Why I Started Training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Why I’m Sticking With It

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awwwww…look how cute I am before class…all perky and put together and happy

Brazilian jiu jistu is an incredible martial art. It truly is a technical dance of bodies, each trying to get the upper hand over the other. You don’t have to be big and strong and muscular to best your partner. You just need to know what you’re doing, and strength helps. I have only been training a few months, so I may say a ton of things wrong in this post, just deal with me and know I have a lot to learn still.

BJJ students come in all shapes and sizes and from all different backgrounds. I thought it would be helpful to share my story, especially since I may not be the typical BJJ student. If the thought of training BJJ (it really bothers me that people don’t say training IN BJJ…I suppose I’ll get used to it) has never crossed your mind, I suggest you research it a bit and seriously consider it. It does take a special kind of crazy to sweat your butt off, while rolling around on the floor, often with a complete stranger, and enjoy it. But maybe you are that kind of crazy too. Nevertheless, I digress…

My name is Marissa and I am a 35-year-old woman married to an officer in the Navy and a mother of three to an almost 15-year-old (heaven help me) son, an 11-year-old daughter, and four year old daughter. I live in suburban Papillion, Nebraska and I use my master’s in mathematics to teach math classes at a community college part time. My full time job is taking care of my household. My favorite pastimes are knitting, gardening, and remodeling houses (I like to build stuff). And now, I like to roll around on the floor with a partner, trying to submit them by choking them or bending their arms backwards. I also enjoy spending an hour once a week getting thrown to the ground over, and over, and OVER in judo.

Where the heck did that come from???????

My 11-year-old daughter began training Brazilian jiu jitsu last summer. It was time to get her involved in an extra curricular and when she was younger, she didn’t really care for the dance lessons I placed her in so it was back to the drawing board. Inspired by her uncle who is now a BJJ black belt in Denver, she told us she wanted to try BJJ or gymnastics. I went with option A because I thought it would be better to place her in something that could inspire her to be a better person, build her self confidence, and actually be useful in life one day.

Learning self defense is never a bad thing.

So each week I would take her to the one or two classes and I would sit and watch, and usually knit, to pass the time. After several months of this, the owner, “Coach,” started in on me about joining as well. His main argument being, “you’re already here, you may as well join in.” Two other classes meet during the youth times: a Muay Thai class and adult BJJ tech.

I truly was interested in giving it a go. While waiting for my daughter to finish, I would watch the adult class with a great deal of wonder and respect. These adults doing military-ish warm-ups (my elbows are building great calluses from army crawling across the room) and rolling around on the floor with each other. It looked incredibly intense. Though my school is not exploding with female BJJ students, there were enough for me to see I would not be an anomaly joining up. However, BJJ is different than any other athletic activity I have ever tried, and I have tried A LOT of them. It’s an incredibly daunting thing to insert yourself into.

Think of any new activity you’ve ever wanted to try. Joining a yoga class for the first time can be scary (all those gorgeous, long, flexible, woman who look amazing in spandex and can stand upside down, backwards on their heads with no hands, or feet for that matter). Taking a painting class can make you nervous. Trying out a new sports team or gardening club even packs its own set of fears. Adventuring to the great unknown takes courage and bravery and we are often filled with the fear of not measuring up. The fear of sucking. Hard.

Being the new person in a group of people who have been at it for months and years is humbling to say the least. It took my brother-in-law 10 years to earn his BJJ black belt. You can only hope it is a great group and you will be welcomed with open arms. Of course, BJJ really steps up the level of anxiety because these skilled folks in this cool club you are trying to join are going to be choking you out and laying on top of you and at some point you are most definitely going to have your face stuck between their sweaty stinky gi thighs.

Why I Train BJJ - threadedtogether.com

and after class…man, I wish you had smell-o-vision. wait, no I don’t. you’d run the other way. this is a whole new level of smell most women are not use to. holy crap, I’m exhausted in this picture. one hour of bjj tech and my first hour of rolling.

What? I don’t have you jumping out of your seat to go sign up yet? Bear with me here.

I finally agreed to try out a BJJ training day and promised Coach that July would be the month. Of course, life happened, I returned to work, 20 other things were dumped on my plate and I felt lucky to even get my daughter out the door to BJJ come that first week of July.

Oh boy. That did not go over well. I was read the riot act by Coach and as I went down my list of excuses for sitting and knitting on the bench while my child was in class Coach just stood there and said “and…” “and…” “and…”

And he was right. My excuses meant nothing except I was scared, nervous, embarrassed, and maybe a little lazy. He just kept saying, “All you have to do is show up. We’ll take care of the rest.”

My excuses were falling on deaf ears for good reason. He was right – all ll I had to do was show up. Show up I did. Next class I donned a loaner gi and joined the group.

After that, there was no going back. The warm-ups are intense. There is so much to learn from the professor (how you refer to your BJJ teacher/coach/whatever…in judo it is sensei). It’s a drug that quickly invades your system and you realize you need your next fix sooner and sooner.

Three months later I find myself wanting to train more and more each week. After such a short time, I already need my training fix or I just feel off. I’m grumpy and lumpy and my equilibrium is not quite right. My husband will even kick me out to train. I’m a better person the days I BJJ.

I am finally starting to understand the moves I am doing. People are finally talking to me. This post by Valerie Worthington was VERY helpful in understanding the culture behind joining BJJ…no one is going to jump up and down for joy that you are trying it out. Most likely, they are going to wait and see if you are really in it to win it before they open up to you. 

It is beyond normal for me to be the only female in class and I’m okay with that. Men are not the only creatures who could use time to blow off steam grappling at the end of the day. I am learning all sorts of muscles exist in my body I never knew were there. I’m learning to defend myself if I am ever put in the position that I need to do so. I’m becoming part of a group that is teaching me a great deal about true humility, respect, mindfulness, and more.

Now…it hasn’t all been bluebirds and butterflies. I have had to learn/am still learning what it means to be a woman in BJJ. Usually my biggest complaint is some of the men being TOO gentlemanly. I am growing to not hold that against them though. However, I’m not going to get the most out of my training if my partner is going to coddle me because I am a girl. If you are a girl and you feel that way, you’re in the wrong sport. So if a guy tries to catch me a little too much when he is supposed to be throwing me to the floor I am getting better at letting him know to train with me the same way he trains with any other guy my size. Okay, so I may have had an outburst in class last week that I totally regret where I accused my partner of going easy on me because I was a girl…to everyone. Like I said…I’m learning. Part of that is learning how to deal with the things we wish we could change. 

It is sometimes (painfully) obvious that BJJ is a man’s sport. You are basically on your own at first. Most likely, if a woman were in charge, there would be an introductory class where we sit around and introduce ourselves and talk a bit about why we joined BJJ and what we hoped to achieve. Then we would all take turns asking questions and trying the basics so no one feels left out or confused during warm ups. We would maybe even sit in a circle and sing kumbaya. Everything would be explained each class….why we do BJJ, what our goal is, where we came from, where we are going next. Every class. You know, YMCA classes on crack.

Nope.

No one is going to explain anything to you. This made me feel a bit more like a bumbling fool for a while. Rest assured though, these moments of cluelessness will pass after a few days or weeks of training. Eventually, I started to pick up the jargon. After I lined up the wrong way a few times (I was once told “this isn’t jiu jitsu honey” in a judo class) or said something wrong enough, I have started to figure it out. 

I have found it is best to be quiet, observe, and mimic for a while. Don’t be embarrassed not knowing jack crap about what I’m doing. Everyone else in BJJ was once in my exact same position, man or woman. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

And when I say be quiet, that is with the caveat of don’t be afraid to ask questions. The purple and blue belts, in particular, are definitely there to help. They are the ones I turn to when I am the most confused, lost, and just don’t even know what to do (or if no one wants to be my partner and I feel like that’s because I’m the girl in the group).

The best way to break into the BJJ club is to be patient, show you are genuinely interested and that you are going to stick with it. Give it your best each day.

I can’t wait to continue to grow and learn more about BJJ. There is one thing I am finding all BJJ students have in common: they will be the first to admit they still have a ton to learn. I love that. Life is always a learning process. Maybe one day I’ll be sharing with you how I advanced beyond white belt.

Not to mention, my brother-in-law says “after a while, you won’t even notice the aches and pains.” One can only hope.

-Marissa and her daughter are members of team Vaghi at Mid America Martial Arts just outside Omaha, Nebraska. Check MAMA out if ever you’re in town!

6 Responses

  1. Daniel
    | Reply

    I’m very proud and impressed with your approach to this new endeavor. Keep it up!

    • Marissa
      | Reply

      Thanks for always being my biggest fan!

  2. K
    | Reply

    Great article – having been usually the only girl at roll for a while, I can relate, especially to all the questions regarding if they’re taking it easy on me and if anyone will ever pick me on purpose to be a partner. I didn’t necessarily need the explanatory class though it would have been nice to at least have some idea of what was happening. :-) Don’t give up!

    • Marissa
      | Reply

      Thanks for the encouragement! I definitely thought the guys were avoiding me like the plague for a while when it came to choosing a partner, but that has gotten a lot better very recently. Just going to keep trying my best and learning as much as I can to improve and be the best partner I can be!

  3. David
    | Reply

    I also started training BJJ at Mid America Martial Arts about four months ago. I have had the same feelings about people going easy on me, or avoiding me. I am 52 years old and sometimes I think the “young” guys are afraid that I might break a hip or something lol. I also had that moment when I wanted to confront my training partner for going too soft. I just ask them if they would like to go a little harder. That seemed to open things up and now the higher ranks take it easy, for obvious reasons, but everyone else goes close to competition speed. I think it’s all about getting acquainted with each other and how we roll.
    I applaud you for jumping into a male dominated sport and I wish more people would understand that for the most part we leave our egos and the m/f thing at the door. While on the mat I try to learn as much as I can, and when possible educate others.
    I just wanted to let you know that others have the same feelings about being the outsider.
    One last note, when I started it was going to be “just once a week during lunch”. Now, four months later, I’m restless if I don’t train five times a week. It is addictive, have fun on your new martial arts journey.

    • Marissa
      | Reply

      Great perspective David and thanks so much for sharing. I totally agree with everything you said. It’s so interesting to train with the advanced belts because I am incredibly impressed with the things they are able to do. They make terrific teachers and I hope one day to be able to approach each session with the same calm and intention they do. Great job with your involvement and hopefully I’ll see you around MAMA sometime!

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