“Starting BJJ Later In Life: The Challenges & Advantages”
I started BJJ at 38. I had no prior experience with wrestling, grappling, martial arts, or anything like it. I was a climber, and had been for 12 yrs. at that point.
I’d always been a “closet fan” of the martial arts. It’s one of the things that lead me to my career as a Licensed Acupuncturist, and practitioner of Chinese medicine. In my early 20’s I had a bit of an obsession with old black and white Shaolin Kung Fu movies. My fascination with all things Eastern, from yoga, philosophy, medicine, to the martial arts, eventually caught up with me.
It never occurred to me that starting a martial art at 38 could be seen as a deficit. I’ve always thought of yoga & the martial arts as complimentary longevity movement arts for health and wellness. That has turned out to be true for me.
But, there are distinct advantages you have as a mid-life BJJ player, that perhaps, are in your favor.
All of us BJJ masters athletes have thought “Why didn’t I start this sooner?” It’s a question I asked myself when climbing came into my life at 26, also. I had wished that the sports I’ve come to love found me in my youth. But, life “marinates” you, and wisdom is the result. This can translate well to learning a new sport. Particularly, a “cerebral” sport like Jiu-Jitsu.
Jiu-Jitsu is often called “The Human Game Of Chess.” I think this is an apt description. How can playing a game of chess with the body be helpful for longevity, health and mental acuity? Can using your mind, coupled with fast reflexes & physicality be a “fountain of youth”? I’m guessing it can. I’ll share an example: I recently moved from Bend, Oregon to Portland, Oregon. In Bend, I trained at a great gym, “Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Bend.” There, one of my favorite training partners was 61. He truly didn’t look a day over 50. Everyone was always surprised at his age, when they found out.
One day I asked Ron, “I know why I like to roll with my eyes closed. Why do you like to roll with your eyes closed.” He replied, “Almine, I have Parkinson’s.” I couldn’t believe it. I never noticed any Parkinson’s symptoms with Ron. At all. I said, “Really? I never would’ve guessed.” He said, “As you know, I’m an anesthesiologist. I was forced into early retirement. One day, I just decided to get an MRI of my brain. ‘Why not? I’m a Dr.,’ I thought. I hadn’t done that before. Thought it was probably time. I had the MRI of a full blown Parkinson’s patient.” My Dr. said ‘It’s time to retire. You can’t put people under with a brain that looks like that.’ I was devastated. So, I did. I began to take up BJJ. ‘It’s like chess,’ I thought. Chess is good for the brain. It keeps it sharp. It’s like doing ‘mental gymnastics’ for the brain. I’d surfed, swam, etc. my whole life. Always been active. But, I now realized that I needed my sports to really focus on brain health too. To keep my reflexes and mind sharp, you know?”
He continued, “2 years later I went back for another MRI. Just to check in. Wasn’t sure what to expect.” My Dr. walked in and said, “Dr. to Dr., I’d like to ask what it is you’re doing for your brain health?’ I said, “The only thing I’ve done different is I started up martial arts. The neurologist said ‘You are reversing changes in your brain’s grey matter, Dr. Look for yourself.’ Now, I’m not a neurologist. But, I am an anesthesiologist. I know how to read an MRI. I was stunned. I knew I felt good after BJJ. When I roll with my eyes closed I feel as if my brain can ‘rest’. At that point, it’s pure instinct, which way I should move. It’s like feeling the subtleties of how a wave moves under a surfboard.”
I listened, quietly. Thank you for sharing that with me. You are smooth as silk when you roll. I always felt nothing but pure technique from you. Zero strength. Flawless movement.”
Ron’s story isn’t surprising to me. It’s inspiring. But, doesn’t surprise me too much. BJJ taps into the deep well of limbic brain movement. That “reptilian brain” that functions off of calculation and “sixth sense awareness.” It can border the spiritual…if you let your mind “rest,” while doing it, like Ron does. It can be likened to movement meditation, sometimes, depending on your aim. It’s raw instinct, coupled with judgement and discrimination, at a fast pace, it “keeps the blade sharp” as my old Professor used to say.
Another distinct advantage the “mid years” athlete has, when coming into BJJ is experience. I’ll tell you what I mean by that, even if you’re a brand new white belt…
It’s likely, not 100%, but likely, that if you’re coming into Jiu-Jitsu later in life, there’s a chance you’ve played other sports, or done other mental “chess” game endeavors before. “Yes, but my body is also beat up from those sports!” masters athletes say. True. But, experience trumps talent. All of the things you’ve done to lead up to your first day of BJJ will help you. They’re valuable. They’ve taught you a variety of things that will be useful in your “arsenal” of thinking on your feet, the athleticism you’ll bring to the table, and the way you find your own unique game in the sport.
I was a climber for 14 yrs., before I started BJJ. Even though they’re different sports, I’m glad I walked into my first day of BJJ class with that as my background. Why? My grips were good. I was used to calculating decisions amongst feelings of panic and fear, my athleticism was good, and both sports place an emphasis on hips and grips. Those are things I knew, and had a sense of. In a different way, but I began to see overlaps, quickly, between the two. Both sports, also need another person to do them. One person climbs. One person belays. It takes two people to roll. Why was that helpful? Because I was already used to the concept of “taking care of my training partner.” And, on a much more extreme level. Their life is in my hands, when we climb together. I take that responsibility very seriously. They have loved ones who will be affected by my attention to their safety. This sense of responsibility for my training partner’s safety also sits heavily on me, when I’m on the mats. It may not be a life or death situation, but that caring for another person’s wellbeing, so that we may both benefit, is still with me.
When I competed I also still held that sense of responsibility in my heart. There are 2 types of competitors, in the mid years, I’ve observed in BJJ: the “Well, they signed the waiver” types, who are still out to prove they’re captain of the (whatever) from high school, & there’s the “We’re all over 40 out here. Let’s just do our best. Have a good time, and see what we can learn. The UFC isn’t calling any of us.” I tend to subscribe to the latter mentality. Again, yes, we’re competing. I also know I’m 44, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the world, one way or another, if I win (or lose). Also, no one really care about my winning or losing as much as I think, or want them to. It’s just a fact.
So, if you bring experience from other sports to your journey of BJJ, it will benefit you. You may not even see how, at first, but perhaps, you start to see patterns and overlaps in year 3 or 4. “Oh! It’s like ‘surfing a human,’ one of my team mates said. I can do that. I’ve surfed for 20 years. My balance and coordination is pretty good from that.” Or, “I played soccer for the past 15 years. My reflexes are quick, my agility is solid, and my cardio is good.” All of those things help you in Jiu-Jitsu, as well. So, masters players, take heart. Just because you’re starting in mid life (like me) doesn’t mean you’re completely starting from scratch. Your experience from other sports is valuable, and helps you in BJJ, as well.
I had a friend who was a chess champion. He didn’t consider himself “athletic” at all. He started Jiu-Jitsu, “the human game of chess.” He did have to build up his cardio, etc., however his ability to think 3-4 moves ahead, even as a white belt, was noticeable. That was from all his years of chess. The brain is like a muscle. He used his brain for calculation and deception with a board game for years. Think that doesn’t translate to BJJ? It does. Yes, your calculation and deception “game” has to increase in speed, but the fundamental thinking patterns of how to outsmart your opponent are entrenched.
So, take heart, mid years athletes. You have much to offer, both one another, and your younger opponents. The younger opponents may be so full of “piss and vinegar” that they don’t see the wisdom of your years of experience, at first. But, they will. All gets revealed in time. And, time is what we do have on our side.
The last advantage I’ll mention is self-care. This tends to be something the ladies get a little more dialed in, early on, but men get hip to it, once they realize its benefits.
As masters athletes we understand that self-care becomes a “non-negotiable.” We must “maintain the machine,” if we’re going to do an impact sport like BJJ on a regular basis. This call to attention greater detail to things such as nutrition, cross-training, mental/emotional wellness, and finding a team that’s healthy for you mind, body, and soul. Our whole being wellness becomes important, if want longevity in this sport. As Dr. of Chinese medicine and a certified fitness trainer, I often get the question: “How often should I get acupuncture? How often should I cross train? Etc., etc….”
I’ll share with you what I do. In no way shape or form is the to take the place of medical advice from your primary care physician, or health care provider team, you’re already working with. I get a massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic once a month. All 3. I eat well. I swim and climb for cross-training. I get enough impact on my skeletal frame in BJJ. So, I don’t cross train with another impact sport, say, rugby, for example. I understand I only have so many “chips” to cash in on how hard my body gets beaten up (literally) per week. So, I try to make the rest of my cardio/strength, the majority of the time, non-impact. That has seemed to work well for me. Also, as a personal trainer of 18 years, I can attest to the fact that there is zero downside to swimming. It can only benefit you. Its full body, resistance training, breath control training, and cardio wrapped into one.
My Dad is 71, and has lap swam for over 40 years. He continues to do it 5 days a week. He’s in phenomenal shape. He always says “Swimming is the one sport you can age with.” I agree with that. I see other “golden years” athletes in the pool, who are in their 60’s all the way up to their 90’s and they all have beautiful muscle tone, and full body fitness. Give it a try. It will only benefit you.
I hope some of these thoughts have either sparked a little motivation for you, or have helped you to see that your presence on the mat has value, that you DO have things to offer your team, and gym, and that life’s “marinating” process may just have primed you for this time to start (or continue) such an amazing sport as Jiu-Jitsu.
Almine Barton lives in Portland, OR.
She’s a purple belt under Professor Amanda Loewen at “10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu”
She’s been a licensed acupuncturist & practitioner of Chinese medicine for 16 yrs.
She’s been a certified fitness trainer for 18 yrs. & is a nutrition consultant to pro athletes worldwide
Her practice, “Portland Sports Acupuncture” treats elite athletes for enhanced sports performance and to lessen recovery time for her patients.
She’s a life coach for women in their mid life, a motivational speaker, and contributing author to several books & publications, including ultra-runner Scott Forrester’s book, “The Aware Athlete.”
She’s a native Oregonian, avid climber, dog mom to 2 huskies, and a lover of all things outdoors.
You can find her on Instagram @alminebarton
or on “Facebook”