Fourteen-year-old Zak Kaufman has been doing Jiu Jitsu since he was five years old. He and his father Eric got their start in an academy in Phoenix, AZ, and it has been their shared activity of choice for the last nine years. When they moved to Colorado six years ago, they began training at Easton in Boulder, and have been regulars at the academy ever since.
Zak is an up-and-comer in the Boulder teens’ program, and at 5’11” and 150 lbs, he’s beginning to give many of the adult students a run for their money. He often trains seven days a week, hitting the Advanced adults’ class most weeknights, Teens on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Randori Friday through Sunday. He finds that he learns more of the finer points of technique and competition rules in Teens class with Professor Mike, but also loves the dynamic, varied nature of rolling with adults. Zak says he’s seen a dramatic progression in his training over the last six months, and he attributes this improvement to reaching a turning point in his Jiu Jitsu, where he feels more confident in his game than he has in the past.
Zak’s biggest influence on the mat has always been his dad, Eric. When they first moved to Colorado, Zak went through a difficult period of adjustment. He describes himself at that stage as unathletic and on the heavier side, and says he was going through a period where he wasn’t really comfortable in himself. There were days when he simply didn’t want to come to class, and even times when he wanted to quit, but Eric kept pushing him to continue. As the years progressed, this consistency has paid off a thousandfold, and Zak now gets great satisfaction from being able to train with Eric in earnest. “He can go hard and I can go hard–It’s fun now. When he’s here he’s always giving me pointers when I’m rolling with other people, about where I should be in this position. We’ll go home and play around, and it’ll lead to him showing me stuff.”
After nine years of learning, Zak is quick to point out that improving in Jiu Jitsu is all about putting in the time. He says, “Jiu Jitsu is great because you have to work at it. If you come in expecting to go an hour or two a week, you’re not going to be better.” He jokes that if you’re really consistent, you’ll get better whether you want to or not. His consistency has also been beneficial off the mat. Zak is currently in his freshman year of high school, and says that through this transition, it’s been nice to have the stability of Easton. He says, “It’s regular, routine, already implemented into my lifestyle. The people, the mats, the gi, the rolling–it’s implemented into Zak Kaufman.” This kind of certainty can be empowering at a time when so many other aspects of life are changing.
Jiu Jitsu has given Zak emotional coping mechanisms that are far beyond what kids his age are usually capable of. As a result of his training, Zak says, “I’m way happier. The way I perceive negative versus positive has changed. I’m looking on the brighter side. I know that sounds cheesy, but coming here makes you so much tougher…When you get choked out a bunch by someone, you build mental strength alongside the physical.” It’s easy to see how the balance and perspective developed by training are valuable assets not only for teens, but people of every age and walk of life.
When Zak isn’t rolling, he’s usually coaching. As an assistant coach in Easton’s Tigers Jiu Jitsu program, he helps teach Jiu Jitsu techniques to kids as young as four. He likes helping his students to develop their own style and game. He’s taken a particular interest in mentoring students who are just slightly younger than himself, saying that middle schoolers are often at a crucial turning point in their training:
“It’s cool because I was just there. I want to get these kids to the point where they’re as comfortable as I am, and can pass on their knowledge. It’s a motivation thing at that stage. If I didn’t have my dad, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I want to give these kids someone who can help them focus. Since I was just at that point, I’m the person who knows what it’s like, and what they’re going through. I want the kids to feel comfortable with me, where they can ask me for tips and help.”
His advice to other students? “Put time in. If you’re motivated to do Jiu Jitsu and want to be good, make the time for it. Make a schedule. I know the class schedule by heart. I like to come in, like to put my time in. And remember, all the people here who are good didn’t just walk in and immediately do well.” In this world, success is earned, not granted.