While I am loathe to admit that I am past my prime, I have to acknowledge I was willing to do a lot more in my 30s than I am now that I am 50. Truth be told, insecurity is a powerful motivator. In my 30s I worried about whether or not I was enough. I trained three, sometimes four hours a day trying to make sure. These days my thinking runs more along the lines of, “Well, this is what I’ve got.” And if that’s not enough I’ll just have to make do.
I trained jiu-jitsu in my 30s but as part of an informal club. A bunch of guys from a few different schools would meet at my gym around midday three days a week and we would roll. In those two or three years I gained a lot of experience but not much formal training. I was very familiar with rolling or sparring but with very little knowledge about what to do in that roll. I quit when I hurt my knee.
Six years later I started training again. Something was missing in my life. I had stopped martial arts training when I hurt my knee, just after my father passed. I needed the time to deal with my father's estate and grieve. The knee injury was the perfect excuse. What I hadn’t expected was how much of a difference it had made in my life. I stayed active during my break. I continued my career as a strength coach and even pursued Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting, but neither of these sports meet the needs that jiu-jitsu did. When I started training again I enrolled as a student in a actual school. My experience training with my club helped me bridge some aspects that beginners to jiu-jitsu face but my lack of knowledge ensured that I started as a white belt, a rank beginner.
Over the last five years I’ve risen to the level of a four stripe blue belt. I train at my school a minimum of three days a week and also teach beginner classes at my own gym 4 times a week, plus the occasional private session.
I consider myself an ambassador for the sport. I encourage everyone to at least give it a try as the benefits are often not what one would readily expect. I’m easily one of the oldest guys in my class as there’s only a handful of us over 40. I am neither the strongest, nor the fastest, and certainly not the most athletic. Which means some days I am the hammer and other days I am the nail. Regardless of how a particular day may go, I still love coming to class.
My reasons for loving jiu-jitsu are varied and complex. Most likely they are also not what you’d expect unless you've spent some serious time on the mats and have developed a similar love for this “gentle art.”
Here’s a short list of reasons why I love jiu-jitsu:
My classmates. In the last five years of training I have developed some of the best friendships of my life. Men I only see two or three times a week for an hour have proven themselves to be some of my most trusted confidants. Men who have my back. Who I could call on in an emergency and who would be there. If I’ve had a particularly rough week and it’s all I can do to muster the will to just turn off the alarm clock, it’s the thought of this company and our sacred time together that gets me out of bed.
Jiu-jitsu is a family. Perhaps a corollary to #1 but it's worth noting by itself. Whenever I travel I often take my gi. I can almost always find a school willing to let me drop in for a class or two, more often than not for free. I’ve gotten wonderful training and even made a few new friends at schools as far apart as Pennsylvania, New Orleans, and Mexico.
It’s hard. There is a simple tenant to self improvement. Find hard stuff to do and do it. Jiu-jitsu is hard. By that I mean it’s complicated. Because you are on the ground, all four limbs come into play often doing different things. Jiu-jitsu develops a fitness unlike any other. Just practicing the art develops your mobility, agility, cardio, and strength. It’s a complete package.
Because it’s hard, success actually means something. I’ve been involved in a wide variety of martial arts in the last 30 years. No other art allows you to train at the level of intensity you can attain in jiu-jitsu while staying safe. When you develop skill in jiu-jitsu, it’s legit and you can rest assured that if ever called upon to use that skill, you will know exactly what you are capable of.
It breeds humility. Bruce Lee once said, “No matter how big and bad you are, there’s always someone bigger and badder.” Jiu-jitsu allows you to confront this directly and removes all the swagger and bravado that comes from someone who has never really tested themselves.
It never ends. I know that as long as I remain humble, keep my head about me, and remain true to the art that I will be able to continue training and teaching jiu-jitsu well into my advanced years. I will never fully master this art. There will always be something left to learn and I think that is a beautiful gift.
While I think the above list is enough to send everyone scrambling for the door of the closest studio or academy, I understand that many of you may need more convincing and may have a reservation or two. To meet this I’ve compiled a list of reasons why many people have told me they didn’t want to try jiu-jitsu and my answers to those reasons.
I don’t want to get hurt. On the surface this looks like a legitimate concern. We all have jobs and responsibilities. As a adult you just can’t play willy-nilly with your health. Jiu-jitsu looks rough. Especially when two heavyweights are really going at it. But just like watching your dogs at play, what seems scary may not actually be. First of all, jiu-jitsu has rules and those rules are specifically designed to protect participants. There are specific rules about how and where you can grab your opponent and what types of submissions are allowed. As this is a constantly evolving art, so are the rules. The ultimate goal of jiu-jitsu is to play jiu-jitsu, that means you have to take steps to keep yourself and your training partners healthy. Getting hurt is contrary to being able to play. Additionally, jiu-jitsu includes its most sacred rule, “Always respect the tap.” Tapping is a universal sign that says, “Hey, you caught me. I can’t get out of this. Let’s start over.”
It looks hard. As I said above: it is hard. That’s what’s so great about it. Americans suffer unprecedented levels of depression and dissatisfaction with life. As a completely unqualified lay person, I think a very large portion of those dissatisfied people are so because they lack sufficient challenge. For millennia humans struggled to survive, yet in the last two or three generations, for most of us in the industrialized West that struggle is gone. I, for one, am glad. I’m happy I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from or what out there is trying to eat me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have evolutionary systems inside of me that need struggle and adversity for me to feel my best. Personally, I prefer to take on those struggles voluntarily in a room full of cushioned mats while wearing pajamas, but maybe that’s just me?
I don’t want to look foolish. I get this one. It’s part of that whole insecurity thing. But consider this, my whole career is built on doing things that make me look foolish. As a strength coach I literally teach people how to “pick things up and put them down again.” I regularly engage in strenuous work for no other purpose than the doing of that work. I move thousands of pounds, over the course of a workout, just to put it right back where I got it from. Much of life is foolish. Lighten up. Have some fun.
I’m too out of shape. This one ranks right up there with, “I need to loose some weight/get in better shape before I come and workout with you.” First of all, jiu-jitsu “shape” is unlike any other fitness and conditioning out there. I’ve seen triathletes, CrossFitters, Powerlifters, strongmen, and even marathon runners completely gassed by their first class. Nothing prepares you for jiu-jitsu like jiu-jitsu. Everyone who does jiu-jitsu gets this. No one expects a beginning white belt to have the conditioning of a purple belt. You’ll be amazed at how respectful most practitioners are of where you are in your journey and how helpful they can be.
I'm too old. Really? Did you miss the part where I said I'm 50? Still not impressed? Check out Elaine Wynn AKA jiu-jitsu_grandma on Instagram. She's a 73 year old blue belt who trains and competes out of a another local school here in Birmingham.
I don’t want to touch or be touched by someone else. This is the saddest of all the excuses I’ve heard. And I don’t mean sad as in lame, I mean truly sad. What this says to me is that this person either a) wasn’t touched enough growing up or b) was touched inappropriately. Both are quite damaging to the human psyche. All animals engage in touch. It’s an essential form of communication. Unfortunately, again in the industrialized West, we have become so concerned about inappropriate touch that we’ve just about done away with it completely. For most of us the only touch we ever engage in as adults is with our sexual partners which then renders all other touch stigmatized and questionable. It's a baby and bath water thing. Because touch is nuanced and highly subjective we, as a society, decided it was better to just do away with it rather than try and figure out what’s good and what’s bad. Which is a real shame because touch is essential to human health. One might question whether a culture overwrought with bad touch doesn’t come as a result of one deprived of most, if not all, touch. The touch of jiu-jitsu takes multiple forms. The first is just what comes from drilling. Here we are learning the moves. Having a willing partner allows us to practice the muscle memory of various techniques, and because jiu-jitsu is up close and personal we spend time up close and personal. The second is sparring or rolling. Here we are actively trying to use the techniques we’ve learned against an unwilling opponent who is also trying to impose those techniques on us. Not only is there touching involved there is a tremendous amount of trust. And it is here that those deep relationships I mentioned at the beginning get formed. Essentially my training partners and I agree that we are going to simulate murdering one another up until the point that one of us says stop and then we are going to stop. It is the repeated engagement coupled with the follow through that builds trust and forms the deepest of friendships. If not wanting to be touched is one of your primary reasons for not doing jiu-jitsu, I highly suggest you find a good school right away.
By all means do your due diligence. If you decide to take my advice and try jiu-jitsu check out the school, meet the instructor, watch or attend a trial class. If possible have a private conversation with the head instructor where you can voice your concerns. A good instructor will hear you out and provide reassurances that will not only make you feel heard, but respected. A good school recognizes that not only is jiu-jitsu for everyone, but that everyone’s path is different. Not everyone is training to be the next UFC champion. As an older student, look for schools with a wide variety. Look for diversity in terms of age, gender, and background. A good sign is a school with a robust kids program and adult classes where plumbers train with lawyers and maybe even a retiree or two.
Comment below if you have reasons for not training that I missed. Also, if I’ve convinced you and you’d like to give the gentle art a try, reach out. I’d love to extend an invitation to The Squatchery, if you’re local, or perhaps I can make a recommendation.