by Lea Park
Over the last few years, Jiu-Jitsu has been gaining momentum at rapid speed throughout the United States and the world. More and more women are turning to BJJ as a way to learn self-defense or as an alternative to going to a conventional gym to work out. In turn, they fall in love with the way BJJ empowers them and the sisterhood that encompasses it.
I was introduced to BJJ in Hawaii when MMA was in its prime. I started kickboxing in my 20s as a fun way to get in shape. The gym that I trained at was primarily an MMA and muay thai gym, with coaches who were training some of the best in the sport. They dabbled in BJJ, but the focus had always been standup. In the 6 years that I trained there, I must have started and quit BJJ about a half dozen times because there were literally no other women training! Despite great coaching, I could never fully immerse myself into BJJ because I was not comfortable.
Somehow the light switch turned on after I turned 30 and I was HOOKED. I competed at Worlds as a white belt at 34 years old. Heck, at that time, I didn’t even know what the Masters division was, or let alone understand the reality of competing with females 16 years younger than me. This helped and hurt me at the same time. At that time my body knew I could compete with females much younger than me, yet this was the time age started to creep up on me and take me downhill without even realizing it. This is where I struggled with my ego the most because I wanted to keep up with the young ones in the gym but was fighting more aches/pains/injuries with a much slower metabolism and recovery rate.
Physically, it’s exhausting. For the majority of my time training before getting my black belt at 40, I worked full-time with crazy swing and graveyard shift hours. My mind told me to train before working the graveyard shift, even if that set me back a couple hours of rest. I would force myself to train as much as I could, but would often get injured because I was pushing my body too hard without adequate sleep and nutrition. I felt like if I didn’t train, I had FOMO (fear of missing out). Again, my ego kept getting the better of me because I was in denial that my body was changing.
Now that I’m in my 40s, the struggle is very real. Being an older, smaller and higher ranking female has definitely brought its challenges. My mind says that I can hang sparring with the younger (and bigger) colored belts, but the reality of training with 20 and 30-something-year-olds is tough physically and mentally. Being a female black belt especially does not help because the “target” on my back got exponentially larger. This really is no different from being a female on the mat in general, but when you outrank 99% of all the men that train at your academy; believe me, everyone wants to rough you up to make them feel better about themselves no matter how nice they are to your face. Knowing this, I sometimes still want to challenge myself (hello, ego!) because I know I’m a bad a** female and I know my sh*t. Obviously when that happens, things go sideways and I end up getting injured or annoyed because they sit on me the entire round or go hard with strength as much as they can. Like the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me…” At age 43, I’m learning to stop giving people the benefit of the doubt when I know better.
Despite the challenges, being an older female on the mat is not necessarily a bad thing. You are mature enough to communicate and to make tough decisions about who to (or not to) train with and not feel bad about it. There are a lot of people that I turn down a roll with or I flat out avoid more than ever these days. There’s no shame in that game, ladies. Believe me, save yourself the injury or the frustration of training with someone who doesn’t know how to roll with you. When you get older, it’s all about training SMARTER, not HARDER.
I love how BJJ keeps us younger in health and spirit. If you listen to your body and take rest days, fuel your body well, and get enough sleep, your body will thank you and allow you to keep going on the mats for as long as you want it to. My goal is to be able to train long enough to motivate other women my age to start BJJ. You’re never too old or out of shape to do BJJ and I’m so glad that I learned that by starting my journey a little later than most females.
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