Drilling is an integral part of any sport and, in my opinion, its value within the context of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu cannot be understated. It’s hardly a debate that best practitioners are those who engage with a rigorous combination of both drilling and live training.
Sports scientists are discovering more and more about the connections between drilling and building neural pathways that help us to build better motor memory; making it very hard to dispute the irreplaceable value that repetition of technical movements hold.
I’d like to explore this theme in depth, discussing the importance of drilling, common misconceptions about drilling, current theories in sports science and some more nuanced reflections on its value.
In my opinion, the best practitioners that we see today are those who engage with drilling extensively as well as live sparring. The Mendes Brothers, Andre Galvao, Josh Hinger, JT Torres and Cobrinha to name a few, are not only some of the best active competitors in the world, but are also proponents and examples of what structured, thorough drilling regimens can achieve.
The value of drilling cannot be understated. For those of us who aspire to become proficient, detail oriented martial artists, drilling not only aids in development, but dramatically accelerate their rate of improvement when engaged with meaningfully.
There are debates regarding the importance of drilling, and some would argue that it is not a necessity; however I must disagree with this. Let’s take a complete beginner, or even a relatively new practitioner, and subject them to a regimen of training that does not include the drilling of basic techniques. How can these students hope to make meaningful improvements without developing the ability to repeatedly execute a technique correctly? How can the boxer learn to throw an effective combination without repeatedly practicing the sequence? How can the MMA fighter learn to defend take downs without repeatedly drilling responses? Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is no different; drilling allows a practitioner to develop any technique to a level where they can effectively execute that technique and understand the mechanics that govern successful application.
Current scientific theory supports this too. Many studies have shown the impact that drilling has on an athlete’s brain. The repeated drilling of a technique strengthens neural pathways in the brain, essentially making it more efficient for messages to travel along synapses and thereby improving reaction times. Drilling is crucial in the development of motor learning and developing “muscle memory”, where we essentially commit the sequence of movements required to execute a technique to motor memory.
I’m not a sports scientist or neurologist. I can only engage with findings from these specialists in their work and publications. What I can speak to from my own experience however, is the benefits that I have found for myself from engaging with regular drilling. The more I drill, the more I find that my body is capable of executing movements and techniques with little to no additional exertion. In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, being efficient is everything. I have found that I have become a far more efficient practitioner through engaging with a rigorous and consistent drilling regimen.
Besides the tangible benefits of drilling, I believe that it also has a number of mental benefits. Drilling instills a sense of discipline in a practitioner. By fixing errors, pushing through frustrations or difficulties with applying a technique correctly and eventually finding success; practitioners who drill develop a strong sense of discipline and focus.
“I just want to roll!” is not an uncommon statement heard on the mats. However, it highlights a major misconception held by some practitioners. Live training or rolling, in most traditionally structured classes, is reserved for after the period where technique is shown and practiced. Live sparring is an opportunity to apply what has just been shown & to hone skills and strategy.
As mentioned earlier, how could you simply throw a beginner into live training without having shown them technique or having given them the chance to try the technique and develop confidence in executing it? I have found that most students who “just want to roll.” are also those who would benefit the most from drilling.
There is a close relationship between drilling and live sparring; the two work in cycles to help improve a practitioners skill set, help build muscle memory and sharpen reflexes. You cannot expect to improve if you engage with one and not the other.
Hopefully this has shed some new light on the topic for you. I enjoy engaging with a topic such as this, as there are a number of opinions and theories around. “Drillers make Killers.” was something I was told by Nic Gregoriades when I was still just a relatively new white belt. That is something that really stuck with me, and I find it harder and harder to prove otherwise as I continue to train.
Thanks for reading.