The Jiu Jitsu Times recently posted a piece entitled, "Old Man Jiu Jitsu." Like much of what they post at TJJT, this piece is composed from several different original sources--ranging from a video by Rener and Ryron to excerpts from things Roy Harris has said over the years about rolling into your later years. Much of the advice given in this (and related) pieces is sensible. As a 43 year old with a replaced ACL and a three level cervical fusion, I am especially appreciative of the encouragement and advice. The more stubborn one is, the more difficult the transition to old age will be--especially on the mats (which are often filled with young, hungry grapplers who want to earn their stripes off your aging and aching back). But I nevertheless have a major complaint about this particular piece (and all previous iterations)--namely, it targets the *wrong audience*!
Before I explain what I mean, let me begin by favorably summarizing what Rener and Ryron call the "Boyd belts." On their view--which runs afoul of traditional Gracie orthodoxy (but that's neither here nor there for present purposes)--it turns out that size and age matter. Indeed, they matter enough to counter-act and countervail experience and skill under certain circumstances. As such, the Gracie brothers have adopted a general guideline for acknowledging the advantages that can be gained on the mats by size/strength and age alone. It works something like this: Every additional twenty pounds equals a higher belt level (all other things being equal). Similarly, every additional ten years equals a lower belt level. Here's how it works in practice: Take a 40 year old back belt who weighs 160 lbs. Imagine he's rolling with a 20 year old blue belt who weighs 200 lbs. If you apply the Boyd belt equation, the younger and heavier grappler effectively gains three belt levels for the weight advantage and an additional two belt levels for the age advantage. Obviously, this math doesn't work out especially well--since it should mean that the young blue belt should actually have an edge (which doesn't seem right, at least in my experience). But the underlying idea is right (even if it's application doesn't always work out accordingly). In short, youth and strength can offset skill and experience when the differential is great enough. This is clearly correct (as anyone knows who has spent enough time on the mats). So, why am I complaining about the piece in TJJT?
Here is the gist of my gripe--both about this piece and about similar pieces that get published from time to time: They are pitched at the old grapplers who are struggling to adjust to their aging bodies and diminishing strength in a sport with a constant influx of young and hungry grapplers who are often full of piss and vinegar (as they say). In short, the advice is directed at the geriatric wing of the jiu jitsu academy. Older grapplers are told how to temper their expectations, how to roll differently, how to keep themselves safe, how to keep their pride in check, how to adopt a more sustainable mindset and skill set, etc. Of course, this is all fine advice as far as it goes. But I think it only tells one side of the story--and in doing so, it places the responsibility squarely on the (often arthritic) shoulders of the wrong age group. For while it's certainly true that as we age, we need to rethink and refashion our approach--e.g., inverted guard works better at 20 years of age than 70 years of age, after all--the old farts amongst us are not the only ones who need to be sensitive to age and strength differentials.
Indeed, I think the problem lies more with the young guns than the aging lions. After all, it's easy to lose sight of the advantages one has when one is in one's physical prime. For instance, I just witnessed a student at our gym yesterday complain about being 28 (as if that were old)! We all had a good laugh, of course. But it represents an important lack of insight many of the younger practitioners in jiu jitsu carry with them into rolls with people who are sometimes twice their age. In a blind zeal to demonstrate just how tough they are and just how good they've become, the young ones often forget what an advantage it is to be in one's physical prime--especially in a sport which takes such a toll on the body as is the case with jiu jitsu. I spent a childhood wrestling and most of my 30s and 40s doing jiu jitsu. My body is pretty beat up--despite eating well, regularly doing mobility work, rolling smarter, etc. Yet, in a friendly roll at the gym against a newly minted blue belt, it may seem like we're competing for the Mundials. Why? Because the blue belt has failed to take into account my age and limitations. Rather than rolling at a reasonable rate and trying to learn from their more experienced elders, young grapplers often come out guns blazing--with imagined scores to settle and onlookers to impress. After all, submitting an older and more experienced grappler is viewed as a feather in one's developmental cap (rather than as a misguided effort and missed opportunity to learn from someone who has more to offer).
There are lots of reasons this youthful mindset is counter-productive and even toxic to gyms. First, in my experience, the older students are more likely to stick around, more likely to come to class, more likely to be on time with their dues, more willing to help others learn, etc. Yet, they are also more prone to injuries. So, when they are regularly forced through the paces--when flows rolls would have been more appropriate--there is a real risk that the gym will lose important assets as these old guards end up on the sidelines with minor (or even major) injuries. It's a net loss to the gym when a dedicated 40+ year old purple, brown, or black belt ends up having to spend time away from the gym. Conversely, young and hungry white and blue belts are usually in much more abundant supply. Second, when older and more experienced grapplers get the sense that a younger, lower belt is coming after them with more gusto than is necessary or appropriate, tempers are likely to flare. In these contexts, it is the younger grapplers who end up on the short end of the stick--since they get purposely roughed up more than would otherwise have been the case if they had just relaxed from the outset. I have to admit to being guilty as charged on this front. Through a life time of grappling, I have learned to apply an awful lot of pressure--pressure I rarely use in full force against training partners because...well, because we're just training partners after all! But when I get the 220+lb 20-something barreling into me like our lives depended on it, I am ready to give a free lesson in shoulder pressure from side control. Sometimes, this ends up being bad for my training partner. Sometimes, the extra effort ends up hurting me as well (or instead). This is a very counter-productive and completely avoidable state of affairs.
I am writing this piece to suggest that both the aging lions and the young guns share responsibility for maintaining the proper balance when it comes to differentials in strength, age, and experience. It's not all on me to learn "old man jiu jitsu." Those who are new to the sport also need to learn respect for their elders early on and view them as important and invaluable learning tools and not just opportunities to show off. Test your mettle against someone your own size, age, and experience. Tailor your rolls to your training partner. There is a time and a place for going all out and a time and a place to slow things down to work on minor details, key principles, etc. Pushing the pace against someone twice your age only shows your immaturity--nothing more. It doesn't prove a single positive thing about your jiu jitsu. So, while it is important for old farts like me to let go of our stubbornness and accept the inevitable failures of our bodies as we move into old age, it is no less important for young grapplers to do a better job of being mindful of who they're rolling with (and how to roll most productively). For if you try to bully me around when you're half my age, we may both end up being hurt. I, too, was a young lion once after all (with all the lingering pride that goes along with that fading status). That's a net loss not just for both of us--it's a net loss for the school as well. So, the moral of my story: While "old man jiu jitsu" is an important mindset for the aging lions to adopt, "young man jiu jitsu" ought to be a mindset that is cultivated in the up-and-comers as well.
In short, the lesson is simple: Hespect your elders! The more this lesson is learned, the less time the aging lions have to spend learning old man jiu jitsu! The flow rolls will take care of themselves (to everyone's betterment and advantage).