Chasing the Good Ol’ Days Magic

10 years ago, the jiu-jitsu scene in Pittsburgh was radically different. Where most cities—like New York or San Diego or Seattle—had attracted multiple black belts and sprouted thriving jiu-jitsu cultures, Pittsburgh was still clawing its way to relevancy. When I started, there were no black belt instructors available, and it would be several years before there was more than one gym within driving distance to choose from.

In those days, with so few training options available, many of us pooled our resources and our knowledge to make the most of our training time and to learn as much as we could.

Back then, my blue belt was a hot commodity. A local professional fighter invited me to join him and his friends for weekly training sessions in a local high school wrestling room. One of the guys was a coach and teacher there, so we could key in late in the evening and train undisturbed for hours.

The ritual is one that I miss. Pulling into a vast parking lot after dark, looping around the building to find a cluster of cars gathered around the side door by the mat room. If you were early, a group of fighters would be huddled there too, riffing about MMA or about girls beneath a streetlight. With myself as the exception, everyone had aspirations of MMA stardom. They had bouts booked and dreamed of climbing the amateur ranks to eventually turn pro.

For the next hour and a half, we’d rotate through drills and sparring rounds. Whoever had the most experience in a subject lead the training on that topic, and sometimes we would circle up and swap theory and technique that we might have picked up separate from the group. The room thundered with pad work, and if someone got angry, it was at themselves for a mistake.

We trained hard, and as we filed out the side door and back into the night, we’d pick up on the conversation threads that we dropped on our way in.

What I loved about this ritual was that even though MMA was an individual sport, the people that came to the mat room had a “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality. Nobody was paying dues. Nobody was tracking memberships. You came to improve, and you paid by being a body for someone else and by sharing the knowledge you had. Even when guys weren’t preparing for fights, they’d come because they knew that their training partners needed them.

My impression of jiu-jitsu gyms is that most started this way—a few people in a garage pouring over old VHS tapes and tattered issues of Grappling Magazine—but along the way the spirit of this sort of training can fade. As numbers grow and business interests increase and friendships drift, the comradery of being in “it” together fades. People scan their cards. They take class. They leave.

I don’t mean to wax poetically about some nostalgic memories. My point is that this magic that comes with first starting something new and immersing yourself in a collaborative creative process doesn’t have to die. It will likely need to evolve as you approach a decade or more of training, but the magic doesn’t need to wither away completely.

In my own way, I’ve been trying to find ways to revisit what made training feel special and find ways to keep my adoration and passion for jiu-jitsu burning brightly for the long haul and through hard times. Here is what I’ve come up with:

  • Embrace what jiu-jitsu means for you, and accept that meanings can change. When my health started to decline and my capacity for training multiple times a day (or even multiple times a week) disappeared, I recognized that what I loved most about jiu-jitsu was being in a good training environment with good people. Today, I will pass up a fancy seminar for 2 hours of hanging out in a mat room doing rounds with close friends. I am still addicted to the learning aspects of the art, but that learning is fuel for making these sessions even more fun.

  • Give back as much as you take. While I agree with the consumer-centric perspective of modern jiu-jitsu (that you, as a student, are paying for a service and are therefore a customer), the idea of a team should not be forgotten. That saying about boats and tides does ring true, as corny it may sound. You might not be running class, but being a good training partner or taking the time to pair off with a new student are things that you should be able to find enjoyment from. If you help to set and maintain that example, the quality of your training experience overall should improve as more people follow that lead.

  • Training will never be perfect all of the time, so lean into the harder times. When jiu-jitsu is new and fresh, every session is fun and interesting. As time marches on, however, the grind as some call it can get pretty rough. If your expectations are set to the white belt high level of everything be awesome, your blue and purple and brown belt years will be harder to face. This is why you need to reflect on what jiu-jitsu means for you and what aspects of training bring you joy. If you start to feel jiu-jitsu getting dull or grueling, give it a chance to swing back around, and then revisit those important (to you) aspects to drag yourself out of the worst slumps.

  • Fill in the blanks that a formal environment creates. When I was first told to take charge of my own training, I thought that just meant holding myself accountable for drilling or showing up to class on time. Today, my perspective is that the formal structure of a well-run academy simplifies a lot of the potentially difficult aspects of training jiu-jitsu—Finding mat space, finding training partners, getting worthwhile instruction—but that skeleton will not automate all of your jiu-jitsu experience for you. You can take charge of your own training session by coordinating with students to be present at an open mat to work on specific material, by caravanning to seminars and tournaments with your training partners, or by being a positive force in and out of class (for example).

While I recognize that nostalgia can make an imperfect experience seem perfect in retrospect, I think that I’ve been able to rekindle my love for jiu-jitsu by looking at what I enjoyed about those sessions and using those experiences as a measuring stick for my future training choices. The faces and mats by different, but I know what I enjoy about jiu-jitsu, and I’m putting in the work to structure my training around what matters to me. And that’s produced instant returns for my development and for enjoyment.