I turned 29 earlier this month, which, after nine years of jiu-jitsu, may as well be 39. It’s a common joke, that jiu-jitsu people age a bit faster than people who don’t get their bodies twisted and smashed and choked as a hobby, but this year, it didn’t feel much like a joke.
I spent the last birthday of my twenties off the mats, recovering from an injury that I couldn’t just train through. I’ve had a few of those over the years, each one taking me out for a week, maybe two weeks tops, but it’s been nearly two months now, and I still can’t let the five-year-olds in kids class put me in side control without my rib screaming. An old back injury has since resurfaced during a lifting session, which added insult and injury to injury.
Even this, of course, is nothing compared to the injuries many of my teammates have had, and I never take it for granted when I come out of a leg lock exchange unscathed. But, as someone whose motto has long been to “suck it up” and “I can walk on it, so it’s fine,” this has been a wake-up call.
When I was younger and hungrier in jiu-jitsu, I could trust that injuries would just go away if I was tough enough. In one tournament, my thumb bent all the way back to touch my wrist, and I simply didn’t use that (very swollen, black and blue) thumb when I came back to train the next day. A couple years later, I didn’t tap to a toehold, and my foot made a sound that was described by the toeholder as “a stack of paper being ripped.” I kept rolling and didn’t take off a single day of training.
Now, though, things just don’t move like they used to. Many years of seeing how far my shoulders would stretch before I had to tap to kimuras have made it a challenge to reach up my back. That toehold has, actually, made my foot significantly more crackly. And my back injury, which healed quickly the first time it happened, does not appear to be healing as quickly this time around.
All of this isn’t scary, per se, but it is definitely sobering. Aging is confronting for many people, but I think for athletes, it hits differently. It’s not just that we start to look different or fall behind on technology trends; it also puts a yellow light in front of our passion. In other words, we don’t necessarily need to stop what we’re doing, but we do need to slow down, pay attention, and know our limits.
This isn’t to say that we can’t keep striving to be great at what we do, but it may mean, for instance, that if we want to keep training hard, we need to treat our bodies a bit better. It means acknowledging that our bodies will metabolize food and drinks differently and that our joints and soft tissues will appreciate yoga and mobility classes. It may mean taking another look at your relationships, career, and personal aspirations and asking yourself if your other life goals align with your jiu-jitsu goals.
Aging always feels like something that happens to other people until you realize it’s happening to you. I used to silently scoff at the thirty-to-forty-year-olds I trained with when they told me that I’d be their age before I knew it, but going from being “the young one” at the gym to relating more to the actual adults on the team happens in a flash. I know it’ll be just another blink of an eye before I’m looking back on this article and laughing at myself — “Oh, so you thought you felt old then, did you?”
My plea to those of you who are closer to the Taylor Swift Age Songs than the Bo Burnham Age Song is to start taking care of yourselves now. Make it a habit, as much a part of your routine as showing up to jiu-jitsu class. Tap early and often, and if you get hurt, take care of yourself. Consult a medical professional even if you can walk on it, and develop your body’s mobility as much as you develop your strength, cardio, and BJJ techniques. You only get one body to do jiu-jitsu with, and if you want to keep doing jiu-jitsu with it, you have to take care of it.