Jiu Jitsu’s Three Stages of Learning

There are various theories on how humans learn motor information and one of the most prominent of these theories was developed by Paul Fitts. Paul Fitts (together with Michael Posner) developed a theory on motor learning that focused on three stages: Cognitive, Associative and Autonomous. The basic premise of this model was that for motor learning to develop, our mind’s must first be heavily engaged in our activities in order to execute. Slow and inefficient movements are the hallmark of this period because there is quite a bit of thought that goes into the movements and acquisition. Once we master this stage, we move on to the associative stage, where movements become a little more fluid and automatic, but there are still plenty of conscious processing involved. Finally, the autonomous stage is where accuracy and automaticity are the pinnacles of each movement. This stage is characterized by the mastery of what has been learned and is demonstrated near flawlessly in practice.

These stages are quite applicable for Jiu-Jitsu practice. When you learn a brand new technique, the tendency for people is to talk themselves through each technique. There are lots of questions and a lot of attention and thought are devoted to the practice. In sparring, the movements are slow and inconsistent. Sometimes you hit something but most times the movement fails. In this stage, you are still learning the basic motor programs that will help with your movements in the long run.

As you progress to the associative stage, you’ll realize you start to think about the movements a lot less. Feedback is important, but it must be precise and specific in order to improve the techniques. Finally, with plenty of practice, you’ll progress to the autonomous stage where the motor programs are for the most part, already established and now become more complex. Very little to no attention needs to be paid to the movements and you’ll often find that you’re responding to your opponent before your mind can even process the cognitions involved.

Knowing these stages is of particular importance to your training and learning. It is even more important in terms of teaching and applying this knowledge to maximize learning (see here for a great, comprehensive review on the application).

Remember that when you first begin training, you are a sponge and should be ready to soak up lots of new information. When you are learning new information, take your time, walk and talk yourself through the movements. Focus the bulk of your attention on trying to understand the concepts behind the techniques as well as the procedural information as well. The goal is to become proficient in your movements and develop automaticity. This is the stage where we will really begin to start working on your mind and optimizing your performance.

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