Your Age in Jiu-Jitsu Years

Last week, I turned 30. That puts me at more than 10 years in the sport, maybe 12 years if you count watching Cesar Gracie DVDs and fighting my friends in the backyard as training.

A lot changes in 10 years. Beyond the normal existential crisis of getting older, aging in jiu-jitsu is a nuanced challenge. I’ve never been a super athlete, but what my body was able to do at 20 is very different from what my body can do at 30. No more rubber guard. Heck, I can’t do a triangle choke without my knees exploding. But accumulating a collection of injuries isn’t the hardest part of aging in jiu-jitsu years.

One of the things the community doesn’t tell you when they throw around quotes like “A black belt is a white belt that never quit” or “How long does it take the average person to get a black belt? The average person won’t get a black belt” is that you have to find a way to cope with a rapidly evolving sport and a revolving door of training partners. Inside the gym—training on the same mats boxed in by the same four walls—the sense of time gets away from you, and then it hits you all at once like a freight train.

Let me give you a concrete example. 9 years ago I moved to Hilo, Hawaii to train at the BJ Penn Academy, and that adventure became the subject of my first book, The Cauliflower Chronicles. Last week, I went back to the Big Island and walked my wife through many of the places and the stories that she had heard me talk about for years. Over sushi, we talked with an old training partner (local Hilo guy) of mine about the gym, the coaches, and mutual jiu-jitsu friends.

If you’ve trained for more than a few years, you know how this conversation goes:

  • Yeah, that guy moved away.
  • This guy disappeared one day and no one has heard from him.
  • This other dude trains sometimes but nowhere near as much as he used to.
  • He got a new job.
  • He had kids.
  • He got hurt and called it quits.

Walking back into the BJ Penn Academy after 9 years and seeing the place where I spent 3 to 4 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, underscored what has become a powerful truth for me: The physical idea of a gym as a place is mostly irrelevant. What makes a gym feel like home are the people in it. At the BJ Penn Academy, everything was familiar. Sure some equipment had been moved since I was there last and they had gotten a new set of mats, but my experience as a student there is a unique time capsule of a certain set of instructors and a certain set of training partners all existing at a very specific time in the sport.

To me, this is nostalgia at its worst, and it can ruin your enjoyment of jiu-jitsu.

As soon as you start thinking about “the golden age” or “the good ol’ days” you establish an entirely unreasonable expectation of what your current training should be like. You will never be able to recreate the standard for jiu-jitsu perfection—the style of classes, the training partners, the instructors, your own physical ability—that you build up in the Fortress of Solitude in your mind. Life is simply too fluid for that, and jiu-jitsu doubly-so.

You will change. Your gym will change. Your training partners will change. There’s no escaping it, but you also shouldn’t let your love for how things used to be poison your enjoyment of the sport today. In my mind, you have to do the following:

  • Take responsibility for your training and structure it in a way that is realistic for your life while also giving you the joy that a hobby should. This will change overtime, so you probably need to check-in with yourself every year or so. Maybe you move away from competing and spend more time teaching and just playing with technique (that was my journey).
  • Take your role in your gym environment seriously, especially as you move deeper into veteran status. Yes, it sucks that your original class of training partners is all but gone, but you can make new friends and make the gym feel welcoming so that the latest round of new students can have the same enjoyment that you did.
  • Accept change but also be willing to make change. Some changes are good, some bad, and some neutral. It’s on you to be objective in your own evaluation, which means stepping back and deciding if you are judging a situation unfairly or are actually seeing a real problem. If you identify a change as bad (and do so fairly), you have a responsibility to respond or to find a solution so that you don’t end up wallowing in misery. This takes practice because most change in the gym is just generic neutral change—people come; people go.

These are challenges that I’m still learning to handle, and if I come up with some new insights, I’ll be sure to let you know. I also welcome your own insights into aging in the sport and how to keep your love for the art fresh and consistent.

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