The Older BJJ Athlete Part 1: Inspiration
Dr Alan Cheung is a BJJ Practitioner and Orthopaedic and Sports Surgeon based in Singapore and Shanghai. Follow him on Instagram: @dralancheung or check out his consultancy http://alancheungortho.com.sg
Age is no barrier to success in martial arts. At the recent One Championship Reign of Kings event in Manila, Renzo Gracie, MMA legend and 2x ADCC World Champion, rolled back the years against the King of Pancrase, Yuki Kondo. Renzo achieved victory at the tender age of 51, via rear naked choke.
Most of us will not reach the skill level or achievements of the aforementioned warriors, but we still want to enjoy BJJ for the rest of our lives. As an Orthopaedic Surgeon who took up the sport in his late 30’s, I think about coping with the effects of age on training and recovery all the time.
In my gym (Evolve MMA Singapore) there are a particular group of athletes, male and female, who seem to be able to train at high intensity and skill level every day. What makes these athletes special is that they are at least 20 years older than the average student. If you look closely in your gym, you may find one of these athletes, and if you are lucky enough they may share their secrets with you.
One such athlete in my gym is Richard Wee aka ‘Paparich’, BJJ Brownbelt, aged 65 yet brimming with energy and humour.
Q: So please tell us about yourself Paparich:
A: I was an MD of a Consultancy Firm and retired 10 years ago at the age of 55. I had never tried martial arts before and I was looking for something different and to keep fit. Evolve MMA had just opened and I joined with my daughter. When she left I kept going! I started with Muay Thai, then switched to BJJ for the self defense aspect.
Q: What are the hardest challenges you have faced on your BJJ Journey?
A: The hardest thing to do was to address my ego. I have managed top companies and done business deals at the highest level across Asia, yet I could not even perform a front roll in the beginning. When learning new techniques, I wanted to prove that I was better, quicker and stronger than others. I was too aggressive and initially I used to injure myself because of my pride. Eventually I began to accept that I had to take things slow and one step at a time.
Q: At the age of 65 how have you dealt with younger, stronger and aggressive training partners?
A: As a white belt you feel that everyone views you as ‘fresh meat’! The first challenge as a beginner is to learn to defend. Because of my ego, I couldn’t accept this at first and used to finish my sessions
exhausted and totally spent. With time I learned to accept being submitted and to tap. Even if I was being submitted by a purple or white belt, it was perfectly fine and just a learning experience.
Q: You train every day. How do you rest and recover?
A: When I train, I try not to train past the level of fatigue or breaking point. I train to the edge of this where I can still train well the next day (everyone must learn their own particular ‘painpoint’). My objective every single day is that I want to be able to train hard, and push myself as much as possible, but then I want to come back and train tomorrow. One thing I have learned is that if I condition myself beyond BJJ, and I do lots of kettlebells, chin ups, TRX, running, skipping, I find that my fitness and endurance levels are improved and I can do another class.
Q: What is your training routine?
A: Every morning (0645) I attend a BJJ class. Then in the late morning I will do my own fitness conditioning with the exercises above. Then in the evening I have a more relaxing routine which involves helping children in a fitness program called Fun fit. (PapaRich is a volunteer for a community outreach program which involves fitness activities for special needs children). The keyword to use is ‘Activerest’. If you train hard without conditioning and ‘activerest’ then you will easily become fatigued.
Q: Do you have a special diet?
A: My diet is very important. I try not to eat unhealthy foods that will destroy my conditioning. I eat a lot of fruits and fish, and take LOTS of water. Just keep on drinking water (Singapore is very humid). Being well hydrated helps with lactic acid removal and makes you feel refreshed and ready for the next round. I don’t take any extra vitamins or supplements, except for glucosamine prescribed by my doctor for my knee joints.
Q: How do you avoid injury?
A: Before and after class I do a lot of stretching. I feels this helps to avoid sudden unexpected expansion and contraction of muscles and reduces risk of injury. If I have an area which is injured or feels sore, I just tell my training partners to go easy on it. I avoid putting too much pressure on the injured part, and by concentrating on using the other side that can provide a different emphasis and challenge to training.
Q: If you could go back in time and advise yourself as a younger person, what would you tell yourself to do differently?
A: I really wish I had started younger. Right now at my age, there are certain techniques I find difficult to do because of stiffness. I would also start Yoga classes young, to improve my flexibility and range of movement.
Q: Thanks for the great tips. Do you have any other insights you would like to share?
A: In reality in BJJ, number one you must check your ego, leave it at the door. Number two you need training partners you are comfortable with. When I say comfortable, that doesn’t mean they don’t train hard with you and don’t put pressure on you. It means that they are not going all out to prove that they can break your arms! So you need training partners who can help you through the journey. Constructive and not destructive. To me if you have no ego, good training partners and keep training, you will do well. Most of the time when I train with younger newer partners, their major problem is one of ‘I want to learn fast’. Eventually when they learn to overcome their pride, they cool down and learn much faster.
We all have our own reasons for starting BJJ. We are at different ages, skill and fitness levels, and stages in our lives. Therefore we shouldn’t compare our progress to others, but to ourselves. To me, athletes that overcome obstacles such as age, are an inspiration. In the next of this 3 part series on the older BJJ athlete, I will discuss the effects of age on physiology.
Renzo Gracie and Yuki Kondo images courtesy of One Championship.