Get better at BJJ by studying videos of yourself

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. An easy (and cost-effective!) way to get priceless feedback on your BJJ performance is to simply record yourself during training.

I’ve done this regularly and when most folks ask, they often express hesitation in filming their own self because they feel like there would be no point in studying themselves. In their mind, they already know so little, so how could they help themselves?

This is understandable since for many people, “learning” is an act that requires a teacher. But really, there are two ways to learn:

  1. Learning through understanding mistakes or through the giving of advice
  2. Learning through observation of patterns and intention gaps

The first method is what people traditionally think about for “learning” – it’s how our education system is set up, etc.  Learning is done via an instructor who imparts their knowledge to you, be it piecemeal advice or a structured curriculum.

The second method, however, is what is typically chalked up to “experience.”  Over time, you’ll learn – often the hard way – the proper grips for a toreando pass, or the proper escape from mount, for example. However, studying video footage of yourself allows you to shortcut this process.

One of the biggest values of studying footage of your own self is being able to uncover the intention gap.  Only you know what was going on in your head during the roll, which allows you the opportunity to analyze the thought process that led you to making those decisions.

In other words, if you were to give video footage of yourself to your instructor, they would definitely be able to give you valuable feedback and advice – what you should have done in this situation, what other options were possible, etc.  However, only you would be able to suss out what were the intentions or assumptions you had at the time that led you into those situations in the first place.

For folks both starting out or more advanced, being able to pinpoint what patterns are leading to your most common mistakes and also how to capitalize on your successes is crucial in naturally developing a game/style that’s unique to you.

Here are some recommendations on how to get started.

Required elements:

  • Video recording device: This could be your phone, a video camera, etc. I recommend also getting either a clip or stand with a suction cup to secure the device (ex. If you place the device on the wall, you may want something to make sure it doesn’t fall if someone bumps into the wall)
  • Time to review the footage: This will vary depending on how closely you decide to study the footage (see below for some recommendations)
  • Permission from your instructor: First and foremost, make sure your instructor is okay with you filming yourself by explaining how you will be using the footage. You might also have to reassure your training partners that the footage is only for your personal study.
  • Remember to record: I recommend filming the sparring section of class and pausing between each roll. That way you can study each roll separately but still be able to see the progression of the whole session (ex. Did your decision making change per partner or was it the same despite the different partners you had? Did you make different choices in early rolls vs later rolls?)

Studying the footage

There are several ways you can study video footage of yourself, depending on what you’re looking to improve and the time you have available to review.

Skim and choose

If you’re limited on time, this method may fit best with your schedule as you will be analyzing just one specific roll.

First, play through all of the footage you took (watch it at 1.5x or 2x regular speed if you’re really strapped for time) and identify one roll where you either did well or it was an interesting back and forth.

From there, deep dive into this particular roll by watching it once more while asking yourself the following questions:

  • For the places where things didn’t go so well, what led up to that situation? What was going through your head? Check the assumptions you had or what you were focused on at the time (ex. I thought I was safe – why did you think that? How can you recognize the difference next time?)
  • For the places where things did go well, what allowed you to succeed? Go deeper by asking “Why?” or “How did you know?” three times to get to the root of what went well (ex. I got the tap because the armbar was tight. Why was it tight? I had good timing in the transition from mount to the armbar. How did you know when it was a good time to transition? I could feel when they were going to bridge.  How did you know they were going to bridge? I had settled my weight after securing mount.)

Doing this should surface several hypotheses about your successes and failures.  Choose one or two and test them out the next time you train.

Self-commentary

This method has you review every roll during your session so this could take a long time if you had, say, an hour of training.

First, watch through each roll then take a running commentary of notes on what went well, what didn’t go so well, and situations where you didn’t quite know what to do.

Then, go back over your notes and look for trends. For example, was there a certain pass that you’re having success with? A certain guard that you’re getting swept from? Or a conceptual technique that you keep forgetting, like stripping grips or framing to make space?

From there, select just one or two areas to focus on – either for improvement (ex. you can now ask your instructor a specific question based on your observations) or experimentation (ex. since I’m doing so well with that pass, how can I set it up earlier? Can I use something else to bait my opponent in giving me that pass?)

Highlight focus

This method is a bit in-between the first two in terms of time and attention investment as you’ll need to review each roll but are only looking for specific things.

If you’re implementing something new into your game (ex. new guard) or have been using active note-taking to drive your training, this method can help you assess your progress.

First, identify what you want to look for in the video footage. For example, being able to hit a certain sweep, or get to a certain guard. Choose only two to three things to keep things simple.

Then, go through each roll but look only for those things. Were you even able to get to that sweep, that guard? If yes, how well did you do? What were the reactions? What could you try next?

If you weren’t able to get to those things, why not? Was it because of technique executed wrong or was it ego that prevented you from sticking to the plan? Or was it something else entirely, like lack of hydration or not knowing how to transition from one position into the guard you wanted to get to?

From there, you should have a list of improvements to make and hypotheses to test. Just like the other methods, choose just a couple to focus on for next time.

*

One side effect that I was surprised to discover after I started filming myself and studying that footage, was that I found myself even more eager to train because I would have specific things I wanted to ask my instructor or try during sparring.  It’s made training more fun and less stressful, while at the same time feeling like I’m learning twice as much in the same amount of time.

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