Broken ribs and a bruised ego: my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class
I first heard about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or BJJ, back in 1994. It was a big year in South Africa as Nelson Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected president after 46 years of apartheid. I was working at a nightclub in Cape Town and I got to be friends with some of the bouncers and we started training together.
Bad hair and a bad attitude
Back then I was a skinny little 19-year-old in skinny black jeans and pointy shoes that matched my pointy attitude and I think they felt sorry for me.
The garage dojo
We trained kung fu with two Chinese brothers in their granddad’s garage which they'd converted into a little gym. We didn’t pay any money to train. I still remember the first time I was nearly knocked out on my feet by one of the other guys who was training with us. We were sparring with gloves and he surprised me with a hook that sent me staggering. It was the first time I’d been hit properly in the face and it wasn’t fun, I can tell you!
After training one night we were getting some food and one of the guys excitedly told us about this tournament to see which martial art was the best. It was full-contact, no rounds, no pads or gloves and there were only two rules: no groin strikes and no eye gouging. Besides these two very sensible rules, everything else was on the table. And the fight would only end after a knockout or someone threw in the towel.
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship
Back then there was a lot of rivalry between the different martial arts - each claiming theirs was the best. Of course, there was no way to objectively judge these claims because different martial arts had different rules when competing and there was no tournament in which anyone could compete. That is, until 1994 and The Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC 1 as it went down in history.
Watch UFC 1
Check out the epic hair styles and shoulder pads!
43min 40sec: Ken Shamrock footlocks Pat Smith.
1hr 5min: Royce Gracie destroys Ken Shamrock in the final match in less than a minute.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu wins
The big deal of course was that UFC 1 was won by Royce Gracie who was a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Joyce also went on to win the UFC the following year too. Before this, very few people had heard of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Gracie’s win really put BJJ and the art of grappling on the map.
The way of the ninja
I drifted away from martial arts soon after this, but Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was something etched firmly in my mind as something I’d like to try. Years later, while living in the UK, I had a strong desire to start Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but at that time I couldn’t find a BJJ gym near where I lived. Instead, I dived into 3½ years of Ninjutsu and Japanese Jiu Jitsu. You can read more about my adventures learning how to be a ninja in: The way of the ninja: lessons learned from 3 years of Ninjutsu (coming soon).
BJJ in Stockholm
Fast forward to Stockholm 2019, and after listening to the epic Tim Ferriss podcast with Jocko Willink, my interest in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was rekindled. Then, after teaching a yoga class, one of my students mentioned that her partner taught at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym in Stockholm. The good news was there was also a beginners' class right after my Wednesday yoga class. The stars were only partially aligned, though, because all classes were currently cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
My first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class
When there was a brief gap in social distancing in Stockholm, I seized my chance and finally managed to get to my first BJJ class. The class consisted of a warmup followed by partner technique work and then the really fun part, which was 3 minutes of rolling practice with different partners. Rolling is where you grapple with your opponent and try to get them to submit.
With no real grappling experience it took all my strength to fight my opponents. One advantage I had was not wearing a Gi (traditional martial arts uniform made of heavy fabric), so there was really nothing for my opponents to hold onto. It turns out that No Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an art unto itself and there's even a No Gi world championship.
The first round of rolling was a draw and in the second round I managed to choke my partner and he tapped out. But the third session was harder: my partner was stronger and had more experience (I think). He managed to slide his knee over my unprotected ribs and then put all his weight down on my ribcage. We both heard a loud crack and I groaned in pain.
The bell went and we were onto the next partner. It only took a few seconds with this last partner for me to realise I was quite literally out of the game. Fortunately, though, the class was finished. The instructor asked for 2 volunteers to mop the sweat-drenched mats and my hand shot up. Then we bowed and the class ended.
I was drenched in sweat and in a lot of pain - but I was sold! I mopped the dojo and made my way carefully downstairs and out into the fresh Stockholm evening. I knew I’d be back. My ribs took 3 months to heal, but by the time they had, restrictions were tightened and all classes were cancelled again. As the serenity prayer goes... I accepted what I could not change and got curious about what I could.
Learning a martial art
One of the great challenges of learning any martial art is that you generally spend a lot of time drilling movements, without understanding the context of those movements. And, more importantly, how to apply the techniques in an unpredictable and chaotic situation - with another live human being.
Meet John Danaher
As so often happens when you’re trying to figure out how to change the things you can, I stumbled over a Joe Rogan podcast with John Danaher, who I subsequently discovered is one of the world’s leading Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructors. John has a beautiful way of explaining things that really resonates with me. He succinctly laid out 4 stages of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:
A 4-step system of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu according to John Danaher
"Bottom line, jiu-jitsu should be fun, friendly, and engaging. You should look forward to going to jiu-jitsu because you know you will be pushed mentally and phsyically."
Learning BJJ online
I’d never heard anyone explain the "why" of a martial art so simply and concisely as John Danaher. He very successfully applies his academic background in teaching philosophy to teaching the principles of jiu jitsu. I searched for BJJ and John Danaher and found some very good online courses called BJJ Fundamentals with John Danaher on BJJ Fanatics.
I started off with Pin Escapes and Turtle Escapes. There’s also a great free course with John called Self Mastery: Solo BJJ Training Drills. I was hooked and I'd also found a way to continue my study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with broken ribs while the world was in Covid lockdown.
Mobility training for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Strength training coach Steve Maxwell, also a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, has a great video on his site especially for the older BJJ player. His 15 minute BJJ mobility routine is great for anyone wanting to minimize injury and practice some of the basic movement patterns, like bridging and rolling.
Over 40 and starting BJJ?
A lot depends on your level of fitness, mobility and mental flexibility. If you have no experience with any martial arts then you need to accept right out the gate that there's a long road ahead. It's going to be both fun and challenging. Steve Maxwell's 15 minute mobility routine for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a great place to start.
Then of course there's the important task of finding a gym to train at. It's best to find somewhere that feels like a good place to train that's also a reasonable distance from where you live. All gyms and teachers are not equal, so you need to find a place that's a good fit for you.
Courage to change the things I can
Bringing it back to the serenity prayer, I accepted what I could not change: Covid-19. And, instead of giving up entirely - which if I’m honest was my first reaction - I had the curiosity and courage to change the things I could: I found a way to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu online.
Naturally, this is not a replacement for playing in a real live dojo with real humans. But it’s going to give me a head start when I do step back onto the mat, because I’ll have a much better foundational understanding, which will help my game - when I actually get good enough to have a game of course! I’m looking forward to getting back onto the mat and putting some of the principles I’ve been learning into practice!
Reflections on my first BJJ class
So, I made that classic mistake of going in all guns blazing. The result? A broken rib. In a recent video I watched with Steve Maxwell, he made the interesting observation that you really want to be rolling at around 40-60% of your overall strength. This means that building both strength and mobility are desirable for a more enjoyable game.
The lockdown actually gave me a chance to heal my ribs and get some theory in before getting back into the gym. I've also enjoyed working through the movement patterns used in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, like bridging, shrimping and forward and backward rolls.
Lack of experience and over-enthusiasm are not a good combination when it comes to BJJ and I'm grateful I've had time to reflect on my first class, and gather some insights on how I can do things in a more measured way that minimizes the chance of future injuries.
As you've read in this post, there's no reason why age, injuries or a pandemic should stop you getting out there and doing what you want to do. There are also a lot of good online resources available from really good coaches, which can help you understand the "why" of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - which will help you avoid injury and progress more rapidly when playing in a gym. If you start off slow then you hopefully won't break a rib either!