Off the mat learning - part 1


I wrote this content a year or so ago when I was planning to start a blog about Jits.  For various reasons I decided I didn’t want to write solely about Jits so I shelved the article.  With Covid19 keeping us all off the mats, now seems like a good time to revisit it.  It was originally a single post but it is too long, so I am going to split it into several smaller bitesize chunks.  

This series of articles is for the “time poor” Jits enthusiast.  For most of us the truth is that we would LOVE to spend ALL our time on the mats but the reality is we work, have a family life, study, etc.  We only get a few hours a week to spend practicing what quickly becomes an obsession.  This makes learning new techniques and concepts all the more challenging. 

Online you often hear the question “how do I get better?” or “it’s so hard to remember what was shown in class” and the answer is often “just roll man” or “it’s all part of the journey” or “more mat time”  These answers aren’t really answers and are frustrating for anyone who can’t spend more time on the mat.

Thankfully there are an abundance of technique/ system videos out there these days (it wasn’t always the case) that let you augment your learning at home. 

The problem is that only a few of them touch on how to keep a hold of what is taught in class and work on it in your own time.  This is what I refer to as off the mat learning.  That is where these articles come in.  They are written by a “time poor” practitioner for “time poor” practitioners.  In a nutshell, I am going to describe the process I use to retain knowledge and manage my game’s progression. 

NB none of the methods I use are new or secret, I did not invent them.  They have all been around for years.  A lot of them came from my corporate career where I used them to learn IT systems to get ahead in my career.

These articles are not a magic bullet, they will not show you any specific techniques, concepts, etc; they focus solely on knowledge retention, evolving your understanding of that knowledge and developing a game strategy (there are experts out there who are far more qualified than I am to teach specific techniques or concepts). 

One final note, this method is not a substitute to actual training.  It only works if you use active resistance training to re-enforce the technique you have learned in class (visualizing a technique is very different to doing it).  

Intrigued?  Let's get started then.  

Article List

  1. On the mat
  2. On the screen
  3. Off the mat
  4. Working out your game
  5. Executing your goal plan

On the mat

The most common sources for learning a new technique are on the mat e.g. during a class or seminar; or on a screen e.g. youtube, video instructional.  The method I use is the same for all of them, the example I will use is in class (because your primary source of learning should be your instructor, not John Danaher).  I will add a brief note on how to adapt this to video.

Holding on to lightbulbs

Ok, imagine you are in a class and the instructor runs through two takedown variations e.g. uchi mata and single leg from Russian tie; a position e.g. side control top and two submissions from a position e.g. Americana and armbar from side control top.  A lot right? 

The amount of information you receive in class can be overwhelming.  If you are shown too many things you may think “wow, amazing class” but you are literally mind blown and take nothing or very little home with you.

Within that class there may be pivotal “lightbulb” moments where your understanding takes a leap forward, something just makes sense.  These are the things you want to hold onto, they don’t have to be a technique they might be a concept or a detail.  When you come across one, give it a colour, see the thing you want to remember in your mind with that colour.

For example, I note my instructor is using a thumbless grip to cup his partner's elbow close to the joint.  I want to remember it so I think of the colour red or I think “Tom Thumb” to lock the thought into my memory.  It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it works for you.

Look out for your lightbulb moments, associate them with a colour or meaningful image

Understanding the technique

Coming back to the example, let’s look at how to understand the mechanics of a technique.

Good instructors will break down a technique into a sequence of steps, the first thing I do is number those steps and say what I do with each in my head e.g. one, arm drag to establish Russian tie, etc;  Once you understand the sequence, think about the position your body is in and what forces make the technique work for each step e.g. grab their right wrist with your left hand, reach across with your right hand, cup their right elbow.  As you cup their elbow step across at 45 with your right foot dragging them.  The forces that make this work are timing the drag of the elbow with the step so your bodyweight drags you past them.

By now you may be thinking “I do this already, I have wasted my time” If you are, not so fast sunshine, I’m not done yet.  If you are thinking “there’s more to the arm drag to Russian tie than that mate” you are right, there is but I am not trying to teach you how to do an arm drag.  I am trying to teach you how to remember it after class!

You will normally get a few goes at the technique before the class moves on.  Keep saying the breakdown of the steps out loud or in your head to yourself as you do the technique.  When your partner is practising on you, repeat them to yourself and visualize yourself doing the technique in your head.  Try to feel with all your body the correct position you are in as you do it.  As the great Bruce Lee said “don’t think feeeeelllll 

Visualization is not new but it is a very powerful learning tool.  What I mean by visualizing is seeing yourself in your mind's eye doing the step.  For me, this is quite a fuzzy image a lot of the time but the important thing is that I associate each step with an image.  That way, later on when I recall the technique from my memory using the step, I should have some imagery in my head to go with it (if you search for visualization online there is a LOT of useful free content out there that will help you improve)

Why do I do this?  My goal at this stage is to understand the technique and break it down into its working parts.  I want to start the visualization process as soon as possible to get it into my head.  I can refine and lock it into my memory off the mat.

More on understanding techniques

The section above is really light on how to break down techniques and understand their mechanics.  The reason for that is because the method I use to do this is not mine to talk about, I can only endorse it here.  Please check out and share Cane Prevost’s blog posts ( in particular his 3Ps methodology and article on long and short frames.  For the older grappler reading this his “survive, defend, attack” article is excellent too.

What I can say is that the 3Ps method changed my Jits forever and turbocharged my game development.  I apply it on and off the mat when I am stuck in a position, I breathe and feel where the pressure is and is not and make my moves from there.

Ok, hopefully, you’ve read the 3Ps and have the best method in the world to break down a technique.   However, I humbly submit there is an ingredient I like to add to this, to understand a technique, concept or detail you have to be able to teach it.  Let me re-phrase that, you have to think about it as though you had to teach it to a stranger.  

Have you ever considered why bluebelts/ purplebelts who help out coaching accelerate so fast?  It is because they are teaching.  To effectively teach something to someone you have to truly understand it. 

Teaching a class isn’t available to most of us (especially if you are subject to the BS that only blackbelts can teach).  The good news is though you don’t have to give up more of your free time to teach the kids class or volunteer as the full-time training dummy in the adult class (unless you want to).  Instead, when you document and refine your techniques look at it as though you had to teach it someone else.  Ask yourself “what makes this work?”  or “why does this work?”  Understanding what, why, how, when is the key to learning anything whether it is maths, IT systems or Jits.

It is also worth noting a lot of the methods I talk about here are based on how I was trained.  Check out the “I method” and SBG philosophy page. 

Documenting the technique

I know some of you reading this will hate writing stuff down, how you write it down isn’t important.  What is important is that you can understand it, the aim is to get it into your head so you can recall it on the mat.  Ideally, you will have time to do this during class before the instructor moves on to a new technique.  More likely you will only get an opportunity to do it after the class.  This is why the first step is so important, the better you understand and visualize the technique the more effectively you will be able to recall it off the mat.

Ok, next step.  Grab anything to hand (I have used everything from napkins, old envelopes, my phone's notes function, a notebook for this) for each technique, visualize and write down the steps and any notes that go with it.   I handwrite all of my notes these days, it is easy to zone out when you type things.  Handwriting locks in and engages my conscious mind, keeping me focused on understanding that wish I which to learn.

When I first started doing this I quickly found I had too much information and got lost when I tried to write it up when I got home.  This made me evolve the method, I am not great at art or drawings so my first attempts at drawing people ended up as sausage scribble.  I changed this again to something I was able to do – stick men. 

Handwritten notes detailing a guillotine escape

For each step, I draw a stick man showing the body position of the technique.  To that, I add short notes about the position and forces that make the technique work (the 3Ps).  A lot of the time I am rushing to get home after class, so drawing two stick men linked together in a technique takes too long.  I'll often draw the partner’s position in a separate stick man.

Another great technique I use are mind maps, these let me quickly write down notes on a technique or step of a technique without writing sentences of detail.

Handwritten mind map breaking down a back control technique

Why do I do this? This reinforces what I learned in class, as I recall each step I have to think about it.  As I write it down, it makes me think about it more deeply and understand the mechanics of it.  This deepens my understanding and further locks the visualization into my memory.  What I want is when I pick up the notes later on that each step triggers my visualized memory – that I can see myself doing each step.

On the way home from class

You may be cycling, walking, driving or catching the bus home.  I find that my mind mentally checks out when I'm traveling from A to B.   In other words, this time is “dead time” (I will touch on this more later on). 

As soon as you start your journey home, start recalling what you learned in class.  Focus on your three things, bring them into your mind.  Recall the techniques you learned.  Visualize the steps, the piece of paper and what is written on it.  See yourself executing each one over and over again. 

Why do I do this?  I have found if I don’t do this recalling exercise that writing them up, later on, is a lot tougher.  The first stage is only giving me triggers to recall the information from my short term memory.

At home

To my wife’s disdain, I often do this right away (before having a shower).  I grab my technique notebook and my coloured pens and I start the detailed write up of each technique.  I review my rough notes, add to them based on my memory recall.  I draw out the stickmen for each step in pencil until they are perfect (this is an art in itself for me).  I add notes on the 3P’s to this, I consider what makes it work and try to identify the common concepts that appear not just in this technique but others.

When I am happy, I copy my updated notes into my technique notebook (I am aware this is somewhat OCD behavior).  I split the stickmen into different colours so I can see “who is who” i.e. where different limbs are.  All the notes I make are in language that I understand easily.  At the end of the exercise, I have a written record of the technique that I can refer back to when things are hazy.

Write up of a side-control technique


  • Visualization, visualization, visualization – it’s a powerful technique google it
  • Hold onto your lightbulb moments in class by visualizing and associating them with a colour or something that makes sense to you
  • Understand each step of a technique, number them, visualize them and recall them at every opportunity
  • Pay homage to the mecca of understanding
  • Recall and write down each technique at the end of class
  • Visualize and recall the techniques again on the way home
  • Refine and perfect your notes

Final thoughts

I hope this was useful and you enjoyed it.  The next articles in the sequence will build on this method.  There is one thing that I have not talked about here which I will post about in the future - the importance of fundamentals.  

Fundamentals i.e. positions, postures, concepts, etc are the foundations of everyone's game.  Please use this method (if you think it is useful) to learn techniques but do not neglect fundamental techniques.  Having a game built on the fundamental principles and techniques of Jiu-jitsu allows you to add flashy shit later on.  Personally, I don't like flashy crap, it is hard to learn, harder to execute and in my mind has a lower probability for success.  I will leave it there for now... 


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