“Oof.” I let out an involuntary noise as my opponent, a nameless guy at least fifty pounds heavier than me, slams my legs down, baseball slides his hips to the opposite side, and pins me to the mat. The last of the air in my chest releases as he does so.
Since starting jiu-jitsu five months ago, I get caught in this position — called being smashed in side control in jiu-jitsu terminology — nearly every time I train. The learning curve in jiu-jitsu is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.
With most other sports or pursuits, you can get better by working harder. In jiu-jitsu, it’s often the opposite. Rely too much on strength and not enough on technique (like I still regularly do), and you’ll get smashed or swept into a non-advantageous position. Jason, the head of Meraki Jiu Jitsu, the jiu-jitsu academy I train at in Los Angeles, California, reminds me of this almost daily.
And yet, despite my day-to-day struggles, I’m confident in my long-term trajectory in the sport. Even as I struggle with learning jiu-jitsu technique, I know how to learn. I’ve started from scratch in countless pursuits, including everything from learning to do a handstand with no previous gymnastics experience to publishing an app without knowing how to code. I’ve found that there are ways to get past the awkward beginner stage — many of them with significant scientific research to back them up — that help to shorten the learning curve.
Whether you’re learning a sport like jiu-jitsu or pursuing other crafts such as art, music, or entrepreneurship, there are several science-backed strategies that can help speed up the learning process without taking shortcuts that will lead to gaps in your knowledge later. Here are five of the most effective.
1. Practice Intentionally
It should come as no surprise that you have to put your reps in to get good at anything. Practice is the only way to achieve mastery at any craft.
But mindlessly knocking out reps won’t speed up the learning process. To improve, you have to do what the psychologist Anders Ericsson called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice , or involves practice that’s “effortful in nature, with the main goal of personal improvement of performance rather than enjoyment.” In other words, you have to be intentional about your reps.
In jiu-jitsu, this means drilling the same move repeatedly with intention. It means making mistakes, pinpointing what you did wrong, then correcting them. This process of failing, then correcting, is how we create new connections in our brain. It’s the fastest way to learn and build new skills as an adult, and it all starts with intentionality.
2. Keep Track of Your Progress
If you want to learn a skill faster, you need to find a way to track it. Measuring skill progress is important for a few reasons. Neurologists believe all mammals are born with a number instinct — a deeply rooted desire to seek out numerical information. By introducing metrics, you instinctively pay more attention to that area of your life.
Keeping track of metrics also helps you continue making your goals a priority, which means you’ll keep allocating time and resources toward them. Plus, seeing proof of your progress — no matter how small — helps keep you motivated on the long road to mastery.
What and how you measure will depend on your craft. In jiu-jitsu, for example, you could keep track of which techniques you can execute without thinking, submission attempts, or points scored while rolling, the jiu-jitsu term for ground fighting. In other skills, it might be total reps completed, time spent, or techniques learned. Find the most meaningful measurements and track them.
3. Get Feedback
We’re extremely lucky to live in a time where education is easy to access. Between books, apps, websites, and online courses, we can learn nearly anything we want to without having to spend a lot of time or money.
These methods can be great resources to help you get started learning something new. Still, if you really want to speed up the learning process or get to the next level, you also need to find ways to get personalized feedback. Feedback can come from coaches or training partners, but it’s most effective when it’s geared toward you as an individual (which is why most online courses are only somewhat effective). Getting feedback early on and at key points in your learning journey can help you map out an effective curriculum and work through plateaus faster — which can save you months or years of you trying to figure it out on your own.
It didn’t take me long to realize I needed more feedback in jiu-jitsu, which is why in addition to going to regular classes, I also began working one-on-one with a coach. The feedback and direction I’ve gotten during these sessions have been invaluable in helping me to learn techniques and strategy faster.
4. Take Notes — And Study!
Along with tracking your progress, it’s also important to take notes and reflect on what you’ve learned. After each jiu-jitsu training session, for example, I frantically write notes about everything I learned that day. This might include specific techniques I learned that day in addition to any deeper or life lessons learned in the process.
Taking notes and reflecting on what you’ve learned helps cement the day’s learning into your long-term memory. If you’re confused about something while thinking back on it, that’s a good sign you need to revisit it and fill in any gaps in your knowledge during your next training session. Going back to revisit your notes regularly can help you see what progress you’ve made and areas you still might need to work on.
Taking notes can go a long way in helping you to learn more deeply. But don’t just reflect on your own journey. Studying other athletes, authors, artists, or entrepreneurs to see what they do well and any specific things they’re doing that you might want to avoid can help speed up the learning process.
5. Teach What You’ve Learned
There’s no better way to find out how well you understand what you’ve learned than to teach it to someone else. Teaching requires a deep understanding of what you’ve learned and an ability to communicate it to people who don’t know as much about your craft as you do.
Are you having trouble explaining some of what you’ve learned? It’s likely because you don’t fully understand it, either. Teaching is the fastest way to become aware of where there might be holes in your knowledge. So if you find teaching a skill challenging, take a note of what you stumble on, and then try studying those things more.
The beginning stages of learning anything new can be especially frustrating since it can be so tempting to speed through the basics and get to the fun and cool stuff. But while there are things you can do to speed up the learning process, it’s important not to try and skip foundational steps. Doing so will only leave gaps in your knowledge — gaps that you’ll have to go back and fill in later on.
On the other hand, allowing yourself the time to really dial in the fundamentals early on will help you progress exponentially later. As the saying in martial arts goes, “slow is fast — and fast is slow.” Take the time to build up your technique slowly so that you can go fast later on.
And this is what I tell myself as I lay there on the mat, the air getting squeezed out of my lungs. This awkward beginner stage won’t last forever — eventually, my training will start to become second nature, and I’ll be the one crushing the air out of my opponent.
In the meantime, I’ll keep showing up. Now, if you’ll excuse me — it’s time to train.