One White Belt’s Perspective, One Year Later

Erica Zendell
8 min readMar 22, 2018


One year ago, on March 22, 2017, I descended the steps of 36 W. Broadway for the very first time. I didn’t know what was about to get myself into by taking my very first class in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, save for the (literal) writing on the wall, which, in hindsight, was very telling:

For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled — Hunter S. Thompson

Over the course of the last year, my soul has been trampled more times than I can count — more often than not, at will — in a basement in South Boston by the motley crew of training partners at Broadway Jiu-Jitsu.

On my one-year anniversary, here’s an abridged list of things I’m grateful for and that I’ve learned so far into my jiu-jitsu journey:

  1. Jiu-jitsu gave me a reason to remain fond of Boston, even though most days I feel done with living in this city. This July will be my 6-year anniversary of moving to Massachusetts. I don’t know what my “forever place” is, but I’m not fully convinced that it’s Beantown and don’t want to stay in the city out of inertia — I want to have chosen Boston as a “forever place,” and not simply have settled for it. Especially after a ton of people I loved left the city in the last two years, I didn’t feel much tying me here until I walked into Broadway. As long as the teaching and the community remain as good as they are right now, my jiu-jitsu gym makes it really hard for me to want to move and live somewhere else.
  2. Jiu-jitsu gave me places to go when traveling that can make even a new or uncomfortable place feel like home. I tried out a gym in Chicago when visiting there last July. I have a gym I can escape to in New Jersey when visiting (and being quickly driven crazy by) family. I’ll definitely be checking out a place or two when I head out to San Diego for a wedding in June — Southern California seems more or less like “BJJ Mecca.” So if that day comes when I do take the plunge and move to another city, one of the first things I’ll be scouting for is a new gym family.
  3. Even when it jiu-jitsu makes me feel (physically) worse, it makes me feel (mentally, and when recovered, physically) better. Nothing gets you to stop thinking about work or analyzing your latest personal drama and get in the moment like someone grabbing a collar to choke you or coming in for a double-leg takedown. It is as true now as it was a year ago: when I needed a way to stop “being boring” and thinking or talking about my job all the time, jiu-jitsu made it happen like nothing and no one else could. Far more often than not, I feel better (mentally) after class is over than I did when I walked into class.
  4. Jiu-jitsu reminds me of the (irritating) reality that things will not always go my way and of the importance of being adaptable. With a couple hours of studying, it was easy for me to pass a given class in high school. With a year of studying, it’s still hard for me to pass an opponent’s guard. (For someone to whom a lot of stuff came easily growing up, this sucks). Moreover, my favorite moves, even if perfectly executed, won’t work on every body, and even if I have a clue of what I’m doing against an opponent, all it takes is me being a few seconds too slow to end up falling behind in a round and needing to hustle my way out of a defensive position and into a dominant position (or at least into a neutral one). The best I can do is retie my belt, straighten up my gi, and start again.
  5. Jiu-jitsu reinforces the fact that there’s rarely just one “solution” to a given “problem.” Over the last year, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the ways to win at the “human body chess” that is jiu-jitsu, but from being “the nail” far more often than I’ve been “the hammer” in any given fight, I’ve learned that there’s usually a way to be creative with a bad situation and improve a position. Unless it’s at the point of tapping — but then there’s a chance to start over. As is the case with many of the other items on this list, this is true both on and off the mat.
  6. Jiu-jitsu constantly teaches me — and there will always be more to learn. As a type-A person, checking boxes and completing ‘To-Do’ lists are among my favorite things. With this sport, I’ll never be never done — which is frustrating, on one hand, but reassuring on the other, because I’ll never become bored of it. There are innumerable ways to execute a single technique, to get from one position to another, or to finish a match. I show up as often as I can to learn as much as I can in class, but I already know that it will take me years to have achieved some mastery of the sport— if “mastery” is even possible. Regardless, I’m officially hooked and hope to stay in this for the long haul. After all, the sport has taught me much about fighting but even more about myself.
  7. Jiu-jitsu has reminded me that nothing is ever simple. The number of tiny details to execute one “simple” technique like an armbar is mind-blowing. Add that to the facts that a “simple” armbar can be done in multiple ways and needs to be adapted based on the gender, weight and body type of your opponent (among other variables). Also, that “simple” armbar becomes exponentially more complicated when going live and trying to “find” the armbar when sparring. Sometimes you can make it show up. Sometimes it just doesn’t show up. So it goes, roll after roll.
  8. Nothing has gotten me in shape like training jiu-jitsu has. My relationship with my body, especially with regard to food and exercise has been a fraught one for as long as I can remember, but became especially challenging since I got diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. When I went on a gluten-free diet for the sake of my health that fall, I gained at least 15 pounds and despite my best efforts, I could never lose them. Even as I temporarily lost some of the weight from some crazy workout routines (for example: the six months I did ClassPass five to seven days a week and did yoga class after bootcamp class after barre class), I never got in much better, sustainable shape. Today, I still gain 5–10 pounds based on the stress and seasons in Boston, but have lost the 15 since getting diagnosed with celiac disease, and even with an injury, I’m in the best shape of my life since I was seventeen (when I was attending a tennis camp, playing 5 days a week for over 6 hours a day, all summer long).
  9. Jiu-jitsu forces me to be (somewhat more) patient and keeps me humble. I definitely don’t pick up things as quickly as others at the gym do, and it’s well-known by practitioners of the sport that the progression for jiu-jitsu is a nonlinear kind of journey. Getting promoted is at the discretion of my instructor and not on my schedule. Getting smashed by higher belts — and sometimes lower belts — happens on a daily basis. But once in a while, and more often than it used to, something I am trying works on someone. No matter how much better I have gotten in the last year, I still suck (or, politely stated, remain “inexperienced”), but that glimmer of hope and potential is something that has me continuing to work my ass off.
  10. My body can take more of a beating than I ever expected — and my mind is net stronger for it (minus a few brain cells). My eyes and nose have been blackened. My knees, hands, wrists, and elbows twisted and crushed. I’ve had weird rashes on my neck, arms, and legs that — thankfully — haven’t scared my non-gym friends away, and haven’t kept me off the mats for more than a week. I haven’t gotten any bruises like the ones I got in my first few months of training last year, since my body has gotten used to the constant pummeling, but in my body and soul being trampled, I’ve seen what I’m made of. It isn’t always pretty, but it is the essence of who I am.
  11. Jiu-jitsu has given me some of the best friends I could ever imagine. Few things outside of a bedroom get you closer to people than having them sit with their full weight on your sternum, stick their faces into your crotch, or shove their knees into your tailbone. On a more serious note though, these are some of the kindest, smartest, toughest, and most fun people I know. I’m lucky to have people this lethal in my life who have my back. I have theirs, too, for what my year-old white belt is worth. All of this is to say, I wouldn’t mess with this crew.

In short, I’ve been more frustrated and fulfilled on that mat than I ever thought possible and met the best people in the world while doing it.

Here’s to another year of the so-called “gentle art.”



Erica Zendell

Quitter of the corporate grind in favor of the open road, a writing career, and a whole lot of jiu-jitsu. Currently writing from San Diego.