Taking Notes For BJJ Improvement

Reader Question: “I have heard that taking notes after Jiu Jitsu class is a good idea, but I’m not sure how to get started. How do I actually take Jiu Jitsu notes?  What things should I write? Should I be taking notes every class?  Only after seminars?  Once I have taken notes, how do I use them?  What good are they?”

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Taking notes is one of the pillars of accelerated Jiu Jitsu growth.  The newer the grappler, the more beneficial notes are.  When I was a white belt I took notes after almost every single class.

If all you do is attend class consistently you will have a normal level of growth.  Taking notes gives you the benefit of additional focused Jiu Jitsu time off the mats.  In my experience, taking bjj notes is a warp zone to improvement. If you are taking private lessons or attending seminars and not keeping notes you are throwing your money away.

The Benefits Of Jiu Jitsu Note Taking

I will get into the “how,” in the next section but first I will touch on the benefits.  BJJ note taking requires effort and time, but the result is worth the effort.

  1. Improve Retention
    1. Just the act of taking notes actually helps you remember the movements.  You are essentially performing mental repetitions of the movement to collect the details you put into your notes.  Each scan-through as you gather the details to put everything on paper is like performing an extremely detailed repetition on the mat.  Repetition is key to improving at Jiu Jitsu.
  2. Revisit Unnoticed Details
    1. Our body naturally makes choices of how and where we move.  Sometimes these choices are wrong because we aren’t even aware of them.  “What was my right hand doing during the movement?”  Note taking pinpoints areas of vagueness.  Not respecting the ENTIRE body position is a sure way to make a major technique mistake.addams family hand skateboard what was my hand doing
    2. Often, we underestimate the importance of what our ENTIRE body is doing.  I try to capture “the feel” of the move in the notes as much as the “step by step.” Why is this grip important?  Translating movement to paper via detailed analysis adds clarity to our vision of how the movement should be performed.
  3. Mental repetitions are almost as beneficial as physical repetitions
    1. Note taking is largely visualization based.  We write down what we are able to re-imagine of the technique. There are studies in psychology on how beneficial visualization can be.
      1. In one famous study, there were three groups of students.  Depending on their group, students were asked to shoot a basketball daily for a few weeks to improve, shoot only for a before and after test a few weeks apart, and shoot only for a before and after test with daily visualization in between during the few weeks.  The visualization students performed much better than those that didn’t visualize and only marginally worse than those that performed daily physical practice!

    2. Bonus:  Use visualization before falling asleep. The level of work required to pull out the details of a move and put them on paper is the hard part.  Imagining a few repetitions using these details before sleeping is easy.  I wake up with a much clearer feel for the move after I have slept on it.
  4. Plug into your own Matrix (almost) anytime!
    1. Most upper belts will freely admit that they have forgotten almost as much Jiu Jitsu as they’ve learned.  If you showed them part of something they had already seen there are probably some details that would come back.  Looking over old notes serves as a reminder of these past learnings and I am instantly reminded of the details.  I can go back to drilling this move easily by reminding myself of what I don’t know.BJJ Seminar Notes Are Like Loading Information From The Matrix
    2. How did Neo learned Kung Fu in the Matrix?  He was plugged into the Kung Fu program, but someone had to build that program.  Think of taking notes as building your program.  Anytime you read them over you can plug back into them for the update. The more thorough the notes the better info you retain.

How to take notes?

Nick Diaz Seminar Notes
Nick Diaz Seminar Notes

Start taking notes now.  How you take notes will adapt over time and you will get better at it.  Just do it.  There are no wrong answers here.  Even badly recorded notes are better than nothing. Check out my write-up of a Nick Diaz BJJ Seminar I attended to see how my note taking had to evolve.

If your notes are completely unintelligible when you re-read them, then you miss out on reaping the benefits of “plugging back into the matrix,” but at least you got more visualization time in while taking the notes.

(Note: Remember, BJJ is an individual journey, and it is important to know your place in it.  Balance your desire to improve with the reality of your situation. If your reality is over 60 hours of work a week, or family responsibilities, maybe you will only take notes after seminars and private lessons but can’t find the time for nightly notes after class.  Something is always better than nothing here, but the more notes the more you are maximizing your training time.)

Follow These Guidelines As You Get Started For Easier BJJ Note Taking.

1.) Make a commitment to become a note taker.

It is easier to follow your current Jiu Jitsu routines than to actually spend time taking notes.  Set a goal of what you want to capture.  Maybe start with taking notes after every Monday night class, or private lessons and seminars as you build the habit and note taking skills.

Become A Note Taker At SeminarsMake a commitment to write notes at certain times and follow through.  Again, scribbles on a napkin are better than nothing here.  Scale your effort to the level you want, but start by just doing.

Every gym needs the great note taker to attend seminars and bring back EVERYTHING.  As a note taker you have no obligation to share with those who didn’t pay for a seminar, but you at least should get the chance to work the moves on them to get your money worth!  Drill with your friends who attended the seminar with you.

2.) The sooner after training you take your notes, the better they will be.

Every hour that passes after a seminar that I am not focused on the material, I am forgetting details.  As a white belt I would try to sit in my car and take my notes there after a seminar, or if that was too odd, drive somewhere close to take notes.  When riding to a tournament I tried to recruit someone else to drive home in exchange for me putting together notes so we could drill everything easier later.

For quality notes I typically spend about 45 minutes to an hour after a seminar writing down everything that will help me retain what I need.

Now that I am a brown belt I can still have a productive note session the next day. If I am able to spend a few minutes on a rough outline of the details most likely to be forgotten right afterwards, my note quality is much better.

3.) Pick a unified note format and system.
Denilson Pimenta Seminar Notes
Denilson Pimenta Seminar Notes

I use a variation of the standard outline format that I practiced plenty in high school and college.  Large titles, sub sections with numbers or letters.  The name of a seminar is the title of my page and helps remind me right away who taught it, and what the basic theme was (“Brian Stuebner – Gi attacks from top side control”).  Just reading the title gives me some flashes of reminders of what we covered.

The more I can have one dedicated notebook to track my notes in, the easier it is to find previous notes.  With “the bullet journal” system, I number the pages in my notebook and create an index on the last few pages of the notebook that cite page numbers.  (“Guard passes: 1,7,12,15,25”)

4.) Pick a way to talk about “sides” and stick to it.

Looking back at my oldest notes, trying to describe a movement was largely blocked by inability to describe what part of my body was moving in relation to theirs.

My white belt class notes lacked this information.  I thought, I’d just remember the move if I saw it.  Wrong!  Eventually I figured out that if I talked about right and left very specifically as “my right” or “my left” vs. my “opponent’s right” or “opponent’s left” the notes were much easier to review when I became separated from them.

I now have a natural feel for “dominant sides,” and I can omit some directions.  Since my current system is to always write notes for “my good side” it is easy to transpose it to my other side if needed.

For example, most passes go to “my opponent’s right side” of side  control.  Many chokes my strongest arm ends up applying most of the choking pressure.  After taking so many notes it is also easier to understand notes because I can usually visualize in my head what a move is supposed to be based on its name.

5.) Loop your writing by using other movements you already know when taking notes.

Hours of time can be saved by finding way to cut out writing repetition.  Typically repetition comes from similar entries to the same move, or common Jiu Jitsu movements that repeat thematically.

At a seminar, the instructor typically starts with a particular set up and then describes the ways that they branch off with different attacks based on their opponent’s counters.  In this way, I don’t redescribed the entry to De La Riva guard each time, I just use a subheading of “if they posture away…”, “if they pressure in…”, and start off already in the position.  In this way I am just describing it once AND have the benefit of formalizing my thinking.Loop Jiu Jitsu Movements That Repeat

After training Jiu Jitsu for 8 years I’ve noticed that a majority of moves are based on the same few concepts and movements.  When I was new and saw a move I had to use a few paragraphs to describe what was happening.  Now I can say “blocking his hip, I shrimp away.”  There is no shortcut to get to this place, so just spend time understanding what you’ve learned and improving your note taking and it will come.

What other note taking best practices have you began using?  Let me know in the comments here or on my Facebook page.