How a Sheet of Paper, a Pen, and a Coffee Can Help Your Jiu Jitsu

You may not be one of those obsessive note takers, but this one simple thing can really help you with your Jiu Jitsu positions, and help you understand where to focus your efforts in training.

A few years ago, I had American black belt and BJJ maverick Mike Fowler to my gym for a seminar. Not only was he a great coach and a fun guy to be around, he also spent some time after showing us his Brabo choke skills on what I’m going to share with you here. Mike’s has to have been one of the best seminars we had. His skills as a communicator are excellent, and as a result anyone who attended that seminar still has a great lapel Brabo choke in their arsenal. You can’t say better than that, I highly recommend him if you’re a school owner, or even if you’re in his locale.

There was way more to what Mike showed than this, but I’m going to show you a simplified version of what he thought. For the full deal, go train with Mike. You won’t regret it.

We are all struggling to remember what we were taught in class. And we’re all victims of having a favourite few techniques. One of the most damaging things you can do is to focus too much on one area of your game and neglect others. Jiu Jitsu should be a holistic art, regardless of your goal- self defence, competition, MMA, or hobby- you should be trying to improve in all areas. However even if you are committed to improving all of your positions, how do you keep track? That’s where this simple exercise comes in.

First, assemble your tools. You’ll need a pen, a sheet of paper, and a cup of coffee. You don’t really need the coffee but coffee is nice. You’ll also need something to draw straight lines with. We won’t be using the scissors but if you feel the need to cut something out on your sheet, ask a grown-up to help you.

On the sheet, I’m going to make some columns, listing these positions:

Mount Top
Mount Bottom
Side Control Top
Side Control Bottom
Guard Passing
Half Guard
Half Guard Passing
Stand Up
Back Control
Back Escapes

I’m intentionally limiting this to these 11 positions, although I could quite easily make 13 by sub-dividing open/closed guard for example, or include other positions for more advanced students. But let’s keep things simple for the purpose of this exercise, and I recommend you do that generally too. For me these represent the fundamental positions we see in training.


What we’re going to do is write in what you know from each position. Don’t write in things that you just vaguely know of. Write in the techniques that you have learned and drilled, and can use. I’ve written in some samples.


So in this example, I’ve written in a lot of stuff we teach in our Beginner’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class. Our sample student, let’s call him Ignacio, has attended about 2 months worth of classes, but missed a few here and there with work, a holiday, and his grandmother’s bar mitzvah… or something. I dunno. He’s also watching and drilling techniques from videos and the internet, like we all do, and he’s particularly fond of the guard position.

It’s obvious from the picture that Ignacio likes the guard best. He’s got 7 ways to submit people from the guard that he’s learned, and 3 ways to sweep them. This is fine, we all have a favourite position and the guard is probably the coolest thing to learn when you start BJJ.

He’s got a pretty good balance across most positions, but you can see he’s pretty light on his escapes from bad positions and when it comes to escaping from the back, he doesn’t know what to do. This is again pretty common. Escaping isn’t sexy or cool, so you tend to not focus on it very much. You can also see Ignacio is pretty light on passing the guard. What we would like to see Ignacio have is a relatively equal amount of things in each column. Now some positions will always have slightly more techniques than others, it could be argued that you only need 2/3 really good back escapes generally for example, but broadly speaking we’re looking for balance.

So from looking at the above, Ignacio can see instantly where his energies should be directed- he should get busy learning some back escapes. His guard can wait, for now. After he’s done learning some escapes, getting some guard passing time under his belt will be next.

So what we’d like to see in another 6 weeks or so, assuming there are no more octogenarian’s bar mitzvahs to go to, is that when Ignacio sits down and writes the same sheet out he gets this.


He’s still adding to the other columns, but he’s taken some time out before class or at open mats to drill and learn some back escapes, some mount escapes, and some guard passes. His sheet looks more equal now, and he can be satisfied that he’s directed his energy to places where it was needed.

And this isn’t just good for beginners. I often get students coming to me with frustrations about plateauing as intermediate or advanced students, and I still direct them to this. The best way, in my opinion, to break a plateau is by going around your obstacle. Focus entirely on something you are really weak at, and focus your energy on developing it. This is a mental method of identifying that weakness. It also has a visual trigger to it. You look at the sheet and see the empty or less full column, and you know that’s where you need to work.

One final tip is to be honest. Do you KNOW the technique, or have you just drilled it a bit? We can all list off things we should know or have seen, but how much do you use when you roll?

I hope this helps!



Barry Oglesby is head coach of Kyuzo BJJ
Kyuzo is Dublin’s premier location for beginners who are looking to start in martial arts. We have programmes in Brazilian Jiu JItsu, and Mixed Martial Arts. All of our classes are suitable for complete novices or for those who are looking to transition from other martial arts.

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