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What Is the Ecological Approach to Jiu Jitsu? (How to Structure a Task Based BJJ Class)

In this post, I plan to break down what is the ecological approach to jiu jitsu and how to implement it along with task based learning into your own bjj classes.

As a new brown belt, I recently started teaching a beginner’s class at a local Brazilian jiu jitsu gym and thought this was a great time to begin teaching with the ecological approach.

With all the recent talk of the ecological approach to jiu jitsu and tasked based learning, I began to explore this approach and apply it to beginners learning bjj to see how much they improve and how much they enjoy bjj when compared to the traditional approach of teaching jiu jitsu.

What Is the Ecological Approach in Jiu Jitsu?

The ecological approach in jiu jitsu advocates for scenario-based coaching and training that mirrors competition and encourages bjj athletes to adapt and make decisions independently. It does not rely on traditional methods like drilling on a non resisting opponent or detailed instruction provided by a coach.

It recognizes that constraints, whether from the task, environment, or individual, shape behavior, and suggests that less instruction can foster more natural and effective learning and adaptation in sports rather than through prescriptive coaching and rigid practice routines.

So for Brazilian jiu jitsu training, it would involve creating very specific positional sparring scenarios with very specific goals. This helps students to focus on a very small part of the overall jiu jitsu game.

What the ecological approach doesn’t involve is long winded technique breakdowns and endless drilling of techniques and moves on a non resisting opponent.

The ecological approach to jiu jitsu is performed effectively by the coach highlighting the student’s attention to a specific aspect and guiding their intention to a specific goal.

The ecological approach also highlights the concept of ‘repetitions without repetition,’ where athletes are encouraged to explore and perform actions in varied ways to develop adaptable and robust movement solutions.

This method fosters a deeper understanding of jiu jitsu and enhances the athlete’s ability to make decisions and adapt during competition.

It advocates for training environments that are representative of competition, encouraging athletes to learn and adapt through exploration and interaction with their environment,

What Are Some Specific Examples of the Ecological Approach to BJJ Training?

Now that we’ve laid down a basic definition of ecological training and coaching let’s talk about some specific examples of this method of training for Brazilian jiu jitsu.

Again, this method involves creating games with specific tasks and goals used to help guide students toward their own discovery of techniques and concepts which ultimately increases better learning and retention

Examples of Games for a Beginner’s BJJ Class Using the Ecological Approach

Game #1: From Belly Up Guard vs Standing Opponent

  • the bottom person’s goal is to:
    • maintaining grips and manage distance with their hands and feet
    • achieve inside position with both of their legs inside the standing opponents
  • the top person’s goal is to:
    • get passed the bottom persons feet and reach their knee line and into a side control position or into a chest to chest half guard position
  • the game is won and restarted when: the bottom person is able to destabilize the top person by knocking them to their hands or butt or when the top person is able to effectively get passed their legs and into side control or a chest to chest position

Lastly, depending on how well the students perform, the game can be altered by attempting to draw their attention to a specific aspect of it or by adding additional goals.

Game 2: From Mount Position:

  • the bottom person’s goal is to:
    1. maintain a knee elbow connection (avoiding the top person getting their knees inside their elbows)
    2. work toward getting their knees back in front of the top opponent
  • the top person’s goal is to:
    • get their knees inside of bottom person’s elbows
    • separate the bottom person’s hands/arms
    • achieve extension of one or both of the bottom person’s limbs above their shoulder line (similar to what you would do when attempting an arm triangle choke or an armbar setup
  • the game is won and restarted when: the bottom person get’s their knees back in front or when the top person gets an arm in extension and holds it for 3 seconds

What Are the Benefits to an Ecological Approach?

The benefits of the ecological approach to jiu jitsu come down to the below factors:

  • increased self-learning
  • increased emotional arousal
  • higher retention rate
  • emphasizes exploration
  • more time live sparring
  • closely resembles competition
  • lastly, it’s just fun

The ecological method of training allows for students to explore a specific position and discover effective concepts and techniques on their own.

The two main ways this is effective is by:

  1. increasing learning and retention
  2. closely mimics live sparring or competition

One of the biggest benefits of the ecological approach is that involves many factors that aid in learning and memorization that the traditional approach lacks:

  1. Experiential Learning* (learning through self discovery): as opposed to attempting to learn and retain information that you are simply told, experiential learning involves you making your own self discoveries which is one of the most prominent goals in task based games.
  2. Emotional Arousal: Emotionally charged events or information are often remembered more vividly and for longer periods. For example you are much more emotional aroused during live sparring when compared to drilling on a non resisting opponent.
  3. Active Learning: You are actively engaging with what you are learning as you are discovering it.
  4. Spacing Effect: Distributing learning or practice sessions over time (spaced repetition) rather than cramming is more effective for long-term retention. By focusing on a single concept and coming back to it throughout class students can better retain what they are being taught.
  5. Organization: Structuring and organizing information into categories or logical sequences can aid memory. With the ecological approach you are constantly building upon concepts through your own discovery.
  6. Repetition: Repeated exposure or practice of information or skills strengthens memory consolidation, making it easier to recall information later.

How Do You Learn BJJ (Why the Traditional Method Doesn’t Work)

The tradition way BJJ is taught and practiced is usually some form of the follow:

  1. Solo warms ups or conditioning exercises
    • these may include shrimping, bridging, jumping jacks, or jogging
  2. Drilling portion
    • where the coach will demonstrate a specific technique and then the students practice it on a non resisting opponent
  3. Live or positional sparring
    • the students will then spar or attempt to perform their learned techniques on a live opponent

This more “coach-centered” type of teaching expects the students to just learn and retain everything the coach is teaching through “rote-learning”.

Rote-learning requires the student to simply learn techniques through frequent repetition

Where Does Traditional Learning Fall Short?

The issues with the traditional way a bjj class is structured and taught is that:

  • drilling is performed on a non resisting opponent > does not resemble live competition or sparing
  • students are shown a single technique then told to drill it by a coach which:
    1. does not effectively address all the variety of factors a student can expect to encounter in competition
    2. does not address how it fits into the larger game
    3. does not allow for effective learning and retention
    4. does not teach a larger concept

In my own jiu jitsu training, I probably have retained maybe ~5% of techniques from drilling a shown technique from my coach. Most of my techniques, I learned from bjj instructionals and by intentionally placing myself in that specific position during live sparring.

How to Structure a Task Based BJJ Class Using the Ecological Approach

In order to structure a task based BJJ class using the ecological approach:

  1. Create a game that focuses on a small aspect of the larger picture of live jiu jitsu sparring that involves very specific goals on a fully resisting opponent
  2. Adjust the game to bring students attention toward a specific factor or technique (if you find them struggling)
  3. Play a larger game or one with advance goals that combines concepts and techniques learned in the initial smaller games

Do You Teach Specific Techniques in the Ecological Approach to Jiu Jitsu?

When it comes to hyper specific “techniques” or mechanics with very little variants, yes, you do teach specific techniques in teh Ecological approach.

For example, a bjj coach using the ecological approach may teach the exact mechanics for how to finish an inside heel hook, but they will not teach specific “techniques” like a knee cut pass.

Teaching a “technique” (like the knee cut pass) incorrectly assumes that:

  • the technique can be applicable no matter what factors are present (and does not take into account ecological factors)
  • a student should use rote memorization to learn and memorize it (which is a poor way to learn/memorize when compared to active learning)
  • a student should be able to immediately replicate a specific shown technique in competition on a fully resisting opponent

So then how will students learn advanced techniques of Brazilian jiu jitsu?:

By bringing their attention to a very small detail or factor and playing increasingly specific games, the jiu jitsu student is able to do their own exploration.

If attempting to use traditional, specific technique teaching, it should be framed as a larger concept and combined with student exploration.

Brief Introduction to Ecological Psychology and How It Applies to Sports

Simply put, ecological psychology, as applied to sports, represents a significant shift from traditional methods of coaching athletes.

This approach emphasizes the importance of understanding the dynamic relationship between an athlete and their environment. It challenges conventional coaching methods that often focus on repetitive drills and explicit instructions.

Instead, ecological psychology advocates for

  1. creating training conditions that closely mimic the actual competitive environment
  2. encouraging athletes to develop adaptive skills and decision-making abilities through real-world scenarios.

This approach not only enhances an athlete’s physical abilities but also cultivates mental agility and a deeper understanding of the sport, leading to more versatile and resilient performances in competitive settings.

Other Related FAQs

What Is an Ecological Model in Sport?

An ecological model in sport is a theoretical framework that emphasizes the complex and dynamic interaction between an athlete and their environment.

This model is rooted in ecological psychology and focuses on understanding how various factors in an athlete’s surroundings influence their behavior, learning, and performance in sports

What Is the Ecological Approach to Jiu Jitsu?

An ecological approach to jiu jitsu advocates for scenario-based coaching and training that mirrors competition and encourages bjj athletes to adapt and make decisions independently. It does not rely on traditional methods like drilling on a non resisting opponent or detailed instruction provided by a coach.

Does the Ecological Approach Work for BJJ?

While fairly new to BJJ, yes the ecological approach does work for BJJ. It has been heavily studied in other sports such as rugby, cricket, and volley ball among others.

While jiu jitsu may not involve the same goals as the other sports mentioned, it does involve learning within novel situations along with a myriad of environmental factors

What Are the Criticisms or Limitations of the Ecological Approach?

Some of the main criticisms or limitations of the ecological approach are:

  1. Lack of Structured Guidance: Some critics argue that the ecological approach’s emphasis on self-organization and exploration may not provide enough structured guidance, especially for beginners who might benefit from more direct coaching and instruction in the early stages of skill development.
  2. Implementation Challenges: Adapting training environments to closely replicate competitive scenarios can be resource-intensive and logistically challenging. Creating these scenarios is still an art more so than a science and relies on an high experienced and invested coach.
  3. Overemphasis on Environment: While the approach rightly emphasizes the importance of the environment, it might lead to an under appreciation of the role of innate abilities, individual psychological traits, and the importance of technical skills that can be developed through traditional repetitive practice.
  4. Potential Overload for Athletes: The constant adaptation to varied and complex training scenarios could potentially lead to cognitive and physical overload for athletes, especially if not managed carefully.
  5. Research and Evidence: While there is growing support for the ecological approach, it is still relatively new compared to traditional methods. Some argue that more empirical research and evidence are needed to fully understand its effectiveness and long-term impacts on athlete development.

What Are Some Other Resources for the Ecological Approach and Tasked Based Learning in BJJ?

With the ecological approach and tasked based learning slowly becoming more popular, there are several resources that we recommend on the ecological approach in general as well coaches who are using in in jiu jitsu training:

  • Rob Gray: author and scientist who wrote How We Learn to Move: A Revolution in the Way We Coach & Practice Sports Skills which is more recent book and must read for those interested in the ecological approach in sports
  • The Constrains-Led Approach by Ian Renshaw and Keith Davids: Another great primer for those new to the ecological approach
  • Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition by Jia Yi Chow and Keith Davids: A more academic, college-level text book that dives deeper into the approach with heavy, science backed research.
  • Greg Souders: BJJ coach who runs Standard Jiu Jitsu out Rockville, MD. Greg is probably the most well known pioneer on the ecological approach in jiu jitsu and is at the forefront of the movement.
  • Kit Dale: Extremely popular BJJ coach and black belt out of Australia. Kit has been promoting task based games and very effective ways to learn jiu jitsu that go against the traditional method. While Greg Souders is more well known for supporting the movement currently, credit should definitely be given to Kit Dale.
  • Keith Davids: A professor and key figure in the development of the ecological dynamics framework in sports. His research focuses on the interaction between athletes and their environment, emphasizing the importance of this relationship in understanding skill acquisition and performance in sports. His seminal work on the field which he contributed to along with other scientists on this list is: Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: An Ecological Dynamics Approach
  • Chris Button: A researcher in sports science and skill acquisition, Button’s work incorporates principles of the ecological approach. He has contributed to our understanding of motor learning and the development of sports expertise within this framework.
  • Duarte Araújo: Specializes in ecological dynamics in sports. Araújo’s work examines how athletes adapt to changing environments and make decisions under pressure, contributing significantly to our understanding of perception-action coupling in sports.
  • Ian Renshaw: His research in sports science, particularly in cricket and other ball sports, aligns with the ecological approach. Renshaw focuses on how environmental and task constraints influence skill development and performance.