Is Jiu-jitsu For Everyone?

A question on my mind lately has been how long do I have on the mat anyway? I’m probably not the only one thinking that.

A favorite BJJ meme. Credit: unknown.

I realize this isn’t a terribly original question, but I’m a woman who was introduced to martial arts in her mid-thirties, so it’s new to me. Plus as women, especially if you’ve had children, your body may already feel as if it were put through the wringer or like you may have been a prize fighter in another lifetime. I just wonder how much more it can take sometimes.


I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for seven or eight years and still look for any way I can get in another class. You know what I’m talking about. This is an addictive sport. Always just one more roll. Most people, when it’s exciting and new, would go to YouTube and look up their favorite MMA guy or a really old master of a related martial art for inspiration, but for me it’s a little more complicated.


Heroes and role models have always an uncomfortable subject for me. I never understood, even as a child, the compulsion to fashion yourself after someone who already exists when you’re an entirely different person. I didn’t want to be anyone else. (And I was asked everything: Do you wish you were taller? Do you wish you were a boy?) Being that I once won an essay contest in elementary school about role models by writing about Jim Davis instead of my parents like most of my peers, I apparently wasn’t a bit concerned with the normal way of doing things, either. 


For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about my future in jiu-jitsu lately. Not so much attaining the black belt level – rank is more of a side benefit to what I love most: the physical and mental challenge. Maybe I’m thinking existentially because I’m 41. Maybe it’s because I’m at the middle rank. Maybe it’s because at this stage in the game, I’ve rolled with a lot of people – all kinds of people. I’ve been in class with at least two 70-year-old guys and worked with several in their 60s. These men still have the energy, desire, and skill to keep moving forward, and it keeps me going. I can’t even count how many guys in their 40s and 50s I’ve rolled with. The guys I roll with are excellent and have skills and confidence I hope to acquire, and they help me with anything I need, but it’s still a stretch for me to see myself following their path.


I didn’t need a role model to start the sport, but upon looking around out of curiosity, I still came up rather short. Ronda Rousey was “it” at the time I began, but one can’t really look to MMA for longevity in the sport. Before I started martial arts, I had movies like the Karate Kid franchise – I wasn’t into the rest of them really (I know there is a canon of sorts – apologies to MA film aficionados) – and after, I saw real life characters shared on social media like the old judo master and any number of old Gracie fights. Fictional or real, they are these wise old masters venerated for knowledge and dedication who even in their last years are doing what they love. That’s what I want to be no matter what rank I happen to end up at. I mean, whatever gender you are, it’s pretty inspiring to see, giving hope that you won’t necessarily have to retire or quit.  


I sometimes wonder how much longer my own body will let me do this. I know everyone struggles with health and injury and training as much as you can before you can’t anymore, from white belts to the old masters. I’ve had one knee surgery so far and the doctor warns of various things like early arthritis and asks are you sure you’re going to keep doing this and all the rest. Of course, just like the guys, I take that under advisement and deal with it when/if it comes. After all, that won’t be me. I’m the exception! Joking aside, the guys are a bit luckier than I am, in that they can be pretty confident they’ll be on the mat a long time still. Chances are they know guys older than they are.

The men don’t have to imagine the possibility of a 90-year-old judo master or 70-year-old guy learning jiu-jitsu because their futures are often in the gym where they train. I’m not saying there aren’t women black belts or aren’t older women who do jiu-jitsu – I’m just not surrounded by them. It could very well be regional. I’m not in a huge city. I know they’re out there; they’re just not as likely to walk into a gym anywhere near me any time soon. Most of my examples are men. We can ponder the reasons – sexism, Title IX’s delayed effect, is it our bodies – I’d need to research that – but that’s not what I’m talking about now. Men have this future that they absorb from birth without thinking too much – or anything – about it. Male is the default in many areas still, despite several waves of feminism, and martial arts is very much one of those. I see no one really like a Helio Gracie or mythical Mr. Miyagi for women unless I go to the Internet, which we can do. I did! I found an interview with a 50- and 46-year old woman as well as a great article by a woman who started BJJ at 43 and hits the high points of why I love the sport too. They are there, just not as readily available. I can’t exactly lean over and ask Ms. Moto de Oliveira (see link) a quick question.

Without this long history of prolific examples that men have to show active older men and in the absence of many women my age in local gyms, I’m left with a more blurry or even blank future than my jiu-jitsu brothers. Is my future just not there – or is it as yet unwritten? Is this the beginning, with my generation having Title IX that established equal sports teams for women – or is it something unique to our biology that holds us women back or keeps us from participating? (The latter is another can of worms I would need a few years to research. The former I may discuss in my next post.) I suspect it’s only the beginning for us, but doubt tends to creep in when there are so few examples of what exactly – or even very generally – is possible. 

I hope that when my daughter is my age, her generation has the examples I never had. 

–And to answer the title, yes, jiu-jitsu is for everyone!

(I’m jlhabdo on Instagram if you don’t have enough photos of jiu-jitsu, cats, and books in your life.)

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