Tracking Progress

By Ryan Ford

“If you’re not taking notes and going over what you’ve learned, you’re just going through the motions of showing up to class.” 

~ Rafael Lovato Jr – Grappling Central Podcast – Episode #101

It wasn’t until I reached purple belt that the value of taking notes in class really sunk in. Before Jiu-Jitsu, I was never a note-taker, or even a good student for that matter. I often wanted my classes at school to hurry up and end so I could socialize with my friends, eat lunch or head to PE class. I realize in retrospect that my tendencies, or lack thereof, to take notes and review things I’ve learned hadn’t changed much in my adulthood. When I started Jiu-Jitsu in late 2005, I just wanted to learn how to choke and jointlock people like I’d seen Royce Gracie do in 1993. What I didn’t realize at the time, was just how difficult the road is to becoming proficient at doing that to a resisting person. Especially if they practice Jiu-Jitsu too. The route to victory that I imagined in my naïve 20 year old mind was: get the guy’s back > sink in a rear naked choke > raise hands as the crowd goes crazy. How hard can that be?  But as any student of the art knows, it is NEVER that simple. Jiu-Jitsu requires great attention to detail on leverage, space, weight distribution, timing, reaction and baiting your opponent. As you climb the ranks in the art, the setups become more and more intricate due to dealing with advanced practitioners who have a wide arsenal of options in any given position. This requires you to remember lots of concepts, techniques and information along the way. And if you’re anything like me, you probably have a hard time remembering what you had for lunch yesterday. When I had Professor Rafael Lovato Jr on the show for the second time, we discussed note taking and tracking your own progress. The quote mentioned above really hit home for me. He explained that by showing up to class, practicing the move or moves of the day, rolling and then going home, you’re taking very little with you. Our mind only has so much data it can store, and for most of us, our Jiu-Jitsu data competes for storage space with our jobs, kids, bills, worries and when our anniversary is.


In my recent interview with Professor Federico Tisi, he emphasized that you will absolutely forget most of what you learn in Jiu-Jitsu. The amount of information is too great for our minds to remember every little detail. But the devil is always in the details and the details can make or break a technique’s successful application on the mats. I started taking notes the following day after recording my interview with Rafael Lovato Jr.  I began logging what we learned in each class, the steps of the technique, what felt off or difficult when I tried to perform the technique and who I practiced it with. Then I began keeping a journal of my rolls. I noted who I rolled with, their size, their rank, what I was able to do, what I was unable to do and I took note of any glaring weaknesses that I noticed in my game. After about a month, I looked over the data I wrote down and realized that I was having a hard time passing the guards of a couple blue belts, several purple belts, even more brown belts and finding it near impossible to pass the guard of any black belt I rolled with. I decided to pay extra attention to my guard passing the following month. I didn’t pull guard at all and always began rolls by trying to pass. I began noting how I was being swept, any submissions I was getting caught in and which passes in particular I was trying to do. After a month, I went over the data again and realized what one of my main problems was. I had very limited passing options. To be specific, I had two variations of passing the guard that I used. By only having two options, advanced practitioners would quickly realize that I was only attempting to pass in two ways, which made me predictable and easy to stop. I made it my mission for the entire year to obsessively improve my guard passing. I would build upon the two types of passes I used by adding on more variations and counters, as well as exploring different types of passes. I also started noting ways I could chain these techniques together to keep my opponent guessing. Nearly two years later, I am certainly no Saulo Ribeiro or Leandro Lo, but my guard passing is one of my sharper skills in my overall game. I couldn’t have made that improvement without the aid of my notes and analyzing the information I wrote down. Whether you use a digital app like Evernote, or a good old fashioned paper notepad and pen, keeping a journal with notes of what you learned and how your training went is an incredible tool to optimize your training. Not only will it help your game, but it is empowering to see the progress of your Jiu-Jitsu in documented form. When I read back to my entries from two years ago, I find notes expressing my frustrations with things I am very confident with now. Obviously, everyone takes notes differently. Kurt Osiander recently showed me one of his old notebooks he used as a purple belt and it looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs with stick figures performing the moves. But he was able to explain exactly what the steps of the move were and the details he was emphasizing.  I’ve seen others take notes that were completely random scribbles and some that looked like they were preparing a college thesis. Whatever your style is, I recommend including at least a few of these categories:

  • A daily training journal
  • A list of areas you feel you need to improve
  • A list of things that you can feel yourself getting better at
  • Details of a technique or position that you learn

Another great idea is to go over your notes with a higher belt or your instructor. Sometimes if we misunderstand something, we write it down thinking it is correct. It is always a good idea to have someone more knowledgeable than you review your notes with you from time to time. It also opens the opportunity for them to expand upon certain details or areas you’re having trouble in, which can lead you to discovering new options!

To sum it up, your instructor’s job is to teach you and guide you along the way in your journey. But it is your responsibility to retain the information and lessons in an effective way. Start taking notes today, create a 30 day game plan and eventually, map out what you’d like to achieve in the next year. You’ll be amazed by the results when you look back!     ~Ryan Ford