Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Later in Life: 10 reflections
Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu later in life has been challenging, but it's also been thoroughly rewarding too. In this post I share 10 insights that I've gained from my time on the mats.
At the age of 45, I finally took my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class. I'm now, three years into my BJJ journey, and along the way, I’ve cracked ribs on both sides and even had a cardiac arrest.
Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu later in life has been far from smooth sailing, but it has offered profound insights and personal development beyond mere techniques. In this post I share 10 philosophical insights of embracing the challenges of starting a martial art later in life.
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It’s not a level playing field
Don’t be unkind when comparing yourself to your training partners. As a 45+ older dude, most of the guys I roll with are 10 - 20 years younger than me. So even though we’re all white belts it’s not reasonable for me to compare myself to them. Often they are stronger, more explosive, have better conditioning and they definitely recover quicker.
I also train in the over 80kg class and I weigh 79kg - it’s my choice, but everyone I roll with is either a little heavier than me or a lot heavier than me. Weight makes a huge difference in grappling, so I also try and factor this in when managing my expectations. I’m hoping that one day that my jiu-jitsu will be so good that I’ll tap out a 100kg gorilla - but I ain’t holding my breath!
A personal journey
I’ve also noticed that some guys really “get Jiu-Jitsu”. They’re able to more quickly understand and integrate what they learn into their game. It can be disheartening when someone you’re training with is making rapid progress and you feel like you’re standing still.
All I can say is that we’re each on our own personal journey and we’re all improving at different paces. I seem to have to make my own mistakes over and over again in order to learn. Others seem to be able to learn from their mistakes a lot quicker.
There are no bad days (or good ones)
In every session, I get crushed by nearly everyone I roll with, regardless of belt colour. Sometimes these feel like bad days, but objectively they aren’t bad days - because I’m actually training. I wish I could say “well at least I’m learning from losing” but often it feels like I don’t know what I’m doing wrong and I just keep making the same damn mistakes over and over again.
Then there are days where I roll and I feel great afterwards. I still tap out and don't submit anyone but for some reason it doesn’t bother me. I’m in that zen state. I feel the benefits of turning up and I don’t give myself a hard time.
The other days
I want to train every day. Simple. But when I train 3 in a row, I’m wasted. My sleep is messed up, I can’t function properly. Everything hurts. I feel angry and resentful (mostly comparing myself to everyone else who “gets it” and is happily (at least in my mind) training every day.
The days that I’m not training Jiu-Jitsu are either rest days or days where I run or do strength training depending on how my energy levels are to meet the other responsibilities I have in my life. But even on rest days I do my 20 minute mobility program.
I've also decided that the days I don't go to the club are days when I don't do jiu-jitsu - so I'm not watching jiu-jitsu videos on Youtube or practicing on my partner. The consequence of this decision is that I'm going to make slower progress but I hope in the long-run it'll make for a more sustainable and balanced life both on and off the mats.
One of the things about getting older is that I have this sense that I don’t have as much time as I did when I was younger. I first had a sense of this just before I turning 40 and was about to become a father. But this feeling can sometimes lead to a creeping sense of impatience, desperation and even obsession.
Fit and healthy
I also try to remind myself that being physically healthy enough to even be able to roll is a gift. Even though I should know better (read about my cardiac arrest at Jiu-Jitsu) I still sometimes take my health for granted.
Cultivating a sense of gratitude is something that I've been working on each day for over 20 years. Sometimes I write a gratitude list in my morning journal. Sometimes my son or partner ask me what I feel grateful for.
The truth is that I’m a dad, partner, son, brother, friend and boss - as well as a jiu-jitsu player. I’ve got a lot of other commitments that are way more important than Jiu-Jitsu and I need to allow enough time (and energy) in my schedule to do these other things well.
This also means that it’s not helpful or realistic for me to compare myself to the 20 something dude who is rolling twice a day, six days a week. Note to self: I’m the tortoise and it’s ok.
I’ve had my ribs cracked on both sides in jiu-jitsu which meant I couldn’t laugh at my own jokes for at least two months. That’s a long time for a guy as funny as me, I can tell you! In fact I cracked my rib in my very first class. You can read all about that here.
What’s the lesson? Keep my elbows in and protect those ribs from probing knees and heads! Rob Biernacki over at BJJ Concepts, talks about maintaining the knee/elbow connection which is a really helpful concept.
Learning to let go
Training BJJ in the gi is really hard on the fingers. But learning when to let go makes all the difference. Again I had to be taught this by some really painful grip breaks.
From my first class my fingers got really swollen, from holding too tight, and telling myself “let go!” just didn’t seem to work. So I taped my fingers every time I trained until I could actually start letting go. This took about 2 years. So, yes! I spent a lot of money on finger tape during that time. But I prefer to tape my fingers as a preventative measure rather than after an injury.
If you're contemplating starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu later in life and have made it this far into my post, I encourage you to actually go to your first class!
It took me nearly 30 years before I stepped onto the mats myself. But you don't have to wait that long. From my first class I loved it! I think you will too, and if not, then at least you’ll have satisfied your curiosity.
But choose your club carefully as it may soon become your second home and you want to grow with people you respect and admire rather than just fear. Now go for it!