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Training jiu-jitsu when you are over 50

 An interview with some of our 50+ and 60+ year old students 

Over 50 and thinking of training jiu-jitsu? Many people say they’d love to learn, but shy away from it – telling us: “I’m too old” or “my body can’t handle that”. In this month’s blog, we interviewed a few of our long-time male and female SJJA members who are in their 50s and 60s to hear all about their jiu-jitsu journey, including: how they train safely and avoid injury, and how jiu-jitsu has changed their life for the better. Not only are they fitter, stronger and healthier, but they are more resilient, more confident, more loving of themselves, and mentally much stronger than they’ve ever been as a result of jiu-jitsu.

You’ll also hear from SJJA’s first black belt, Mike Johnstone, who will tell you:

“DO IT. We are proof that it’s never too late.

What made you want to try out jiu-jitsu?

Ian: I started BJJ at 58 years of age. I used to train taekwondo, and my friend Diego Mainou had been training jiu-jitsu with Bruno some years before me. Diego was very enthusiastic about BJJ and had become a lot fitter and lost a lot of weight. He suggested I give it a try, so I attended a class with him and eventually signed up.

Leesa: I started at 46 years of age. I wouldn’t exactly say I wanted to… for some reason I just felt I needed to. My son had started training at SJJA, and as I was watching him train, I became really drawn to it. I don’t understand why, or what it was, but something inside me told me I needed to do this and take on this challenge. A couple of months after my son started, I signed up too. 

Mike: My brother got me into it when I was 44. He was a brown belt at the time, and I had just arrived in Australia. I didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone here, but my brother told me I could make friends through jiu jitsu, and suggested I give it a try. After my first class, I instantly became addicted. 

Samira: My partner got me into jiu jitsu a few years ago – he works for corrective services and he wanted to be able to protect himself – so I decided I should probably learn as well.

Were you hesitant to try jiu-jitsu at the start? If so, what were your reasons?

Leesa: I think I was fearful rather than hesitant. It wasn’t a question of whether I was going to do BJJ or not – I knew I was going to do it – it was just a matter of managing my fears, and actually doing it. I was also a bit intimidated, as there were a lot of males in the classes. I kept thinking to myself: “Oh my god, can I actually do this? What’s going to happen? Am I going to survive this? Will they look at me as being different because I’m female?” But the guys never actually did anything to make me feel intimidated, which made me realise it was just the voice in my head telling me I’m not as good. So the intimidation factor was not on them –  it was on me.

A lot of people play the victim, but at the end of the day, people have to level up and understand their own inadequacies. Everyone has that voice in their head, feeding them doubt. Mine would always say to me “Who do you think you are, to try this? ” It’s true what they say, that: you don’t think your thoughts, your thoughts think you. So to overcome this, I would put one foot in front of the other every day, and show up, until I overcame this fear.

Samira: Yes, absolutely. I was scared, and nervous of the unknown!

Mike: Nope – I became addicted from the get-go!

Ian: My hesitancy probably was in part because I’m not that keen on change. In my early 40s, I had a minor health scare and my doctor told me I need to exercise more (i.e. do more than just occasionally sprint to catch a train to work, or play tennis once a month) so I started training taekwondo a couple of times a week, and joined a city club and neighbourhood boot camp.  However, I also thought that BJJ as a grappling martial art would be a great addition (in contrast to taekwondo as a striking martial art) and its potential for a smaller person to control a larger and stronger person safely, would at least be worth trying. So rather than give up one of my other commitments, I decided to incorporate BJJ into my existing exercise regime – even if it was only once or twice a week. 

Walk us through your jiu jitsu journey – from white belt, to the belt you hold today.

Mike:  I chased this thing harder than I chased anything in my life. Before jiu-jitsu, everything including my relationships, education and businesses seemed free. Everything seemed easy. I didn’t work for any of it – it was just there. Jiu-jitsu brought all of that to an abrupt end. Nothing about it was easy, but I became obsessed with it, and never took a day off. 

Ian: I don’t train jiu-jitsu as frequently as others do, so I was genuinely surprised when I received first my blue and then in 2021 a purple belt.  My blue belt was awarded at a very large end of year belt ceremony some years ago, and I heard Bruno calling out, “Rian” (who I assumed I hadn’t yet met).  Eventually, after “Rian” had ignored Bruno, someone kindly pointed out that it would be polite for me to at least stand up and respond to Bruno’s repeated calling out my name for me to receive my blue belt. 

Despite my understandable sense of “imposter syndrome” and originally thinking Bruno was engaging in positive discrimination for the aged when he promoted me to purple, another well over 40 years purple belt (who had also previously experienced imposter syndrome) very helpfully encouraged me to just embrace it and make the most of my promotion.  So that is what I am trying to do. Furthermore, all of my younger training partners who still are able to beat me have been super supportive since that promotion. Also Mike (who I met at my first BJJ class when he was a mere precocious, 40-something blue belt) gave me lots of guidance and encouragement throughout my jiu-jitsu journey, and always reminded me that you can absolutely keep training jiu-jitsu when you’re well over 50.

Leesa: Since I started jiu-jitsu, I’ve seen a lot of growth in my self value and self worth. Also, I think one of the reasons why people like jiu-jitsu so much is that there’s a lot of mindfulness to it. What happens when you’re training, is you stop that voice in your head. When you’re actually training, you are forced to concentrate on the present moment, and if you’re not doing that, you can’t do the technique. It’s kind of a forced, or active meditation, in that it quietens your thoughts and your chatty mind. I know it sounds so cheesy,  but it’s kind of like a spiritual journey. A lot of people don’t like the spiritual side of things because it seems like a bit of fluff, but why are they drawn to it? Some jiu-jitsu lovers probably don’t know why – they just know they feel so good when they go to jiu-jitsu, and it’s probably in part because of that meditative component. 

Do you have any injuries? Have you had any in the past that you’ve had to be mindful of when training jiu-jitsu?

Mike: The beautiful thing about this sport is you can make your own call on injuries. There should be no reason why you get injured if you don’t want to – you just tap. (Note: Tapping is when you tap the person’s body to end the fight, at which point they cease their attack/hold on you).  People get injured because their ego gets in the way and they refuse to tap. If you learn to tap early, you probably won’t get injured.

Also, a lot of people say to me: “I can’t train jiu-jitsu because I’ve got a job where I can’t afford to get hurt,” but a lot of people have a job where they can’t afford to get hurt – we have plenty of dentists, doctors, plumbers, and paramedics in this gym, but they’ve all learned how to train smart to prevent injury. Longevity in this sport is about checking your ego, and that self-choice of saying: “Ok when the other person starts winning or fighting more aggressively, I’m not going to match his aggression or throw all of my technique out the door and charge for him – that’s letting your ego take over. Instead I’m going to tap, or apply proper technique to get out of this situation”. Or saying: “Ok I’m going to be careful with whom I roll – I’m not going to get into an aggressive battle with an energetic 25 year old – I’ll either roll gently with him, or choose someone else to roll with.”

So my advice to people who are starting off is: be selective with whom you spar, and if in doubt, tap early. 

Leesa: Yes, I did injure my knee, but it was a result of me going hard and in the process performing an incorrect technique, and poor technique has a huge impact on injury. When you go hard, you are likely to use less brain and more brawn, and that’s when your technique disappears and you’re more likely to injure yourself. Everyone learns in time that jiu-jitsu is all about rolling smart, not hard. In order to really level up your jiu-jitsu, you need to focus less on power, and more on applying smart technique and using physics and their opponent’s power or positioning against them, or being two steps ahead of their game – all without needing to be aggressive. Since I adopted this approach, I haven’t had any injuries.  

Ian: I hurt my rotator cuff a few years ago, but this injury was a result of me not taking Bruno’s regular advice that I shouldn’t strain so hard in specific training or sparring, and that I just needed to be more relaxed.  I thought straining so hard would give me a good isometric exercise, but turns out it actually contributed to that rotator cuff injury.  Since my return to training, I have taken Bruno’s advice more to heart, and have been relatively injury free. Also, I saw a hand physio at one point, and she said my grip strength was very strong because of BJJ, and that I definitely should not stop training. See – even physios are telling me I should be training jiu-jitsu and I’m well over 50!

Describe your approach to training and, in particular, sparring – do you take any precautions?

Samira: I always respect my partner by asking if they have injuries and/or how they want to proceed, as sparring can sometimes be overwhelming.

Leesa: My approach to training is high frequency (I train almost every day). You need to take notes because you somehow need to forge all the things you learned in your head. You’re also better off understanding concepts rather than a million techniques – i.e. understanding why a tripod sweep works, and looking at several different ways to apply the same concept. It becomes more about thinking than it does about remembering, and you only get that from sparring. When you learn a new technique, it’s like reading a chapter of a book, and with a few techniques under your belt, you collect a lot of chapters, yet there’s no story. But when you spar, it’s like putting all the pieces together and creating the story, and that’s when you really start to enjoy it. 

When I come up against someone that’s a little more aggressive, I don’t fight back – I either let them have their way, or I use it as an opportunity to practice my defensive techniques. However, if someone is being really aggressive, I either say something to them, or I avoid sparring with them altogether. 

Regarding precautions, I always warm up properly, and I always wear a mouthguard during sparring. The other thing people really underestimate is stretching. You need to stretch and roll out your muscles, and that will help prevent a lot of injuries. Whenever I forget to roll out my muscles, my knee pain usually always reappears!

Ian: When it comes to taking precautions, I am an enthusiast for “tap early and tap often” to avoid injury, particularly if I am feeling uncomfortable or am close to being submitted.  Also, I would like to think I have gotten over earlier ego problems that might have increased my risk of injury by trying too hard not to be submitted (by, say, a smaller, more technically proficient training partner).  Whenever I feel a slight niggle in my body, I usually elect to not spar, or if I do, I make sure I have something to assist (like an elbow brace), or I ask my training partners to not go hard on me during sparring. My focus in every class is to finish training without injuring myself or my training partners. Training jiu-jitsu when you’re over 50 is absolutely possible – just be smart about it and communicate clearly with your training partners before you roll.

Regarding my approach to training, I recently started taking notes on my computer shortly after class to assist with the challenging task of retaining what has been taught by the coaches. I am also trying to focus more on underlying concepts, rather than the overwhelming task of trying to memorise every single technique taught in a class. 

Mike: I mostly train with black belts and brown belts. The younger black belts don’t go easy on me either (note: I specifically ask them not to go easy on me) – I think most of them think I’m a mental guy with dyed grey hair. Moreover, I don’t worry about being popular at a gym – I just show up, do my thing, fight hard, and ask lots of questions. After all, Hawaii [an upcoming jiu-jitsu tournament] is waiting for me.

Are you selective with whom you spar? Or do you spar with everyone, no matter their size, age or gender?

Samira: It depends – if I’m feeling confident, I will happily spar with anyone. There are times I have been very selective with whom I spar – for example, when I came back to training after my injury. 

Leesa: I usually spar with everybody, but to be honest there will be some people I position myself away from. In most gyms, there will always be one or two guys who you know are a bit too intense when they spar, so I try to avoid being anywhere near them. If I do get paired with one of them, I don’t try any attacks – I just play defence.

Ian: If there is a young male white belt who is much heavier than me, I might be hesitant to spar with him.  Though I usually just say to them: “I’m older than your father, so go easy” and I assess the situation throughout. I’m probably happier sparring with higher belts (of whatever gender) who can smash me but I know are less likely to hurt me in the process (as they always focus on technique over power).  However, as my technique has started to improve over the years, I’m a little less nervous than I used to be when it comes to training with young, large and inexperienced white belts. Plus, I’ve found that younger and stronger training partners are generally careful, respectful and encouraging.  

If you’re over 50 and you start training jiu-jitsu at SJJA, you’ll find plenty of others in the same boat as you. We have many students in their 50s and 60s who are extra conscious of the need to take care of both their training partners and themselves – they are always great to train with.

Mike: I roll with everyone! I usually roll with the black belts, but I also really like rolling with the kids because they get this childish excitement on their face when they do a great manoeuvre, and the women, because they absolutely fascinate me. I get so curious as to what their story is, and think to myself: Who is this woman, and what is her story? What was it that led her to be here today – to have the courage to step on the mats and engage in a contact sport with a bunch of strong/heavy guys? There’s always something so interesting about each of them, and I love hearing their stories.

What are all the things you love about jiu-jitsu?

Leesa: To summarise, it makes me feel good. Sparring gets your endorphins running and quietens the voice in your head, forcing you into a meditative state. There’s also the physical side of it; you get stronger and fitter, and you just feel better as a whole, which is excellent. 

The final component is the community and friendship side. Everyone chats with each other, helps each other with the techniques, and we all learn together and form genuine friendships along the way. The thing is, you’re surrounded by people with the same type of mindset, and inevitably you end up inspiring each other – it’s contagious. If you hung around people who just gamed and watched Netflix all day, you’d probably spend most of your time doing something similar. Here, we all have similar goals: we all strive to improve our jiu-jitsu, to be better versions of ourselves, and to be healthy, fit, and strong (both mentally and physically). There’s also a really great group of women here – we support each other and socialise with each other a lot outside of class. Training jiu-jitsu when over 50 is really fun!

Samira: I love the culture here – everyone is so warm and inviting. There are people from all ages and sizes who come from vastly different walks of life, and we all train together without any judgement. If you’re over 50 and start training jiu-jitsu at SJJA, you will never feel like an outsider.

Ian: I won’t list “all” the things I enjoy.  But jiu jitsu’s focus on leverage and technique over strength and flexibility (though these are obviously important) is what makes it a fascinating and effective martial art.  Plus, an hour’s training usually provides a great whole body workout.  In my professional life as a barrister, I often deal with mental capacity issues, and physical exercise seems to be the only activity that undeniably helps in retaining mental, as well as physical, capacity.  Jiu-jitsu (perhaps in common with some other martial arts and dancing) combines physical benefits with the mental benefits of having to learn and remember different patterns.  However, there is a real complexity in the range of techniques available and a “reality testing” in seeing how techniques work in contested specific training or sparring. 

It is also good for dealing with stressful situations (even if I cannot technically treat training as professional development in alternative dispute resolution).  I also enjoy the company and positive and supportive attitude of the coaches and class members, including for those like me who are older and not going to win competitions for the club.

Mike: This is too big of a question to answer. I trained BJJ twice today, and spent the entire weekend watching the US Pan American Championship.  I still compete in the masters divisions, and every time I compete, I always go through the same process in the lead up to the competition: a few days out, I find that I’m 4kg overweight, so I start doing beach sprints, dieting, going to gym, and setting up crazy training schedules. Even as a black belt, I experience the same nauseating fear of competing that I did as a white belt. The process is nerve wracking and quite frankly, terrifying – right up until the moment I have to fight. Then all of a sudden, when I step onto the mat, I become completely fearless.

How has jiu-jitsu changed you / your life / your lifestyle?

Leesa: I’m fitter, stronger (both physically and mentally), I now know self-defence, I’ve made lots of new friends, and I feel better all-round. So I’m proof you can absolutely start training jiu-jitsu if you’re over 50!

Samira: I thought I was a confident woman, but after joining Jiu-Jitsu I realised what true confidence was; you build an inner strength and discover another level of confidence you never realised you had. I feel Jiu-jitsu has also made me calmer in certain situations. It’s really had a positive effect on my mind, body and soul, and a lot of other people say the same.

Ian: Jiu-jitsu has certainly contributed to my ongoing fitness and flexibility (or perhaps, more realistically, has helped to somewhat slow down the inevitable effects of ageing).  It has also encouraged me to keep other aspects of training e.g. doing some weights where there are advantages in improving strength (or slowing down the decline of strength from ageing) when testing oneself on the mat.  So BJJ provides a real encouragement for me to keep training as long as possible, to have a healthy lifestyle and to make adjustments as required to continue to be able to do that perhaps into my 70s.  You can check back in 5 years to see if I succeeded.

That said, for me jiu-jitsu is not all there is to life. I think it’s important for people who really love jiu-jitsu and particularly for those who aim for, and achieve, success (e.g. in winning competitions) to appreciate that there is more to life than jiu-jitsu, despite its many physical and mental benefits which can help in other areas of life.  I have started listening to some of Steve Kwan’s “BJJ Mental Models” podcasts and he, like Stephan Kesting in his podcasts, often makes the same points – that jiu-jitsu, while a fabulous sport and martial art that is easy to love and become obsessed with, is not all there is to give meaning to life. Will your life still have purpose and meaning once you are past your peak as a BJJ athlete, or an injury means you can’t train?

What would you say to others who are over 50 and thinking of training jiu-jitsu, but fear they’re too old or might injure themselves?

Leesa: When it comes to dealing with existing injuries, if you’re not medically cleared to train jiu-jitsu, then you’re not ready. If you’re medically cleared to train, then you have to make the decision of how you’re going to approach your training so that you don’t get injured (eg: by selecting the right partners, learning to tap early, not letting your ego get in the way, and always practising good technique). 

Outside of injuries, you can’t live your life based on fear, because when you do that, you make yourself the victim. There’s such a great group of people at SJJA – they’re not going to ever make you feel like you’re unworthy of being there. They’ll be patient with you while you level up your skills and your fitness – it’s not a matter of if, it’s more a matter of when, and that you just keep showing up to class and believing in you.

Samira: Put all of your anxiety aside and give it a go – it will undoubtedly change your life for the better.

Ian: You can start gently.  If you have health issues or aren’t reasonably fit before you start training, then start slowly and build up your fitness.  If you absolutely love training jiu-jitsu and are over 50, it helps to have a break between sessions rather than trying to train BJJ 10 times a week, which might be achievable for a 20 year old.  The coaches generally understand that beginners, especially older beginners, might not be able to go full-on immediately.  And thinking long term, jiu-jitsu – as a non-striking martial art (i.e. doesn’t involve any kicks or punches) – doesn’t have the head issues that you might get in say boxing or MMA, where they punch each other.  Or even from too much heading in playing soccer which, like netball, can lead to lots of injuries for older people.  My mates in their 50s and late 40s in our bootcamp who play soccer get far more injuries from that than I have ever gotten from BJJ.  So to summarise, training jiu-jitsu for the long term if you’re over 50 is absolutely possible!

Mike: Ian is the repudiation of ‘I’m too old’, or my fave, ‘I can’t because of my job’ – he started when he was 58, and his jiu-jitsu today at 65 is really impressive. So to anyone who is over 50 and thinking about training jiu-jitsu but nervous to try it, I say: DO IT – we are proof that it’s never too late. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Leesa: Bruno has created a really strong family environment in SJJA, where he’s really backing a community and family, and that spirit of basically helping each other. It’s a really good place for people to start training jiu-jitsu – especially if you’re over 50. 

Samira: There are many women who train jiu-jitsu to learn to protect themselves, and this has made the female community here a lot closer and we all have so much respect for each other.  This sport also really helps children with bullying, anxiety, depression, and how to control themselves. I truly believe it’s a sport that brings anyone and everyone together – you really do build a family around Jiu-jitsu. If you’re thinking about training jiu-jitsu and you’re over 50, definitely come try it out!

Mike: Chase great coaches who are hungry for their students to improve and succeed.  And remember, black belts are just white belts who never gave up. When I got my black belt, I thought: I’m never going to let my belt go stale. I need to constantly work on it (like you do with a relationship). I’m going to take this belt with me and walk the earth in it. My advice: Get your black belt, leave your town or country, and keep growing and learning – you’re never going to grow if you never leave home. So go forth, grasshoppers – walk the earth. 

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