Training without a gym: How to study BJJ videos

The main way BJJ practitioners learn BJJ is through live training with an instructor leading the class.  Video can be a powerful supplement to live training if utilized effectively. Unlocking the potential of studying BJJ through video lies in how you go about choosing what, who, and when to study videos.  

 

Note: At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, causing many BJJ practitioners to completely halt their training.  While videos do have power, using videos to learn brand new positions are best when coupled with live training (see Choosing what to do after studying). 

Since we don’t yet have a way to download abilities a la The Matrix, a general recommendation during this time is to study videos to supplement positions you already know.  

 

Choosing what to study  

Video resources can be roughly separated into two types: Tutorials and rolling footage.  

Tutorials

Tutorials are videos where someone teaches a certain technique, position, etc. They can be one-off videos or a series/DVD, and can be anywhere from a minute long to hundreds of hours of footage, depending on the depth and detail of the person teaching.   

The teaching aspect is the key feature of this type of video resource.  In this way, choose a tutorial to study if you want …  

  • To learn about a general topic (ex. searching for an hour about a specific position like top side control can lead you to a dozen different perspectives and options. For advanced players, this can be a quick way to start adding new guards/positions since you’ll be able to surface the broad trends through the commonalities in the videos) 
  • Breakdowns of a certain technique performed by a specific person (ex. a well-known competitor hit a tricky submission, pass, etc. during a high-level event, and either they or another person details how they did it)   
  • To learn the fine details of a specific topic (i.e. a combination of the first two bullet points)
  • Want the experience of a regular BJJ class (i.e. having an instructor explain a technique, after which you drill the technique on your own)  

Rolling footage

Rolling footage are videos that focus on sparring. These videos can include people training at their home gym or competition.  

The key feature of this type of video resource is the ability to focus on one specific person – their style, their patterns, etc.  Especially if there is a lot of footage of this person available, even the progress of their game can be traced by studying rolling footage of that person in chronological order.   

In this way, choose rolling footage to study if you want …  

  • To see a specific person’s responses to specific situations (ex. looking up footage of them competing against a person with a certain style/game, skipping through footage until you spot them in a certain position, studying when they do one move over another) 
  • To infer the responses and try it out on your own (i.e. since rolling footage does not feature a teaching element, you have to piece together the answers/reasons why X was done instead of Y by yourself) 
  • To compare and contrast a specific person’s competition game to their in-house game (i.e. what are similarities and differences in how this person approaches a high-stakes environment vs a low-stakes environment?)

 

Choosing who to study  

The barrier to entry to creating video resources is a low one, meaning that anyone can make and share a video resource these days. There are famous names and certain video libraries that people will recommend time and again, but ultimately, you’re the one who has to choose which videos to study. 

While the criteria is ultimately subjective, do keep in mind that video resources are not all the same: 

Since the key feature of tutorials is the teaching aspect, try to choose tutorial videos with teachers who are able to clearly and concisely explain both the steps and the reasons behind those steps.  Additionally, they should be able to outline the specific situations where one movement, reaction, etc. is recommended over another. 

Since the key feature of rolling footage is the focus on a specific person, try to choose videos of rolling footage that show either people whose game fits the next level of your current game (i.e. a target for you to aim for), or people who specialize in specific techniques that you’re looking to improve (i.e. see the full range of reactions, chains, options, etc. with that technique). 

 

Choosing when to study 

Throughout this post, “study” has been the key verb used over “watching.”  That choice is deliberate. 

Watching video: A passive endeavor, where multiple, disconnected videos are viewed in random order, any time of day, week, etc. 

Studying video: An active endeavor, where specific videos are chosen to be viewed at a set time of day, week, etc. for a specific purpose (ex. reviewing before class, finding options to a trend unearthed through note taking)

In other words, watching video is something you can do any time, without much effort.  Studying video, however, is best when it is planned.  

To help you create a schedule that fits optimally with your training schedule, consider the following questions: 

  • What phase of the training cycle are you in?  Are you broadening your game (ex. Breaking a plateau by learning something new) or narrowing your game (ex. Preparing for competition)? 
  • How do you prepare for class/mat training? (ex. If selected before training, videos can serve as reminders on what to focus during the class; if selected after training, videos can serve as a way to answer the questions/problems that happened during class)
  • How much have you watched/studied thus far? (ex. Are you watching or are you studying? Is it now time to focus on doing?)

 

What to do while studying  

Playing a video and staring at the screen would count as “watching” video, a passive activity.  As mentioned above, “studying” video requires some activity from you, the learner. 

When studying tutorials, try the following as you’re viewing the video: 

  • What details have you heard before? What is the key concept that makes this detail so important?
  • What new details are being delivered through the tutorial that you haven’t seen/heard before? Why are they different? (ex. Grips? Guard structure? Situation?)
  • What details can you notice that the instructor is not verbalizing? 

When studying rolling footage, try the following during a study session: 

  • Watch several videos of the person and note their tendencies/patterns (ex. Takedowns, go-to guards).  Note also where those tendencies/patterns were broken and analyze why that may have happened.
  • After studying several videos of this person, select a new video and stop the video at random times to guess what the person you’re studying will do next or think about what you would do in that situation.  Then play the video – what made your answer right/wrong? (ex. The opponent reacted an unexpected way? Didn’t know a certain option was available at that position?) 

 

What to do after studying  

As a supplemental tool to BJJ, training after studying video is one of the best things to do.  To make sure you directly practice what you’ve learned, consider some of the following activities.

After studying a tutorial: 

  • Immediately after the first viewing, try to summarize (or use the Feynman technique) what you watched.  Rewatch the video and see what you missed. 
  • Dedicate a certain amount of time drilling the techniques that you learned
  • During live rolling, make it your goal to get to a position that will lead you to that technique.  Note how successful or unsuccessful you were in completing the technique. 

After studying rolling footage: 

  • Dedicate a certain amount of time for positional training to attempt the patterns/reactions that you’ve studied.  Note how successful or unsuccessful you were in executing the same game plan (ex. What reactions were you getting? How do they compare to the person you’ve been studying?) 
  • Find a different BJJ practitioner with a contrasting approach. Study how they shut down games/styles similar to the person you’ve been studying (even better: study matches where those two have fought against/trained with each other).

After either: 

  • Perform “mental” drilling through visualization (or even the 6 degrees exercise)
  • Create flowcharts/technique maps that outline different reactions and options

 

Keep studying!

This post covers only the tip of the iceberg of what all can be done through studying video. If you have additional ideas, feel free to share them in the comments below!

Training without a gym: 6 degrees

While the Feynman technique is helpful in testing the depth of your knowledge of a certain technique, position, etc., the below exercise can help find the connections between these seemingly disparate pieces.

6 degrees

From Wikipedia:

Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other.

We can apply this idea to BJJ by trying to find the connections within – and between –  these three broad categories:

  • Positions (different guards, positions of dominance)
  • Transitions (sweeps, passes)
  • Submissions

For example, if I’m just trying to wake up my BJJ brain, I’ll start with just the “Positions” category and choose two at random. Let’s say De la riva and mount. The exercise is then to connect these two positions together in 6 “degrees” – moves – or less.

Things can get even more interesting when the other categories are added. For example, if we use all three:

  • Position: De la riva
  • Transition: Torreando pass
  • Submission: Armbar

The exercise then becomes more like a game with dozens of possibilities. You could try to connect each one within 6 moves, or try to connect all three in 6 moves total. Or set a timer and try to brainstorm as many connections as you can within the 6 “degrees” you’ve defined.

Further, each category can be tweaked to your liking. For example, “Positions” could be narrowed down to only certain guards, “Transitions” limited to only passes, or “Submissions” limited to a certain limb.

Lastly, this is an exercise that can be done without any equipment at all, a more exploratory cousin to visualization that can be used to get the creative wheels turning, no matter if you’re on or off the mats.

Training without a gym: Feynman technique for BJJ

How you train off the mats can be just as important as how you train on the mats. In addition to my note taking routine, I also do the following exercise when doing a monthly review or just looking to add new things to my game.

The Feynman technique

Named after Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, this technique has four simple steps:

  1. Get a sheet of paper and write the concept you’re trying to understand at the top.
  2. Explain the concept as if you were trying to teach it to someone who has never heard it before.
  3. When you get stuck, or find that your answers are lacking detail, go back to your source material for the answer.

(Credit: Ultralearning by Scott Young)

I’ve found that this is particularly helpful when learning a new guard.  I’ll write the name of the guard at the top of a piece of paper and then answer the below questions:

  1. How does this position meet the “three controls” criteria? (Control of the body, distance, posture)
  2. As the guard player, what are the pros and cons to this position?
  3. What are some variations to this guard/combinations with other guards?
  4. What sweeps do you know from this position? From its variations?
  5. What passes do you know from this position? From its variations?

If you’re unable to answer any one of these completely or find that your answers are lacking in substance or detail, then that can help you identify where there may be a gap in your understanding and focus your study.

It’s a pretty quick exercise but I’ve found that it helps a ton because it can be applied to learning not only different guards, but also passes, escapes, high-level concepts etc.

For example, for learning an escape, I’ll have most of the same questions with some slight adjustments:

  1. How does this position meet the “three controls” criteria? (Control of the body, distance, posture)
  2. As the top player, what are the pros and cons to this position?
  3. What are some variations to this position?
  4. What escapes do you know from this position? From its variations?
  5. What submissions should you be wary of from this position? From its variations?

Note that here, you not only are reviewing the escape as the bottom player, but also the controls needed as the top player, rounding out your knowledge of the position.

Lastly, it can help to do this exercise on the same topic multiple times over the course of several days (or months!) so you can see how much you’ve internalized and deepened your knowledge over time.

The best part of your gym (The Importance of You, Again)

“We want this place to be the best part of your day.” It was the smile on my professor’s face that made me believe he was speaking from his heart.

*

Last week, the world lost one of my coworkers: a hard-working, pup-loving young man whose life had been cut short just when we started to know the best of him.

It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had at my job.

We were allowed to leave early and I eventually did late in the afternoon, bright-eyed and dazed. At home, the only thing I could do was sit on the couch and stare at the wall.

A notification on my phone broke through the darkness. It was my reminder for BJJ class.

My body moved on autopilot. Somehow, I had made it to the gym. But it wasn’t until I was walking back home that I realized I’d been able to do normal things for a while – and not think about his passing.

I remember pausing in the middle of the sidewalk, overwhelmed with gratitude.

‘How lucky am I,’ I had thought to myself while staring up at the moon with watery eyes, ‘To have a place to go to in a time like this.’

*

Things didn’t really register until this week. Concerns about COVID-19 had already entered the dialogue at work, not to mention the texts from my parents. But it was when my teammates started talking about it during BJJ class that I truly understood.

The gym would have to close.

Every time the world seemed dark and uncertain, I’d always turned to the gym. There, my instructors worked their BJJ magic so that for just a couple hours, everything would be all right.

But this time, closing the gym was the best “magic” they could do.

The thing is, it won’t be for just a couple hours. And likely more than a couple days – or even weeks.

No one knows how long it will take for COVID-19 to slow down, let alone pass completely.

But what I do know is that I want my gym to still be there when it does.

*

I’m in a lucky spot: My job can be done from anywhere, so during this time of crisis, I’m still receiving a paycheck. But I know that there are many that can’t say the same.

And I’m willing to bet that most BJJ instructors and gym owners are in that group.

If you can, please continue your membership with your gym. Help them survive the dark uncertainty of this time. They opened their doors to build community; they’ve closed their doors to protect it.

Let’s do what we can so that when this all passes, we can all enter through those doors and be together again, sharing the best part of our day.

Why do BJJ in times like these? (The Importance of You)

It’s easy to stop training. Just leave the gi in your bag, forget the bag under the bed, in the bottom shelf of the closet. If you’re lucky, there won’t be any emails or texts asking questions that start with “where.” You can just go back to what you used to do, before you did BJJ.

*

In a community I used to be part of before BJJ, I came across news that a member had passed away by suicide. The community is still reeling, and I myself, though on the shores, have felt the waves in my own self. Though I was rather distant from this person, theirs was a face I had grown familiar with, a name I knew. And now forever followed by verbs in the past-tense.

*

At the last competition, I saw several faces I hadn’t seen in over two years. Should I avoid them? I wondered, now wearing a shirt for a different gym. Would they accuse me of being a traitor? Pretend to ignore me? Would they even remember me?

The crowd gave me no choice, nearly crashing me into one of my old coaches and a couple teammates. The refrain I heard surprised me. “Good to see you!” they all said. “I’m glad you’re still training!”  As if they had expected something different.
*

Sometimes though, I look at the news and I wonder if I should be doing something more important, something to help against all the destruction and injustice in the world. Something more significant.

*

A week later, I’m still receiving congratulations about my promotion to purple. My response is the same: “It’s all because of you all.”  The white belts are the ones who always shake their heads,. so I wait until they stop. Look them in the eye. “Really. Thank you for helping me grow.  I’ll do my best to help you as well.”

*

After all, that’s where “oss” stems from: the Japanese word “onegaishimasu.” The root is “negau” – a wish, a prayer, an asking of someone else for help, for assistance. An acknowledgement that none of this can be done alone.

*

If only, if only, if only.

If only someone had told her.

If only someone had told her – you’re not alone, you matter, it’ll get better, keep going.

*

“Who knows how many people you will impact,” our professor’s professor said during the promotion ceremony. “How many people you will inspire because you didn’t stop.”

*

Many of us are hobbyists. We train because it’s fun, because we want relief, an outlet, a place to be ourselves, to be creative, to just be.

We know that our names won’t be on a top ten list, or have any medals to associated with it; we will not leave any significant mark on the sport. Names like ours will only be known by those in the gym.

*

How lucky.

How lucky are we to know so many names, to roll with someone who knows ours.

To have someone to roll with.

To have you to roll with.

*

It’s hard to train, much less regularly – to come back everyday, to come back after an injury, life event, time away. It’s hard when training itself is hard, when life is hard, when relief is right there within reach.

It’s easy to feel alone, to feel like you’re just in the way, that you won’t be missed, it’s just one day, to feel like no one knows your name.

It’s hard to balance hope with acceptance of things out of your control. You can try that sweep a million times and never once hit it, pray as much as you want for that belt but be passed over, make all of the plans to go to class and get inexplicably derailed, be as safe as possible and still get injured.

It’s easy to give up. After all, it’s just a hobby. There’s a whole world that exists outside the gym.

*


But inside the gym, we’ll notice when you’re gone. Feel the waves left in your wake.
And in the echoes of your absence, a murmuring of “where,” your name, and hope formed in the present tense.

*

I always thought that the kanji for “onegaishimasu” looked like two people. Look at it, the second character here: お願いします The way I memorized it was two people connected at the top – a shared vision, a shared wish, a shared hope.

*

I hope you know this already, but in case you haven’t been told today:

Thank you for being here. Thank for you training. For being there when I was not in the mood so you asked if I wanted to drill or stretch instead. For testing my limits.  For correcting my mistakes. Again. Again.

For training at the moment I was walking by the gym, for being at that competition, for speaking up and asking a question; you inspired me.

For being on the mats, day after day.

For coming back.

For knowing my name.

For sharing your name, your time, your hope, your determination, your failures, your successes; sharing in the tedium, excitement, and all the uncertainty – thank you for being here.

For being here for you.

You, who are significant.

Thank you. Welcome. Welcome back.  Let’s roll.

Picking a BJJ gym: A step-by-step guide to choosing a new (or your first) BJJ school

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

(This is a long post! Feel free to use the contents below to navigate to the bits most relevant to you.)

Method
Step 1: Identify parameters and grading criteria
Steps 2 & 3: Attend class and Compare against ideal
Steps 4 & 5: Trial Period and Final Decision
Worksheet

Choosing a new BJJ gym is one of the most daunting tasks in a person’s BJJ career. Some are lucky to start BJJ with a gym that was either recommended to them or in their area, and basically never leave.  Others have to go through this song and dance multiple times, either because of things outside of the gym (ex. moving to another city) or unfortunate incidents at that gym (ex. scandal, drama).

In any case, this post is intended to help you choose a BJJ gym that’s right for you, whether it be your first one ever or switching to a new one.  Note that this is not intended to tell you which gym to choose – but rather, to share a framework that you can adapt to your own needs to make what can be a very stressful decision into a more logical process.

That said, I’ll be sharing my perspective throughout, so before we begin, let’s go back to the most recent time I had to undergo this process. Below I’ve listed some of the reasons why I was looking into changing gyms, which shaped the criteria I developed when I was evaluating new ones.  Note that this was a really hard thing to face – I’d been with this gym for several years, had really been happy. But when I sat down and wrote the below down, I realized that it was time for a change.

 

Reasons why I was looking for a new gym

 

  1. Injury.  The catalyst for this was an AC separation that occurred during a roll and took me out of commission for 4 months. While I’ve had injuries before, this one made me reflect on how the injury came about. I had to face the fact that the vibe of the gym had changed, so much so that injuries like this had become more common. I couldn’t stay at a gym where I didn’t feel safe.
  2. Attention.  At first, I had liked the hands-off attitude of the instructors. Students were free to do most anything due to the loose class structure. But then I started to feel stalled in my training, and I didn’t feel like I was getting the help I needed.  Plus, and I know this sounds petty, it’s hard when you realize that a) there’s a favored list and b) you’re not on it.
  3. Exodus. In the months leading up to my injury, many of the women and talented upper belts had left. I’m not sure whether this was a cause or an effect of the different vibe at the gym. But what that meant for me was that I found myself mostly with people who had a similar body type and style, which took away the fun of the unknown that happens during rolls.
  4. Restricted schedule.  Due to the location of the gym and the class schedule, I was only able to train twice a week. And that had been fine – when I was first starting out.  But when I started feeling stalled and when I had been considering returning to competition, it was a much bigger hassle to get to the gym than I had realized.

Reflection: Is what you’re doing now helping you get to where you want to go?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Every couple of months, assess your training situation. Understand that things change, both in the gym and in your own life – change is natural and necessary in order to grow.

Recommendation (if you’re brand new): Be honest about why you want to train. Realize that you won’t know what you need at the start and that’s okay – everyone has to start somewhere.

 

Method:

  1. Identify parameters and grading criteria: Basically, I thought about the specific things I was looking for in my ideal gym (see Parameters section below)
  2. Find gyms and attend several classes at each: Don’t take just one class (see Vibe parameter below).  To be honest though, if/when I do this again, I’d try a full week of classes first.
  3. Compare each gym against the ideal grading criteria: Again, I wasn’t comparing gyms against each other but against the ideal I’d mapped out in step 1.  The first thing I looked for here was if I needed to try more gyms. Luckily, there were a couple that were hit most of the marks.
  4. Trial period: Before committing my heart and wallet, I signed up for a month at one gym.  If my experience went south, I’d go to the other gym.
  5. Final decision: For this change, I never had to go to the other gym and have wholeheartedly committed to my current gym.

Reflection: How can you make finding a new gym a logical, replicable process?

Recommendation: This post, of course :)   

 

Step 1: Identify parameters and grading criteria


As mentioned above, the thought process here was to create essentially a picture of what my ideal gym looks like.  I wanted to avoid comparing gyms against each other. The reason why is this – let’s say you look at three gyms and rank them against each other.  How did you know to stop at just three? At those three? Identifying your ideal pushes you to really look for a gym that fits your needs.

I’ve listed quite a bit of parameters – some of them might not be important to you, some of them might be important to you but you disagree with my criteria, etc. That’s great! That means you’re starting to or already have identified the things you’re looking for in your ideal gym.  

(Note: If you find these helpful, I’ve linked a quick, free worksheet at the end of the post.)

The parameters

  • Vibe
  • Instructors
  • Training partners
  • Class structure
  • Space
  • Location
  • Class offerings

Vibe

First and foremost, I wanted a place that was chill. I come from a strict background (military, karate), and though I started at a regimented Gracie gym, I’ve learned that I thrive more in gyms that are less pomp and more relaxed. That said, I also compete occasionally. So while BJJ is first and foremost and creative outlet, I wanted to have the option for competition as well.

To check for this, I attended a couple of different classes at each gym because sometimes certain classes have different vibes. I also looked at how involved the instructors were in maintaining that vibe.  I don’t believe that culture is something that’s “set it and forget it” – it’s something that every person needs to actively participate in maintaining. In other words, having structure or rules is less about restriction and more about being able to allow everyone to safely explore their potential.

Reflection: What kind of environment have you found most enjoyable when training BJJ?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Think on the vibe of your past gyms and see if you can find any commonalities of things you liked – or even disliked.  

Recommendation (if you’re brand new to BJJ): Look for a place that matches your personality/where you feel you fit in.

Instructors

The biggest thing I was looking for was a gym that had instructors who were passionate about BJJ and teaching.  More specifically, I was looking for two things: quality and attention.

  • Quality: I’ve a teaching background and look for instructors who not only give context/the why behind what they’re teaching, but also take ownership on the “understandability” of their teaching.
  • Attention: As a blue belt, I quickly learned that in order to improve, I had to supplement my formal learning with my own research and experimentation.  However, with the plethora of material available, I needed someone who could both help me understand what wasn’t practical/lower percentage, and who could point out holes and opportunities that I wasn’t able to see in my own game.  

Reflection: What do you want out of a coach/instructor? How would you like them to relate to you in your BJJ learning?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Think on where you want your BJJ to go in the next year or so and find instructors who you believe can help you get to that next level.

Recommendation (if you’re brand new to BJJ): Think on mentors, teachers, coaches, etc. you’ve gotten along with in the past and list out their traits – look for these in the gyms you attend.

Training partners

I stand at a mighty 5’0”, 118lbs, and I’ve learned to expect that there will rarely be anyone my size.  So when I look at the students at a gym, I’m less looking for people my size and more looking for a variety of body types.  

This variety tells me two things: 1) that there’ll be ample opportunity to work different parts of my game and 2) gives possible evidence of quality instruction (i.e. the instructors are able to build up a variety of people through their teaching) and a chill vibe (i.e. welcoming enough that people of various body types and backgrounds felt comfortable).  

Reflection: What kind of people do you want to train with? How would you like to be challenged while training?  

Recommendation: Look for a place that offers a variety of body types, skill levels, and commitment (hobbyists, competitors, etc.).  After all, BJJ is about adapting to the unexpected :)

Class structure

I’ve learned the hard way that not warming up before class is taking the fast track to injury.  So one of my requirements was that classes had some sort of warm up portion. It didn’t have to be super intense, but enough to warm things up (especially in the winter!).  

I’ve also learned that even if it’s the same instructor, the same class on a different day can have a completely different structure, even if it was for the same skill level. This was another reason why I tried out a couple different classes at each gym.

Reflection: What are 2-3 things you want to see in how a class is structured?

Recommendation: Think on where you are in training – and in life! – and what both your body and mind need to retain knowledge and train effectively.

Space

By “space,” I’m not just referring to the training space available for rolling and the like, but also the physical gym space.

  • Physical gym space: For me, general cleanliness is important. My ideal space, especially if it was further from my home, would have showers and laundry service since I hate commuting too long without washing and gi washing takes up a ton of time.
  • Training space: While I wasn’t looking for a huge space, I also was wary of super small places.  (Yes, Goldilocks, I know) A huge space would make me worry about getting the attention I wanted (see Instructors above), while a small space would make me worry about my safety.  My ideal would have a gym area for weight training and conditioning.

Just like the culture of a gym, maintaining safety and hygiene requires active participation of all instructors and students, so I also kept a close eye on how involved everyone was in maintaining both spaces outlined above.  

Reflection: What are would your ideal training space look like?

Recommendation: Be honest about what are must-haves and nice-to-haves for both the physical gym space and training space.

Location

The main thing with regards to location was how easy I could get to it.  This ruled out any gyms that were too far from my home or work area, or outside of my commute.  My thinking for evaluating location in this way was if I could get to the gym easily, I’d be able to train more.  And just like any other skill, training consistently is the biggest factor in getting better at BJJ.

Reflection: Where can you train that you can easily get to?  

Recommendation: Focus first on gyms that are closer to either your home or work area, though remember that location can affect the price and vibe of the gym.

Class offerings

In addition to being easy to get to, I looked for gyms that had classes that fit into my current schedule, which meant evening classes.  However, I also looked for day offerings as well, for those random times when I was off from work or have an evening appointment.

Note that many BJJ gyms nowadays aren’t BJJ only.  Many have kickboxing and/or MMA classes as well. I trained Muay Thai before BJJ and every now and then, I get a hankering to elbow and kick things.

Reflection: When does the gym offer classes? Are they during times when you’re available?

Recommendation (especially if you’re brand new to BJJ): It can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking that you’ll completely rearrange your life when you start BJJ, but that’s usually not the case.  The first thing to focus on is simply getting to class, and the easiest way to do that is simply to fit it into what you’re already doing.

Steps 2 & 3: Attend class and Compare against ideal


Over the course of about a month, I attended a handful of gyms and listed out what I noticed at each gym with regards to each of the parameters. I didn’t do a point system or anything like that, just took notes using the worksheet I’ve linked at the bottom of this post.

The bulk of the gyms I knocked out easily, and I was left with two very strong gyms. A funny thing is that Gym Y was one i would have passed over since it didn’t have a big name attached.  But because it met the location parameter, I ended up trying it out. Boy was I glad I did – here’s what my notes looked like:

Parameter Ideal criteria Gym X Gym Y
Vibe Overall chill, with an opportunity for serious competition training. Pretty chill, but with an undercurrent of seriousness. Somewhat clique-y and standoff-ish. Chill, certain classes are serious. Very welcoming!
Instructors Quality: Gives context/why and owns understandability of lessons.

Attention: Individualized.

Detailed instruction. Walking around the room but too many students for individual attention Great conceptual ideas with detailed instruction. Solid time spent with each pair during techniques.
Training partners More variety the better (body types, age, skill, commitment). Lot of people, lot of variety (even my size!), ton of upper belts. Small crowd, variety of people, couple upper, mostly white and blue.
Class structure Must have warm up time. Warm ups, standing technique, ground technique, sparring Warm ups, standing technique (certain classes only), ground technique, sparring
Space Physical: Clean; laundry, showers.

Training: Enough room to be safe.

Clean, wide training area, cramped bathroom/locker rooms. Showers, no laundry. Clean, small training area, 1 bathroom. No showers, no laundry.
Location Near home or work, or along commute. Couple blocks from work. 1 block from home.
Class offerings Evening and day classes for BJJ.  Stand-up/other disciplines as well. Ton of classes, both evening and day. Weekends too. BJJ only. Mostly classes in the evening. Weekends too. BJJ, Muay Thai, yoga.

As you can see, both overlapped in a number of places with the ideal, but both had some gaps and thus concerns for each:

  • For Gym X: While I could get to class easily and often from work, I worried about fitting in and getting attention.
  • For Gym Y: While I could get to class even more easily and often, since it was close to  my home, I worried about having training partners who could challenge me.

Note that I wasn’t comparing them against each other, but against the ideal criteria that I had outlined earlier.  This allowed me to look at each gym more objectively.

Reflection: Look at each gym and compare them as objectively as you can against your ideal gym. What concerns do you have?

Recommendation: Be honest! If you can have another person go with you to have a second opinion, that might help also, as long as you let them know what criteria you’re looking at.

Steps 4 & 5: Trial Period and Final Decision


Since neither wasn’t perfectly aligned with my ideal, I decided to do a trial period by signing up for a month contract first.  My plan had been to attend Gym Y for a month first, then do a month at Gym X.

However, over the course of the month, my concern about being challenged vanished due to how strong the gym was in all of the other parameters.  Because of the quality of instruction, the structure, the vibe, etc., the “mere” white belts that I had noted grew a ton in just the one month. Additionally, I received an incredible amount of personalized feedback about my own game.  

While I could have tried a month at Gym X, I felt so strongly about Gym Y that I decided to stay.  

Reflection: If you’re stuck deciding between two gyms, how can you “test run” each? After a month, ask yourself, have you made progress towards your BJJ goals?

Recommendation: Find out if the gyms do month contracts.  While a month-to-month price is usually more costly than a year contract, jumping into a year contract could not only set you back a whole year’s worth of tuition, but frustration, staleness, and god forbid, injury.

Worksheet


If you would like to use the parameters above in choosing your next (or first!) BJJ gym, feel free to make a copy of the below linked workbook in Google Sheets.  It contains:

  • Sheet 1: Outlines the parameters, reflections and recommendations mentioned in this post, along with a column for you to enter your own criteria.    A
  • Sheet 2: Space to fill in your observations as you visit different gyms.

And of course, feel free to amend things to your liking – change the parameters, the reflections, whatever you want! – and you can even export the workbook as a PDF to print out and take with you as you visit different gyms.

Link to Google Sheets (go to File > Make a copy): How to choose a gym (Google Sheets)

Thank you for reading!

If you read through this massive post, I’d be super grateful leave a comment below and shared this with others.  Thanks again!

Note taking in BJJ – Moving beyond passive record keeping

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Some of my BJJ notebooks from the past few years

For most people, note taking in BJJ is a list of techniques and drills that were covered that day, or subs and passes performed successfully while rolling.

 

Note taking in this way is a logical way to start, especially if you’re brand new to BJJ. Not only does the act of writing help with knowledge retainment, it’s also a good way to keep yourself accountable and make sure you come to class regularly, which is arguably the most important element of progressing at all.

 

Passive to Proactive

 

However, I think note taking becomes more useful after you have a bunch of notes already accumulated. My recommendation is twofold – first, set aside time at a regular cadence (ex. every weekend, end of month) to sift through these records and find patterns in your performance.

 

These patterns can be things that show areas of weakness (subs you keep getting caught in, guards you’re having trouble passing, etc.) or they can be patterns of opportunity (positions you’re hitting sweeps from, positions you’re able to get to in general, etc.).

 

From here, you’ll likely take some sort of step to strengthen your weaknesses or dig into whatever curiosity you’ve unearthed. For example, a fairly recent pattern I noticed was that I was getting to North South but was getting swept from there. After identifying that weakness, I immediately went to Youtube for videos on maintaining and attacking from North South.

 

But regardless of what research you do, the second part of my recommendation is to go back to your notebook – and this time, write down proactive notes, things you want to try for the next couple of classes.

 

This is where I believe note taking can be transformed from a memory aid to a training aid. It builds self-awareness about your own training, helps you set goals to strive for, and provides a private feedback loop which is necessary as you move into higher belts and have to take more ownership over your training.

 

For me, since adding this reflection/feedback cycle into my routine, I’ve found that not only do I feel like I’ve learned more in the last few months than I have in the past couple years, I’m even more excited to go to class, and more convinced that BJJ is something I’ll be doing for a long time to come.

 

An addendum: What to note

 

I’m not going to lie: I’m an obsessive notetaker.  You may find the below to be excessive, and I’m certainly not saying that you should follow all of this.  Rather, I’m sharing the below to help give some ideas on what you could take notes on and highly encourage that you experiment by adding/removing things specific to you.

 

Post-class notes format:

  • Drills drilled
  • Techniques learned
    • Tip: When writing steps/directions, try to use terms like “inside/outside” or “top/bottom” for limbs because “left/right” is only going to screw things up if you switch sides
  • Who I rolled with and any notes about the roll
  • General thoughts
    • Tip: Write at least 1 positive thing!
    • Note: This is also where I talk about whether or not I hit the proactive notes/goals that I had set for the week

 

My weekly reflection is much looser and more of a journal entry in a separate notebook and is usually spawned by a series of questions that I ask myself.

 

For example, if I identify a pattern of weakness:

  • What’s happening before this?
    • i.e. Am I giving up something/creating this situation by doing something unconsciously?
  • What’s one thing I can try?
    • Note: This is usually after I’ve binge-watched Youtube videos, so I force myself to focus and choose just one thing to try that week
  • How can I break down this thing into small bits?
    • ex. If I’m trying for a new sweep, I break things down into the position, the grips, the reaction, the timing, and will focus on one portion for a couple classes/weeks 

 

Or if I’m reflecting on the proactive notes/goals that I set for myself that week:

  • Was this the right answer to the problem?
  • Is there a movement I need to drill to be more successful?
  • Did I break it down small enough?

Weekly Video – Technique Analysis: Sickle Sweep

Lately I’ve been finding myself trying the sickle sweep but was finding it very awkward. When I reviewed Emily Kwok’s video, however, it became clear that the biggest problems were understanding which leg I was attacking and adjusting my hips to that leg.

(Note that she goes into a variation and drills after 1:43 but I won’t be talking about those in this post)

The part that I wanted to point out is 1:35 because it gives a good angle of how you have to focus on one leg.  It’s very clear at 1:35 that Emily is attacking her partner’s right leg (left from the viewer’s point of view) – most of her body is on that side, and actually, she’s almost outside of her partner’s leg.

In addition, she’s almost completely on her right side, so that her hips are facing the leg that she’s attacking.

Why is the direction of her hips so important?

Because that’s where her power comes from. Particularly for this sweep (and perhaps the argument can be extended to all sweeps), Emily needs to have both mobility, since she’s moving each of her legs in opposite directions, and power, which comes from driving up with her hips – which is what allows her to come up so smoothly as well.

It’s a very subtle thing, but I’m finding it to be a concept that keeps popping up. So again main takeaway: focus on one leg, then aim your hips in that direction.

Hope that helps!  Try it out the next time you train :)

Fenom Kimonos Gi Review: When it’s time to upgrade your gi game to a womens gi that fits (and isn’t pink)

One of my training partners graciously gifted me her old Fenom Crystal Weave and I have been wearing it nearly every practice.  Though I still love my Fuji All Around gi, I’ve become a big fan of Fenom.  

I had always been a bit wary of gis that were marketed for women as they seemed to be the same as the mens gi, only pink.  But when I put on the Fenom Crystal Weave, I felt a marked difference in fit and comfort.  Plus, it helps that it’s in black, so I get to feel a little badass :)

Fenom Crystal Weave Gi Review

According to Fenom’s blog, the Crystal Weave is their most popular gi.  And for good reason – it’s a lightweight gi that’s strong yet soft, keeping you comfortable and fast.  

Durable and lightweight

I’ve rolled in gis made of a variety of weaves, but the Crystal Weave definitely has a unique softness that doesn’t compromise its durability.  It’s gentle on the skin, which means you’ll never have to worry about gi burns but also infinitely durable, so you also don’t have to worry about it falling apart after just two training sessions.  Case in point – I was given this gi after it had been used for 2 years; I’m now 3 months into using it twice a week and it has no hint of damage. 

Phenomenal fit

The slim tailoring of the shoulders and torso provides a wonderful fit without being bulky.  The pants were definitely cut with the female form in mind, giving room for certain assets without adding length, allowing you full range of movement without worrying about tripping over your own pants (which I may or may not have done while wearing other gis…)

Mix and match

And probably the most unique about Fenom Kimonos is that you can shop gi tops and pants separately, so you can have the combination that’s right for you.

Here’s their size chart from the Crystal Weave:

  • A0 4’10” – 5’1” 85-115 lbs
  • A1 5’2” – 5’5” 115-130 lbs
  • A1 Curvy 5’3” – 5’5” up to 155 lbs
  • A1 Tall 5’6”- 5’9” 115-130 lbs
  • A2 5’6” – 5’9” 130-165 lbs
  • A2 Tall 5’9” – 5’11” 140-160 lbs
  • A2 Curvy 5’6” – 5’9” up to 180 lbs
  • A3 5’10” – 6’1” 165-190 lbs
  • A4 5’6″ – 5’9″ 190-220 lbs

 

More details:

  • Single Piece 550 grams Crystal Weave Top
  • 100% Cotton Rip Stop Pants with Flat Drawstring
  • Embroidered logos

 

So there you have it!  I’ll try to do more product reviews like this in the future – if you have a certain product you’d like me to take a look at, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.