Youth vs. Experience: A Strange Quandary from the BJJ Web

I’ve been writing about jiu-jitsu for ten years. Along the way, I’ve had a number of grapplers reach out to me for advice. I’m not sure why (I wouldn’t trust me), but the emails and Facebook messages have been relatively consistent with topics ranging from “How can I be a writer?” to “This really terrible thing happened to me; what should I do now?”

One of these conversations sticks in my mind.

A young student was reeling from a conversation with his instructor. The student had been training hard, and somehow a conversation with the instructor turned to comparing their respective development paths. The instructor said to the student, “You’ll never be better than me.”

That’s the story I got anyway. I wasn’t there and have no way of knowing what the tone or even the actual substance was—such is the nature of a random internet message—but the sentiment is oddly familiar. The changing of the guard seems to be happening more rapidly than ever, and it’s creating a strange climate in the jiu-jitsu community.

Do you seek out the 60-year-old instructor who is worn and battered and perhaps ekes out a roll once a week? Or do you chase down the 22-year-old phenom who has been wrecking the tournament circuit? I’ve had grapplers ask me this question to, and this question comes up so often that it can create tension between the age groups on the mat.

The challenge is an odd one because the idea of measuring who is better is incredibly murky. For me, I’d pick the grizzled veteran any day because I want to last that long while supplementing my training with the new age techniques that are turning heads at tournaments. But that’s me, and I’m an odd case. I don’t even care about local tournaments let alone winning a world championship. All I want to do is train a few days and suck a little less each time.

So if you’re gunning for Worlds, like this particular student was, hearing that you won’t be better than your instructor is troubling when you’re already assuming that he isn’t as good as the competitors you someday want to beat. The deeper issue, I think, is actually a matter of ego. No, I don’t mean about the instructor wanting to always be the best grappler in the room (that’s a conversation for another time). The deeper issue is that the changing of the guard in jiu-jitsu is something that everyone, on both sides of the fence, needs to give more thought to.

Even in jiu-jitsu’s relatively young life as a martial art, we haven’t escaped the challenging advantage of youth. I’m just now closing in on 30, and there are times when I have to take a deep breath before I roll with a 20 year old. I’ve started to see similar expressions on my older training partners before they roll with me. Man, it sucks getting older in this sport, and it seems like it gets harder and harder to be old in the sport every day. The level of talent is rising rapidly, and the acceleration of our students is rising rapidly as well. I can understand how resentment from one direction could fuel frustration from the other.

As teachers, our job is to make our students better than we are, but then what happens to the older grapplers when our students have passed us by?

Well, it turns out that they still need us. And we need them.

For the sport to grow in a healthy direction, both ends of the spectrum need to come to realize a few things.

The older grapplers: Youth will never stop being an advantage, and a few internet discussions have equated a size or a youth disadvantage to actual belt levels so the challenge is very very real. At the same time, the older we get, the more we become the historical records for technique and growth. The jiu-jiteiros with decades of experience might not out perform a young competitor on the mat, but they are invaluable sources for technical knowledge and guidance. Anyone that has been able to survive the mats for 15 years of more has the potential to be an invaluable training asset, whether they win every roll or not.

The younger grapplers: While the older grapplers refine technique, the younger grapplers are more likely to innovate. They bring a fresh perspective to the sport and can see opportunities in positions that previous generations might have missed. At the same time, they challenge us to work harder and train smarter, to find technique that can help us cope with grapplers that are quickly nearing our knowledge and ability.

Both ends of the spectrum ultimately need to realize that they need each other. It doesn’t matter if you tap an old guy who outranks you, and it doesn’t matter if a young buck taps you out. The ego games are getting in the way of training.