K. Anders Ericsson studies experts. He has spent his career asking the question, what is it that makes a world class expert? It didn’t matter what field he studied, over and over again he found that at the top level of everything from chess to business to sports, there was only one thing that the world class experts had in common, many years of deliberate practice in their field. The one area where genetics or ‘natural talent’ did make a measurable difference is in sports where height and weight are important like football or basketball. Talent, it turns out, is no substitute for hard work.
When you first start training in BJJ you’ll make rapid progress in your skills and in a remarkably short period of time (maybe 50 hours) you reach a level of basic competence. Now you will start thinking less and reacting more intuitively. At this point your game may improve only a little bit at a time, and some people can stay at this level for years. To improve from this level you will need to engage in deliberate practice over a long period of time.
What is a long period of time? How about more than a decade of study? Across all the different disciplines Ericsson studied, it took an average of 10,000 hours of practice to develop world class expertise. At 2 hours a day that is almost 14 years. And 2 hours of practice a day seems to be about as much time as most people can concentrate and engage in deliberate practice.
You have to be careful with how you invest your time. Deliberate practice involves spending time and effort working on the skills and movements that you can’t do well, or even things that you can’t do at all. Spending most of your practice time on favorite moves that you are already good at won’t improve your game. You’ll also need to work to develop muscle memory so that your body reacts automatically, before your brain needs to think about what to do.
Besides the physical movements, you will also need to learn how to think deliberately. Golfer Ben Hogan once explained it like this, “While I am practicing, I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.” Hogan would think through where he wanted the ball to go and how it would get there. We need to develop the same type of thought process in BJJ. Where do we want to move? How can we get to a certain position? What happens if our opponent does this or that?
Another aspect of becoming world class is the quality of your instruction. You can begin to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in your garage with a couple of training partners, but it is highly unlikely that you will ever become expert if you stay there. You need a teacher who can help you to develop your game, and a variety of training partners who can challenge you and push your limits.
One trap that some BJJ players fall into happens when they have become good enough to beat everyone in their circle of training partners and start to rely on instinct alone when rolling. The development of their game can stall unless they are very deliberate in their training and disciplined in how they practice.
So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to become great overnight. It isn’t going to happen without putting in the time. You are on a long journey that will take many years but your deliberate practice will trump talent and athletic ability every time. Enjoy the journey.
- Bill Thomas