Nearly exactly a year ago today I started taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). It was something I had been wanting to do, but had put off for almost ten years. I kept coming up with a excuses, but mostly, I was afraid. The longer I put it off, the more excuses I came up with. In those nearly ten years I went from having no children, to having two children. From having a relatively easy job to a very taxing one. I brought a new car and then another new car. The excuses from time to finances became easier and easier to make, but the bottom line remained the same, I was scared.
I felt like I was too out of shape and too old, but the truth was, none of that was going to change. I was only getting older and while I went to the gym often, I was lifting weights for strength and size so I was only getting bulkier.
Finally one day I decided to sign up for a free week at a school that was near my house, offered classes at times that worked with my schedule and was recommended by a friend who had been training for a few years.
I could go into what it was like my first days, weeks or months training BJJ, but I want to focus on what I learned psychologically over the past twelve months of training and why you, if interested, should give BJJ a shot as well.
(For the rest of this post I will be using the terms Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, BJJ and Jiu Jitsu interchangeably)
It’s Okay To Be A Beginner
One of the first things I had to learn in BJJ is to embrace being a beginner. The very first time I put on a Jiu Jitsu Gi (what we wear to most classes), I put my pants on backwards and didn’t know how to tie my belt. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have. I was clueless and that’s okay.
Jiu Jitsu evolves a lot of complex body movements that I know I looked and probably still look weird doing. I’m not coordinated and certainly I’m not acrobatic. At first I was worried about looking like a clumsy gorilla tumbling across the mat, but now I couldn’t care less about how I look to other people. No one has ever made fun of me, nor are they likely to. You’ll find that Jiu Jitsu people are some of the nicest and most helpful people. They love to see new people and want you to keep showing up and getting better.
Don’t be afraid to start something out of fear of looking foolish or of not knowing what you’re doing. You’re new, you’re a beginner, you’re not supposed to know better. That’s the beauty of being a beginner. Embrace it.
You’re Not Too Old
I read a meme that said something like, “The best time to start training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is age 9 and now.” Like I said earlier, I was afraid that I was too old to learn something that was so physical and complex, but the truth is, you’re never too old.
I am 40 years old, I know I am never going to be a World Champion Brazilian Jiu Jitsu player and once you understand that and why you are training, age becomes less of a factor. I’m training to learn a new skill, for physical activity and self-defense. There is no age limit to any of those things. Sure there was a time when every part of my body was aching (very common as BJJ is a total body sport) and I started to wonder if I was too old for this stuff, but eventually my body adjusted and now, I move better and have more endurance than I did ten years ago. I get to exercise my competitive side which I hadn’t done since playing football in my early twenties and I can even compete for medals or for fun if I ever want to.
The Way You Are In Jiu Jitsu Tends To Be The Way You Are In Life
When I first started rolling in Jiu Jitsu (what we call sparring), I was very reactionary, timid and didn’t try to win because I always assumed I would lose. Jiu Jitsu teaches you a lot about yourself which is one reason I think so many people love it. After a few months of trying to figure out why I was sucking so badly, not counting the limited skills I knew, I realized I needed to be more assertive and confident. As soon as I did that, my Jiu Jitsu not only got a lot better, but so did the way I lived my life. There is something about dominating, surviving or even withstand the onslaught of another person’s attacks on the Jiu Jitsu mats that make being confident, speaking up for yourself and tackling problems at home and work seem a lot easier. Some of my teammates even say how they are nicer people, better parents and better partners after Jiu Jitsu class.
I feel like I walk with more confidence now and it’s not that because after one year of training I feel like I am a martial arts expert, but I do feel like I can handle and protect myself much better if need be. Even more importantly, because I feel more confident overall, I am more calm and I think that energy of confidence radiates out like energy into other parts of my life.
They say BJJ is for everyone and that is true to an extent. Anyone can learn BJJ, but not everyone is going to like it. People I know who tried it and quit within a month say that they didn’t like the physical contact and closeness that is essential in training BJJ.
For those people, BJJ may not be the way to go, but that closeness and physical contact of BJJ is just what makes it so enjoyable. Many of us long for physical contact in a way that we can’t get in our day to day lives.
In BJJ, that human contact is there in a way that is both competitive and connecting at the same time. Never in my life had I had other men welcome me to straddle them or get so close to them that I can feel every muscle and bone in their body. It quickly made me become comfortable with not just my own sexuality and my beliefs about how close and connected two men can be, but it taught me that my training partners were also comfortable in their own skins and felt comfortable and safe with me in ways that most people would not.
It’s that trust, that openness and closeness that helps build a special bond with the men and women I train with. One that can’t be explained, but keeps me coming back to become better at BJJ for myself and my training partners. After rolling with a good training partner for the first time, you just feel connected with them in a way that’s special to Jiu Jitsu and that helps build bonds and friendships. If you don’t have many friends, BJJ is a sure way to gain a whole community of friends.
Being in the Moment
In BJJ we do a lot of rolling and when you’re rolling, you’re attempting to submit your partner while trying not to get submitted. It’s exhausting. It takes all of your physical and mental power to compete in this human chess match. There is no room for any personal problems, stress at work or even any minor aches and pains. You have to be totally in the moment and present.
That’s what makes BJJ so much like meditation. When I am rolling I feel totally alive. I am not worried about anything else other than my opponent. Sometimes I even go to class not feeling 100%, but once once we start rolling, all the pain goes away. It’s almost therapeutic. It’s almost like you’re in a life and death situation, but in a controlled and safe environment. It’s an experience that’s hard to get anywhere else without actually putting yourself in real danger.
It’s great exercise
One of the reasons I started training BJJ was because I was getting bored with my normal gym routine. Training BJJ is like no other workout because it is a total mind/body workout mixed with cardio. After a few weeks of training you’ll realize your cardio and ability to move has improved and even your strength. I realized this unexpectedly when I gave two different people hugs on the same day and they said I squeezed them too hard. It wasn’t on purpose. In BJJ we do a lot of squeezing, holding and controlling each others bodies and over time that squeezing starts to feel normal, but not on normal people who don’t train BJJ and aren’t used to what is often called a BJJ hug.
Another reason I started training was that I was bored in my life. I wanted to do something where I felt like I could see some improvement. Well, progression in BJJ is both fast and painfully slow. At first when you’re new there seems like so much to learn and you’ll never learn just the basics, but before you know it, you’re doing stuff you thought you’d never do.
When I got my first stripe on my white belt I was thrilled. It meant I was more than just the new guy who walked through the door. When I got my second stripe I was even more excited because it meant to me that my BJJ coach noticed my progress.
Stripes and belts are the way that you get promoted in BJJ and they are far and few in between so you have to have other internal factors motivating you to keep going and for me, it’s being better today than I was three months ago. Sure, I hope to have my blue belt this time next year and I’m going to work hard to get it, but when I look at how good I am today at BJJ compared to day 1, I can’t believe it’s only been a year. The guy I am today would destroy the guy I was on day 1 without breaking a sweat.
I can’t wait to see what the next year looks like and if you’re interested in learning a new sport, learning self defense and making new friends, I encourage you to find a good school and give BJJ a try.