Drilling for Performance

I’ve been thinking a lot about drilling lately. Last week I did a coaching session at our SBGi Spring camp on drilling. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about drills leading up to camp. I really wanted to be able to lay out the how and why of drills. It seems that everyone can see the importance of drills but I wonder how many people really stop to think about exactly why we do them? Why drill instead of simply getting on the mat and rolling? How do drills improve performance? How do they improve performance better than rolling? What makes a good drill? How do you know that the drill is working? How do you measure progress? These questions and more were swimming around in my head for a few weeks before the Spring camp. What I’ll attempt to do here is to outline the main points of drilling for performance that I taught at the session.


What is a Drill?

At SBG we tend to define drills differently than some. If you ask around you’ll hear lots of different definitions floating around. For some drilling is simply repeating motions over and over again. What some call drills others call conditioning exercises. For some drills require a partner and for some it’s not necessary. At SBG we tend to think that anything we call a drill needs the following characteristics:

  • Aliveness- Aliveness is defined as working with a partner who is resisting with timing, energy, and motion. Someone who is fighting back.
  • Transference– The skills targeted in the drill must be EASILY transferable to the delivery system (BJJ, MMA etc.)
  • Targeted goals- Any drill must target specific performance. This is really key. The more specific the performance target the more effective the drill. The coach must start with thinking about what they want to achieve with the drill. They need to know what performance they want to see from the athlete.
  • Measured performance- Each drill should have built in some measure of success. The coach and the athlete should know if they are being successful.

Let’s look at each of these individually for a bit. I think they warrant closer inspection.


Aliveness is a core principle of our gym. We value it greatly because it works. It’s the best tool to increase performance that we know. Why is that? The main reason is that any drill that includes Aliveness inherently looks a lot like the delivery system being trained for.  When you include active resistance in a drill it takes less imagination for the athlete to understand how the skills he is training will fit later when sparring.  A good coach will design his drills to maximize this effect.


If there isn’t good transference then the drill is a waste of time. Transference is achieved by effective use of the other drill qualities. For example, if the drill has good Aliveness, very targeted goals, and easy performance measures there is likely to be good transference. If some of these break down transference may not occur.  If the pressure, the postures, the resistance, the pace, the performance goals of the drill closely resemble the live roll then transference is easy. So, as much as is possible coaches should make their drills resemble the live roll.

Targeted Goals

This is really huge. You need to know exactly what performance you are trying to improve with your drill. In fact, you should start with the goal and THEN compose the drill. Never the other way around. You probably shouldn’t do a drill at all if you don’t have a particular performance goal in mind. You should just roll. If however, you have some particular performance that you want to improve you have an opportunity to target it with a drill. Here are some examples of performance goals:

Too Vague Goals

    • Pass Guard
    • Get Better at Subs
    • Escape
    • Improve my Top Game

More Targeted Goals

    • Improve my base when standing in open guard
    • Finish the triangle choke from guard bottom with greater success
    • Effectively kill the near arm when holding cross sides top.

If you look at the more targeted goals you can almost immediately see some drills. The vague goals are just that. They are too vague to really be trained in an effective drill. Sometimes in goal setting we can do what’s called unwrapping the standard or goal. For example, the goal for the class could be guard passing. The effective coach would break that into mini goals and target them individually with drills. The goals may look like this:

Goal: Effectively Pass Guard

  • Use effective posture when standing inside open guard
  • Break sleeve and colar grips from the bottom guy
  • Effectively use angles and pressures to nullify the bottom guy’s legs
  • Effectively capture the hips

The main goal of effective guard passing can be broken down like this into many smaller goals that are part of the big goal. Each of these smaller goals could be targeted with a drill designed to improve performance and measure progress. Let’s look at one or two from the list above.

Use effective posture when standing inside open guard- I can see several drills that would target this performance standard. I might start with an objective drill here to see what students already know. One side stand inside of open guard and simply survive. Bottom guy sweeps or submits if he can. The coach watches the athlete to see what he does for posture. Does he keep his elbows in? Does he keep his hips under his shoulders? Is he bladed and not square? A round or two of this would give the coach and athlete valuable information about their posture. After the drill the coach could show students some specific details about good posture when standing inside someone’s open guard.

Break sleeve and colar grips from the bottom guy- For this goal we could take our initial drill and have the bottom guy add colar grabs and sleeve grabs. The top guys goals would change to survival first and grip stripping second. Now the drill is targeting both goals. After the drill would be a great time for the instructor to show students some methods of grip stripping.

We could go on like this for an entire class targeting our list of guard passing skills with drills. Students would get a lot of flight time in and would have a better understanding of just what the targeted goals are in guard passing effectively.

Measured Performance

Measuring performance is critical. Part of the function of the drill is to give both coach and athlete a tool to use to measure performance. If you don’t have a way to measure then you’ll never actually know if you’ve increased the athletes performance. As a coach I’ll often start class with a measure drill that will allow me to see the students perform the targeted skills in a drill that is as close to the live roll environment as I can make it. I’ll repeat the same drill at the end of class to see if there is a performance gain.  It’s not  entirely scientific but it gives me a quick snapshot.

An example of this would be something like this:

Objective Drill: Top guy standing in the pocket. Tries to pass guard from standing. If he passes he goes right back in the pocket and starts again. If he’s swept or submitted he starts over and tries to pass. Bottom guy sweeps and submits. Much of what I’d see as a coach would look a lot like a live roll. The nature of the drill would allow me to see them perform the big goal (guard passing) over and over. It would also let me develop the little goals (Effective posture, sleeve and colar grips etc.) from watching what they do wrong and right.

Why Drill?

Why do all of this? Can’t you get good by just learning techniques and rolling? Yes, many people can get good without drills. One of the core fundamental beliefs of our gym is that we think Jiu Jitsu is for every body. The gifted athlete will learn and get good no matter what kind of instruction they get. I’m more concerned with the non athletic guy. They spastic guy who can’t quite move in a coordinated way. The one who doesn’t have a lot of body awareness. That guy will need all of these drills in order to get good. If we were only interested in attracting and keeping super athletes then I wouldn’t even bother with drills. We’d just roll all the time and the best and most gifted would hang around. The rest would weed themselves out. That’s not our goal though. I get way much more enjoyment out of watching that spaz guy work hard and get it.

If you want to learn a bit more about the kind of drills we use at SBG take a look at the post here.


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