In February 2020, right before the pandemic hit American shores, I finally took on a challenge I had been thinking about for quite some years.
I started training Brazilian jiujitsu.
When I started, I knew next to nothing about jiujitsu. The only thing I knew was that a lot of people that I really respect seemed to think that jiujitsu was a lot of fun.
So I searched “Brazilian Jui Jitsu Near Me.” There was a Gracie-Barra school, Gracie-Barra Westchase, within 5 miles of my house in West Houston. The Gracies are the undeniable Kings of BJJ. So that’s where I decided to start.
When I first walked into the Gracie-Barra Houston Westchase jiujitsu studio in February 2020 I was an almost 48-year-old, slightly in-shape and slightly out-of-shape middle-aged man. I didn’t know a single person at the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu gym that I chose to attend for my first class. Not a soul. But it was close by.
I showed up to my first class and was given a “Gi” (a martial arts uniform) and a White Belt that was really, really white. Like it had never been worn before. I had no idea how to tie this thing, and had to ask for help.
For my first class, the instructor, or “Professor” in the jiu jitsu parlance, was an extremely tough-looking Brazilian 4th strip black belt named “Ulpiano.” He gave us a little talk before we started.
“Very impressive guy,” I thought to myself. I’ve heard my fair share of speeches by smart leaders, and Professor Ulpiano clearly had the “It” factor.
“So far so good,” I thought. After a brief 5 to 10 minute warmup that left me a little sweaty and a little out of breath, Professor Ulpiano demonstrated a technique, and then we broke into pairs to practice that technique.
I was paired with a Purple Belt named “Jake.” Jake is in his early 40s and I outweigh him by 40 pounds. I’m also physically strong, have long arms and legs, was a D1 athlete, and have a lot of confidence in my own athletic ability. I figured I could muscle Jake around and at least make it something of a sporting contest.
Boy was I was wrong.
Jake was an absolute killer, in the nicest possible way.
Jake could have broken my arm, broken my shoulder socket, or choked me unconscious 20 straight times if he wanted to. I had no chance whatsoever against this middle-aged bald person who I outweighed by 40 pounds. Jake just absolutely annihilated me.
And he smiled every time he did it. And so did I. I was instantly hooked. “I have to learn how to do this,” I thought to myself. This is just far too cool not to learn more.
It was mesmerizing.
The fact that this guy could beat me so easily with almost no effort was completely and totally humbling as well as completely and totally intoxicating.
And thus began my obsession with Brazilian jiujitsu.
Not long after I started my jiujitsu journey, the pandemic hit and we were all forced into quarantines of various levels. The jiujitsu studios were all shut down for months, and other than watching videos online, reading books, and thinking constantly about the sport, I was unable to do any jiujitsu until early October 2020, when I ventured back into the gym.
Since then, except when I am out of town or in trial, I train 3-4 times a week, and sometimes more.
Why? Because Brazilian jiujitsu is the best thing I’ve done in my adult life in the past 10-15 years, and maybe longer.
BJJ is mentally and psychologically addictive, enjoyable beyond description, exhilarating at times and scary at other times, and mentally and physically demanding. I recommend BJJ to everyone in the strongest possible terms. My only regret is that I didn’t start 10 years ago.
I started as a no-stripe White Belt. When I got my first stripe on my white belt, I was so excited that I cried tears of happiness on my drive home that evening. Kind of remarkable for a 48-year old Irishman to be so happy about a piece of tape on my belt. But I was overjoyed.
I earned my Blue Belt in March 2021, and outside my family, my law firm, and my Leadership podcast, I considerit one of the most important achievements in my adult life. Because I earned it. And I earned it at an age when most of the guys my age would be too scared to even try.
I have made no secret of my love for all things jiu-jitsu. In fact, I have broadcast my training and my enjoyment to the world via social media, my podcast, and other places.
As a result, I’ve had a ton of people ask about martial arts / BJJ training, and especially people in my age range.
So I figured that I would give some advice and thoughts to anyone reading this article who is considering training BJJ.
- You will be scared.
I felt like a complete idiot when I walked into my first class. I was also scared.
I looked around the class and saw 20 or so men (but also some women), most of whom I was fairly certain could break me in half without breaking a sweat. Some of my classmates look like absolute killers, at least in terms of their physique. We’re talking about very high-level athletes. Strong, smart, flexible, skilled beyond belief.
Some of my other classmates look like they could star in Revenge of the Nerds, but they’re equally effective at this gentle yet deadly martial art, and maybe sometimes even more so, because they rely less on strength and athletic ability and more on leverage and smarts.
If you’re not a little apprehensive and a little scared before your first few official sparring contests, you’ve probably got a screw loose.
Fear is normal. Fear is fine.
- Prepare to be in pain. Good pain.
One of the best things about Brazilian jiujitsu is you can fight at full speed, without anybody getting badly injured. That said, if you’ve never done martial arts before, and in particular this martial art, your muscles must move in ways you probably haven’t moved them in a very long time, if ever. I was in extreme muscular pain after my first 15 classes. I had to make a real effort to distinguish between muscular pain (which is good) and injury (which is bad).
At first, in fact, the muscular pain was so intense that I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to continue. But I told myself as long as the pain is just the pain of a really good workout, I would fight through it. And I’m the kind of person that once I make that kind of decision, there is no turning back. “F the pain,” I thought, “I’m doing this.”
If you’re in your 40s, or even in your late 30s, and you start jiujitsu as a beginner, you better be willing to work through some aches and pains.
Enduring a little discomfort is good for the soul.
- You can get injured.
I think that the injury question is probably the question that most folks wonder about when they start training BJJ as adults.
When I first started jiujitsu, I had a bad shoulder injury. The shoulder injury had no relation whatsoever to jiujitsu, and in fact I don’t know how it happened. But certain movements of my shoulder were excruciatingly painful. I could not do a single pushup for 6 months because of my rotator cuff injury.
I decided that I could handle the pain and protect my arm a little bit while still practicing jiujitsu. That turned out to be the correct decision, because I was able to train through the injury continuously and it has now essentially resolved itself.
Fight through the pain. Fighting through obstacles is good for you, dammit.
You can get injured training jiujitsu. There’s no question at all about that.
But you know what?
That’s true of any athletic endeavor.
I would much rather suffer the occasional injury while doing jiujitsu, fly fishing, tennis, golf, hiking, weightlifting, triathlons, marathons, or some other physical activity.
What’s the alternative? Sit on my ass at home and waste away? No thank you.
I’ve trained jiujitsu more than 100 times. I have fought against partners who outweigh me by 50 or more pounds and are half my age.
After having trained and fought for almost two years now, I don’t think the chance of injury is any greater than in any other physical sport, and in fact, I think some of the other sports lead to just as many if not more injuries.
I personally know 20+ golfers who have had major knee, wrist, ankle, or hip surgeries. I know CrossFitters who have done the same. I know tennis players who blew out their Achilles’ tendons, and triathletes who have to take months off to recover from injury.
If you want to train BJJ long term, you need to be humble. Be smart. Check your ego at the door. Tap early and often. And consider making an agreement with yourself like I did that working through muscular pain makes you are more resilient, tougher human being.
And also understand that if you fight through the pain and aren’t a sissy, the pain will go away or you’ll just get used to it and you’ll be a better, tougher, more resilient person either way.
Quit complaining America. Forget about Make America Great.
Make America Tough Again.
- You’ll make great friendships
The people involved in jiujitsu are some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life.
One of the things that intimidated me a lot when I walked into the jiujitsu studio by myself was the expectation that I would run into a bunch of meatheads who just wanted to inflict pain on other people.
The opposite is true.
Almost all of the people I train with are incredible people for a lot of reasons.
I have met so many wonderful people at my jiujitsu gym it’s astonishing.
It all starts with the school’s leader, and we have a legend at Gracie-Barra Westchase.
Professor Ulpiano Malachias has built a school and gym that is phenomenal. I give the leader a lot of the credit for the quality of my experience. Pick a school with a quality leader. That’s the most important thing.
But it’s also about your training partners. The jiujitsu community is one of the most friendly and inviting communities I’ve been a part of.
I really enjoy training with my teammates, and I have yet to run into a single dickhead on the mat, although I’m sure they exist, just like they exist in every community.
But so far, everybody, without exception, is welcoming and helpful. No one is out there to hurt anybody. At my gym at least, anybody that was an asshole for very long would get run off pretty quickly.
- Prepare for complete addiction
The thing about jiujitsu that’s so addicting is the physical component coupled with the mental component. You cannot be good at jiujitsu if you’re simply physically talented. By contrast, you can be good at jiujitsu if you are not physically talented but you are intelligent, and use your mind more that you muscles. And you can be really, really good if you work your body and your mind.
Jiujitsu is a beautiful art, coupling close human contact and violence, or at least a threat of violence, with intelligence, flow, beauty, and some black magic. It’s as close to a perfect sport as I can imagine. It’s a philosophy, physically embodied. It is a way of looking at the world and at yourself. It’s a lifestyle and a lifelong journey.
I could continue explaining the limitless benefits of training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for pages and pages and pages.
Rather than to do that, however, I’d just encourage anyone reading this article, or considering training martial arts, to stop thinking and start doing. Just do it. Go to your closet legitimate BJJ school. Better yet, come join me at Gracie-Barra Westchase. But either way, just go to one class.
Some answers to a few more questions I've gotten:
Are you too old? No
Are you too young? No
Can anyone start training at any age? Yes
Can women train? Absolutely, and they love it just as much
Is it a good workout? Yes
Does it give you confidence? Yes.
Can anyone do it? Yes