Sketch-noting BJJ Philosophy

Here is an article wrote by Sam Yang, a current student of Cobrinha BJJ. If you would like to see more of his work visit his website @


Like any study, it’s not only helpful but a good idea to take notes. Yet, for a physical practice such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (or for that matter, any physical activity, really) a transcript of words will not do. What matters is retention, and we don’t need to retain every minutiae — much of that will come from the physical act of doing and feeling. I only take notes on the big ideas or the details that make me go “aha.” If I try to capture it all — well, it’s like that old saying: “If you want to teach nothing, show them everything.” Meaning, if I overload myself with information, I will remember none of it. So, how do you take your notes? I write and draw.


Welcome to the system of notetaking called sketchnoting. Giving yourself not only visual mnemonics but verbal cues will help you retain more of the info, much more of it. It’s already being used in many schools and high-tech companies are hiring people to become in-house visual notetakers. (It’s win-win, you use it for your own personal gain, and you can do it for companies and get paid!)


Don’t waste your money on notebooks that make you feel like you’re taking notes in history class. Get yourself a cheap sketchbook at a dollar store and some pens. We aren’t cramming for finals here. This is martial arts, we’re supposed to be creative, so write outside the lines and get your brain going. Get yourself excited about the art, with art! Add some color, studies concluded coloring is not only good for children but also for the adultbrain.

It gets easy once you figure out a system of icons, fonts, and a few colors you’ll consistently use. I did my early work in black and white. (I actually don’t take any notes, no matter the subject, without some level of doodling. Trust me, it helps.)


So, to give you an example, here are some notes I’ve taken on what I consider some of the key points for BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) philosophy. And look, I’m a crappy artist, but what matters is connecting ideas to words and images. Sometimes you’ll remember the words but you won’t remember the context or the point. If you take notes on something you see, you convert what you saw into words. Then your brain has to convert those words back into an image. You won’t remember what was unique about the idea because it lost something in translation, it lost the emphasis. Sketchnoting helps you maintain those elements. Maintain the visual and strengthen it with words. It’s more efficient and after all, isn’t efficiency what jiu-jitsu is all about?

The Way


Higher belts say it all the time but it makes a lot more sense when you see it visually.Rather than focusing on where you want to end up, like winning, or the next belt up, focus on the process. Why? Because every other beginner is focusing on winning, that’s why they’re beginners. They’ll bypass the “getting good” part. Focus on getting good, the rest will take care of itself. This actually is the Way and it’s how you should approach every, and I mean, every, great undertaking. It will serve you well in all endeavors.

The Small-Man’s Philosophy


A giant person sits on your chest; you aren’t going to shove him off. So what can you move? Oh yeah, yourself. Don’t try to think like a powerlifter, think like the clever little person that you are. Control yourself. That’s life, you can’t control all circumstances, you can, however, control your actions and reactions. Much like the Stoics, you can’t control all events, but you can control your opinions about them. This is the efficient jiu-jitsu man. No wasted energy on things you cannot control.



To think of all there is to learn is overwhelming, but good news, you don’t need to be good at all of it. The most useful and successful people in life find a few areas and excel at those few. World champions are elite at perhaps five things (that’s not just for jiu-jitsu, this is true for nearly all sports). Hone your skills, master a few things, become a mental sniper.

The Beginner’s Mind


So much of how well you will do in life, let alone how well you will do in jiu-jitsu, will be determined by your ability to deal with failure. If you see it as a learning experience, we can trust that you will be alright. If you can’t? Well, most people can’t. It’s why average is average and above average is so unique. The beginner’s mind sees treasure where the average mind sees the “bogeyman.”

The Work


We call this the grind. The daily repetitiveness you have to push through to get somewhere. Mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, explained it best, when he said:

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men … in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

True mental toughness isn’t overcoming fear, it’s overcoming the grind. (Boredom.)



Fun, love, passion, are all unreliable. Can you rely on your funnest friend to pick you up from the airport on time? All of us who have trained for ten or more years, at white belts, knew people who loved it more and had more fun than us. Yet most of them have already quit. Why did we stick around? I said this during my brown belt promotion:

“Someone told me I must really love it. Love isn’t the right word. I don’t do it because I love it, I do it because it’s meaningful. There’s a lot of things we love that we stop doing. We don’t stop doing meaningful things. It’s just a part of who we are.”

Don’t Forget To Save


Save it. You can scan or take a picture, then upload it onto the cloud. I use Google Drive. From there, create a catalogue system. (If you want to optimize even that, look into the Zettelkasten system.) I have a folder for BJJ, then a subfolder for BJJ philosophy. I use the cloud as my mind-map flow-chart and the visuals really help. You should also check out the books I’ve listed below.

Written by Sam Yang