Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Could Gamification Solve the Problem of People Quitting Jiu Jitsu?

The jiu jitsu world suffers from a serious problem - the vast majority of the people who start the sport quit rather early. It's been said that 90% of all people who start will fail to earn their blue belt, and only about 1% of those folks will stick with the sport long enough to earn a black belt. If those numbers are even close to accurate, that's pretty sad. 

While there are a multitude of legitimate reasons people quit training (kids, work, injuries, etc.), sometimes it just comes down to the simple fact that training jiu jitsu, over time, is really hard. And sometimes the cost of training becomes greater than the rewards we get from training.So really, the attrition issue in jiu jitsu ultimately comes down to an issue of motivation

What We Know About Motivation

Generally speaking, motivation comes in two flavors - intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we're motivated by something outside us, like someone gives us candy, a paycheck,  or a belt promotion. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we're motivated by something inside us, like the desire to improve, satisfying our curiosity, or playing. 

With extrinsic motivation we do the activity because we either get something good or we avoid something bad. With intrinsic motivation we do the activity for the sake of doing the activity.

In the world of jiu jitsu, most people are motivated by extrinsic motivators, like the aforementioned belt promotions, the medals we win at the local tournament, the envy we receive from others when we wear our fancy gi to class, the feelings of superiority when we tap someone out in class, or the praise we receive from our coaches. 

The problem with extrinsic motivators is sustainability. Interest and motivation always wanes overtime when we're motivated by extrinsic motivators. This is why job satisfaction typically decreases with time - we're doing the job for the paycheck, which is an extrinsic motivator. In jiu jitsu, if you're doing the sport primarily for the extrinsic rewards, you're going to burn out and likely quit.

Conversely, intrinsic motivators do not decrease over time. You can continue an activity for years and years and your interest remains relatively constant. If you're doing jiu jitsu for the intrinsic rewards, you're likely going to continue the sport for the long haul. Indeed, just talk to most black belts. You'll find they didn't stick with the sport for the belt. Or the medals. Or to be perceived as a "badass." Or the accolades. No. They stuck with it because they have a primal love of the actual art. They love jiu jitsu. 

Or, more precisely, their love of jiu jitsu has been stronger than the many costs that arise from training this art of a decade or more.  

Unfortunately, we can't just tell people to love jiu jitsu. Sure, most people who start and don't quit after three classes probably seem to love the sport, but they're in the "honeymoon" phase. Much like two people who fall madly in love for the first few months of dating, they're really just riding a high caused by a cocktail of brain chemicals. I'm not talking about that kind of love. I'm talking about the kind of love that you find endlessly engaging. It's the kind of love that makes you a better person. It's the kind of love that makes us feel comfortable and gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. 

That kind of love doesn't just happen. And it certainly doesn't happen because we utilize best-practices in our teaching of the sport. Given the minuscule percentage of the population that sticks with this sport, it's safe to say those who do stick around survived in spite of the way we teach the sport, not because we're doing something special in our gyms.

Gamification ~ Intrinsic Motivation

The human brain is an amazing organ. There are a myriad of simple "hacks" we can do to dramatically improve our performance. One such hack is known as gamification. Gamification takes any routine, mundane activity and improves it by introducing some element of game mechanics. We basically take boring shit and make it fun by turning it into a game. It's shockingly effective. 

I was first introduced to this idea as a psychology undergrad at my alma mater - Northern Michigan University (Go 'Cats!) I was a T.A. for an intro to psych class, and was hanging out in our T.A. office with a fellow psych student. I think her name was Beth. Anyway, we were sharing stories about our mutual hatred of cleaning despite having a low tolerance for clutter. Beth explained how she made cleaning tolerable by making it into a game. She set a timer for fifteen minutes and would attempt to clean the entire house in that time. She claimed it made cleaning a blast!

I was skeptical, but tried it anyway. I'll be damned it it didn't work! The cleaning wasn't exactly thorough, but it was good enough. More importantly, the timer trick made cleaning... kinda fun.

I've been using this gamification for strength and conditioning workouts for some time. I've even started a group that meets here in Western Colorado (the Western Slope Hobby Joggas) that use this concept. We do tough workouts every Sunday morning at 10am, and implement an element of gamification in each one. The "game" part of the workout helps obscure the fact that we're busting our assess, which helps keep the participants motivated.

[Sidebar - if you like harder workouts, are in the Western Slope area, and hate training in gyms, check out our Hobby Jogga group. It's fun! And free.]

This same idea can be implemented into jiu jitsu training. I've previously written about the importance of "play" in jiu jitsu, and I've also shared a few of the games I like to play in training based on setting limitations. But why stop here? Why not make the entire training experience a game? In the next section, I'll share a framework for an idea I've been working on for a few months.

The Big Idea

We start by defining a time period over which the game will take place. I'll use sixteen weeks for this example. This will give the game long enough to fully develop without dragging on so interest wanes. At the end of this four month cycle, we'll declare a winning team. 

The next step is setting the teams. In this hypothetical scenario, we'll make three teams of ten. Each team will elect a "captain" who is responsible for leading the team. 

Finally, we set up a competitive aspect to the game where each of the three teams is competing. We'll make the scoring simple - teams will earn points for specific tasks. The tasks are set up to reinforce the behaviors that will lead to everyone improving their jiu jitsu games or positively contributing to the gym culture, so points could be earned by doing the following:

  • Each team member who comes to class earns two points.
  • Each team member who  comes to an open mat earns one point.
  • Competing in a tournament earns five points.
  • Cleaning the mats before class earns one point.
  • Researching and teaching a technique in class earns three points. 
And so on.

The actual points can be awarded for anything that we want to improve. We could also use the system by reducing points for undesirable behavior, but I generally like to keep things positive. Your mileage may vary. 

Other activities can be added to the game. Make a weekly competition. Each team selects two people, and they roll with someone from the other teams in a competitive match. The winning team earns five points towards their team score. This would give students some of the benefits of competing without the commitment required to compete.

Or maybe give each team a task. Let's say this week's technique is an Americana from side control. Introduce the technique on Monday, then have each team research and develop the most effective Americana defense they can. On Saturday, have each team demonstrate what they developed and have the highest belts act as judges. The most innovative (or whatever quality your gym values) earns five points towards their team score.

At the end of the sixteen weeks, hold a banquet and give the winning team a trivial prize. Maybe put their names on a plaque and hand it in the gym. 

After one cycle, the teams could be disbanded and reformed randomly or deliberately (to assure they're fair) and the cycle could be repeated. If ideas like cooperative interdependence are incorporated in this system, this could provide an opportunity for strong bonding among teammates. The teams themselves could be used to advance some of the more difficult goals we try to teach in our classes. 

For example, the same teams could be used for cycle after cycle. Each team would be given a particular identity based on a prevailing "style." The members of the team would incorporate that "style" into their game as long as they were part of that team. Let's say we have Rhinos, Cougars, and Vipers

The Rhinos are known for their relentless smashing pressure game. They're calm, persistent, and grinding. Their methodical approach is meant to mitigate faster, more athletic opponents.

The Cougars are smooth, sneaky, and deadly-playful. They use lots of movement and misdirection to constantly play with their opponent's balance and body position. Like a cat batting around a mouse, they continually set clever traps to lazily "toy" with their opponents.

The Vipers are aggressive and deadly. They combine relentless focused attacks with evasiveness and speed. Their frenetic, offensive approach assures matches end quickly and decisively.

Over the span of several cycles, our students will be exposed to three radically different styles of jiu jitsu, which normally only happens if they switch gyms. For most, this would be a powerful learning opportunity. Minimally, it would be fun to "try on" different jiu jitsu personalities to get a slightly different perspective on the art. 


These are just a few ways jiu jitsu training could be gamified. The attrition issue is a real problem in this sport,and the solution could be as simple as making training more fun. One of the best ways to do this is by embracing intrinsic motivation and turning training into a game.

What do you think? Could this idea work? Would you like to see your gym try something like this? Leave a comment!



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