When it comes to learning something new and receiving new information, I am a copious note taker. I have been since I was young, but as I get older I get more value out of notes with each passing year. It use to be that I could simply see a move or sequence of basic to intermediate level techniques and be able to replicate them, even days afterward, with pretty decent accuracy. Albeit, they weren't ready for competition by any means. But my memory for retaining what I saw and heard on the mats was pretty decent. However, as I started attending seminars I realized that I wasn't able to retain much, if anything.
Commonly, BJJ seminars are 3 hours long and are formatted so as to transmit a high volume of information to the students. They are not so much an attempt to curate expertise or even proficiency. But, are a means of the instructor (often a guest instructor) to communicate their current repertoire of techniques to the group. Instructors usually make an effort to correct some techniques amongst the students and give their input when and where they can. However, if the group is large coaching time will be limited. Personally, I also felt that at these seminars I wanted to get the most bang for my buck. In some cases not only did I pay $150 or more for the seminar, but I might've also traveled several hours by car or plane and maybe even stayed in a hotel. These things can add up and lead to a seminar actually costing you much more than just the advertised fee. Taking notes is a great way to maximize your time and money and get the most out of these seminars.
Just an FYI for those new to BJJ Seminars and training in general - most instructors are not okay with you video taping their lessons or techniques without their permission, and permission is rarely ever given. I could write a whole other post on just this topic alone. But, to keep a long story short and to answer the question on why we take notes instead of video taping the seminars, it's because it's up to the instructor if they will allow this or not. That said, some instructors will not allow you to video tape them doing the technique but might allow you and your partners to video each other doing the techniques. But, always ask if that's okay or not first.
Attending BJJ Seminars
I've found that at Seminars my time is best spent writing things down instead of getting in several repetitions. My reasons for choosing to focus on note taking are two fold.
First, I have an academy as well as training partners whom I can practice the techniques that I learn at a seminar with. All I have to be able to do is to remember what it was I actually learned at the seminar when the opportunity to train arrives. Good notes definitely help me do this.
Secondly, I've found in my experience and the evidence regarding learning has shown that only getting in a couple of Dead Reps (more on Dead Reps below) is not conducive for developing proficiency or retaining information. Therefore, I prefer to focus on taking good notes and getting in what repetitions time will allow versus no note taking and trying to get in a max number of reps. I have found good notes accompanied by a few reps to be better for progressing into the later phases of learning than no note taking whatsoever. If I am lucky enough to have the time to take good notes AND get in 20+ reps of a move, I will gladly take it. But it's rare to get that much time.
Remember, at a seminar you are usually only getting one exposure to the Instructor and a particular technique. After that, you're on your own in terms of progressing with the material. Additionally, it's rare to get in more than a handful of reps each with your partner and this is usually not enough to be able to commit a technique with all of it's details to memory.
It’s All About Value
The name of the game is to get maximum value out of the seminar. Value will be determined by how long the techniques are beneficial to your particular Jiu-Jitsu game. We want maximum benefit and maximum longevity out of any technique we spend our time trying to learn. See the BJJ Technique Value Curve in Figure 1.
Fig 1: BJJ Technique Value Curve. The Y-axis measures the overall Benefit a particular technique has to your particular Jiu-Jitsu needs/game plan. The X-axis measures the overall Time that that technique is beneficial to you - it's Longevity. The goal is to maximize both of these values and to keep the Value Curve progressing ever upwards to the right for as long as you're training Jiu-Jitsu.
Therefore, we must understand how people, especially ourselves, learn best. For most people maximum learning and incorporation of a technique doesn't come from doing what I call "Dead Reps", but this where the foundation is laid. Doing Dead Reps means that following your instructor's initial lesson, you and your training partner will usually move off and just begin going through the motions of the technique. This is the phase you are most often in at a BJJ Seminar or when first learning any new move. At this initial learning phase you and your partner should be helping each other perform the mechanics of the movements. The goal at this level is to try and learn the correct positioning and to do the correct movements in the correct sequence. While the element of Timing can be discussed at this level, it is difficult to properly train until the student can complete this first step. It is here at this first step a student can compliment this phase of learning by taking notes. It is fairly easy for a student to observe and take notes on the correct positioning and sequence of movements because it is something that is visually happening right in front of them and the mechanics of a Jiu-Jitsu technique move linearly in time from the start of the movement to it's completion.
It is important to point out that attempting to add too much resistance or to challenge your partner too soon will thwart their opportunity to learn the technique. Too much resistance will impede their efforts to obtain proper positioning and to perform the basic movements in a sequentially correct manner and with the best mechanics possible. This is often the curse of students new to Jiu-Jitsu who don't yet know how to be a good training partner, as well as to those who's egos are still a bit too large. Remember, this is the initial phase. The mechanical phase. The foundational phase. Resistance will come soon enough once the mechanics can be performed well and retained.
The other phases of learning and incorporation will require the student having a partner who can add in varying levels of movement, resistance and other challenges. The student will have the most success in these later phases if they had a good opportunity to learn and explore in the initial learning phase. If you moved too quickly through the initial phase, or can no longer remember what you learned in the initial phase, then it is unlikely that you will have good training in these later phases assuming you can even begin them at all.
Pro Tip: At seminars you might be with a partner who wants to just do reps instead of spend any time taking notes. To avoid feeling rushed, I recommend partnering up in groups of three so one person can take notes while the other two do reps and then you can rotate in. It is your money you're spending to be there, so train in a way that maximizes your money and your learning so long as it's not disruptive to the class, students or instructor.
More Great Reasons to Take Notes:
My Note Taking Strategy
When taking notes either at a seminar or in class it is unlikely that the instructor will speak slowly, constantly repeat things or actually give you time to take notes. To deal with this issue I've come up with a multi-step step plan to get the notes on paper and then get them into my Jiu-Jitsu game.
My methods are currently based on starting with plain old pen and paper instead of starting directly with a technological device such as an iPad Pro. I am interested in switching over to an iPad Pro because it can be set up to both type and to sketch with, but for now I am still choosing to use analog methods. To begin with, my pen and paper don't need to be charged up, so finding an outlet during a seminar isn't an issue. My pen and paper have relatively little value to other people. Yes, BJJ people sometimes steal things from each other. That's what can happen when people gather in groups. Using just a pen and paper removes this temptation for most. Lastly, it will be hard to break my pen and paper should someone roll into it or on to it during training. Accidents happen despite how careful we try to be. I always keep extra pens in my pack, but I only have one iPad.
Step One: Speed Is Key - Use A Code
Using a code or shorthand will save you time initially. There will be codes that will be common to all of the notes, such as Left, Right, Hand, Foot, etc. Shorten these up by making Left or Right just L or R. Make Left Hand LH and Right Foot RF. I go one step further and always draw a circle around those sort of directional notes so as to draw my attention to them.
Figure 2 is a note I made for the Scissor Sweep from the Closed Guard. Notice the directional codes I used. At first they may seem confusing, but as you read through the note and are able to determine it's context, you will be able to figure out the code being used. Remember, these notes at this level aren't meant to be read by other people. The code is by you and FOR you. Choose codes and shorthand that comes naturally to you and that you'll be able to figure out years from now if you come across the same note. However, if you follow the next step of my plan you won't need to remember the code for very long.
Fig. 2: Quick notes taken during a lesson using codes and shorthand to keep the process understandable. RH = right hand, CC = cross collar, LH = left hand, Opp = opponent, R = right. See if you can decipher the rest of the code. Note that the circled elements draw your eye to them. This helps when reviewing your notes and beginning to use them in training.
Step Two: Type the Notes Out
This step is optional but it does serve two purposes. First, it gives you another exposure to the material which can help ingrain it's details better for some people. Secondly, it cleans up your notes and allows you to explain things more thoroughly. This would allow them to be understood by other people better, or better for yourself years down the road. In a sense, typing them out increases their longevity and usefulness.
How you type them out is up to you. I prefer the formal outline format using Roman Numerals and letters like what is taught in formal writing classes. Example:
Scissor Sweep From the Closed Guard
A. Opponent is inside the closed guard and has decent posture that can't be broken down.
1. Right hand has a cross collar grip on their lapel. Get the best grip you can get.
2. Left hand has a hook grip on the end of their right sleeve. Keep their hand on your body. Don't let them post it to the floor.
3. Post right foot on the mat and hip escape out a bit. Not too far. Just enough to slide the right shin across their torso.
Etc., etc., etc. You can see where I'm going with this and that I'm adding in more details and omitting most codes this time around.
Where to Keep All Your Notes
I'm a big fan of the cloud based storage services. My favorites are Evernote, Google Drive and Dropbox. These services allow me to access my notes from anywhere and share them with anyone. Currently, I'm using Evernote the most as I find it to be great for both taking and storing the notes. It also works great with my iPhone and iPad. I always keep my original hardcopy notebooks, however, and recommend that you do as well.
Step Three: Drill the Material ASAP
Once back at your home academy spend some time during an open mat with your training partners going through and drilling the material. Drilling with Dead Reps will help you all learn the steps and sequences and then you can create your own live drills with resistance from there. You will be acting as the teacher, or the facilitator, here with your training partners. This is another exposure to the technique, and as anyone who has taught a move to another person understands - teaching it will help you learn it even better.
Growth Through Learning & Note Taking
The longer you train in BJJ and the more you know, the less likely you will have to take notes on everything you learn. The interesting part is that if done correctly, note taking can certainly help you learn BJJ at an improved rate. But also, you will get faster at taking notes as time goes on because not only will you hopefully have a note taking code implemented, but also your base of knowledge will allow you to not have to write certain things down because their existence or concept should be a given to you at a certain point. For example, most of us as adults don't bother explaining basic arithmetic to each other regularly to determine how much change we should get back from the cashier. At a certain point, it's just understood. The same is true for Jiu-Jitsu.
That's the basics of my note taking methods and philosophy. I do go a bit further than this for my own personal notes, but this is how I started and it's served me well for 25 years+. While I focused on note taking at a seminar in this article, similar methods can be done for regular classes as well. I hope this helps some of you get the most value out of your next class or seminar and can help you learn at faster rate.
"The Talent Code", by Daniel Coyle. https://amzn.to/2I225FP
"Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise", by Anders Ericsson PhD. https://amzn.to/2I30KyB
Jason Clarke. Owner & Head Instructor of Iowa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.