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The Book of Lists And Decision Trees

I’m a compulsive list-maker. Maybe it’s because I have a lot of things going on. Maybe it’s because all my concussions make my brain the consistency of vichyssoise. Or maybe it’s just an effective organizational strategy.

Because jiu-jitsu is so vast, the techniques I use today bear little resemblance to the techniques I used 6 months ago. Sometimes, that’s good (hey, I’m learning new stuff!); sometimes, that’s bad (hey, I’ve stopped using the stuff that works in favor of other stuff that’s doesn’t work yet!). Regardless, in a long game like learning jiu-jitsu, list-making can be an effective learning tool. I’d like to talk a little bit about what I try to do, and how it helps me learn.

I’m going to be writing about two related tactics. Making lists of techniques to study and work on in training helps show you where your strengths and weaknesses currently are. And making flowcharts of “If X happens, I can do Y or Z” can help you figure out your game plan for rolling in competitions.

These are two distinct issues. That super-fancy new sweep from Tornado guard may be cool as hell, but you might want to wait before throwing it into the “A” game bucket. The techniques you want to do most in training aren’t necessarily the ones you want to break out at a big tournament. Once you’re in that big tournament, though, you want a decision tree that supports the transitions you want to make.

Let’s talk about basic list-making for training first, since that’s way simpler. I keep a notebook with a few techniques I’m working on from every position. I use Evernote, which is free software that lets you add links to photos, videos and other instructionals. That way I can keep the whole works on my phone and laptop, so if I’m curious what details I’m missing on that new guard pass, I can check it out quickly.

This is what the interface looks like: as you can see, in addition to the notes I write, I can keep notes from class and from seminars I attend, videos of techniques I want to study and other research. You can search by keyword and tag, too, which is useful. (Click to expand the picture)

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.24.25 PM

The specific way you actually make a list or flowchart is peripheral, though. We all learn in different ways, and some of us will get more from books than they will from videos, or vice versa. I just think it’s valuable to spend time thinking about these topics, however you do it. The more mental energy you spend on technical matters, the more likely you are to improve. For me, the mere process of making lists reminds me of things I used to do that worked, but that I don’t do any more for whatever reason, and keeps fresh in my mind the new stuff that I’m working on, but am not good at yet.

The lists help me figure out what techniques I know, what I’m comfortable with and what I need to improve. The flowcharts help me organize all these components into a game plan. To illustrate how this works, I made this sample flowchart. We start and end with the orange circles, and the items along the way give us options along the lines of “If he does this, I can do this or this.”

So, for example, we start in the center, standing. If he’s a normal human, I usually shoot and try to take him down. If he’s a very good judo guy or a skillful wrestling guy, I probably pull guard. Then you follow the chart from there.

It’s like choose your own adventure, but with real-life consequences! You’ll want to click on it for the big version in order to really see it.


You’ll note this is an oversimplified version. In this magical flowchart world, we never get swept or get our guard passed. Optimism! (But also, the submission defenses, escapes and guard recovery techniques you use are subjects for a whole other flowchart).

And yes, I should probably have lines between Side Control and Neon Belly and Mount (and, for that matter, between Side Control and Back), because of various transitions. This is more of a “here’s how I would do this,” with some jokes thrown in, than an actual game plan.  Although it does have some elements of my actual game plan in there — you’re welcome, opponents!

The point isn’t to have a rigid structure that tells you exactly what to do in every situation. The point is, if you think a lot about your options from different positions, you’re more likely to smoothly flow toward those options than if you haven’t thought much about them before. Don’t think that just because the flowchart says you’re going for one of these three things from a position locks you into it.

Does anyone else do something like this? If so (whether you do it in a similar or different manner to how I do it), how does it work for you?


About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

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