“Making the Technique Your Own: The BJJ Notebook”
The best lectures I give my university students are on how to take notes. Not because they are magnificently inspiring, but rather because learning how to take notes is the best thing a young scholar can do for their academic career. I tell my students first that a notebook is different than a voice-recorder or a diary or a journal. That’s obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many students attempt to write word-for-word what a professor says.
A notebook is a blank document in which you write down your thoughts and notes on what you are hearing, reading, watching, or the thing inspired by the touch of a muse. A notebook is a first draft, a brainstorming document, and an uncensored space where you follow the trails of your thoughts. A notebook is meant to produce subsequent original texts by you.
In literature classes, the thing to be produced is an essay. This essay is an original work by the student. If the notebook’s task was rote memorization, then essentially what the student is preparing for is a game of trivial pursuit. However, the skills college attempts to impart is to create original critical thinkers, people who are able to receive some form of data and make it their own by saying something about it.
If the goal of jiu-jitsu was rote memorization, then all we would be performing are katas until our brains withered away in boredom. But kata is not the thing; the thing is the game, the in-the-moment application of ways of doing techniques. The thing to be produced is your game. Before I go further, let me say that there is nothing wrong with having a “technique book,” one in which you write down technique details. There is nothing wrong with a technique journal or a training diary. However, a notebook is qualitatively different.
A notebook is the intervention of your mind onto the things you are learning. The techniques are “worked” upon as they are being annotated in the notebook. Notebooks look toward the future; diaries and journals look to the past.
A notebook’s entries would look something like this:
Professor X showed us the swivel sweep from closed guard today. I like it because it seems to be a low risk move. I’m not sure, though, if I’ll have to modify it as I am one of the smallest in the academy. It seems the move is based on both timing but with a bit of umph. I’ll need to ask him what modifications would be good for me. Next class, I’ll work with John the Giant to drill it.
I’d like to point out a few things about this hypothetical entry. The first is the necessary memory cue. That is, something to remind you of the event you are annotating. In the above, it is “Professor X,” “swivel sweep”, and “today.” These three things stamp the entry with a person, a category, and a date. After this, there is no need to write the details of the technique. If there is something crucial, by all means; however, you are writing about the swivel sweep because there is something about that technique that you found important. In this day and age, to write the details of the move would be redundant. There are a quite a few free videos online about it, all with different variations. The point of the notebook is for you to do “added” work upon what you’ve been exposed to. To think about it more in depth. To take time with it in your mind. To give yourself cues as to when and against whom you think it would work against, and to plan for the future to drill it with various body types. Moreover, if one is a bit more advanced, one might be able to see connections between that move and follow ups.
For example, “I wonder if I fake a scissor sweep to the opposite side, I can further unbalance my partner, thereby easing the swivel sweep?”
Or, “I notice that my partner can block the sweep with his other arm by posting on the mat, I think I can get an arm-bar from there, but how do I climb high enough to wrap both legs around and behind his elbow? Must ask Professor if this is viable.”
A notebook merely creates further engagement with your training. It extends your physical training into the cognitive realm. Football players are notorious for cognitive training, even during the middle of games. You always see various position players with a photograph print out of previous possessions, analyzing formations, talking to coaches, and then instructing their unit on how they will adjust. They are not memorizing anything about the previous play but rather thinking of future plays.
Ideally, in jiu-jitsu a notebook gets created after class. After going home, showering. I don’t recommend “note-taking” or “technique writing” during class. It feels clunky, and you take valuable time away from yourself and partner of practicing the techniques when you are writing. Moreover, I find that those notes are generally incomplete and useless.
So, what does one do during class? Here are some practical tips for in-class work that will help you retain the technique but also prime your mind for a notebook entry.
(Record the details you love, in your BJJ notebook)
1. Look at the technique. Start by simply looking at the technique, the shape of both people, how the two bodies are placed on the mat. Linger for a moment to look at the starting position and absorb this placement. Often times, when we are rolling, we need a visual cue, how our bodies are placed, to realize we are in the “first” position to do the technique.
2. Do it straight through. Do the technique the first time all the way through without thinking. Get a feel without worrying about what you don’t know or understand.
3. Slow down and redo. Slow down the next time so you can begin to feel the various shifts in weight and positions of the technique. Do it a few times. Focus on something different each time you go through it.
4. Do it aloud. Sometimes you need to speak to yourself as you are applying the technique. An auditory memory cue can often help you organize and expose details that you aren’t conscious of.
5. Feel what you can’t do when applied to you. When your partner or instructor does the technique to you, note the things you cannot do. Notice whether you can move your hips, or that your right shoulder is pinned, or that your chin is pressed really tightly against his shoulder. A technique has two sides to it. What you feel and do when you are applying it, and what you feel and cannot do when it’s applied to you.
6. Notice the parts. Sometimes a technique can be divided into “sentences,” meaning that there are pauses between one part of the technique and another. A sweep might ask you to switch grips and hip position, pause, and then move your leg or hands to execute the sweep. If you can notice these pauses, you can cognitively begin to see the constituent parts of the whole move.
7. Ask questions. You can, of course, ask, “what if my opponent does x?” However, a more useful starting question might be, “what is my right foot supposed to be doing right now? Am I on the balls of my feet or heels? Is all my weight on it, or fifty percent, or is it supposed to be light?” I’ve found instructors appreciate questions that show you are interested in the details of the techniques they are showing, as opposed to questions that ask them to possibly show a second or third or fourth technique to cover your hypothetical of a counter to a technique you haven’t even learned yet.
8. Let the technique be itself. Begin by trusting the literalness of the technique itself. Slow down the rush to apply it to the streets or the doubts that may arise because you are too big and don’t feel comfortable inverting or too small and don’t like being in mount and rather be in knee-on-belly because you get toppled over easily. The technique does not need to be translated nor does it need to be given contingencies. It is what it is, do it, try it, experiment with it.
At home, you can then begin the task of letting your mind process what is has experienced. For some, a notebook is that final step in accelerating learning. If you’re like every other jiu-jiteiro addicted to the art, you are thinking of it anyway. All the time. A notebook is a place where you can store some of the more important and interesting thoughts you have had.
Thank you for reading!
This blog post was written by Aiseop
Aiseop has been practicing jiu-jitsu and judo for 7.5 years. He holds a rank of brown belt under Luigi Mondelli of American Top Team. He lives in Connecticut with his two boys, aka future grappling buddies. He is proud to join the WBBJJ team as a blogger.
(Aiseop and son)