Getting to the level of expert in anything requires years of practice and discipline. It is true for anyone who wants to obtain a black belt in jiu-jitsu or become a virtuoso musician. Part of the reason why it takes so long is because learning these skills requires multiple types of knowledge to establish expertise.

The first type of knowledge is theoretical. At its most basic, it is the knowledge of the steps necessary to complete a task. In jiu-jitsu, this means understanding how to perform a triangle choke or a guillotine, while in music it means understanding what notes make up a chord. As you acquire more theoretical knowledge, you may come to have a greater understanding of the principles behind the mechanics of the move or why the chord sounds “right” to your ear.

The second type of knowledge is what is known as applied knowledge. It involves learning not only how to perform the steps necessary to complete an armbar or play a chord, but how to translate that knowledge into physical action. It is skill acquisition.

These two types of knowledge are very different. The first one is binary. Either you know how to complete a triangle choke or play a C major chord, or you don’t. Applied knowledge is different. You have to develop muscle memory and learn how to do it in different contexts. Especially in the case of martial arts, you also have to do this under pressure.

To do so, jiu-jitsu fighters may spend years going over the mechanics of individual moves, practicing technique, and drilling. However, as coach John Danaher notes on the below clip from the Lex Fridman Podcast, not all drilling is equally effective.

What Is Drilling?

According to Danaher, we have to first define drilling before we know if it’s an effective means through which to get better at jiu-jitsu.  According to him, most people think that drilling involves going to the gym, picking a move, and then practicing it for a certain number of repetitions. Through this process, he says, you aim to get better at the technique. “They’re wrong,” he concludes.

“Any movement in the gym that doesn’t improve the skills you already have or build new skills is a waste of time,” he says. “Everything you do should be done with the aim and the understanding that this is going to make me better at the sport I practice. If it’s not, it shouldn’t be there.”

According to Danaher, the majority of what passes as drilling will not make you better. Picking an arbitrary number of repetitions, and then doing something for that number of times, he says, has no bearing on improving your technique. This is because your primary thought process is about volume. You’re not concentrating on refinement or improvement of mechanics; you’re just thinking about hitting a certain number.

“There is no performance increase that comes once you get to a certain level and you just keep doing the same thing,” Danaher says.

What Is Effective Drilling?

For Danaher, effective drilling is seen as the counterpart to sparring. It is not simply rehearsing the same move with a disinterested partner. Instead, you and your partner should recognize that drilling, even when they are offering no resistance, is a cooperative venture. They need to work with you to make it an interesting and more dynamic exercise.

Learning Fight Dynamics

Drilling can help with skill refinement and muscle memory, but even good drilling is only part of the equation. According to Danaher, you cannot become accustomed to the dynamics of a fight if your partner is offering little to no resistance.

There’s more to jiu-jitsu than just learning techniques and building up muscle memory; you also have to learn how to apply those techniques against an actual opponent. For Danaher, this means creating a training program that imparts knowledge to his students. He wants them to recognize what problems they’re trying to solve, and then devise a way to effectively solve them. Once they have that knowledge, they then work on acquiring, refining, and polishing skill by perfecting their mechanics and learning to engage with others by feel.

Drilling is an important part of the equation, but simply completing a certain number of drills every day is not a formula for success or a way to become an expert at jiu-jitsu. For Danaher, drilling and sparring are counterparts. In the case of the former, you are working with your partner to make them better and offering little to no resistance. In the latter, you are working against your partner to defeat them and offering total resistance. A well-rounded class will offer both.