Editors Note: Judo is just one Martial Art that can be practiced well into the late ages. You could just as easily replace the term Judo with BJJ, Wing Chung, Tai Chi or even Krav Maga. When Reading this article do not fixate on the fact it is originally talking about Judo but that it is possible to practice many martial arts well into your later years.
The other day I became aware of a YouTube video titled “Judo after 40”. It’s a 10-minute long video that captures the thoughts of the head instructor of the Kamloops Judo Club, who is a 7th-degree black belt, along with one of Canada’s top female judokas who just turned 40. They were discussing how it’s possible to continue practicing judo well into your 70s, 80s, and 90s, as long as you make some adjustments along the way to compensate for the changes in your body as you age.
What caught my attention is that they used the age of 40 to delineate the age at which people would traditionally determine is the difference between being “strong and healthy” and “over the hill”. Personally, I would rather not have any delineation be made, especially regarding age, and instead talk about how you need to make adjustments to your training as you age, regardless of whether or not you’re still competing. I’m not sure about other martial arts and their competitions, but in judo, you can continue to compete as long as your body allows you. Judokas in their 50s can still compete in randori (sparring) in tournaments and if that’s too hard on their body, they can compete in kata (forms), well into their 60s and older.
Watching the video prompted me to think about what I would tell someone who asked me if they could still take up judo as an adult and progress to eventually attain a black belt. I would respond “Absolutely”, and would encourage them to do so if that’s what their goal is. From past blogs I’ve written, you may already be aware that I went back into judo after a 30-year break at the age of 51, having stopped when I was 19 at a blue belt level and was graded to a black belt in December 2018 at the age of 55. So yes, it can be done, and trust me, I’m nobody special.
As I went through my journey to get my black belt, many things became apparent to me. As an adult, it’s a very different journey than if you were a teenager. As a youth competitor you’re full of energy, aggression, and drive, so if you compete and ride the wave with your fellow students, you’ll be able to get your black belt before you’re 20. It will also be well-earned and well-deserved because you’ll have been promoted based on your performance at tournaments and how you rank amongst your peers. As an adult, however, it’s a very different experience. You may compete in the odd tournament if you like, but in general, your journey is one of learning more about yourself and you’re also mature enough to know that the only person you’re in competition with is yourself. It becomes a personal challenge to progress because you want to prove to yourself that you can do it.
When I received my black belt and people were offering their congratulations, my usual response was that it took me so long. And then I was surprised at how similar the message was from most people, that it didn’t matter how long it took because the important thing was that I didn’t give up. When I heard that response after the 3rd time it started to sink into my head that persevering and not giving up was what people were noting and respecting and that as a result, I was able to achieve my goal. Nobody cared how long it took except for me. I’ve seen a video of a disabled person who had no legs and he eventually received his black belt in judo. How was this possible? It’s because he demonstrated to everyone that he wouldn’t let his disability be an obstacle in his quest and that he had the grit, the spirit, and the determination to not give up. He exhibited the higher-level character traits that a black belt in judo should have, almost more so than knowing the techniques themselves.
If you’re older like I am, you may remember a TV show from the 70s called “Kung Fu”, where the student Caine had to try and grab a pebble from his master’s hand. Once he was able to, then it was time for him to leave the Shaolin Temple. It’s similar to what it’s like when you know you’re ready for your black belt. In a sense, you don’t care anymore. Yes, you still want it, but because you feel you’re “there” and you’ve earned it, then the formality of the belt being awarded becomes a lower priority. It’s truly the epitome of the journey being more important than the destination.
I used to think that to earn a black belt it meant that you needed to be an expert in all the techniques and that your skill level was very high. Yes, I know more techniques than the lower belts, but that’s not what matters, and I am certainly not an expert in all the techniques. As a black belt in judo, you have a responsibility to ensure that you’re passing on knowledge and direction to the lower belts and to set an example by being humble, gracious, and free of arrogance. If you have the wrong attitude and you don’t personify the traits that a black belt should demonstrate, then you will not be awarded it no matter how strong your technique is. Brown belts with enough points to be graded to black, who do not display the qualities that a black belt should have, will never get it because they don’t have the recommendation or support from their sensei who are looking for these specific traits.
People generally think that achieving a black belt is the end goal, whereas in fact, it’s the point at which you just start learning about judo. Shodan, which is a 1st degree black belt, literally means “beginning degree”. Given that, I look forward to starting to learn what judo is actually all about.