Jiujitsu and Specificity of Language

Note: This article originally appeared in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.2.

I took an introductory jiujitsu class this week. Jiujitsu is unlike anything that I have done previously. However, the initial learning curve was made steeper because of unspecific language. Several times, my more experienced partner or the instructor said “put this leg there” or “that arm there.” As a novice trying to imitate an expert’s one or two demonstrations to get a position, the unspecific language made the learning more complex. Which leg is “that one,” my right or my left? When an athlete is confused, “that” or “this” does not simplify the action. When instructing, coaches should use language that is as accurate and specific as possible.

Beyond the unspecific language, I appreciated the learning approach. Jiujitsu is a sport that requires an opponent, like wrestling. It is difficult to practice moving into a position or going for a submission against air. This naturally creates a decision-training style of instruction, as the instructor showed an action and then we partnered and took turns making the move over and over in a non-competitive manner. In the first move, I unbalanced my opponent to get to a dominant position, kept hold of his arm and rolled into an arm bar. While practicing, my opponent did not fight or resist – he went with the movement. During the class, we practiced for about 45 minutes and then rolled for 15 minutes to incorporate the things that we had learned in a more competitive environment. In a sense, the instructor demonstrated a concept or position, we played small-sided games and then scrimmaged.

I prefer this style of learning where the athlete has a chance to learn by doing and learn from his mistakes without the instructor or coach immediately correcting every mistake or instructing throughout the session. The instructor watched and added brief instructions to improve my foot placement for leverage or to remind me not to lay back too quickly when going for the arm bar.

I talk less each season that I coach. If I teach a move, and the player struggles on the first repetition, I do not stop the player and re-explain. Learning does not occur through the listening. Why overwhelm the player with more instruction? The more mental resources that he uses to process the verbal explanations in his prefrontal cortex, the less resources he has to feel the movement through more sensory-oriented areas of the brain like the motor cortex, basal ganglia and parietal lobe.

Instead, I allow the player to work through his mistakes and try the move a couple more times before I instruct more. I save my instructions for correcting specific things, like my instructor pointing out a slight adjustment in my foot placement to improve my leverage. With specific instructions and limited feedback, I feel players learn better and are able to handle different situations in a game without relying on the coach for all the answers.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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