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A guide to growing up on the mats for parents and kids according to Guilherme Mendes

AOJ kids team. Photo: Nick the Tooth
AOJ team. Photo: Nick the Tooth

Guilherme Mendes grew up on the mat with his younger brother Rafael Mendes. The duo came from humble beginnings and now have four black belt world titles each and a booming academy near the coast in beautiful Southern California full of students following their own paths to success.

Gui as a white belt (left) and Rafa (right). Photo: Instagram @mendesbros
Gui as a white belt (left) and Rafa (right). Photo: Instagram @mendesbros

Now that Gui’s journey has come full circle, he can talk about the experience as a kid growing up on the mats as well as nurturing those who are growing up on his. If you’re a parent who wants to know more about putting your child into Jiu-Jitsu or you’re a kid who wants to know what to expect, this is an in-depth look at what makes Jiu-Jitsu special. It’s not like your average little league or piano lesson or ballet class. It is all those rolled into one with many opportunities for growth both physically and mentally.

Check out what Gui knows about being young in Jiu-Jitsu, how to approach competition for a child and what to expect along the journey:

GRACIEMAG: A lot of parents put their kids in sports at a young age and push for their success for many reasons, one being that they’ll earn a college scholarship. Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t promote this type of incentive. Do you think parents should professionalize their child’s Jiu-Jitsu career at an early age through competition, promotion and brand marketing? If so, do you believe this is the way to have a successful career in Jiu-Jitsu?

GUILHERME MENDES: I came from a culture where parents are less involved with their kid’s activities. When I started Jiu-Jitsu I was 12 years old and I was living with my mom and brother. She was working all day to bring food to our table, so there was no time for her to worry about our activities and if we were winning or losing in practice. I do remember many times at home where she would tell us to always give our best and believe in our dreams. That’s what I believe is the best thing to do; support but not push.

Motivation comes from inside, motivation comes from loving what you are doing and having a huge desire to do it better and more often. I appreciate when the parents drive a long distance to bring their kids to train at the best school, or when they go to the tournaments and hug their child after the fight even if it is a loss. Support makes you feel loved. Pressure makes you feel desperate.

I think everything in life has its own time. Kids should focus on learning, just like school. It’s all about building their character for the future, gaining confidence and self-control, and learning about brotherhood and respect. This is what is going to make them succeed in the future, even if they choose a different path.

What is a successful career in Jiu-Jitsu? How is it defined?

There is a quote from John Wooden that explains success just like I see it:

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Rafa Mendes (left) with brother Gui.
Rafa Mendes (left) with brother Gui.

For me success is self-satisfaction and it’s something really personal, we can’t compare. You are the only person in the world that is able to know how far in life you can go, and we all have different limitations. Maybe the things that I have achieved so far would be a success to a lot of people. It is huge for me, but it is not my final vision of success yet. I still feel that I can go further, and that’s what is amazing about life; once you achieve your goals, you can set up higher standards for yourself and work to go further.

How many of your students are full-time athletes? How many are not so serious and just like to learn and not compete?

We have a small group that are full time competitors. They are the students that have the desire to become champions in the sport and are doing what it takes to achieve it.

At AOJ we have 12 classes a day and we have the right program for all different goals in the sport. It’s something that we have worked really hard to build, and that’s one of the aspects that makes AOJ so special. Kids, teens, women, competitors, beginners; they all have their space here and they all can have a great time on the mat. Today we have about 700 students at our academy and it is the result of great team work. We have the most amazing team of staff and coaches that makes AOJ the Disneyland of Jiu-Jitsu. We are always moving forward, with new projects and trying to make everything better and special.

Some say that there is no possible way to predict how well a kid will do in a sport in the future because of puberty and other factors while growing up. Do you think this applies to Jiu-Jitsu as well?

It depends on their vision. Some of them are already mature enough to know what they really want. They are not training because their parents want them to train, they train because that’s what they like to do.

I believe that once they fall in love with the sport, they wont quit. Their lives will be molded to have the sport as a part of it.

4_GB72_StampSiteThe ones that will eventually stop training will have learned something from the classes and will be more prepared for the future. I do not see Jiu-Jitsu class as a self-defense class; I see it as a strong tool to build character for the child to become a strong human being.
You do not need to fight people in school or on the street if you are confident enough to avoid this kind of situation. Bullies are unconfident people trying to prove something.

In Jiu Jitsu we need to achieve self-control. That’s why I really like competitions because there you can face your fears, overcome them, and achieve confidence in your abilities. Its not about winning a fight, its about transforming your personality. It’s amazing when we see a kid coming to train and they are afraid of losing, scared of other people and not confident, and after a few months they start to change. They are confident, their posture is better, the way they talk is different, they learn social skills that will be with them forever. It’s not about creating a beast, it’s about transforming a scared child into a confident human being.

What do you say to a parent who is afraid their child may be injured?

Do you know that quote: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for”?

That’s how I see it. Injuries can happen anywhere and anytime, you can get hurt walking down the street, but it will not stop you from walking. Right?

How do you feel about the “participation medal” for kids meaning that every kid is recognized for simply attending a competition? Everyone shares part of the glory of winning.

I believe it is good for kids under 6 years old, because most of the time they are going to the competition for their parents, not because they really want to do it. I think it will motivate them to keep doing tournaments. The participation medal is for their courage for stepping on the mat at such a young age. When they are 6 years old, they need to start learning that sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. It’s not only about Jiu-Jitsu as it applies to everything in life, and just like I tell the adults: at the end of the day it will not change anything; people that love and support you will be by your side regardless of the outcome.

Kids class at AOJ. Photo: Nick the Tooth
Kids class at AOJ. Photo: Nick the Tooth

Learn more about Art of Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Costa Mesa, CA at www.artofjiujitsu.com

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