The older grappler and injury avoidance

My first exposure to jiu-jitsu came at about 37 years of age, but after 1.5 years of training I moved and took over 5 years off. My current jiu-jitsu journey began when I was 44 and I’m now a few months shy of 50. As I’m often the oldest guy on the mats when training by more than a decade I consider myself to be somewhat of an authority of on the topic of “being an older grappler”.  In all this time training as an older grappler I have managed to avoid catastrophic injury and have limited my minor injuries to ones that have kept me off the mats for a few days at most. While I’m sure that this is due in part to good fortune, I don’t think that luck alone explains it. I have intentionally taken specific steps to help me train consistently and remain injury free. Here are the ones that I think are most significant.

From left to right: Joe Thomas 49, Ruben Gonzalez 53, Fernando San Miguel 47

From left to right: Joe Thomas 49, Ruben Gonzalez 53, Fernando San Miguel 47

I have developed a relationship of trust with my coaches. They know if I am opting out of a drill or a roll it is in an attempt to preserve my body and not because I am lazy or slacking. If I can’t participate in a drill I’ll usually find something else to do e.g. if I can’t do double leg shots the length of the floor because my knees hurt I’ll find a spot to do some crunches or pushups. If I can’t participate in a drill I’ll ask the coach if there is an “old man” variation. Maybe most importantly I always keep my coaches aware of my current physical condition.

I have also developed a relationship with my training partners based on respect and a mutual desire to see each other progress in our jiu-jitsu journeys. I train with some really tough young guys that could send me home battered and beaten after every class but choose not to. We haven’t gotten to this point just by chance. I have worked hard at it. I often times start a roll by asking my training partners what they’ve been working on lately. If they say “spider guard” and then pull guard I will let them get a sleeve grip and stand up and let them get a foot on my bicep. This kind of cooperative training lets them know I am not there to fight, I am there to train. I have found that if I go to class with a genuine desire to see my training partners progress in their journey the sentiment will be returned.

I tap all the time….early and often as the saying goes. Not only do I tap to any and all legitimate submissions, I also tap to anything that might jeopardize my ability to train the next day. Sometimes a new person will try an Americana from inside the guard. While it’s not a legitimate submission, I have bad shoulders, and a strong young aggressive guy can make my shoulder sore for a week. I’m having none of that, I’ll just tap. A choke that’s a neck crank? A gi choke across my face? I’m having none of that either, tap, tap, tap.


Joe Thomas with his coach Fernando Halfield 25 year old BTT black belt.

I don’t hurt myself. I understand the mechanics of a flying arm bar. Sometimes I feel nimble enough I think I could pull one off. I will NEVER attempt a flying arm bar. I don’t try to explode or scramble my way out of submissions that are ¾ sunk in. If they’re that deep sudden and spastic movements are too risky from my point of view. Additionally, I feel any techniques I employee, my training partners should feel free to use as well. So I don’t jump guard or attempt judo throws when training as if I’m on the receiving end of these techniques and they go wrong I could be off the mats.

In conclusion, I know how old I am and I embrace my role as an elder statesman in the gym.  This has as much to do with enjoying the journey as it does with staying injury free. Not trying to keep up with the young guys will help keep you injury free, but it’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re a purple belt getting tapped by blue belts all night long and young phenoms come in the gym and give you a run for your money six months after they start bjj. You have to find your niche and embrace it.

DISCLAIMER: I’ve taken to writing articles/essays/compiled lists…. (whatever you want to call them)… as a way to organize my thoughts and share them with others. I’m not claiming or attempting to present completely new or original ideas – I’m taking known ideas, concepts, principles, and articulating how I’ve incorporated them into my life and training.

By Joe Thomas Find more articles by Joe Thomas here