Grappling with Fear — Starting Brazilian Jui Jitsu at 48
In February 2020, before the pandemic came to American shores, I finally took on a challenge I had been thinking about for quite some years.
I started Brazilian jiujitsu.
When I started, I knew next to nothing about jiujitsu. The only thing I knew was that a lot of people that I really respect seemed to think that jiujitsu was really, really fun. I Googled “Brazilian Jui Jitsu” and Lo and Behold, there was a Gracie-Barra school within 5 miles of my house in West Houston. And the Gracies are the undeniable Kings of BJJ. So that’s where I’ll start, I thought.
I walked into the Gracie-Barra Houston Westchase jiujitsu studio in February 2020 as an almost 48-year-old, slightly in-shape and slightly out-of-shape middle-aged man. I didn’t know a single person at the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu gym that I chose to attend for my first class. But it was close by.
I showed up to my first class and was given a “Gi” and a White Belt that was really, really white. Like it had never been worn before. I had no idea how to tie this thing, and had to ask for help.
Our instructor, or “Professor” in the jui jitsu parlance, is an extremely tough-looking Brazilian 4th stripe black belt named “Ulpiano.” He gave us a little talk before we started.
Very impressive guy. So far so good, I thought. After a brief 5 to 10 minute warmup that left me a little sweaty and a little out of breath, the professor demonstrated a technique, and then we broke into pairs to practice that technique.
I was paired with a Purple Belt named “Jake.” Jake is in his early 40s and I outweigh him by 40 pounds. I’m also fairly strong, have long arms and legs, played sports at a fairly high level, and have a lot of confidence in my own athletic ability. I figured I could muscle Jake around and at least make it something of a sporting contest.
I was wrong.
Jake was an absolute killer, in the nicest possible way.
Jake would have broken my arm, broken my shoulder socket, or choked me unconscious 20 straight times if he wanted to. I had no chance whatsoever against this middle-aged bald person who I outweighed by 40 pounds.
Jake just absolutely annihilated me.
And he smiled every time he did it. And so did I. I was instantly hooked. I have to learn how to do this, I thought to myself. This is just far too cool not to learn more. It was mesmerizing.
The fact that this guy can beat me so easily with almost no effort was completely and totally humbling as well as completely and totally intoxicating.
And thus began my obsession with Brazilian jiujitsu.
Not long after I started my jiujitsu journey, the pandemic hit and we were all forced into quarantines of various levels. The jiujitsu studios were all shut down for months, and other than watching videos online, reading books, and thinking constantly about the sport, I was unable to do any jiujitsu until early October, when I ventured back into the gym.
Since then, I’ve been to approximately 40 classes (I keep copious notes after every class because, well, I’m a nerd).
Brazilian jiujitsu is easily the most addictive, enjoyable, challenging thing I’ve done in the last 10 years. I recommend it to everyone in the strongest possible terms. My only regret is that I didn’t start 10 years ago.
I’m still a White Belt, and that’s fine with me. I’m far more interested in learning this beautiful art than ranks or titles. The ranks and titles are secondary. The feeling of accomplishment, toughness, grit, black magic (seriously), and confidence you get is what this sport is all about, at least in my book.
Keeping in mind that I am still a relatively inexperienced White Belt (as of this writing, I’ve earned two stripes, both of which were absolutely two of the best days of my adult life), the following are some of my thoughts on what it’s like and what you should expect if you start Brazilian jiujitsu like I did in middle age.
1. You will be scared.
I felt like a complete idiot when I walked into my first class. I look around the class and there’s 20 to 30 mainly men (but also some women), most of whom I was fairly certain could break me in half without breaking a sweat. Some of my classmates look like absolute killers, at least in terms of their physique. We’re talking about very high-level athletes. Strong, smart, flexible, and skilled beyond belief.
Some of my other classmates look like they could star in Revenge of the Nerds, but they’re equally effective at this gentle yet deadly martial art, and maybe sometimes even more so, because they rely less on strength and athletic ability and more on leverage and smarts.
If you’re not a little apprehensive and a little scared before your first few official sparring contests, you’ve probably got a screw loose.
2. Prepare to be in pain. Good pain.
One of the best things about Brazilian jiujitsu is you can fight at almost full speed, without anybody getting badly injured. That said, if you’ve never done martial arts before, and in particular this martial art, your muscles have to move in ways you probably haven’t moved them in a very long time, if ever. I was in extreme muscular pain after my first 15 classes. I had to make a real effort to distinguish between muscular pain (which is good) and injury (which is bad). This mainly applies to us over-40 guys.
At first, in fact, the muscular pain was so intense that I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to continue. But I told myself as long as the pain is just the pain of a really good workout, I will fight through it. And I’m the kind of person that once I make that kind of decision, there is no turning back. Fuck the pain. I’m doing this.
If you’re in your 40s, or even in your late 30s, and you start jiujitsu as a beginner, you better be willing to handle some significant pain.
3. You will get injured.
When I first started jiujitsu, I had a bad shoulder injury. The shoulder injury had no relation whatsoever to jiujitsu, and in fact I don’t know how it happened. But certain movements of my shoulder were excruciatingly painful. I decided that I could handle the pain and protect my arm a little bit while still practicing jiujitsu. That turned out to be the correct decision, as I still have a right shoulder injury that hasn’t healed but have been training jiujitsu continuously since early October.
Fight through the pain. It’s good for you, dammit.
You will get injured in jiujitsu. There’s no question at all about that. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
But you know what? That’s true of any athletic endeavor. I would much rather suffer the occasional injury while doing jiujitsu, tennis, golf, hiking, weightlifting, triathlons, marathons, or some other physical activity than sit on my ass at home and waste away.
After having done jiujitsu more than 40 times, I don’t think the chance of injury is any greater than in any other physical sport, and in fact, I think some of the other sports lead to just as many if not more injuries. Just be smart and tap early and often. And make an agreement with yourself and understand that you are going to deal with injuries.
And also understand that if you fight through the pain and aren’t a sissy, the pain will go away or you’ll just get used to it and you’ll be a better, tougher, more resilient person either way.
Quit complaining America. And forget about Make America Great.
Make America Tough Again.
4. The people involved in jiujitsu are some of the best people I’ve ever met.
One of the things that intimidated me a lot when I walked into the jiujitsu studio by myself was the expectation that I would run into a bunch of meatheads who just wanted to inflict pain on other people.
The opposite is true.
I have met so many wonderful people at my jiujitsu gym it’s astonishing. From Professor Ulpiano; to Pedro and Bruno, the assistant teachers; to Frank, the 53 year-old 6’8” Black Belt champion; Bardo, the 52 year-old Purple Belt; the aforementioned Jake, all the young kids; the middle-aged dudes like me, the ladies who train, and everyone in between, the jiujitsu community is one of the most beautiful, friendly, and inviting communities I’ve been a part of. I absolutely love training with my teammates, and I have yet to run into a single dickhead on the mat. Everybody, without exception, is welcoming and helpful. No one is out there to hurt anybody. At my gym at least, anybody that was an asshole for very long would get run off pretty quickly.
5. Prepare for complete addiction.
The thing about jiujitsu that’s so addicting is the physical component coupled with the mental component. You cannot be good at jiujitsu if you’re simply physically talented. By contrast, you can be good at jiujitsu if you are not physically talented but you are intelligent, and use your mind more that you muscles.
Jiujitsu is a beautiful art form, coupling close human contact and violence, or at least a threat of violence, with intelligence, flow, and beauty. It’s as close to a perfect sport as I can imagine.
Thinking about starting BJJ? Stop thinking and start doing.