Motor Control for BJJ 8: Assessing Learning

BJJ is a unique martial art due to the testing of abilities being an inherent part of the martial art. Tests occur every training session during live rolling. Love rolling serves as both a form of practice and also as a skill retention test. Many students will also take part in tournaments where they will test their abilities against opponents of similar skill level (belt color).

The student’s knowledge of a technique can be tested by their execution of the technique on a passive partner, then during a live rolling situation, and then finally with execution of the technique during a competition setting. The skill level of an individual can be easily assessed by their performance in these setting. However, sometimes it will be useful for you to test a student on a specific technique.

A retention test is a test used to assess how much learning a student has for a very specific situation. While a student may be able to perform a scissor sweep during practice after being shown the technique, it will be harder for the student to perform the same sweep after a period of no instruction. A instructor can test how well a student has retained a technique by asking them to perform the same technique after a period without instruction. One way to do this is to teach a new technique every day and have students drill the technique during the day. Then after a week or several weeks, test the student by having them perform said technique without prior instruction. A student who can perform the technique after a long period of not using the technique will have “learned” the technique.

A retention test can be used to assess the learning of a single maneuver.  While this is useful for lower belts, the utility of this type of test is limited and fails to provide valuable insight for more experienced practitioners. The reason should be obvious – a retention test is limited to a single maneuver done at a single time. BJJ is a dynamic sport in which both practitioners possess agency. The sport is controlled chaos, and a practitioner will never be in the perfect position to execute a technique unless they force the position. This leads us to the use of a transfer test:

Transfer test is a test used to assess how well a learned technique can be applied in different situations. The most basic transfer test we can use is having the practitioner perform the technique against different opponents. We can test a skill during different levels of aggression of the opponent. For instance, while trying to perform a scissor sweep, we can have the opponent resist the sweep only, or resist the sweep and try to pass. The ultimate transfer test for our advanced practitioner is to have them try to perform a technique during live training.

Motor Control for BJJ 8: Feedback

Feedback is another common and important tool to help students learn. Many instructors use feedback during class portions on a daily basis. Belt stripes and colors are also given as a form of feedback as well, once you find one person has advanced their skill level sufficiently you award them stripes.

Feedback should be provided to increase a student’s intrinsic awareness of their own movements. A new student will probably lack the kinesthetic awareness to move their bodies in the correct way and since they will not be able to visually inspect their movements, you will have to provide feedback in order to correct their movements. Since a beginner lacks awareness, feedback given to them must inform them of their error pattern and also must provide information about what to do on future attempts. Beginning students must be told “what to do” and “how to do it” in order to improve. For more advanced students, you will only need to provide information about the movement error because they will be able to self-correct.  Feedback should be given to increase the student’s subjective analysis of their movement.

Two qualities of feedback that matter – quality and quantity. Feedback can be detrimental if the instructor gives incorrect feedback such as providing the wrong movement fix or telling the student they did a technique correctly when they did it incorrectly, or if the feedback requires the student to focus on their body. Feedback is best when it is focused on movement effects instead of movements themselves (Push off the floor explosively vs explode through your hips). Feedback can be detrimental if it is provided too often because students can become over reliant on it.

Motor Control for BJJ 7: Drilling

Drilling is an important aspect of learning for a new student. The purpose of drills is to have an athlete create an automatic response to moves and setups commonly seen during live rolls or competitions. Due to a beginner’s lack of experience and ability to control the pace and positions during a roll, a beginner will rarely be able to implement techniques they have learned during the rolling portion of class. Drilling is an easy way to to increase the amount of physical practice of techniques and maneuvers, and thus learning.  The following are important factors to consider when introducing drills to a class:
⦁ Drills should be practical and relevant to the real situation
⦁ Drills should possess variability
⦁ Start with simpler techniques before advancing to the “real thing”
⦁ Techniques in drills should be sequential in nature to help develop the concept of flowing
⦁ Drills can be used for conditioning as well as learning techniques

The first point of practicality and relevance may seem intuitive, but many instructors fail to implement this. All drills should be within the realms of practicality and relevance to the real situation. Some instructors may use drills that seemingly help improve some aspect of BJJ but may actually be detrimental to the student’s learning. For example, some instructors may use a game such as shooting single leg takedowns where the goal is to just touch the training partner’s knees. While this is an easy drill, it does not allow the student to develop a deep shot which will impair the student. All drills should try to replicate the technique or maneuver in a realistic scenario. Practicing a drill on a partner that provides no resistance will not allow the student to learn how to perform the technique on someone who is resisting.

To maximize the learning a student receives during during drilling, variability must be introduced to their training.  The simplest way to add variability is by having students perform several different techniques during a drilling session, such as drilling armbars, triangles, and omoplatas. Variability can also be introduced by changing the starting position for a single technique – for example if you are drilling armbars, you can add variability by drilling armbars from three different positions: mount, guard, or side control. Variability can also be added by changing the tempo of techniques, the training partner’s body size, or the amount of resistance a training partner provides. By increasing the amount of variability encountered during drilling, the student will increase their performance in the long term. One thing to look out for is that students may make more mistakes during a drilling session with increased variability, but these mistakes are important in that students will learn from the performance errors. It is important to understand that there is a difference between performing well during drilling and having better performance during live rolls. High variability may make students perform worse during drills, but will have them perform better during live training. Performance errors allow students to learn from their mistakes.

Many beginners will have great difficulty performing a technique during drills. In order to rectify this, we can drill simpler component techniques and advance until the student can perform the real technique. For instance, one of the first techniques a student will learn will be to escape from mount with a hip bump. This technique is simple, yet very difficult for beginning students to perform properly. We can break this technique down in the following way:
⦁ Practice the basic movement by alone: practicing hip thrusts/bridges.
⦁ Practice the technique with partner who is not resisting: the opponent is only placing their body weight on the practitioner when they bridge.
⦁ Practice the technique with a resisting partner: the partner is actively resisting the student’s technique by shifting their body weight
a. Note that the resistance provided by the partner can change in intensity from a very low amount of resistance to a very high amount
⦁ Practice the technique with a partner who is trying to accomplish their own goal: have the student attempt to escape while the partner is resisting and attacking.  

Another important aspect of drilling is to connect different techniques in a sequential manner so that the student can move from one technique to another immediately. Instead of having a student drill one technique repeatedly, we can have the student drill a series of techniques. This can be as simple as having our student perform the hip bump escape from mount, followed immediately by a guard pass, and then to a mount. By drilling sequentially we will have the student advance positions and chain techniques. Another way we can chain techniques in this manner is to have several techniques link together. For example, if we are teaching a guard pass we can teach three different techniques for passing guard and have the student shuffle between the three techniques while the training partner is actively preventing the guard pass. The student will first try to implement the first pass and when it is prevented they can shift to their second pass and then to their third pass when that is prevented. This type of drilling will emphasize the continuity of BJJ.

Drills can be used for conditioning as well as learning techniques

While the main purpose of drills should be to help students increase their learning of techniques, drills are also useful as a conditioning device. This concept will be elaborate in the strength and conditioning portion of this handbook.

Motor Control for BJJ 6: Physical Practice

Practice will refer to the physical practice a student will engage in during class. This includes practicing during instruction, drilling, or live rolling. No matter what kind of practice, the goal is to have a student be able to perform better in the future. As the instructor, your most powerful tool to improving your students’ performance in the future is through the design and implementation of physical practice. It should be noted that no matter how you structure your students’ practice, the most important aspect for their learning is their own volition and desire to learn. Many students approach training as a workout, however it should be instilled in them that training is a practice. They should be instructed to treat practice with the intent, purpose, and focus of improving their skills and to understand that a harder workout will not necessarily improve their BJJ.

Physical practice during instruction: When practicing a new technique, it is best to implement a part-practice method due to the complexity of skills and the variability of a moving opponent. When showcasing a technique, you should demonstrate the technique as a whole several times, and then break the technique down into several component parts. The student will then engage in physical practice by practicing the component parts until the parts have been sufficiently learned. This process would involve the students executing the first part of the move, followed by the second part of the move, and so on until the entire move is completed. This also allows for the coach to check on each member of the class during all phases of a technique. Many BJJ maneuvers can be executed in different ways, however every maneuver possesses certain basic principles that need to be met. By practicing moves in this way, a student will be able to learn the proper execution of basic principles and improve the chance for success in live situations.

Motor Control for BJJ 5: Optimizing Instruction

Many gyms structure their instructional portion in the following way: There will be a 30-60 minute block of instruction in which the coach will explain a technique and then have the student practice the technique for a set amount of reps or time, followed by another technique and another length of practice. Oftentimes, the amount of talking is greater than the time of physical practice.

Most beginners rely on the instruction portion of BJJ class as their primary mode of learning. This is due to their lack of knowledge of objectives and techniques, and their need to have these aspects verbally and visually explained to them. Because of this, most BJJ instructors rely on demonstrations of technique and verbal instructions as the primary method of teaching a skill. One area of instruction that is over emphasized is the verbal instructions. Many instructors will spend a significant amount of time explaining the movement related to a technique, as much time or more than is spent actually drilling or practicing the technique.  For example, a viewing of any BJJ instructional video will show the instructor verbally describing their movements as they perform the movements. While this may seem like a good way to impart knowledge of a technique to a student due to the belief that more information is better, we have all seen BJJ players who:

1. Perform expertly without being able to explain the details of their performance.
2. Explain the details in depth without being able to perform the technique live.

Many instructors will spend the majority of valuable class time explaining a technique.  While students may pick up information during these instructional portions, a student will not develop and reinforce the correct motor programs without physically performing the technique and movements. Students should spend the majority of time in class performing and reinforcing movements as opposed to lengthy sections of the instructor speaking.

It is the coach’s duty to say the least amount while conveying the most information.

Coaches should not verbally instruct portions of a technique that can be readily observed by a student, such as gross movements and placement of limbs. Verbal instructions on where to grip can be readily observed and do not need to be restated. Verbal instructions should point out things that are hard to observe or cannot be observed visually at all – such as where weight is distributed, where center of gravity lies, or what base of support is being pushed off of.

Verbal instruction should also be used in order to reinforce the most important aspects of a technique – for example while using smash passes one must control the hips, during demonstration of a smash pass the instructor should reinforce the idea of controlling the hips through verbal instructions. In order to develop a strong side control one must have control over the opponent’s shoulders, so instructors should make it a point to reinforce the idea of controlling the shoulders verbally.  Verbal instructions can also be used to emphasize the parameters of the action – how fast or how much force should be applied. Instructors should also present techniques from different angles in order for students to achieve a full visual inspection of techniques. Students should be encouraged to constantly walk around during instruction in order to view the technique at as many angles as possible.

The amount of techniques and maneuvers presented to students during each training session should also be limited as to not overload students’ with information. While it may be tempting to teach students ten moves in a day in order to prove you have a wealth of knowledge, it is better to introduce three to five techniques and concepts during each session in order to present a manageable amount of information. The instructor should be careful in structuring the techniques presented in order to have all techniques reinforce a concept or have all techniques relate to each other in sequence.

Verbal instructions should refer to the movement effects as opposed to the movements themselves. For example, when teaching the elbow push escape from side-control, verbal instructions should focus on pushing the opponent’s arm across, rather than focusing on the extension of the learner’s arm – “push your opponent’s arm across his body” as opposed to “extend your arm as far as possible”.

The instruction portion should act as a supplement to practice. A common complaint among instructors is that students try to accumulate techniques by watching videos online, but fail to implement the techniques into their games due to a lack of physical practice.

Motor Control for BJJ 4: The Learning Process

The difference between a novice BJJ player and a veteran BJJ player is how much cognitive activity is needed for certain tasks. A beginner will have to dedicate a huge amount of cognition into just simply moving their bodies around, and the left over cognitive energy will have to be used on just understanding what is going on in that moment (what’s the opponent doing? Are they trying to pass my guard? Which way are they going to pass?). A veteran player will be able to put minimal amount of cognitive energy into movement – and will be able to put most of their brain into tactics and strategy (or what they will eat for dinner after class.)

New practitioners will have to engage in cognitive activity in order to process information during each roll – the student must consciously think about what to do and how to do it. During this stage the student will make a lot of mistakes, which is natural and should be expected by both the instructor and the student.  The student will also not be able to identify or fix their mistakes, so the instructor will need to tell them what they’re doing wrong and how to do it right. During this stage of development of a student, instructors must give lots of attention and instruction in order to grow the student into a blue belt.

As the white belt transitions to a blue belt, they will understand the basic objectives of BJJ, and will know a handful of moves to attempt to complete their objectives. When a white belt is transitioning into a blue belt she will be able to associate specific cues (either seeing a familiar position, or feeling a specific motion) with movements required to achieve their goal, whether the goal is to pass guard, sweep, or submit. These specific cues will be instilled through many repetitions and classes.

The blue belt will be able to perform with fewer and smaller errors due to acquiring basic fundamentals and mechanics of a skill, although they will still have much to improve upon. As the student improves through purple, brown, and black they will be faster at associating cues with movements and able to perform automatically.  It will only be after years of training that a practitioner will be able to engage in autonomic execution of maneuvers.

When a beginner is learning how to attack with a triangle choke they might only be able to complete the motion of setting up the choke during drills against a non-resisting partner. The triangle set-up will be formulaic and robotic due to the student only able to consciously following instruction. The beginner will not be able to use the triangle choke during rolling sessions because they have not begun to associate the movement of the opponent with valid entries for the triangle. As the beginner drills and rolls more the beginner will be able to associate cues of the opponent, such as one arm in and one arm out, with entries to the triangle.  After many years of practice, the student will be able to non-consciously understand when they can use a triangle and non-consciously attack since the skill has become automatic.

In order to progress through these stages of development, a student requires many repetitions of movement to find best way of solving each positional motor problem given the infinite number of external conditions one might encounter due to the fact that movements are never reproduced exactly. The student must drill positions and techniques with as many different body types and levels of resistance as possible. These drills must be changed in ways in order to not present themselves the same way twice, as a large component of learning is “The student must also attempt to use the techniques and maneuvers drilled during live rolling sessions in order to experience as many modifications of the skills as possible.  

An instructor must take great care in order to take into consideration the behavior and thought process of a beginner student in order to tailor the instruction, feedback, and practice conditions to suit the student. The instruction portion of class should also be structured in a way to maximize the student’s learning in the shortest amount of time.

Motor Control for BJJ 3: Stages of Learning

In order to teach a beginner BJJ, you must understand how a beginner learns. While some coaches will try to show a 5-10 techniques in a session thinking they are teaching their students, this only serves to overload most practitioners (personally, I have noticed that after 3 moves I start forgetting key details) . As an instructor, you must take into consideration the behavior and thought process of a beginner student in order to tailor the instruction, feedback, and practice conditions to suit the student.

The skill level of different belt colors varies dramatically, for examples competitive blue belts may be able to compete at a similar level as a hobbyist black belt. This is due to differences in starting abilities of practitioners and promotions based on mat time. However, in general there are clear distinctions between lower and higher belts. For our purposes, a lower belt is a white or blue belt and a higher belt is purple and up.

A higher belt is more consistent in their performance. While a lower belts’ performance can fluctuate dramatically day to day, a higher belt will have learned enough to perform similarly well every training session. A higher belt will have more stability in their game, with internal (thoughts, feelings, fatigue) and external factors (humidity, heat, cold) affecting him or her less. A higher belt has more persistent skills, being able to be away from training for months or years and still being able to perform relatively well during training. A higher belt will also have more adaptability, being able to adapt their maneuvers and movements against new opponents and new contexts, and able to improvise techniques. A higher belt will also need to pay less attention to their motor commands and will be able to assign more attention on strategy.

The transition from a lower belt to a higher belt is very slow, with vast improvements in skills and abilities during the early stages of training. The rate of improvement is logarithmic, with the greatest increase in skill occurring at the earlier years. A huge amount of learning occurs during the beginning few months of a person’s BJJ career.

In many gyms students are placed within the already occurring curriculum and are expected to learn along with students who are already learning. This is not optimal for new students as they lack a basis for understanding why techniques or movements are used. The new student will not understand what they are supposed to do or why they are supposed to do something when instructed to do so. In order to jump start a new student’s development, beginners should be informed of the following:
⦁ What the objectives are
⦁ What is allowed to meet the objective
⦁ How to move their bodies in order to meet the objective

Motor Control for BJJ 2: Skill Learning

BJJ beginners will often find it difficult to learn the motor skills in BJJ, such as sprawling, hip bumping, and break falls. Learning submissions and sweeps may seem incredibly difficult, and executing these moves during rolling may seem impossible. However, as training time increases executing skills during drilling will become easier, and executing these moves during sparring will become second nature.

A common belief among coaches is that the only way to improve is “mat time,” with many believing in the myth of expertise being obtained after 10,000 hours of mat time. While it is true that students will become better at BJJ as time spent drilling and rolling increases, the total amount of time poorly correlates with skill improvement.

As you train, you will find that there will be dedicated practitioners who will stay as a white belt for many years despite hundreds of hours of mat time accumulated. You will also find the rare individual who will start their BJJ career able to roll competitively with higher belts. This discrepancy between skill level and mat time exists due to the inherent abilities that are possessed by people. If someone has wrestled before they will have a lot of well-developed skills that overlap with BJJ. If someone decides to do BJJ after a lifetime of sedentary behavior, they will have to develop skills from the ground up.

Learning BJJ is hard for everyone, but it will be harder for some than others. However, approaching training and drilling sessions with a scientific approach will allow us to optimize skill learning. Many students are on a limited time schedule and must sacrifice time with their family or performing important job functions in order to attend BJJ classes. It is imperative that classes are structured in a way to optimize skill learning and increasing performance of a student. The goal of an instructor should be to maximize the student’s learning of BJJ. Every warm-up and drill should be structured in order to maximize the learning process of a student. Any part of class that is not catered in a way to help a student progress should be critically evaluated.

Motor Control for BJJ 1: Intro to Motor Control / BJJ Complexity

Motor control is the process in which humans learn to coordinate their muscles and bodies in order to create a movement. Motor control lays the coordination foundations for movement. Motor learning is the process of learning the actual coordination of specific motor skills. 

The question is this: when do you consider a skill learned? You may have noticed that you can execute a technique during practice against varying degrees of resistance, but won’t be able to execute the same technique during live rolls. After hundreds of repetitions of a technique you still will not be able to execute a technique. Why? Is this a problem with drilling or a problem with learning? In this series I will present ways to improve skill learning and optimize performance. 


BJJ is one of the most difficult martial arts to learn due to the complexity of movements and strategies involved. During live rolling sessions, two practitioners must try to move and reach their movement goals while their opponent is actively trying to stifle their advancement and achieve their own movement goals. Each practitioner must try to time their movements to take advantage of their opponent’s balance, and to find stability as their opponent tries to destabilize them. Every roll is unique due to the varying anthropometrics of each practitioner (mass, height, limb length) and the near infinite strategies one may adopt for each roll. Each practitioner must understand how to control their opponent by gripping their gi or limbs, or taking advantage of lever points inherent in the human body. 

It is often difficult for new practitioners to become proficient in grappling because most people do not have much experience moving around on the floor after they learned to walk. Other martial arts are much easier to pick up since the basic posture is upright and standing, while the postures for BJJ mostly consists of lying on the ground with your back against the floor or with your front against your opponent. Moving from these positions and postures is extraordinarily difficult for most new practitioners, and you’ll find that many times a beginner will not be able to complete the warm-up section of class – particularly shrimping and crawling sequences. Learning these basic movements will enable a practitioner to quickly improve their BJJ. Once a new practitioner is comfortable with basic movements, they will quickly discover that those basic movements only provide a starting point for more complex movements and actions. The level of complexity in movements quickly increases from basic movements to such movements as inversions and basic gymnastics. 

The other reason BJJ is one of the more difficult martial arts is due to the complexity of the strategy involved in each roll. Every position has many different available movements and maneuvers, and each maneuver will chain off into different maneuvers. Every technique has a counter-technique, and every counter-technique has a counter-counter-technique. All of these strategic choices must be made in real-time while under pressure of an opponent who is actively trying to achieve their own goals. 

No sport consists of a singular skill, but many different skills that are put together to create a game. In team sports such as basketball or football each player is given a position in which they have to learn a set of skills to accomplish the goals of the position. In BJJ however, each player must learn the skillsets required for every position. Each student must learn the movements and techniques associated with every position of the sport and become a threat in as many positions as possible.