Advice From a White Belt: Try It!

by Jennifer Struzziero

We call it training. Not because we are training for Jiu-Jitsu. But because we are training for life. 

Chris Matakas

A visit from an old library pal, a controlling micromanager and a new self-care routine introduced me to Martial Arts. Spring 2021, post-vaccination, our friend, who was a Dean of Libraries at a midwestern college, near a corn field somewhere south of Chicago, had been looking forward to some socializing, and after a long year, (which began with me missing my 40th birthday celebration, March 12th, 2020–literally the day the world shut down) I was right there with him.

 We have a small group of die-hard UFC fans–some of them keep notebooks (You know who you are). The rest of us watch passively, mainly interested in the state of the snacks in front of us, and I – if I can keep awake, wait for the title fight. Bean-dip, Topo Chico and friends in their 30’s and 40’s venting, we always seem to have a good time, whether or not you are a fan of bloodsport.

Our visiting friend had never indulged in one of our all night UFC fight night parties, and my husband and I had no idea how he would take to it. We were worried, but he sounded interested.  There were about eight of us lounging around the monstrous T.V., happy to escape our day jobs. A motley crew of cursing library folks, with typical public service stressors: problem staff, poor protocols that no one on staff could let go of using, town management, crappy patron confrontations, etc.  In a strange twist, another newbie to these decadent “fight-nights” was our host’s boyfriend, (who told funny jokes, but actually didn’t seem to care about UFC fights). 

Our out of town friend surprisingly did. And I could tell he did by his body language: the way he was stepping closer to the T.V., staring long and then yelling suddenly . . . he was definitely enamored. Then, he started deconstructing fighter’s moves and comparing them to Taekwondo! I asked him about his training. 

I asked, how long have you studied martial arts?  One year, he said. Wait, how old are you? 44. And it is not weird for you in your class? Half the people in there are my age or older. You are not referring to Tai Chi, right? No, Taekwondo.  I was in awe.  I then explained that I had been interested in Martial Arts off-and-on since I was seventeen, but I never pursued it.  Why not, he asked? It was something I had wanted to try, but assumed I wasn’t able to, which mainly revolved around my habit of getting in my own way about new endeavors and general feelings of self-loathing. Like not wanting to run if it was cold, or on a busy morning on the sidewalk because of my self-conscious fixation on how uncoordinated I would appear to the oogling passerby. Yeah, the driver who had barely swallowed their last sip of coffee and could have cared less, and who was most likely mentally preparing for the abyssal traffic they would experience, yet again. That self-critical thinking was why I was so out-of-shape too. 

Other self-critical thoughts:

  1. Affordability, owing to money, time, and
  2. Could I conjure up the confidence and structure that I just seemed to, ehem, generally lack.  I can’t peel myself out of a seated position on the weekends to go to Planet Fitness, how the hell am I going to commit to a life dedicated to Martial Arts?

I thought of the commitment. I remembered how it almost felt appealing to dedicate your time to it, despite my twenty-something year old self’s inability to attend weekly yoga classes, when I had purchased  80 dollar vouchers here or there. I shuddered at the person I had become: continually self-chastising for having a gym membership and not using it.  Yet I was completely ambivalent about going, insisting on my frivolous need to pay, just in case, which I referred to as the monthly “fat tax” I deserved.   

And then the pandemic happened. I cancelled my gym membership convinced I’d never set foot in one ever again. Like, the entire time I was resisting it was validated. I told myself that this is what our gym-obsessed culture made me do. I sign-up with the best intentions for my physical health, but how am I supposed to haul my ass, after facing an hour of commuter traffic, to that purple and gold-themed overcrowded circus with cheap-minded gym rats? I knew it would be useless. Then the mask mandate lifted, and I rejoined. I didn’t think I would go, but I decided it was time to move again.  I also started to get into more self-help philosophy and meditation. Work was crazy busy and chaotic with staff taking vacations that they couldn’t during the pandemic. 

I thought of how people had always shared with me how the gym offered them “me-time”. Frankly, I valued my time and would rather play guitar, or stare at my phone (carpal tunnel and chronic neck pain were my right to inflict on myself). After spending one year being inactive, and discovering toast and jam again, ( although the foodie sourdough bread obsession went over my head) and wondering: why did I stop eating any bread again? The pure joy of bowls of granola mixed with dollops of Jiffy peanut butter ( with sugar added, not the healthier unsalted and unsugared  nut butter options I opted for in pre-COVID days), and how comforting these grainy butter snacks could be–at ALL hours of the day–I figured  it was time to reactivate my self-care and recommit to healthier habits also. I had started with my diet, and after the initial frenzy in rediscovering complex carbs, I was ready to pivot to a healthy reintegration of these by admitting to my oblivion when it comes to portion control. I cut back on how much peanut butter–once the spoon and the jar are rekindled, you know you’ve reached rock-bottom.

All of this self-discovery seemed to coincide with the visitation from this one friend.  It was Spring, and  it was also right around the point my emotional health was starting to need some attention. I was suffering internally, in the awareness of my lack of boundaries at work with a controlling manager, and my inability to advocate for myself in most life situations revolving socio-emotional relations that combined with everything else, forced me to change. And here was this one friend who had suggested I could actually give Martial Arts a-go.  I wasn’t waiting for permission….or was I? All it took was for one other 40-something to give me the green light? It seemed so. I scoured the closest academies in my living area and sent off an introductory email.

Something had aligned in that room, on that night, and in front of the bloody fights happening  on the screen in front of me. It was an awareness of who I had become versus who I thought I was, and somehow I had convinced myself Martial Arts would level this out for me. I would learn how to fight, in more ways than one. I did not want to be another distractible millennial, consumed by the digital lure of wellness; all of that made me cringe. But I had to strike while the iron-grip was hot! 

Here’s what I wanted out of it:

What this training would need to be to work for me;  it needed to not be aimed at women, with at least one female instructor. It needed to not have pink anywhere in it’s marketing banners. I wanted to find one that was a gym where people went to train, but that made sense and was near me. Think Rocky meets Mr. Miyagi, yet inevitably in a strip-mall. And that was okay with me. I just wanted it to focus on Martial Arts, and women to start. Afterall, I was walking into unknown territory. I would be trying a class or two after work, like straight from, so I told myself I knew I could never drive unless it was near me and I knew the area.  If any of these factors were off , I would talk myself out of it. 

I opted for one with high ratings, that offered women’s classes, and GI’s. I had to study it like an ancient art, that was important too. I didn’t want to be kick-ass, per se. I wanted to study a meaningful technique, read about it, understand my own physicality, and earn a belt.  I also wanted to know I had the capability to earn it, and they wouldn’t throw me out. ( such positive thoughts, right?) So far so good!

I found what I was looking for at Thurston Academy in South Eastern, Massachusetts. Once I had my introductory invite confirmed with sensei Allison, I realized how out of shape I was; how unstructured I was in general, as one look at my gym bag told it all, and it was dismal: gym shirt, check, crumpled leggings, one sock, one sneaker, and a toiletry tote with two smushed bandaids, and a trial size container of shampoo. I guess it was for my hair and my entire body; er, when had I ever showered at any gym? Right, never.

The Combat sport I chose was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I liked the rolling aspect of it and it spoke to my legs, which I felt were naturally flexible.  I also like the strategic use of body strength against body strength. There was a chess-like, exquisite flow-like quality to Jiu Jitsu, an almost infinite attack and counter-attack represented in one seamless rolling movement,  until one player became exhausted and submitted. 

I read a book called, The Tao of Jiu Jitsu by Chris Manatis, and became obsessed with how practicing Martial Arts was a metaphor for human existence. I was semi-raised by a parent with addiction, and I saw first-hand what giving up looked like in human form. It wasn’t pretty. This is homeless-level, living out of a motel room addiction I am speaking of, and it is painful to witness. 

Many days I myself am barely hanging, by a thread. Yes, I have advanced degrees, a home I own, and in a healthy and happy marriage, I’m looking for a new employer at the moment but have a solid career. Though, with all the gratitude I feel for the simple attainments, I still feel like I am barely functioning sometimes. It is frustrating. Mental health issues arise, depression ensues, it just gets complicated and then one ruminates about ruminating. You feel imposter syndrome, and even though you know the concept of what this is and that this is normal on some level, somehow you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop; for it all to fall away.  Or to fall, as we all fall down. Enter Sensai Allison and Thurston Academy.  

It took a bad work experience to grant me the time and awareness to immerse myself in BJJ. Now I have some solid footing again, and for the first time in my life it feels like I have actual control over things. I think Martial Arts gives you the gift of realizing you can face things, and you can be present in any moment and get it done. I am a white belt, so I am still gaining my confidence and it is not always there! I am humbled everyday I enter my gym to roll, especially when I continually submit to other white-belts!  It is not easy, and I am not easy on myself most days.. But I leave knowing I survived. That is what we must do every day.

You are here in your life, and you only get one. Life is dynamic, and we live moment to moment, coping, reacting, strategizing. You fall, you rise. You fall hard, and you, hopefully, get up. You take, you get taken. When down, not everyone chooses to get up. Many people submit. Life is composed of moments, and those moments exist within larger moments, and you are the deciding factor of how you will cope inside all of these moments. Experience and muscle memory will make your game better, but man you gotta work those muscles everyday, and you gotta get out of your own way, to keep that mental game strong. Each new day is a new drill to work your strength and keep going.

Author: Jen S.

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