Repetition is NOT the Mother of Skill!!!

…or father, or grandparent, but maybe it’s the second cousin twice removed?…All kidding and tropes aside, consider the claim in the title above and ask yourself how you would define skill in movement and sports, and particularly grappling.

The following are two of my critical principles, which I’ve learned from training, competing, and coaching jiu-jitsu and wrestling for the past decade.

First…Repetition is the mother of technique! (not skill)

Second…Skill is the application of a technique within a specific context! (underscore ‘specific context’)

Make sense??? I’ve written about this before, but the key variable here is successfully replicating the correct context–or in ecological psychology nomenclature, the ‘representative environment’–during your practice sessions. Technique application within the correct scenario is what drives skill.

Otherwise, trainees risk having a set of techniques that they can perform on a willing partner but not against a resistant combatant, whether it be during a tournament against another wrestler/jiu-jiteiro, on the playground with a bully, or in the street against an attacker.

So, when designing our practices, we should embrace grappling–and any combat sport, for that matter–as a complex and dynamic system, one whose variables and outcomes are almost impossible to predict moment by moment. Which consequently means we should not even attempt to develop grappling skills in a static environment!

Get ready for the high falutin part of this post! While grappling, two people are driven by the perception of affordances to attack and defend. Both will self-organize into what’s termed in environmental psychology as interpersonal synergy, a state where the perceptions and actions of both athletes are coupled.

Consequently, to be successful in grappling, athletes need to manipulate and take advantage of the (in)stability of the system and apply brinkmanship, which essentially means combatants need to be aware of their action boundaries while purposefully acting on the limits of their capabilities. This sounds a lot like the much-desired ‘flow state’ or ‘flow channel’…

That’s a lot of jargon, but to make my points more concise, if you’re a struggling coach–or even a trainee who’s not acquiring skill at a sufficient pace–you should start redesigning your practice sessions so that they better facilitate perception and brinksmanship (i.e., dynamic actions) within a representative environment. Otherwise, you’re at risk of developing technique but not skill.

Below is a clip of how we’re training kids to hip heist and escape takedowns, pins, etc. Typically hip-heisting is taught cognitively as a technique where kids put their back and shoulders against a wall, the coach blows the whistle, and everyone tries to powerfully switch their hips before their backs hit the mat.

The wall drill is great for warming up the muscles and nervous system, and it can be a lot of fun, but notice that performing hip heists against a static object (the wall) does not integrate perception and brinkmanship, nor does it encompass a representative environment where one will actually need to escape!

So here’s how we’re trying to help kids build hip-heisting as an embodied skill (while also trying to eliminate guard pulling, which–sorry jiu-jitsu–might be an expression of lack of skill). This is just one example of the ‘grappling games’ we facilitate in our practices for kids and adults. Again, our foremost objective in designing these games is the coupling of perception and action for the ‘combatants’.

Note, too, as practitioners develop good skills in this game, we’ll eventually increase the complexity to make it even more representative of a dynamic grappling competition.

Please let us know what you think, and hope to see you on the mats soon!

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