing a game plan, to a slightly different mindset. A mindset that has a gameplan in mind, but is also so flexible and in the moment that they can notice changing circumstances very quickly and adjust to take advantage. This I believe is also the appropriate mindset in life. Have some end points in mind, and at the same time not to be so focused on that, that you miss the opportunities that are around you all the time.  Rats head and ox’s neck all at the same time.

So where does that leave us?  

Just like on the mat there’s a number of different ways we can run a game plan. We can have a very linear game plan, this is what I’m going to do- I’ll do this then I’ll do this then I’ll do that. Unfortunately just like a fight life can be a little chaotic. There are a whole heap of things that can get in the way. And if we are overly focused on just that game plan we may find ourselves too slow to adapt and adjust. Try asking yourself occasionally – “what opportunities am I failing to notice right now by being focused elsewhere”

Or we can have an end point in mind and a number of different ways to get there. Allowing for as many contingencies and “what if”s as we can come up with.

And then perhaps the more sophisticated version, the Jean Jacques version if you like, is to work simply on developing ourselves. To develop ourselves goal by goal so we are more and more prepared for whatever life throws at us. To be awake and aware enough that we can notice what opportunities are around us and then be absolutely focused in the pursuit of our passions. All the while being open to changing circumstances and new possibilities. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some remarkable individuals, from John Will to Olympic gold medalists to top business people and world renowned sports psychologists. When discussing the area of goals and achievement they all seem to indicate the same thing.

At the end of the day it wasn’t the achievement of the goal that was the important thing. It was who they became in the pursuit of the goal that mattered.

So maybe it’s not so much a matter of developing ourselves so we can achieve our goals.

Maybe it’s more a case of setting goals so we can develop our selves.

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