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Understanding the Process
At the core of any successful teaching or coaching there is an understanding of the motor learning process, and jiu-jitsu is not an exception. Motor-skill learning refers to an internal process that follows any practice or experience that leads into permanent or potential changes in behavior (performance). By potential what we mean is that once the skill has been learned, the likelihood of observing the new behavior in the future, be it competition or practice, is quite high but not certain. During class, for example, we can have our student drill a certain move and only observe the skill being well-performed during situational training or sparring days or even weeks later.

Cognitive Phase of jiu-jitsu

Phases of Motor Skill Learning

Cognitive Phase
During this phase athletes gain an understanding of how the skill is to be performed. In this phase the instructor describes the different steps and key elements of the technique and the reasons or conditions for which the technique is applicable. The athlete on the other part engages in the process by paying attention, memorizing the key elements and making sense of the new information by relating them to already known material. As a result, the athlete develops a motor program of the skill, which is an abstract and internal representation of the technique.

This representation can be:

  1. Visual – a memory of how the coach applied the technique
  2. Verbal – key words that remind them of the proper steps to successfully apply the move
  3. Proprioceptive – a memory of how a successful application of technique is supposed to feel

It’s important to mention that during this phase there is so much conscious attention toward the details of the move that the athlete lacks attention to key factors of the environment. During sparring, for example, the athlete might be more focused on remembering the steps to opening the closed guard that he or she doesn’t realize that his opponent is already setting up the armbar. That’s why in my opinion it’s so important for the coach to design live practices regardless of how new the student is. This is part of the mental exercise that jiu-jitsu requires at the early stages of training, the balance between retrieving information from our memory bank and reading external cues.

Autonomous jiu-jitsu

Associative Phase
The focus of this phase is refinement. Athletes gradually eliminate unnecessary movements making their performance more efficient. During this phase the visual control of movement is replaced by proprioceptive control, that means that the new skill doesn’t need to be constantly watched by the athlete and can be guided by the way the technique feels. The student who is learning the scissor sweep from the closed guard doesn’t need to watch his or her hand on the lapel and the sleeve or the position of their legs anymore. The movement is controlled by the way his or her body feels in regard to a proper successful application of the move.  There is an association between the success of the move and the way it feels while applying it by the athlete.

To accomplish the refinement of the new skill it is important to understand its nature. In the case of jiu-jitsu, the skills that we learned fall into the category of open skills, and those are skills in which the environment changes or is unpredictable, which is different than closed skill, where the environment is stable, like bowling, for example.  In this case jiu-jitsu practice has to be diverse, switching positions and partners to teach the athlete to quickly adapt to the demands of any situation. Therefore situational training and mixing training partners becomes mandatory to make the athletes better at anticipating changes in the environment.

Autonomous jiu-jitsu

Autonomous Phase
This phase emerges when the learner can perform the skill at a maximum level with very little conscious attention to the details of the movement. The athlete’s motor program is highly developed and well established in memory. Therefore by not having to concentrate on executing the skill, the athlete can focus on other things. For example, during competition athletes can set up the grips for a sweep while taking in consideration the time left on the clock, the scoreboard, their coaches’ instructions, the way his or her opponent is moving and the best way to end up on top without surrendering any points in return. It’s important to mention that the time it requires to reach this phase varies from athlete to athlete and depends on the abilities of the individual, the learner’s prior movement experiences, the complexity of the task and the efficiency of the learning environment.  

In conclusion, similar to any other sport, learning and teaching jiu-jitsu requires an understanding of the motor learning process and the phases it involves. Understanding these phases can help us become not just better learners but also better teachers, with more empathy to our students’ experience of learning a new skill.