When jiu-jitsu tourism was sort of my job, I was in Hawaii training at the BJ Penn Academy. I was still new to the sport, working on getting a blue belt, which meant that I was simply too fresh to understand some of the sport’s biggest challenges. As a white belt, I thought that the hardest parts of jiu-jitsu were things like training consistently, or getting in shape, or having to get used to upper belts beating up on you.
Then I met Sam (not his real name). Sam was a local, late 30s, and barely taller than five feet. He was comically round and almost always laughed, mostly at himself. Technically, Sam was a blue belt, but he had stepped away from the sport for six years to take care of his family. In that time, he said he always thought about jiu-jitsu. Even though he was out of shape and out of practice, he was happy to be back.
But it wasn’t easy for Sam. If he was a normal white belt starting from the beginning, being out of shape and out of practice would probably have been easier to take. When someone made a joke like, “Brah, you sweat pork grease!” he laughed, but I could catch the faintest glimmer in his eyes that seemed to say “I didn’t use to.”
And that’s one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest hidden challenges. Eventually, for some reason or another, you will have to step away from the mat and make the choice to come back. You might be gone for a month, a few months, a year, or even longer. In almost every case, coming back is hard. You lose that sharpness and that awareness that comes with consistent training, but losing those things is not the worst part.
The worst part is feeling that they used to be there, like an amputated limb that still tingles like it’s there but is just not, no matter how much you might wish it to be.
I’ve written a lot about my long list of injuries, so I’ll spare you the re-run. The short version is that I’ve gone through a truncated version of Sam’s story half a dozen times over, never that long, but I’ve had to come back from an injury or a family issue on multiple occasions. And it sucks every time. Your training partners keep getting better while you’re gone. The younger guys are improving as well. You just can’t catch your breath sometimes. You put on a little bit of weight. You can’t move that joint the way you used to. The doctors stop describing you as a “young athlete” and instead start talking about pain management and joint replacements.
When you love the art, it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated when you go through this.
But that’s where Sam taught me an important lesson. He struggled through warm ups. Fought to remember techniques. Got mopped by white belts who were more than happy to beat up on a blue belt. Sam never yelled. He never punched the mat, and he never sulked. Any frustration he experienced was mostly invisible, just those quick glimmers of a passing memory of what he used to be, but then he was back smiling.
Sam had endured enough off the mat, had been away so long coping with issues far more serious than a young buck white belt coming after you that being on the mat was nothing but a blessing for him. No matter how out of shape or out of practice he was, he knew that he was fortunate every time he stepped through the door to train.
I don’t have a top five steps or a list of tips to give you on how to be like Sam because I’m still working on it myself. What I can say is that it appears that the first step is humbling yourself to the point where you can imagine your life with or without jiu-jitsu.
Even though starting over is hard, it’s not as hard as walking away from the joy that training can bring you.
Photo credit to Ricardo's Photography https://flic.kr/p/a9Nie5