Oct 28

Must learning be easy in order to be effective

“Expert performance is a product of the quantity and quality of practice, not of genetic predisposition.” Make It Stick


A few months ago, there was a debate on the best training methods for jiu-jitsu, which focused on drilling. For those of us who train, it is an interesting topic of discussion because time is limited, and we desire to maximize the effectiveness of every moment we spend in the gym.

The question is how, and the answer may be counter-intuitive.

There is an assumption that learning must be easy for it to be effective. That just seems right. It’s intuitive, but what if it was dead wrong? What if instead difficulty and challenge are the seeds for massive growth?

The Tale of Two Practices

As an experiment, players from a baseball team were split into two groups, and each were given a different training program.

The first group had a structured practice where they each had to hit 45 pitches, split evenly into three sets of curveballs, fastballs and changeups. By contrast, the batters in the other group were thrown 45 completely random pitches.

What do you think the result of that experiment was over time? Do you think the first group improved at a quicker rate because their practice was more structured?

Yes is the intuitive answer. We expect that if there is structure to your training, you’ll improve faster than someone that is all over the place. That’s why the result of this experiment is interesting.

At the start, the first group had a clear advantage. Their rate of improvement was superior, but over time, the situation reversed. The second group slowly crept up until they were neck and neck then boom they were gone and the first group was left in the dust.

When you step back and think about it, there is logic to the result, and it starts with acknowledging that the programs of each group had different difficulty levels.

The first group had an easier path because they didn’t have to worry about recognizing what type of pitch would be thrown. They knew the structure and order so they only had to focus on hitting the ball. The situation was different for the second group. They had to recognize the pitch and react in time to hit.

The challenge forced them to develop more skills but it required more time for the results to appear. The lesson we can take from that is that the difficulty of practice is what determines the growth potential of what can be achieved.

How the Lesson Applies to Jiu-jitsu

In the long term, it is better to focus on movements, concepts and techniques that challenge us. When you encounter something that doesn’t come easy to you, that’s exactly what you should focus on.

In my own experience, whenever I have made a consistent effort to learn something that I struggled with, it has paid dividends far beyond the time invested in training. The first example I can think of is the granby roll. At the start, I couldn’t do it at all, but I wanted it so I spent time outside of class drilling it, and within two weeks I had it.

That opened the door to every last technique that uses that movement.

Assume That You Can Learn Anything

“I’m just not good at this.”

“How do you know?”

That’s a recent conversation I had with a student. We were going over the simple armbar from closed guard, and he was having trouble with it. He just couldn’t understand how it worked so he made fundamental errors. That’s natural though. Struggling when learning something new is expected.

In fact, it is something that we should embrace.

In this specific situation, it was only his sixth class, so he had so much room to grow but believing that you can’t is the best way to ensure that you won’t.

An Experiment of My Own

Within the next week, I’m going to take video of me attempting to perform all the techniques shown in the video below. Then I’m going to initiate a training program where I’ll drill one of the options for a few minutes either before or after training for a period of a few weeks, and then make another video to see if any progress has been made and how much.

For this experiment, I’ve chosen a position that is far removed from my own game, and we’ll see the result.