As an undergraduate in college, I majored in physical education and competed as a hammer and weight thrower, as well as playing on the school’s football team as a lineman.
Since I am not large in stature, I needed to adapt the techniques I used in these sports to enable me to hold my own against the rather massive woolly mammoths I often faced.
I was fairly successful, becoming a two-time NCAA All-American in track and field, ultimately finishing second in the Division Two National Championships.
After my college career, I accepted a position as an adaptive physical education teacher working with children with special needs.
Since many of them had limited capabilities, it was often necessary to adapt certain activities to their needs so that they would feel successful and, in so doing, build a more positive self- image.
I continue to have older folks reaching out to me and asking me for advice regarding a dilemma they find themselves in.
Often, they have been training in BJJ for a number of years, and their bodies are rebelling against them, looking for some form of relief. They want to continue training, but really don’t believe they can withstand the rigors of that training any longer.
I believe the secret to obtaining that relief, while continuing along the BJJ path, is to adapt your training to fit your needs. It sounds simple to do, but there are significant pressures BJJ students face from the established BJJ Community that can make the adapting process difficult.
However, one must ask themselves and the Community, is it better to Adapt or to Quit?
1. Beware of the “Gladiator Mentality”
When I was in my mid-thirties, I decided to attend an evening law school program. I had to work during the day, so attending an evening program was a requirement.
I applied to several schools, and ultimately chose one that offered me a good financial aid program. I did well in law school, graduating magna cum laude.
As a result, I was offered a position with one of New York City’s top law firms. The starting salary they offered me was almost four times the amount I was making as a teacher, so, as you can imagine, I was pretty happy.
It didn’t take me very long, however, to learn that the big salary came with some very long hours attached to it. In fact, I discovered that there seemed to be a “Gladiator Mentality” amongst the large law firms in that associates and partners bragged about how many hours they worked in a day, how many days they worked in a row, and how little sleep they got by on.
I also noticed that many of them did not appear to lead very happy lives even with all of their money. I stayed there for seven years, but after my wife gave birth to twins, I knew it was time for me to leave.
I relate this experience to you because I believe many BJJ Schools also have a form of the same mentality in play.
Students are expected to roll hard day after day, with little attention paid to their individual needs. This is the way the professor learned, and he expects his students to learn the same way.
One of the problems inherent in this type of system, is that as older individuals, we have experienced what it feels like to be young, and are fast learning what the aging process does to us, but generally many of our professors are much younger, and even if they are somewhat older, when they went through the gladiator process they were younger. It’s like comparing apples to grapes!
2. You need to be responsible for your own training program
As an older grappler, you must take the initiative with respect to your training!
Merely going to class and depending on your professor to drop some wisdom on you that will greatly improve your game is not likely to end in a good result.
You should carefully plan both your on-mat and off-mat training programs. If you intend on competing, read some of the information that is available on-line, as well as in some well authored books, about periodization and training cycles.
3. Look to BJJ Schools and Coaches who offer teaching styles amenable to older grapplers
Going hard every day for months at a time is not a great training regime for older grapplers.
Despite my athletic and coaching background, when I first started my BJJ training at age 65, I “drank the Kool-Aid” and rolled hard four or five days a week with every student on the mats, notwithstanding their weight, height, age or demeanor.
After almost three years of this type of training, and several trips to the emergency room, I determined that it was not in my best interest to continue along the same path.
I started to investigate alternatives that would prove more fruitful. I reached out to my friends and former coaches, Alex Ecklin and Van Allen Flores, both of whom are young BJJ black belts, to express my concerns to them.
They understood my concerns and agreed that changes were needed. In fact, recently in their BJJ Academy, Masterskya, with two locations in Brooklyn, NY, they have instituted an innovative mat regime during rolling sessions: one section of the mats is reserved for technique work, another section is reserved for flow-rolling in which the techniques practiced can be attempted in a controlled setting, and the final section is open for all-out no nonsense competitive rolling.
Students are free to move between sections during the course of a class. For example, if a student gets caught in a submission in an all out roll, they can immediately move to the technique area after the roll to determine what happened and how to counter the situation in the future. What a Great Approach!!!
4. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain
As older grapplers, we have already “faced our demons” merely by our presence on the mats. There is no need for us to prove anything to anyone but ourselves.
Don’t be afraid to approach your professor to express your feelings that changes have to be made in your training for you to successfully continue. It does not make you any less of a committed BJJ student by doing so!
As always, I wish you continued success in your training and in your life!!!
BJJ Purple Belt
2018 World Master Champion