Originally published in the Family Law Section Commentator, Fall 2021
One Attorney’s Jiu Jitsu Journey – Act I – Initiation
by Eddie Stephens
I am not sure if it was the fact that I was six months away from reaching the age of 50 and the obligatory “mid-life crisis,” or the lack of human contact with others caused by the pandemic, but in April 2021 I was ready for a change.
I was thirsting for something that would pull me out of my comfort zone. Something that would challenge me mentally and physically.
Since high school, with the exception of some killer ultimate-frisbee tournaments, I have managed to avoid vigorous exercise. I always envied others that were naturally athletic. People who can run a marathon or shoot a ball through a hoop always impressed me.
Over the years, I have learned that hard workouts were not fun for me, and something I systematically avoided at all costs. I practice Yoga, but that was more to remain flexible, stretch and calm my mind, as opposed to a traditional “power workout.”
Knowing I wanted to find something that would challenge me in ways that I have never been challenged before, and all while taking into account my detest for the intensity of a traditional workout—I began my quest. I sought something that would make me vulnerable and totally surrender to a new experience.
The answer to this existential reckoning? JIU JITSU.
I found a highly regarded training facility nearby and decided the weekday 6:00 am technique class would be a good fit in my life.
I went to check it out. Seemed fun, but definitely hard. People were nice and welcoming. But they all seemed to be at a much higher and more skilled level in their Jiu Jitsu journey than a newbie, such as myself. Everyone in the class was definitely much more fit and decked out in “appropriate” attire.
I decided if I really wanted to be pulled out of my comfort zone (or in this case, perhaps violently pulled) and determine if Jiu Jitsu would be the vigorous exercise I was hoping I could tolerate, I would have to give it my all for a month. But before I signed up, a question had to be answered.
Why would a perfectly healthy, 49 ½-year-old divorce attorney who has never participated in combat sports, suddenly have the urge to pick up Jiu Jitsu, and work out every day before the sun rises?
This was the question posed to me by my wife as I was explaining this journey I wanted to embark on. First, let me clarify, that this is a perfectly valid question. Second, it is a question that deserves a meaningful response. So, as any good litigator would, I laid out my case to her (and probably myself, too).
Great Workout: Jiu Jitsu incorporates every part of your body. From the warmups to the continued movement throughout the classes, you will expand and contract muscles you did not even know existed. I am in what I consider to be pretty good shape; unfortunately for me, it is the shape of an eggplant. Since my training began, I am in a constant state of soreness. But now, that soreness feels kind of good, like wiggling a loose tooth. I can already see my body changing and taking a different shape. I feel stronger, but still sore.
New Experience: Have you ever seen the meme that says, “be brave enough to suck at something new.” Believe me, I excel in this department. I have willingly immersed myself in a world I do not quite understand. Not only are there physical moves that are totally foreign to me, but there is also a new vocabulary I am learning. Terms like butterfly hooks, rubber guard, standing take downs, the electric chair, and don’t forget the dreaded cobra choke. None of these words made any sense to me. After six months, the moves and vocabulary are no longer foreign and starting to make sense.
New People: Showing up to a training facility, totally ignorant of everything in that system, while trying to connect, or “plug into” that system, is a daunting task to say the least. All the pieces are already in motion, and I feel that I will only mess things up. My presence and lack of knowledge of anything useful in this practice will only interfere with the experience of others. Am I going to be “that guy,” the guy who makes the system stall? These were all the anxieties that were floating though my head before my first workout.
However, the reality was much different. My coach and teammates have been nothing but patient and generous with me. Every person I practice or “roll” with, respects my skill level and usually teaches me something. Now I genuinely look forward to these 6:00 a.m. workouts, almost like meeting friends at happy hour. Most people are way above my skill level and half my age, but that is part of my learning curve.
Comfort Zone: I am pretty comfortable with my routines. Routines of school, work, socializing, and family time. There is safety in the comfort of doing what we do and knowing what we know. What happens when you start something new as an adult, when it is almost guaranteed you will struggle for a certain amount of time before you start getting better? The struggle can be painful. But the personal growth from overcoming a challenge is very rewarding and can open your eyes to other opportunities in life that will help you reach your fullest potential.
Stress: Practicing family law is stressful. Stress can cause many physical and mental health issues. Training in Jiu Jitsu causes many chemical reactions in the body that help me relieve stress and feel more satisfied and positive about my work and life.
Humility: Through the process of training and sparring, I have been humbled and have felt quite inadequate. Yet, at the same time, my coaches and training partners who have gone through the same experiences, are helping me learn in a very patient manner. There have been times during sparring where I have been caught in a submission and my partner could tighten the hold, but does not do so in order to protect me, and instead teaches me how to escape the position. These experiences along my journey are teaching me practical human lessons like being kind, humble, patient, empathetic, and nurturing that I can apply to other aspects of my life. No matter what, there is always someone better than you.
Cool Rash Guards: Don’t know what a rash guard is? That’s okay, neither did I. But now I can proudly say I have expanded my wardrobe—and at least look the part.
Strategic Positioning: Jiu Jitsu is very much like the game of chess, but with physical consequences. It requires you to think several “moves” ahead of your opponent, while at the same time remaining flexible and intuitive enough to react to your opponent. These skills are similar to those needed to be a great litigator (sans the leg locks and choke holds, of course). In court, you have to be ready for anything. You have to be several steps ahead of your opposing counsel. If you are reading from a script, instead of reacting to what is happening around you, you will not be successful. I have learned that Jiu Jitsu exercises the same mental muscles as practicing law, and helps you visualize your strategy.
Where am I going with this? I am still pondering this question. Usually when I start a task, I like to set objective measurable goals to test my progress. I am not seeking a higher belt. I guess I could compete once I reach a certain level of competency, but that is not really on my bucket list.
In this case, I think the answer is simple—I enjoy it! I truly enjoy participating, listening and learning the lessons that are being offered. When it becomes a little uncomfortable, I push through it and expand my comfort zone.
My dislike for vigorous workouts is softening. Now that I am releasing endorphins on a regular basis, not only has this intense level of exercise become tolerable, but it has actually been enjoyable. I know, I know—I am eating my words.
So, where will this Jiu Jitsu journey lead me? That is still yet to be seen. If part two of this article ever makes it to press, then perhaps you will have the answer.
But please keep this in mind, if I can begin a combat sport with absolutely no experience whatsoever at my age (and actually enjoy it) I hope that will give you the motivation to seek out something new that speaks to you and pushes you outside of your own personal comfort zone.
It does not have to be Jiu Jitsu, but something you have always wanted to do and have not gotten around to yet. As a good friend reminds me “you can’t steer a parked car, so let’s get moving.”
Eddie Stephens is a Board Certified Marital & Family Attorney and is an equity partner with the West Palm Beach law firm Ward Damon and the Director of Legal Education for the Center for Child Counseling, Inc. Eddie is a Jiu Jitsu white belt and is trained by Ryan Conforti, Rogue Wave Martial Arts – West Palm Beach.