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Why Age is Just a Number in BJJ
Helio Gracie, the patriarch of the Gracie family, who alongside his brother Carlos is most often credited with refining and marketing the martial art now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, died in 2009 at the ripe old age of 95 years old. He is the father and uncle to an entire generation of legends, among them names like Renzo Gracie and Royce Gracie, who's performance in the early UFC competitions arguably inspired more people to seek out BJJ training than anyone else in history.
It is said that he had trained the morning of his death at his home in Brazil. Helio Gracie is well known to be someone who "practiced what he preached" and it is clear that the practice and teaching of Jiu Jitsu helped him lead an active life well into his 90's. Not only did Helio help leave us one of the most practical martial arts for self-defense, he may have also left us the blueprint for staying active and strong well into our advanced years.
Saulo Ribeiro shared a story once that at the peak of his competition career, which is one of the most storied in competitive Jiu Jitsu, about a time that he trained with Helio. Saulo Ribeiro is a five time World Champion at three different weight classes and a two time ADCC Champion. At this time that this particular training session occured, Helio was well into his 80s. Saulo on the other hand was right around 30 years old at the time, over 50 years younger than Helio. He recounts that he gave everything he could to Helio and although Helio did not tap Saulo, conversely Saulo did not tap Helio.
So what are we to make of this story? What can it teach practitioners of all ages or even people who are only thinking about taking up the practice of Jiu Jitsu? Let's take a look at some key ideas.
Age is Just a Number
We all wish that we had started training Jiu Jitsu earlier. Unless you're currently still in your teenage years, the advancement of time and the sense of 'what could of been' starts all too early in our 20's as we begin to be faced with adult responsibilities and move further past our athletic prime, almost daily. By the time you find yourself in your thirties, it sometimes feels like the wheels are beginning to come off. You may start to feel stiffness and soreness where once you were limber and flexible. You may start talking more about your achy joints, reminding you too much of your older relatives back when you were younger.
The beauty of BJJ is that there is no such thing as a perfect time to start practicing. By all means, the earlier one can be exposed to the art, the better. It's like the old saying, "The best time to plant an oak tree is 20 years ago. The second best is today." What this means, is yes, it would have been great to start BJJ when we were youngsters, but many people didn't have the opportunity, or perhaps there was no Jiu Jitsu around at that time. So maybe you're in your 30's, 40's or even 50's or older? Who cares? Just go do some research and find a good academy near you where you can start. Today or tomorrow, but don't wait.
But I've never done anything athletic in my life? So, the practice of BJJ can be so easily customized that everyone regardless of their physical condition can get something out of it. Your instructor and coaches will work closely with you to help your work your way into the art slowly and safely.
Once you have some time under your belt (see what I did there?) you will find that your overall health and mentality will begin to shift as you embrace the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle. You will find yourself gaining strength, flexibility and maybe losing some extra weight (especially if you couple it with an effective diet regimen). For a great example and instructional on how to apply principles that will get you in the best shape of your life no matter your age, while also helping your Jiu Jitsu game immensely, check out this offering from BJJ Fanatics' very own best-selling instructor and coach, Tom DeBlass.
In summation, there is no time like the present. Your current age is not a reason to not begin BJJ. Get rid of all that "I should have started X number of years ago." Once you get past that and start training, you can begin to experience the benefits of this art.
Old Age and Treachery
There is an old proverb, whose source is much debated. "Old age and treachery will always win out over youth and exuberance." Whether this is an old Greek saying, or something from Shakespeare, doesn't matter. What does matter, is what we can learn from this idea. What it says to me, is that no matter how young and strong someone might be on those mats, it is mat time and experience that will always prevail.
Does this mean that the 50-something recreational practitioner is going to be able to tap the next 20 year old Gordon Ryan or D1 wrestler that walks through the academy door? Probably not, but looking back at the story of Saulo Ribeiro and Helio training in Saulo's prime tells us that with all of his years of experience, Helio was able to to weather the storm of the youthful and exuberant Ribeiro and not get tapped. Sure, he did not "win" per se by tapping the much younger Saulo, but most importantly, he was not tapped.
More importantly, it's not about tapping or being tapped at all. In reality, the older practitioner probably has a better handle of his/her ego. With much less to prove, the older practitioner is able to practice with a much lower sense of urgency and be much more smart on the mats and this should keep them safer and less prone to injuries.
Train Smart, Train Long
As we age, we become more cognizant of our bodies and the changes that time and advancing age brings about. This can sometimes provide a healthy sense of caution that we may not have had as youngsters. In my experience, I have seen far more "youngsters" injured while training BJJ than any of the over 30 year old students. One theory is that in our youth, we are more likely to push past the limits of our joints, tendons or ligaments because of our more prevalent ego and need to establish our place within the academy pecking order.
With age, hopefully comes wisdom, and a true understanding that the study and practice of BJJ is far more comparable to a marathon than a sprint. It should be everyone's hope to practice for as long as humanly possible. There are far worse things than getting to train on the last day of your life like Helio.
Use Your Mind
Studies have shown that the more active we keep our bodies, the more health benefits we can reap long into our old age. The same has coincidentally been found with the activity of our minds. By striving to learn something new, we are able to keep our minds sharp and active and studying a new skill like BJJ works to hone both our physical and mental sharpness.
Many doctors and scientists feel that the less active we are physically and mentally, the more detrimental this can be. By working to solve the never-ending puzzle of BJJ using both your body and your mind, you will increase the chances that you will live a long and robust life filled with plenty of mat time.
For another look at how BJJ could actually be the 'fountain of youth', check out our other article here at BJJ Fanatic.
In closing, it is common for someone who is contemplating trading in their standard leather belts for their white belt, to hesitate and say something to the effect of, "I'm too old to start an activity like BJJ", when in actuality, the fact that you are contemplating it means that it is the perfect time. Regardless of your age, physical constraints, etc. the study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be so personalized and modified to ensure that you reach your personal goals while having the best experience you can.
The benefits you will gain both physically and mentally by challenging yourself, will pay dividends in every area of your life. And who knows, maybe you'll take things one step further and try out your first competition. The journey to black belt has no age requirement. The only requirement is showing up, learning, and challenging your limits for as long as you possibly can.
Now that you're ready to embrace your advancing years and put the experience of BJJ legends like Daniel Beleza, you will want to head to BJJ Fanatics and grab his 3 DVD "Masters Guard" instructional series. In this series you will learn all of the secrets that have helped put Daniel on the top of the world's podiums into his 40's.