BJJ Over 40

August 27, 2013
11 minutes read
BJJ Over 40


In the last 6 months our readership has jumped literally 10-fold, and the group that by far has grown the most is BJJ students over the age of 40.

So, not only did I reach out to some great experts on this topic, I also got in contact with some of my own readers who are 40+ BJJ Black Belts, and picked their brains as well! I recently posted about my 55-year-old student Wayne getting his blue belt, and it received over 1,000 Facebook “likes” in record time. I knew I had to write some more. Below are some of the absolute BEST collected insights from my interviews with older BJJ experts:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Over 40 – Keys to Success

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1) Tips to Remain “Un-Broken”:

There’s nothing more annoying than time off the mat with no reason other than injuries, or spastic training partners, or an incorrect training routine. Here are some of the most pivotal insights that I’ve gleaned from my interviews:

  • DON’T let people control your head and neck! BJJ Black Belt and 40+ grappler John Connors told me that one of the first pieces of advice that he gives to his older students is to not allow the opponent to land his shoulder on your chin. As soon as you’re in a bottom position, block the near arm and protect the cross-face from happening in the first place. If you can be on your side by the time he passes, you’ve also got a much better likelihood for the cross face to be less effective – but avoiding it is preferable.
  • Erode the Ego, Tap Early, Save Yourself. Mark Hopkins and other have brought up the force of the ego, and how it’s often the case that tapping to someone younger or stronger or even someone smaller becomes a matter of pride. That attitude usually dies early, or the passion for BJJ falls away and the body falls apart! Tap before the pain, tap often, and try – just for the hour or two on the mat – to totally have no emotional attachment to tapping. Even let people get submissions sometimes. I 44-year-old guy who breaks a ligament in his elbow is going to be off the mat for a lot longer – possibly with a good deal more pain – than an 18 year-old.
  • Playing the Game SMART. I know that Stephen Whittier, Hopkins, Grubbs, AND Connors have use the term “playing the game smart.” Hopkins defined this term best when he talked about having older grapplers take an honest look at their own game and see where they’re depending on speed and explosiveness, but don’t need to. Gassing yourself out and making strong, jerking motions is usually a recipe for getting tired and hurt, and being conscious of where your game could use a more strategic focus is the first step in building a “smart” and “sustainable” game for yourself.

2) Know Your Escapes / Stay Cool:

Another pivotal insight from some of the best grapplers I was able to catch up with was to know how to escape and stay calm in the rough positions – the ones most people struggle most with.

  • Beware the under-hook, and anything that might leave you open for Neck Cranks: Again, John Connors comes through there with some of the very most critical
  • Have a System. BJJ Black Belt Michio Grubbs got to train under Roy Harris, and he commends Roy for his systematic approach. Panic happens when uncertainty rules, or when emotions run high. If you know what to do and how to do it from the majority of all “bad” spots, those same spots are less “bad.” Creating a mind-map or determining your tried-and-true go-to techniques will help you stay cool – one of the biggest factors in your on the mat safety.

3) Develop a Game of Your Own:

I was lucky enough to catch up with Stephen Whittier not too long ago, he’s the owner of 40 Plus BJJ, and Nexus Martial Arts in Massachusetts. After getting in some training time with him at his academy, we were able to talk about the success that his grapplers over 40 have had at various tournaments, including these tips (see the original OnTheMat article here):

  • Your game should be built according to your Personality, Attributes, and Limitations. If you’re an aggressive person, that’ll usually be your style on the mat, and if you’re “calculating” (like Stephen is), that will show as well. Your attributes has to do with your body type and abilities. Not everyone is tall, or flexible, or particularly strong, and what you do with your game will revolve around what you’re capable of. That’s also where limitations come in. You might have to build your game a bit around working around a bum knee, or avoiding pressure on your spine.
  • Copy Cat BJJ: Another potential “Pitfall” for building an effective game – according to Stephen – is following your instructor exactly. Rarely will his best moves and positions truly be yours, and modeling too much can lead you to developing techniques that aren’t suited for your arsenal. Like Bruce Lee, take what works, and be open minded to what else works, too – even if it isn’t your instructor’s go-to technique. I would argue that very few champions are EVER “replicas” of their coaches, and it’s less fun that way, anyway.

Helio4) Off-the-Mat Success Factors of the Older Grappler:

In addition to making the most of your mat time… older grapplers usually have LIVES and aren’t able to do the “mat rat” thing. So, using off-the-mat time well is critical:

  • Black Belt Mark Hopkins recommends that you not just watch “BJJ” online, but watch specific matches and techniques that you know you’ll fit into your game. It has to apply to your context and make sense for your development – and be something you can meaningfully apply to your game.
  • I’ve had one of my students (Andy) use a Grappling Dummy as another potential mode of training on off hours. 6 square feet and a dummy is more than ample resources to get in real reps on a real “body,” and most of the folks who buy them are either gym owners or older students who need flexibility in their training schedule.
  • John Connors talks about proper nutrition – and most importantly – sleep! If your body doesn’t recover the way it did when you were 19, then there’s no use taking up your college sleep-deprivation habits. Not only can lack of sleep be a factor in injuries, it puts a serious damper on your gas tank and your ability to heal / re-build muscle.
  • Michio talks about mind-mapping your go-to moves, especially from bad positions where Panic can happen. This is best done on paper, or with a simple word processor or mind mapping software. In his words “It takes some time to do this – off the mat – but it definitely helps in keeping you safer and and enjoying the game a lot more.”
  • Mark Hopkins also talks about shadow grappling or grappling with kids and pets. At first I laughed, but I realized that 90% of the enthusiasts have probably done this once or twice. “It keeps your mind in the game, keeps you thinking Jiu Jitsu.” If you’re able to get some open mat or carpet space and roll with an imaginary opponent, your visualization takes your brain through many of the same neural connections that you’d be working if you

If nothing else, I personally have this to say: MOST 40+ guys are either to scared to start BJJ or too scared to take it seriously. I don’t think this makes them weaker or worse, but it does mean that the image of the sport still needs some time to change. It could be the “UFC” image still in people’s minds – and that’s not going away any time soon. What we CAN do is produce more outstanding examples of grapplers in their 40’s, 50’s, and beyond. I have older students who I’ll be teaching tonight, and I know that guys like John Connors, Mark Hopkins, and the other experts I interviewed are on the same mission!

Success in BJJ – and here’s to rolling until we’re 110 years old (If I can help it, I will be!),

-Daniel Faggella

PS: To learn from ALL of my recent BJJ interviews with successful older grapplers, download by free eBook and videos below:

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Daniel Faggella
Daniel Faggella

Coach Daniel is the founder and head publisher at Science of Skill, LLC. A martial arts black belt and self defense instructor, Dan has spent years training with and interviewing some of the world's best self protection experts. His passion lies in encouraging others to train smart and to improve the skills that make them safer and stronger.

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