Drills, Rolling and the Importance of the Chess Game

A training partner of mine once asked me asked me if I thought sparring was important. I quickly answered yes to give him a short and simple answer. But as I was trying to describe why, I was having trouble explaining myself without giving an hour-long lecture. But eventually, I made the point that the fight game isn’t just about physical reaction (although that’s really important too). There’s not to many drills or methods of pad work that can simulate someone trying plot against you to inflict damage. A person trying their best to put smart you. The way to describe that without hundreds of words to explain…… a game of chess.

Martial artists like Icy Mike will note that using the term “chess” in fighting is cliche but it’s the most quick and accurate way to describe technical sparring. Not much can simulate the live action chess game going on between you and the person you’re fighting. The set-ups, timing, the anticipation, the faints, the baiting, the trickery, the studying, the ability to predict the other person because you know exactly what they want and what they’re trying to do. Of course, the physicality of fighting is included in all of this as well. Things like aggression or lack of aggression can mess with the flow of how one person engages in another. Although, nothing can truly impersonate what’s its like to engage with another person, you can practice drills to sharpen yourself. As one of my coaches loves to say: “Drills makes Skills.”

And those drills need to be mastered to increase attributes. And done repetitively. Some drills may not simulate fighting in any way but the attributes try help with will help while fighting. 

When it comes to the repetitive drilling, it’s not about knowing the technique. It’s about KNOWING the technique. I want that technique to be in your subconscious. I want it to be apart of your DNA. If you have a child, that child is born not knowing how to walk they better know how to shrimp. You should be able to wake up for head trauma like Jason Bourne and know how to maneuver without realizing it. You should know that technique like you know what 2+2 is. You should know how to do that technique like you know how to walk. You should know drilled techniques like you know how to blink. 

Why do I lists these extremes? Well, a lot of techniques you do are going to be under pressure. If the person you are fighting against is any good, you will be under a lot of pressure. And under pressure, people tend to breakdown. When people breakdown people tend to get tired, sloppy and revert to bad habits. That’s why those bad habits need to not exist in the first place. Even in the state of exhaustion, you should automatically have good execution. Turn action into reaction. You should able to be injured with the flu and still execute goodness technique. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point.

Even with my personal journey, the times I was working under an instructor are the I excelled in my jiujitsu. I would do a lot of rolling with a lot of people but eventually I would hit a plateau and not advance in my abilities. Getting into drills is exactly how I was able to learn new techniques and improve techniques I already knew. And trust when I say to not underestimate the power of improving on old knowledge. As a practitioner now, I would say the biggest difference between me as a blue belt and me as white belt is that my technique has gone from maybe 35% proficiency to 80% proficiency. I don’t really do a whole lot of fancy maneuvers. I’ve probably learned a few more submissions and positions but largely I stick to a lot of the same things as i did as a white belt. I’m just better at those techniques. There’s a major difference being able to catch a triangle choke and being able to finish a triangle choke.

That’s why we must also be honest with ourselves when it comes to drilling. Always keeping the purpose of the drill in mind and not cheating yourself out of the benefit. If the drill is supposed to work speed, let it work speed. If the drill is intended to help with explosion, focus on explosion. If the drill helps with reaction, make sure you’re working reaction. If the drill is supposed help with coordination, let it help with coordination. People tend not to realize how much little motions help with common motions. Even little things like footwork or not making extra movements can help a lot with efficiency. 

Many times, you don’t know what a drill can do for you until you stop using it. 

Also remembering that it’s JUST A DRILL!

I can’t tell you how many times I have to tell younger students practicing drills that they’re not fighting for a reward. You’re supposed to let your partner hit you or you’re supposed to play dumb so your partner gets the motion.

 Some people in general think everything has to be in the context of fighting. Not everything is to work specifically on fighting. A lot of drills are to work on attributes made to be a good fighter or martial artist. Boxers don’t hit a speed bag and expect to actually hit somebody like that. It’s for timing. ITS A DRILL. No one is going to let you float them on your hips; it’s a drill. Board breaking believe it or not is a drill for power and accuracy. Swinging armbar drills are drills to help with motion. Same thing goes for shrimping. No one is going to square up with somebody in a horse stance to punch them; it’s just a drill. Even katas or patterns are just big, fat elaborate drills. 

With the case of patterns, they basically help with everything except speed…. and even then they can help with that. A mixture of footwork, balancing, coordination, self defense movements, motion drills, posturing, different moves and even sometimes combinations moves. Believe it or not, BJJ has them too. Some people call them flow drills. Even in styles like Kenjitsu (Japanese sword work), they have the same thing. They’re technically patterns or kata but they are usually very short, to the point and require a cutting combination that starts with a draw and ends with sheathing.

Since they’re more concise, it’s easier to keep track of the goal when it comes to movements. A training partner of mine asked our grandmaster in Taekwondo, Bu Kwan Park, what is the main purpose behind patters. His response was “in the military they teach you how to use a gun, clean it, dissemble it, move it around, load it, unload it right? You may not use all of those motions in a gun fight but in the heat of the moment, you better know your gun that well. No time to be hesitating and fumbling around in the middle of a gun fight. With patterns, you’re learning how to handle your own body. 

And there was a familiar purpose. Knowing something so well that you shouldn’t have to think about it under pressure……. things that drills help with. 

That’s why going through those motions repetitively is so important. Those 10,000 reps as people refer to reaching mastery.

But, there’s something of sin that that’s known to be done by a lots of traditional martial arts teachers and older BJJ coaches. Y’all know what I’m talking about………..y’all talk too much. Lecture is important, but too much time talking about technique and not actually practicing won’t get practitioners super far. I’m sorry to say this training has to be balanced between discussion and execution. I met a gentleman in college who was a JKD practitioner who would bring the Way of the Intercepting Fist (which is a great book by the way) into the matroom . One day we sparred, and I was able to read his telegraphs and countered him with basic combinations. He was surprised and impressed by my reaction time and set ups of head kicks. My explanation for how I tagged and countered him was some of the same things he was already studying….. I was just well practiced in actually executing these concepts.  The same concepts that Bruce Lee preached were the things I actually did. Once again, those 10,000 repetitions.

Don’t get the wrong impression, books are itmportant to have on the mat as well. But don’t spend all the talking about technique and concepts but little time actually practicing these techniques and concepts. It’s P.E. class where you talk about exercise but never actually do it. It’s like a math class where you discuss how to solve equations but never actually put pen to paper and use methods to actually solve problems. It makes sense how some traditional coaches and teachers get really bad in the habit of teaching drill and not teaching why we do the drill. At least if you have the muscle memory, you can figure out the purpose of motions and drills. 

But, of course, Bruce Lee also said in one of his famous movies “bricks don’t fight back.” You need resistance in order to keep your techniques sharp and know what’s effective. Hence the concept of sparring or rolling. And the resistance isn’t just purely physical. 

Ask anybody who fights or participates in some form of combative sports; they will tell you fighting is more about outthinking someone. It’s doesn’t matter if the person you’re fighting is literally half your size, if they know exactly what you’re going to do and when you are doing it…….. there’s no way you will win that fight. A battle of the minds. Hence how people often refer to fighting as a chess game. Even in this regard somebody, whether trained or untrained, can be escape or defend certain movements from someone who is trained. Even if they haven’t seen a technique before. It’s the battle to outthink someone one that is determined to resist you. And yes, the same thing applies on a physical level. Technique can be countered with physicality the effectiveness of that physicality can depend on the power of that physicality in comparison to the technique. 

In other words, the success of a technique depends on how strong, fast, and etc. of the opposing person and success of physicality depends on how good is the technician. If the techniques weak, it’s not going to beat a physically able person. If technique is strong it can defeat a physically able person. Which is the other reason for rolling or sparring…… to keep technique sharp. 

Personally, I am very skeptical of gyms, academies or practitioners that don’t spar or compete. It’s one thing if certain fighters choose not to have sparring as part of their regiment anymore because they already know what their training is in reference to. But to have people come up as a martial artist without some kind of sparring is crazy to me. Sparring is one of the best ways to know if your technique is effective and how effective. It’s the reason why BJJ is so unique and boasted to be so effective.

Techniques are constantly being tested in the gauntlet that is rolling. Engaging against someone who is actually resisting and trying to counter. Skill is constantly being strained to develop and maintain effectiveness. If something works or doesn’t work, it will be revealed under the bright light of rolling. No matter the time put in or rank, no practitioner is above the scrutiny of being tested (except for those injured or disabled in some way). A culture  in which everyone from high rank to low rank is kept sharp and put in their place. 

The constant pressure of rolling and competition is what keeps BJJ so sharp and evolving to be become more effective. 

The lack of sparring and testing of technique is the reason why the George Dillmans of the world exist. A lot of traditional martial artist fall into the habit of not sparring and developing new techniques. Sometimes a small change in technique can be the difference between movements being effective or not. And without live resistance, it’s difficult to know if it works or not. The lack of live resistance is the reason why Aikido catches a bad reputation amongst other martial artists. 

Besides it’s failure to modernize techniques to the modern day, the main reason why Aikido practitioners may find it difficult to apply techniques under live resistance is due to the lack of training methods that would closely resemble sparring. Some of these issues are highlighted by an Aikido instructor.


Granted the nature of the style, that is strictly self defense, makes it difficult to provide live resistance. People also misunderstand the style in that a large part is to defend against weapons from the perspective of Japanese disciplines. I also can’t speak for all Aikido practitioners. But the style is very much not a lost cause in terms of being very effective. Cross-training can very much be the answer to bringing the style into the 21st Century. One thing I tend to say is that if Aikido adopted the same intense pressure tests used in Krav Maga, you would see a whole new breed of Aikido practitioners come out of the woodwork. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if many of these academics have already begun this.

In other words, if these practitioners change up their method of training, the techniques can be undoubtedly effective……… more specifically, if change the way they DRILL. 

No style works without the proper drills. Muay Thai doesn’t work without the proper conditioning. TKD doesn’t work without developing the dexterity and footwork. Boxing isn’t effective without drilling to create the proper head movement.  Many forms of Karate is insistent on knuckle conditioning in order punch people without damaging the hands. BJJ is no different. Without proper training methods, drills, sparring and focus on purpose, martial arts styles can go into what is discussed by Sensei Seth and Icy Mike as a “gentrification” of the style. 


If you’re thinking from a fighter’s perspective, something that has already basically happened to styles like Taekwondo, forms of Karate and Judo depending on who you talk to. 

Some would say that BJJ won’t befall the same fate as other styles due its nature as a grappling style. There’s not much to be distracted by while learning the discipline. For the most part, it’s comprised of just mainly drilling and sparring. Similar with other grappling style like Judo, Wrestling and Catch Wrestling. There’s not much else to distract from the goal of out-grappling your opponent or aggressor. The heavy emphasis on rolling or providing constant resistance is what makes the practitioners of these styles so effective. 

It’s hard for someone ordinary to simply outthink one of these practitioners in their own game because they’re minds are also constantly being pressured. Unless of course this ordinary person has experience in a similar area. Either way, the art of BJJ shouldn’t commit the same sin that many traditional styles and the human race as a whole has committed within the past century.

The sin that is complacency. 

The thought process of just because you practice such-and-such means that you can destroy any regular human being. In fact BJJ is built upon covering bases on being able to perform well against a wide range of people and practitioners. Simple terms, it’s battle tested. And the style is usually not afraid to engage in recertifications. And practitioners need to make sure they’re willing to engage in those recertifications. Don’t just assume that you can submit or takedown a bodybuilder, a bouncer or a regular human being; make sure you can.

If practitioners don’t take time to drill the simple stuff, it makes it possible to fall into bad habits by way of overthinking. It’s possible to think with such complexity that you ignore the simple things. To maintain all of those goods chess skills when it comes to fighting, we must learn to drill properly and often.

Photos courtesy of Pinterest, Evolve BJJ, BJJ World, BJJ Eastern Europe, Culture Trip and Flickr.

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