How to Take Useful Notes in BJJ Class

If we agree that taking notes is a useful tool in the learning process, then how do we effectively take notes in a sweaty, crazy BJJ class? Here are my thoughts.

Several times recently, I’ve been asked by teammates and visitors to my academy for suggestions on how to take notes on grappling technique. The people who have asked me have seen me poring over my spiral-bound steno pads, likely trying to decipher my own writing, which becomes more and more like a serial killer’s with every passing year.

It’s actually a great question. Research indicates note-taking aids in recall of information. More specifically, it indicates that review of notes taken aids in performance on subsequent assessments. In other words, taking notes is important, but reviewing those notes subsequently is more important.1

It’s also a difficult question to answer. Note-taking is argued to be a skill similar in complexity to other forms of writing, the implication being that it takes significant time (multiple years) and effort to become adept at it.2

Nevertheless, I doubt many of us ever received much formal instruction in how to take notes when we were in school. And that’s when we were sitting quietly, ostensibly. So how, logistically and content-wise, do we take notes on a complex knowledge domain like Brazilian jiu jitsu, which has so many moving parts and doesn’t allow for us to be still and record (unless we are injured, which we attempt to avoid)?

Of course, I’m assuming we want to take notes, but I feel fairly confident this is a reasonable assumption. First, as I mentioned, more than a few people have asked me about it recently. And second, let’s face it: grapplers are nerds.

We just happen to be nerdy about something that, in my opinion, is empirically cool. As nerds, we want to retain what we learn, and we want to talk about it all the time. Notes help with this.

How to Do It: Logistics of Note-Taking

On one hand it makes sense to go digital with our note-taking. There are numerous note-taking apps for iPads and the like, ones that even enable you to handwrite your notes on your electronic tablet and then turn them into typed text.

Obviously, this cuts down on the need for notebook upon notebook, and data stored electronically is more easily searchable and shareable, if the note-taker is so inclined. This, in turn, is helpful in that all-important review phase.

A very brief and non-exhaustive search for computer and smartphone apps related specifically to taking notes in Brazilian jiu jitsu revealed a general consensus that such a thing might be helpful – and no actual apps. It also yielded several links to other practitioners who have written about benefits of and procedures for note-taking:

On the other hand, there are also drawbacks to going digital. I personally still use a spiral-bound steno pad as I mentioned above. If someone gets swept or sweats on my notebook, it’s not ideal, but it also doesn’t break anything.

And if I forget my notebook at the academy, it will be there when I come back the next day (I know this from experience). I’m not opposed to going digital. I just haven’t figured out how to be responsible with expensive hardware in a chaotic environment.

How to Do It: Creating a System and Structuring Content

Just do it. Clearly, there are many resources and suggestions for taking notes. However, none of it will help if you don’t just start. The research cited above, and our own experience, will tell us that we can get better at taking notes by taking notes.

If you don’t know how to start, choose a sequence you feel familiar with and take notes on it. What do you focus on? What do you omit? From this, start to extrapolate a model or a structure that works for you.

How do you depict information visually? (Bullet points? Diagrams?) What kinds of words and phrases do you use repeatedly? In other words, study the notes you take on the technique not just for content but also to identify and shape a model you can follow for techniques you don’t know as well.

Find a consistent time. Some people like to take notes during class. Others do so after the class is over, and still others once they get home. I personally like to take them just prior to the next class. My schedule allows me to arrive a bit early, and that gives me time to get the details down.

I don’t know that this would have been the best time back when I was earlier on in my grappling career, because I might have forgotten details between the end of the class and the start of the next one (frequently the next day). But now I am able to recall better, and that time works for me. Figure out a time that works for you, and stick to it.

Be specific. “Post foot in partner’s hip” is not as detailed as “Post left foot in partner’s right hip.” You may think the former will be sufficient, but later, you may find you were mistaken as you play a mental game of Twister while you try to decipher how your body position should correspond to what you wrote.

Eventually you may create a system of shorthand. For instance, I don’t have to write out all the details of my mounted position, because I have a good sense of where various body parts need to go in that position in order to make it effective.

This means I can simply write “I have mount,” and I know what that means. But for the parts of a sequence you are less familiar with, capture as many details as you possibly can.

Ask for help filling in the holes. I can think of many examples of situations when I have taken notes, and I have most of it down, but I am missing a key element. Here is where you want to bring your notes back to class and ask the instructor for help.

Chances are, he or she will not only help you identify the piece you noticed was missing, but will also remind you of two or three other details you had missed the first time around.

Just read it. This is pretty self-explanatory. Notes are great to have not just because we feel virtuous for having taken them. They are great because they enable us to revisit what we have learned at an earlier time. But the only way that happens is if we actually go back to the notes we have already written and review them on a regular basis.


1. DeZure, D., Kaplan, M. & Deerman, M. (2001). Research on student notetaking: Implications for faculty and graduate student instructors. CRLT Occasional paper, No. 16. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

2. Boch, F., & Piolat, A. (2005). Note taking and learning: A summary of research. The WAC Journal , vol 16 (September).

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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