Maria Zamora


On September 3rd, 2017, Rob Kahn slapped my back with a purple belt, immediately developing a deep sense of unworthiness in my soul. The immense joy I felt walking up to receive the belt quickly turned into angst, wondering if I had fooled him to believe me worthy of the promotion as I tricked many others into overestimating my capabilities in the past. I watched the rest of the day’s promotions in a panic, and since that moment, I have looked for ways to battle that feeling. 

“Everyone is a leader because everyone influences someone.”  John C. Maxwell

I don’t remember what my main focus or goal was when I took my first jiu-jitsu class, but I am one hundred percent certain that it wasn’t medals, belts, or glory. In fact, I can wholeheartedly say that leveling up was—and continues to be— a scary thought. However, entirely too often, I see teammates losing focus of why they started and getting trapped in a quest for hierarchy and domination instead. 

Missions and goals change. Heck, if that weren’t the case, I would currently be an actress or playwright. It is ok to adapt your purpose to fit your current status quo. The trick lies in not allowing ego to be the force creating that change. 

The moment you forget to enjoy jiu-jitsu as the beautiful art it is and concentrate merely on leveling up, you do yourself a disservice. Learn to appreciate the suck. Strive to discover the fantastic blank canvas that jiu-jitsu can be. The belts will eventually come, but (spoiler alert) belts don’t always equal happiness. Being part of something bigger than yourself, on the other hand, does bring about more joy than I can describe.

Not everyone is destined to be a protagonist

 For every Gordon Ryan, there are thousands of unknown grapplers who are building, impacting, and changing people’s lives away from the spotlight. So, stop striving for notoriety. Instead, look for ways to contribute to the art. 

Yes, fame is nice. I agree that a big following makes it easier for you to help others and create the change we wish to see. But don’t waste all your energy in becoming INSTA-famous while forgetting to build your community up. And remember, you don’t have to be a black belt to be a helping force. Many of the grappling groups I follow and work with were started by lower belts who found ways to help and build our community. 

What does it mean to train like a champion? 

Am I less of a champion if I don’t train until I collapse? Am I not a real jiujitera if I don’t grapple every roll like it was an ADCC qualifier? Why should I train the same way a teenager does to be considered a real athlete? 

Folks from all walks of life populate our mats representing every age, race, religion, and profession in our academies. It is near impossible to expect that everyone will train at the same rate of intensity. Not every one that steps on the mats does so to win tournaments. Some of us simply are on an eternal journey of self-discovery following a path forged by submissions and sweeps. Let go of the misconception that you must train like an animal to become a real athlete. Real athletes come in all molds—train at the rate that best benefits your body, mind, and soul. 

You don’t need to win titles to inspire

Many of my teammates who never compete and who are not higher belts inspire me daily. I’m amazed by the mother of three finding time and the budget to get on the mats. I am astonished by the survivor of an attack who regains her strength and confidence one move at a time. I admire the disabled veteran who comes in and gives it his best despite the crappy hand life has dealt him, and I respect those with mental; and learning disabilities who find their voice and peace through training. 

Their journeys have taught me more than most black belts have. So, if you think that your journey is unimpactful, think again. I bet you, at some point, you have been the inspiration someone needed to get up that day and keep going. 

Winning feels great. But even though hanging a medal on your wall gives you a quick dopamine boost, there’s no joy like sharing knowledge and seeing others grow. If you asked me what my favorite thing about jiu-jitsu is, I’d tell you it is “helping.” Nothing feels as great as seeing people have an “AHA” moment or hearing my teammates say they applied the move I showed them successfully. 

And yes, I said helping, not coaching or instructing. I do not consider myself a coach or an instructor. I am merely a guiding partner who enables a fellow grappler to expand their horizon with pointers and tips. 

Everyone’s input is necessary for growth. Sometimes, it takes a “stupid” question for a move to evolve into a more effective technique and every person on the mats is part of the success formula. The world champions need mere hobbyists like myself to hone their craft. The hobbyists need fresh white belts to work their offense and the white belts need the in-betweeners to fill the gap. This inclusive nature of our art is why it is easier for a new person to open up to the blue or purple belt about certain things and it’s actually essential to forming the teaching craft for a grappler’s journey to continue.

The jiu-jitsu academy is a perfectly imperfect ecosystem that requires us to work and grow together, and no two journeys are the same. Stop comparing your jiu-jitsu progression to that of your teammates. When it comes to growth and advancement, you should only compare yourself to your previous self. Your reality is different from your coach’s reality. Don’t strive to follow someone’s else’s path. Instead, work towards creating the path that best suits your needs. 

Internalize, meditate and search for your purpose. Find your why, tailor your training to feed your why, and grow and profess that why every time you train. Be adaptive. Life will throw many curves at you that will truncate your path. Don’t let those curves deviate you into quitting. If you genuinely love jiu-jitsu, you will always find a way back to the mats. And lastly, share your passion with those you love. You might be surprised to find out one day that your journey was the inspiration for a fellow grappler to continue their own. 

Jiu-jitsu saved my life! Jiu-jitsu is the answer! Jiu-jitsu is therapy! Jiu-jitsu is life! I have said and meant these words more times than I can even count, and they are all accurate statements. At many points in my life, jiu-jitsu felt like it was all I had. And suddenly, I find myself in a conundrum.  My passion has died. So, how am I supposed to go on when I have zero fervor, enthusiasm, or drive? 

A few years ago, someone I was sharing the mats with stated that only two types of girls start training jiu-jitsu: girls starved for attention and androgynous women. His comment was not simply offensive. It was ignorant. However, this is not the first time I have heard similar theories regarding girls who train. Comments of that nature are one of the primary fuels I use when it’s time for me to write. 

I can’t quantify in words how much jiu-jitsu has given me. Through it, I’ve found my voice; I have grown, and I have made friends who have changed my outlook on life. 

But, I often wonder: have I given back? Is there a way to pay it forward? 

There are many ways we can pay it forward as jiu-jitsu players. The best advice I can give you is don’t wait until you receive your black belt to make a difference. But, we can all take part at any level. 

Below is a list of some of my favorite jiu-jitsu related non-profit organizations working towards improving others’ lives: 

I feel my watch vibrating in an attempt to awaken me and look up and see the time: 7:30 am. Trying to look up, I realize the drinks from last night were not the best idea. I now have 150 minutes to get myself together and show up to wrestling class. In our school, wrestling class is the most demanding class we offer, so I panic.