When you learn math as a child, you start with basic counting, then addition, then subraction, you learn multiplication and division, and then on to higher level algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. You build off previous knowledge and skill and use it as the base for more complicated problem solving and abstract thinking.
It has been said by many people that the art of Brazilian Jiujitsu is high-level problem solving. Much like chess where you strategically advance your position against an opponent that is actively trying to advance their position against you. In BJJ, you must solve problems in real time and deal with a constantly changing landscape as your opponent brings their skills to bear on beating you.
We can all remember when we were white belts going against purple belts and the experience was much like a fifth grader trying to take a high school calculus exam. You simply did not have the tools be effective. The problems were too hard and you simply could not solve them fast enough for you to be successful.
How do we learn to be problem solvers in jiujitsu? Initially things are very algorithmic and linear. For example, someone is mounted on you and you learn to bridge and reverse the position. Then you learn the elbow escape as another possible escape from mounted position. Eventually, you learn to combine the two moves in order to maximize your effectiveness. This is basic problem solving.
Techniques are the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. You can think of each technique as solution to a problem. This technique is how your break the grip. This technique is how you open the guard. As you get more advanced, the techniques get more advanced and are often comprised of many sub-techniques. In order to get from one position to another you will have to go through several other positions along the way. Thus, your ability to successfully get to where you want will require the ability to use multiple techniques to successfully overcome each problem along the way. For example, you have an opponent in your closed guard and you want to take their back. In order to get to your opponents back, you must be able to get your head higher than their head and reach around their back to their far lat and get a grip. But before you can do that you must take their elbow past your center line. However, before you can move their elbow, you have to break their grip. Now the order of operation is set: break their grip, pass the elbow across your centerline, get your head higher than their head, grab their lat, take the back. Once you have the outline you have to solve each problem before you can tackle the next problem but if you solve each problem correctly, you can advance to your opponent’s back.
Thus we can start to see how this thinking is a very linear algorithm: if A, then B; if B, then C; if C, then D, etc. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, you figure out the problems that you will need to solve to get there and then proceed to solve the problems.
How can we bring the same problem solving mentality to our solo drilling? This is the important question to ask if you want to stay sharp while training on your own. Initially, we learn by repetition. Whether it’s multiplication tables or armbars, we drill over and over again until they become reflexive. The old axiom is “You do not practice until you get it right, you practice until you cannot get it wrong.” However, we have all been in the situation where a move feels effortless in drilling but impossible to execute against a live opponent. So drilling is not enough.
In addition to drilling, we need to practice our improvisational skills, our ability to problem solve in real time. In drilling you know what is next and you are not trying to create new solutions but rather memorize old solutions. In improvisation, you are trying to solve new problems in real time. The difference between drilling and sparring is like the difference between playing your scales and sitting in the with the band.
Solo drills are usually done in warmups. And the way we practice is through repetition. Sometimes we do 10 bridges, 10 technical stand-ups, and 10 sprawls. Sometimes everybody lines up on one end of the mat and shrimps down to the other end and gets up and walks back to beginning and then this time they do forward rolls. You keep drilling like this or in a similar manner for most of your BJJ career. That’s fine for a warmup and is a good way to get your reps in. If you’re a white belt, then that is what you should be doing However, eventually you want to move and think like a jiujitsu player.
You have to stop thinking of reps and start thinking about the connection of movements and positions. Let’s say you do a few shrimps and run out of room. Do not just get up and walk back to the other side of the room. Figure out what moves are going to enable you to get back to the other side of the mat. You can bridge and get to your knees and then forward roll, you can do a technical stand up and do low lunges or shooting drills, you can forward shrimp, or you can sit up and do collar drag drills, The important thing is that you do not merely do reps. Instead you should think of what movement connects to this movement or how can I move across the mat or how can I go from here to there using jiujitsu moves.
Try to get from one position to another position, from your back to your belly and use the jiujitsu moves that you know. There are dozens of ways to solve that problem of going from your back to your belly using moves you do in jiujitsu. For example you can bridge over one shoulder and go to your knees or you could do a backward roll and go to your belly just to name two ways. If your movement goal is to get from one side of the mat to the other likewise there are many ways to accomplish that using basic grappling moves. Thus your practice is now not about learning words, but rather about putting words into sentences. You are developing the ability to link movements together to get from position A to position B. That requires you to do some creative problem solving and accesses that part of your brain that you use when you train jiujitsu. The more you do this the more fun you have and the more interesting drilling and warming up becomes. You can start to visual that may actually arise and you can start to shadow grapple the same way that boxers shadow box. Thus now your brain can connect the movements to actual situations and then you can access these moves much faster when you find yourself in the situations you practiced.
Go ahead and start to practice flowing from position to position. Try to find several ways to get from A to B and then from B to C. Things will start to open up for you and your solo training will be much more productive.