Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Some Things Just Work Out Perfectly

I knew a guy once, good friend of mine, who had a baby boy. Within days of his son being born, he insisted that his son was going to be a baseball player. No question about it — “it was written,” as Slumdog Millionaire might say. He was gonna. Be. A baseball player.

I never could grasp this, not even a little bit. Not baseball per se (hey I played, it’s a cool game), but having such specific expectations for any particular kid on what they’re supposed to like and be good at. I mean, we want them all to be happy, independent, compassionate, self-confident, preferably intelligent, and all that stuff. But the specific stuff, I never got. Why the hell do you care what your kid grows up to enjoy doing, so long as it’s not like, torturing animals, torching cars, cooking meth, etc.?

I just wanted mine to find something they liked doing that’d keep their bodies healthy, let them be part of a team, and bring them some joy. As a secondary benefit, I was crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t be one of those activities that happens to require a shitload of expensive equipment and private lessons.

But man — with apologies to 80% of the parents and kids out there who are big fans — I was really hoping it wouldn’t be soccer. I played soccer as a kid and really enjoyed it, but that was in the 1980s, when it was still something of a niche interest and not the seemingly Moral Imperative it is today, to put your kid on a soccer team.

But now, even in BFE where I live, parking at a soccer field on a Saturday morning is worse than going to a pro sports event. And in my particular corner of BFE, the weather is still frequently cold, rainy, snowy, windy and generally miserable in both the fall and the spring seasons.

But most of all, I can’t stand the inevitable Screaming Nazi Soccer Parents who think that the louder they scream criticism or just plain bad coaching advice from the sidelines, the better their kids will play. It is baffling to me the number of parents who don’t understand the difference between shouting encouragement (always a wonderful thing to do!) vs. shouting specific instructions (rarely advisable since they have a coach doing that in one ear already — let’s see how you do your job at work Monday with two people shouting conflicting sets of instructions in each ear) vs. shouting withering criticism (if you have to be told not to do this to your own or other people’s children, please stop reading this right now and schedule a vasectomy/tubal ligation.).

Yes, I realize there is some degree of this in all youth sports, but I do think soccer owns the top spot due to numbers alone. And I’m too old and grouchy to not be bitchy and taunt the other parents about it, which means that if I had to do soccer every weekend with three kids, I’d eventually end up in a fistfight with some other dad, end up in jail, lose custody of the kids, and thus do far more harm to the children’s upbringing than the benefits of soccer would convey.

So anyway, when Mia and Ezra were old enough, they both played soccer and both had a lot of natural talent. But thanks to luck or Divine Intervention, they were pretty lukewarm about it. Very meh. And of course, when they didn’t want to continue, I was overjoyed. I’m too pretty for jail.

So, what next? Mia had danced for several years and ended up drifting away from that also. Ezra and Lorenzo had tried youth wrestling, but burned out quickly. They’d even gone to a kids’ martial arts class a few years back and ended up recoiling from that in a hurry due to all the barking and yelling of the sensei. They boxed for about a year when they were younger as well, but it too didn’t stick.

Their mom was suggesting ice hockey, but that was a train wreck waiting to happen since my kids cannot ice skate. “Well yeah, but they’ll learn,” she said. True, but I’m guessing that on a team full of at least minimally competent ice hockey players, the kid who still can’t actually ice skate — let alone twist, turn, stop on a dime, change directions, etc. — is not going to see five seconds of playing time. And really, if he’s not gonna actually play hockey, we might as well not put him on a hockey team. Might as well just take ice skating lessons.

But after watching a pay-per-view UFC event one day, I had a thought that hey — maybe they’d dig Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It seemed entirely too good to be true that the thing my kids would fall in love with would be:

  1. A lifetime sport that they could continue to practice and progress with for their entire lives;
  2. The single best discipline on Earth for preventing sexual and any other kind of (but especially sexual) assaults;
  3. Save for a gi, something that requires literally no equipment other than your own body to do.
A rare shot of all 3. Renzo in the foreground, Ezra behind him and Mia behind them, facing us.

But I figured I’d give it a shot anyway. And because I really, really wanted it to work out, I decided to sweeten the pot with them by signing up for classes myself and billing it as “something we’ll all do together, as a family.”

I wasn’t lying about that, but I was nervous about it. I’m still physically strong at 43 but my joints, ligaments, connective issue and all that — really sucks. I had bone chips removed from my elbow at 28. I tore my ACL at 29. I’ve had a recurrent herniated disk in my back for at least a decade that flares up at regular intervals. I’ve had arthritis since as long as I can remember. And with this background I was signing up for the martial art where even young, strapping, healthy arms and shoulders are frequently wrenched to the point of say-uncle agony, necks and spines are cranked, biceps and calves are “sliced,” etc.

I pitched it to the kids and, surprisingly, they were on board with giving it a shot. We went and watched a class at Black Hills Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where I was referred by a friend. This time around, there was no barking and yelling at the kids, just an extremely talented martial artist (the owner, Jeremy Schunneman) making things fun for the kids while simultaneously teaching them how to do some very nasty and painful things to would-be attackers.

My three were down, man. Right away. Chomping to get in on the action. So we all signed up.

I went into class more or less expecting I would get hurt. I told Jeremy right away: I’m here for my kids, to hopefully get them into this. I’ll probably get hurt, but I don’t care, I’ve been hurt before. If I gotta come in here and get injured a couple times a year to keep them loving jiu-jitsu, that’s still a long-term win for me.

Well, my body did not let me down. And by that, I mean it did let me down. I lasted about six weeks before tearing the connective tissue between the tendons on my index and middle fingers — a condition called “boxer’s knuckle” — when grabbing my training partner’s belt one day.

Fortunately, though — my kids loved BJJ from the get-go and never looked back, regardless of whether their old man was showing up to adult classes anymore. I made it back a few times after my hand healed, but I never could show up regularly. Scheduling conflicts with classes, my work schedule and my child-rearing schedule stymied my ability to be anywhere at all with any regularity. Then I was working overnight shifts. Etc. In other words, life happened and I haven’t been back in a while.

But it’s been exactly one year this week that my kids have been in BJJ, and they’ve never been more in love with any activity (athletic or otherwise) than they are with jiu-jitsu. They’re all four-stripe white belts (stripes are incremental promotions, so they’ve all been promoted four times), and are all pretty talented in their own ways.

Mia and Ezra have both drastically improved their physical condition during this year, solely from jiu-jitsu and the healthy habits it encourages. They’ve all fought in tournaments, and even when they lose, they’re still happy they competed. They’re still on a team (the competition team) but they get the challenge of facing others knowing they and they alone are responsible for the results. They’ve met and trained with high-level, world-renowned black belts — all in the first year. Lorenzo — well, he was a pretty ripped little stallion to begin with, but thanks to BJJ, he’s still one of those.

Much of this is due to jiu-jitsu itself, but it wouldn’t have happened without Jeremy and all the other amazing instructors at this place who are incredibly good with the kids (that makes as much difference as the jiu-jitsu itself, if not more).

If you’re like me, you probably spend a disproportionate amount of your headspace lamenting the things that go wrong, rather than being grateful for the things that go right! For my family, there’s no bigger and better example of something gone entirely right than our decision to join the jiu-jitsu family at BHBJJ.

And no ice skates or soccer balls required!!

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