On the way out of the gym last night, one of my jiu-jitsu friends and training partners quietly pulled me aside to inform me that I likely wouldn’t see him much anymore as he was no longer going to train. He is a brown belt on the cusp of being promoted to black.
It had nothing to do with financial reasons. He just no longer espoused the same passion for training. While he appreciated his journey, he now lacked the same satisfaction he once had. Training had become “chore-like” rather than liberating as it was in the past.
His words haunted me. I wanted to believe what he was telling me, yet I doubted its authenticity. The unspoken backstory is that he recently dealt with personal struggles that would cripple most people with astonishing grace and poise.
But it was clear that a manifestation of this struggle separated him from one of his life’s mainstays. Jiu-jitsu had been his passion and soul. He never chased a belt or wanted recognition. Instead, the principles of learning and growth fueled him. He would ask our coaches questions people never considered and then translate what he learned into beautiful transitions on the mat.
That entire night, his revelation circled in my mind leaving me with the question, “Under what circumstances is it okay to walk away from jiu-jitsu?” I pondered what it would take for me to leave.
I have been training on and off since 2007. At 48, I am certainly no youngster in this sport. The constant pain running from my neck to my feet wouldn’t mind a reprieve. But could I just leave the sport that has provided me so much fulfillment? After much reflection, I realized that it would depend on the stripped-down, actual reason I was leaving.
We all know there is a myriad of explanations for why we start training. Catalysts to jumpstart us range from obesity, physical intimidation, love, hate, anxiety, despair, athleticism, etc. All of these historically have springboarded people into the doors. But when you reach a higher belt, what would it take to push you out? Is there something now that would stop you in your tracks and change your jiu-jitsu trajectory?
We can all agree, 2020 was a terrible year. Many gyms closed due to the struggles they faced with Coronavirus. Many people left because their gyms couldn’t sustain them.
2021 hasn’t been much better. But unfortunately, with the virus came another enemy, and it is more deceptive, damaging, and powerful than any of our previous adversaries.
2021 has been freely dispensing crippling mental health battles. These bouts of mental anguish are the likes of which some of us have never before faced. Simply said, the amount of people in America with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed. These have been compounded by “social distancing,” masks, employment issues, and death, and jiu-jitsu practitioners have not been spared. Mental health issues are real, and they carry with them serious ramifications.
For me, BJJ has been my mental health salvation. It has been one of the few things that kept me motivated through the pandemic. My job is stressful, and I routinely dread its daily grind. But what kept me motivated was knowing that at the end of each workday, I could train.
When you walk into the gym, no one asks you a work-related question. Talk of timelines, reports, and budgets are mute within the walls. The only thing that matters (other than taking off your shoes) is your heart and mind. If you are a good training partner, wash your gi, and try hard – you are accepted. That is it, easy rules.
Regardless of where you travel and train, every gym has the same motifs. The locker room will always have one teammate playfully teasing another. Someone is always too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too muscular, too many tattoos, no hair, too much hair, or they smell.
These jokes follow regardless of where you travel to train. When you get on the mats, there will be the guy with all the old gi, the pressed gi, the torn gi, the fancy gi, or the mismatched top (blue) and bottom (white) gi. There will be nicknames, Big Boss, Spider, Monkey, Twister, Beast, Monster, etc. These are the constants that make the gym a home and comfortable.
So the idea that this place of harmony is no longer fun is hard for me to imagine. Training with my good friends won’t ever be a chore but a privilege. Reflecting on these things no longer offering enjoyment to my friend weighed down my heart. They are my light at the end of the tunnel, and turning it off would have disastrous effects, especially in a time of emotional distress. But this isn’t about me. It is about the people we train with, who need us to be there for them and let them know that even if they want to walk away – temporarily – we will be there for them when they are ready to come back.
My personal conclusion is that it is never really “okay” to walk away from the sport. But everyone must wrestle with their own decisions and on their terms. Injury and physical limitations are specific reasons that lead to an understandable departure. The blue belt disappearing act – while questionable – is also a relatively acceptable known reason for walking away. And let’s face it, some people just aren’t tough enough to hack it. It is a personal decision. I will likely “walk away” from it when I am wheeled away (which may not be that much longer at this rate!).
I hope that everyone takes a moment to check on their teammates. If someone decides to stop training, try to find out why. I won’t easily allow my friend to stop training. I will call him, bother him, or bring a mat to his house before I allow him to walk away. Jiu-jitsu needs him, and he needs jiu-jitsu. We should all take comfort in knowing that there are times in our lives when it is okay not to be okay. Regardless of the gym, you belong to, know this: your teammates love you, want you there, and don’t want you to walk away.
Former Division I Wrestler, Black Belt, and Attorney at Law