He drags me off balance. Suddenly, I’m flat on my back with him on top of me. But instead of panicking, I cross my wrists, sink my hands deep into his collar, and twist. My knuckles press the sides of his neck. For a few seconds he tries to fight, but finally he grunts, “Tap!”
And then we sit up and grin. We’re students in a Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) class. He’s a bartender/bouncer and I’m a writer. I’m easily old enough to be his mom, and he’s both taller and heavier than me. But on a good day, I can tap him out.
My love for BJJ would surprise anyone from my high school. PE was the only reason I graduated with a GPA less than 4.0. I’ve always been a klutz. I’m not physically brave and I hate conflict.
But, pre-quarantine, I was doing BJJ five or six times a week, and teaching a woman’s class once a week. I’m almost always the oldest person on the mat. So what’s it like starting BJJ when you’re over 50?
How I got started
For me, a kickboxing class turned into a gateway drug. We wore boxing gloves and hit heavy bags. I had never hit anything, not even a pillow, as hard as I could. It made me feel fierce and it was a great workout. I moved on to kajukenbo, and then kung fu, and finally BJJ.
BJJ snuck up on me, though. To test for a higher belt in kung fu, you needed some grappling skills. For a long time I thought: No way am I going to roll around on the floor with some guy on top of me. And you can’t tell me that wrapping my legs around him is actually a good position. To an outsider, It all seemed too rape-y. But while BJJ is by far the most physical thing I’ve ever done, it’s not intimate at all.
The secret advantages of being an older player
Of course, doing BJJ when you easily qualify for AARP provides its own set of challenges. You’re probably not going to be doing a cartwheel pass. Strength, speed, flexibility, agility, balance—a younger player is likely to have more of these attributes than you do.
So what does that leave the older player?
- The beautiful thing about BJJ is that there are a million ways to play it. One of my instructors, black belt Chris Bauer, taught us to look for the things that work with our bodies.
- Older players learn from the beginning to focus on the basics: tight elbows, good frames, knees in, literally using your head. Younger players may be able to skip over these as white belts, but as they progress they’ll need to go back and integrate them into their game Older players start out humble and actually learn the details.
- Years of life experience have taught older players patience and help them play the longer game.
- Sometimes all an older player has stubbornness and the occasional flash of “Hell no.” But stubbornness is the secret to a lot of success.
My advice for the older player
- Look for a school where the training methodology allows you to be safe. If the school’s only approach focuses on being athletic and fast, it might not be the school for you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to take it down a notch, especially if they have a tendency to slam into submissions.
- Do try things that initially scare you or you think might not work. I still remember a turtle attack class where you grabbed cloth at neck and knee and literally somersaulted over them to a bow and arrow. Even thinking about drilling it made me nervous, but it turned out to be a really cool submission.
- If matches start from standing, be careful to pick a trustworthy partner. Instead of resisting a throw with all your might, consider going with it, with the intention of moving to a better position once you land.
- Off the mat, work on your flexibility and strength. Lots of people swear by yoga. Even in quarantine, I’m doing pushups, pull ups, planks, squats, and lifting dumbbells that were previously gathering dust in my office. And a series of daily banded hip flexibility exercises is finally overcoming years of bad habits.
April is a blue belt who is turning 61 in April. After doing both kajukenbo and kung fu, she has been training jiu-jitsu for over five years, A New York Times bestselling author of mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults, she loves travel, salty snacks, and scary movies.