Starting BJJ as an Older Guy

How do you train as an older guy… what mindset, techniques, and approach should you have on and off the mats? Andy shares his tried and true insight and WHY so you can discover yours

Location: Auckland, NZ

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

Photos by: Andy Hoyle

As I sit down to write this article in my home gym (the garage) on a pile of outdoor chair cushions, I count myself as very fortunate. There are many things I am grateful for in this life, time being the biggest one. Time is not a commodity I give away lightly anymore, and I am grateful to have made some to write this article. I think that rule comes into play at middle age, a lucky few see the writing on the wall at a younger age – they guard their time jealously, breaking the shackles of society to do what they love. The rest of us wake up in our late thirties and scramble to live a happy and fulfilling life, whatever the hell that is? That isn’t the subject of this article, though, and whilst that theme is in the spirit of the Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle, I will save it for another day. 

Sitting here, putting off the warmup before I start my strength routine, I feel fortunate that I started my BJJ journey early. I am lucky to have progressed to brown belt as a younger man. I am still in awe of guys my age and older that turn up to the club, calmly strap on a white belt, and train in and amongst the young twenty-somethings. I take my hat off to those guys; I do not know if I could start at white belt now, in my forty-second year.  

It was one of those heroes, my friend Barry, a forty-something blue belt, that suggested I write about the theme of getting old and training BJJ. What advice do I have for the older grappler just starting out on their journey? How would I approach things, knowing what I know now? 

 

Listen to your body

For every hour I spend on the mats, I spend two hours working recovery or strength. Recovery is subjective and depends on the individual; for me, it takes the form of hot yoga. Having suffered an L5S1 disc herniation a few years back, hot yoga keeps me supple. Most importantly, it is the only thing that stops sciatic nerve pain from flowing like a river of red hot needles down my left leg. I aim to do at least one hot yoga class a week, although life does get in the way from time to time.

Egotistical photo of the author doing pull ups in between writing this article!

Strength is staring at me on the floor of my garage, an Olympic bar with 60kg on it; the weight isn’t as important, firing my posterior chain with correct form is. My homemade gym consists of two ten-liter jerrycans of water, a homemade sandbag filled with earth cocooned in empty sacks and duct tape, TRX straps, and an old TV antenna pole serving as a makeshift pull-ups bar. 

My strength routines are short and don’t involve heavyweights. Instead, they focus on compound movements to fire my posterior chain and work my core with correct form. Deadlifts, sandbag front squats, side bends, Turkish getups, pull-ups. Enough to keep things moving correctly.  

The truth be told, I put more value on yoga these days than I do the bar that is mocking me right now, time to lift it up… hold that thought… ah, better. Yoga, flexibility, and balance will keep me on the mats longer than strength or cardio. A physio friend of mine told me once that the main reason we injure ourselves as we get older is because we stop moving. Our bodies are in decline; we start to lose our balance through inactivity, then suffer a fall and injure ourselves. Pretty depressing when you think about it. His point was to do the opposite, keep moving, keep working on your balance. A point I have taken and follow. Before you try any of the crap I suggested there, seek the advice of a fitness professional, one size doesn’t fit all.

To sum this part up, you can’t just do BJJ; you need to put a deal of time into your recovery, or injury will often creep in. I think of this as a recovery debt that my body has to pay eventually. If I ignore the red reminder letters and default on the payments, the injury bailiffs will eventually come knocking.

My rule of thumb is doing twice as much recovery as Jiu-jitsu, but that is what works for me; there is no one size fits all. As an older grappler, you need to find your own balance. For example, perhaps Pilates is a better fit than yoga. Or perhaps swimming laps is better for you than lifting weights. Whatever it is, find it and make it a habit.

Mindset

Never skip the warmup and by that measure, remember to stretch after class. Redefine what success is. Thinking back to your white belt, I did not enjoy that belt at all in any way, shape, or form! I was stubborn and didn’t want to quit. Claustrophobic loss after claustrophobic loss, I stuck at it. If I had to do it all again now, I would work on my mental approach to success and progression. I think this is particularly hard for any white belt because the game is overwhelming; you can barely see the playing pieces let alone begin to understand how to move them.  

One mental parameter I would set is how I think of sparring rounds. Each round is a real-life test to measure how good my techniques and understanding of them are. I would altogether remove the concept of winning the round (whether that be through submission or positional dominance) and the concept of losing the round (whether that be being submitted or dominated positionally).  

My mindset would be something along the lines of “It is ok for me to lose every single round, as long as I am doing Jiu-Jitsu and I learn and improve from each loss” to quote the great John Kavanagh “Win or Learn.”   

Hypothetically, if I bump fists with a twenty-something 110kg monster, I would (try) not to care if he tapped me fifteen times in around. I would care if I met his onslaught with strength and speed and get especially pissed off with myself if, in matching him with my attributes, I became injured. Why? Because injury interferes with my training consistency which in turn slows my progression. Most importantly, I would learn absolutely nothing from that round because most likely, I would get tired, my technique would be sloppy because I was rushing and my mind would be frenetic, and I couldn’t analyze the roll as it evolved.

On the other hand, if my technique were to fail and I lose, GOOD! Why did it fail? Where is the improvement lesson? What did I notice that went well and what needs improvement?

Choose your sparring partners wisely

As a forty-plus practitioner, it is highly likely I have a full plate: work, family, etc.; my time to train is a premium commodity and very likely to be a finite number of hours each week. Aristotle’s words, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not act but habit,” are particularly relevant to me. Simply put, I want to safeguard against injury because apart from the obvious pain and discomfort, it could break my BJJ habit and keep me off the mats. Breaking that important pattern of consistent repetition would impede my progress. So, I pick my rolls, I choose training and sparring partners interested in learning and growing together. People who aren’t hung up about winning and realize that your coaches aren’t interested in whether you win or not but in how much Jiu-jitsu you are using.  

Coaching sparring rounds in a 6am class

Unfortunately, there is always at least one reckless sparring partner at any gym, you know, “that guy.” It is “that guy” that I would decline to spar with; this can be hard, especially for a white belt. Personally, I would make a joke of it with the guy and say, “sorry mate, I can’t keep up with you young killers anymore” or “you’re too much for me bro” If they persist saying, “go light bro” I would say “Nah I’m good bro, ill sit this one out.” If my coach pulled me on it, I would tell them straight (away from overhearing ears), “I don’t feel safe rolling with that guy” Even today, as a brown belt, I have a small list of people I will not roll with, getting hurt just isn’t worth it to me.

Learn to remain calm and breathe

Yoga teaches breath awareness and control, especially active styles such as Ashtanga. However, there is another relatively new secret weapon in the fight against fatigue, Dr. Belisa Vranich’s “Breathing for Warriors.” Dr. Belisa’s book not only explains the mechanics of breathing, it includes a program of exercises to correct bad breathing form and train the muscles responsible for correct breathing. Most importantly, she looks at how to breathe in different intense exercise situations, CrossFit, running, MMA, and BJJ.

Translate this knowledge to sparring with my hypothetical twenty-year-old monster again; if I was breathing calmly, I would not get as tired. If my defenses were rock solid, my muscles would not fatigue through exertion. Learning to remain calm in the roll is the most important thing, and a critical part of that is correct breathing, in my opinion. How would I go about working on this goal? I would seek out bad positions, e.g. mount bottom, side control, knee-ride, north-south, to focus on breathing correctly under that pressure, and I would work on escaping calmly using the correct technique.  

Set Goals

I said earlier that I have a finite amount of hours to spend each week on my obsession. How to use it best? Simply set goals that help me learn fundamental concepts and techniques that allow me to survive, defend and attack. I believe that finishing submissions as a beginner is a nice stroke for my ego but learning to survive and escape is the most important thing. If that hypothetical twenty-year-old could not submit me and I manage to escape using technique, that would be a win for me. Equally, if he is completely exhausted at the end of the round and I am breathing calmly, I know my technique is effective and that I am on the right path.

Train only weakness

This mantra has served me well and contributes to my goal setting to this day. As a beginner, I would have many weaknesses, but some areas would be weaker than others. If I could not work out what I was really bad at, I would ask my coach to call it out and set me some goals based on that.  

I would use my sparring time to work on practicing my techniques in a live environment. Free sparring with no goal in mind is fun, but it reduces how quickly I progress, in my opinion. Looping back to my earlier point, I would accept that I am going to lose. By that measure, I would accept that I have no control over where the roll might end up. For each position I might end up in, I would have a goal and technique. For example, mount bottom: the goal could be to escape calmly, and technically, the technique could be an elbow knee escape. Or closed guard top: the goal could be to open their guard and pass; the technique could be a standing guard break followed by a knee slice pass. Below is an example of a positional table that I put together for one of the white belts at my club:

A table of positional goals

A table of positional goals

As you flow through your journey and gain expertise, the goals will change as your understanding grows. Submissions will become important, but the old adage “position over submission” is true. Gordon Ryan is a perfect example of this; he perfectly controls his opponents, dictates a slow, methodical pace, and finishes them. The important message I am trying to convey is to use your sparring time constructively; you can still have great fun doing it.

Ask my coach this

I would ask my coach, “Can you show me what frames are and how I use them in different situations to maintain distance?” Ok, that was two questions in one, but anyway. Frames are the most critical concept in Jiu-Jitsu after breathing. Frames allow me to use my bone structure to keep my opponents weight off me and lever them out of the way. Become obsessed with frames, look for them in every technique you learn, understand the angles of frames, and feel the points when they are weak and strong.  

Understand the “WHY”

Every technique I study, irrespective of my grade, I try to understand the “why” of it. Why it works? What makes it work? What position am I in? How do I off-balance them? What angle do I need to make to obtain perfect leverage? How do I move to get to that angle? What frames does the technique use? How do those frames create pressure? Understanding this for one technique accelerates my understanding and pattern recognition of other similar techniques.  

Once I understand why techniques work, my focus then switches to practicing their execution during live rounds to acquire timing. This is why positional sparring is such a powerful tool because it isolates a position and movement and allows me to understand when to execute a technique.  

Learn to feel the roll, this is hard for a beginner to do, but breathing and frames make it easier. Once you have a small degree of understanding in how to use these tools, then you will feel calmer in the roll. This will let you close your eyes and feel the pressures, and become accustomed to how to move. Once you tune into feeling the roll, you take your Jiu-Jitsu to a more intuitive plane and are able to evaluate where techniques need work.

Focus on core fundamental movements

The movements I learn in warmup are the essence of Jiu-Jitsu fundamentals. Shrimps, bridges, Granby rolls, hip switching, technical standup; all these movements are unnatural to a beginner but form the core of most fundamental techniques. For example, how efficiently I escape from mount and side control is determined by how good my shrimp is. When I practice these movements, I seek technical perfection, take my time, and make sure I execute them with mindful intent. I don’t just try and race down the mat to get the warmup out of the way…

Learn off the mats

As a father of two, working a full-time job, I can only get on the mats twice, maybe three times a week… my learning time is limited. I use visualization (see yourself doing the technique in your mind’s eye) to lock in the techniques taught in class by my coach. If I can not remember them, I write them down and ask my coach if there is a good video I can watch showing the technique. Depending on your gym, I might be lucky enough to have a coach who films their techniques and loads them on their YouTube channel.

Studying off the mats increases your learning time; I use dead time (commuting to work, boring meetings at work, etc.) to recall and visualize techniques. Apparently, your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagined physical activity and real physical activity. I don’t know about that but what I can say for me is that when I have spent time visualizing off the mats, I find I am able to recall and do the move on the mats a lot easier.

Look for a mentor

These days I really enjoy helping beginners progress; seeing people grow and enjoy BJJ is really rewarding (probably why this article flowed so well). Another friend of mine thanked me for mentoring him, until he said I really didn’t think of it that way. I saw it more as giving back to the sport and the club. If I had my time again, I would pester higher grades more for advice and help, some may brush me off with the “just train” claptrap, but most will be pleased to have been asked and will enjoy sharing their knowledge. Having a mentor is useful because they understand the patterns and can see the game better than you can.  

Have fun and enjoy the ride

Why so serious? It is just Jiu-Jitsu, but we all know it is so much more than that. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a tough hobby to take up; even that young twenty-something guy has to be stubborn to progress. The internet suggests that 75% of white belts quit; it also says the earth is flat and doesn’t provide any statistics backing up either “fact.” Perhaps it is better to say that there’s a significant dropout rate in BJJ until some tangible statistical data comes to light.  

Without a doubt though, faces come and go. Some of us get very obsessed and take things a bit too seriously (this author is guilty of that). Just relax, breathe, enjoy it for what it is. See you on the mats.  

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