When You've Been Hurt By An Instructor
I started to notice how firm the mat felt under my feet, and everyone drilling around us blurred in my peripheral vision. I became aware of the skin on my arms, on my neck, on my face. My breaths deepened. I felt the tightening of my jaw muscles, and made sure to stare him straight in the eye. I knew I was about to do something he probably never expected.
"I know what you're doing", I said.
I made sure to hold his gaze so there would be no doubt in his mind that yes, I was talking to him, and yes, I did, in fact, know what he was trying to do.
He couldn't bring himself to hold my gaze, so he looked away, and motioned to continue with the drill we were supposed to be working on.
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This is the post that I wanted to write six months ago when I started this blog.
Six months to figure out what to say. Six months to decide that it should be said.
I'm not afraid of him finding this blog and reading it. I'm not afraid of an old training partner finding this post and being offended. I'm not afraid of telling the truth.
It has taken me this long to write because it hurts. I think for the past while I've been trying to re-frame the situation in my mind as a circumstance where if I had just done something different, then maybe it wouldn't have been what it was, that maybe he would have been nice to me, and maybe I could have just tried harder to stick it out and stay at that school. But this morning I was reading some of the work of the brilliant Byron Katie, and read the following:
No amount of rehearsing our every interaction over and over in my head will ever change how poorly this guy treated me. I'm ready to let it go. Here is my story.
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Every time I walked through the doors at this jiu jitsu gym, the guys stared at me like they were surprised I had come back for more. I never knew whether to take this as a good thing or a bad thing. Some days I felt proud, like maybe they thought it was cool that I kept returning, even though the warm up alone is still to this day one of the most challenging workouts I have ever had to face. Some days, though, when they would stare at me as I entered, I felt ashamed, like they didn't want me there, and maybe they were disappointed to see me show up. I'll never really know, and I realize it doesn't really matter. It's all essentially just a story I tell myself anyway, right?
I had done my first jiu jitsu class elsewhere, but tried my second one at this school. Having just entered the jiu jitsu world, I didn't realize that it would be smart to do a trial and test the waters a bit to ensure that this was the right place for me. This school had a reputation for being high level and extremely competitive, and if I was going to learn jiu jitsu, I wanted to really learn how to kick some butt. I signed up on my first day there.
I had a blast. As I said, even the warm up was enough to make me feel like I might die, but I loved it. The professor and owner of the school seemed genuinely happy to see a woman training. I was the only woman there.
I was quickly "adopted" by a blue belt, and made friends with several of the other white belts. I was always nervous to go to training, but had been bitten by the jiu jitsu bug, so I pushed myself to go regardless. I was grateful for the time and care that everyone was investing in me. I never felt like I was getting in anyone's way if I needed extra help with something, and they made me feel amazing when I finally drilled an arm bar from guard correctly. I was so, so proud. I drove home as fast as I could and told my boyfriend at the time that the guys had said that soon I'd be taking home arms as trophies. I was happy.
I don't even remember when Matt* (*name has been changed) entered the picture. He was a brown belt, three or four stripes, I can't remember. We had never talked because he usually came late and always looked like he was pissed about something. He would blatantly ignore me, or roll his eyes whenever I would smile or say hello. I tried not to take it personally, and would remind myself that hurt people, hurt people. I would tell myself that maybe he was having a bad day, so the best thing that I could do would be to just wish him well and be on my way, and I would smile and say hello the next time. It was always the same thing.
And then he started making comments. In front of everyone.
I don't even blame any of the other guys for never saying anything, for never stepping in. He was high up. He was really good at jiu jitsu. He would teach some of the classes. I was an easy target. I can't imagine how hard it would have been for any of the guys, especially the white belts, to alienate themselves by confronting this guy in front of everyone. I knew I had to do it for myself.
He would roll his eyes and mockingly say things like, "Ooh, don't hurt me", if we were put together. I would notice him making a point of pulling one of the guys aside to make fun of me and laugh at me. At first I tried to ignore it. I told my boyfriend what was happening and he insisted that it must be a misunderstanding. I tried to believe him.
One day I sat out because I had recently strained my adductors and couldn't participate. I was disappointed that I couldn't train that day because two new girls had come to try their first class. This being their first encounter with jiu jitsu, they were separated from the rest of the group and were being taught some basics while everyone else was watching a more advanced technique being taught. I watched class from the sidelines, which is when I noticed Matt completely ignoring the demonstration, and instead was laughing his butt off at the girls who were doing their best in their first class. I was seething. I knew instantly that I had not been imagining it this whole time. He was a mat bully.
I tried coming to class early. I tried coming to class late. I tried avoiding him. I tried being a good Christian by thinking about what his redeeming qualities were. I even made a point of trying to love my enemy by telling the Professor that Matt was a good teacher, because he was. He is undoubtedly really good at jiu jitsu, and I will never deny that. Unfortunately, this prompted our Professor to pair us together even more frequently. I tried whatever I could to fix the situation. And then one day I was done trying.
I can't even remember what it was that he said to me that made me decide that I had had enough. All I know was that we were drilling single leg takedowns, and he threw an insult my way. It is moments like this where everything fades away, all the noise, all the social customs, all the nice-girl-smiles, all the recognition of the past and of the future. It is moments like this where all I know is that this needs to stop, and I don't care who you are, I don't care how tough you think you are, I don't care what belt you are, I don't care if I've just met you or I've known you forever - some things are just wrong. And I knew in that moment, instructor or not, he was wrong, and this needed to stop.
I stood up tall from my wrestling stance. I stared him straight in the eye. "I know what you are doing".
I felt like an idiot, as I realized why I was the only woman at this place. How could I not have seen it before? He had been making it a point to try to drive me out.
I hope he felt ashamed in the moment that I called him out. His only response was to continue with the drill we were doing. I told him that maybe we needed new partners. He insisted that we continue with the drill. I don't know why. He clearly was never happy to work with me, and I was clearly uncomfortable with him. I don't need to be absolutely loved by someone I'm working with, but I do need to be respected.
I wanted to love jiu jitsu enough to have him not matter. I wanted to be so focused on training that I could ignore his actions, his disrespect, and be there as a friend to the next woman who would dare to walk in the door. To this day, I dread any woman having to go through what I went through with him. I hope they have better luck than I did.
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It breaks my heart because I wanted it to be my jiu jitsu home. It's where I learned what mat burn is. It's where I learned my first takedown. It's where the guys would just have me drill arm bars on them all the time because that's all I knew how to do. It's where I learned I had the guts to walk into a place where I'm the only woman. It's where my eyes were opened up to what jiu jitsu is, and that felt special.
I titled this post, "When You've Been Hurt by an Instructor", and not "When You've Been Hurt by a Coach", because he wasn't a coach. He may have taught some technique, but a coach demonstrates integrity, and a coach supports you as a learner. He did neither of those. If I call you "Coach", it's because I respect you. I cannot call him Coach.
My heart breaks for him, because he is so talented. I want his personality to be as amazing as his jiu jitsu is. He has so much to offer, and I hate that there's a dark cloud around him all the time. I wish him no harm. If I could hug it out with him, I would. Part of me still hopes that this was all a big misunderstanding, and that somehow his insults were his way of welcoming me, as messed up as that is.
I moved on to a different school, and I made sure to pick one with a friendly reputation. I've made a bunch more friends, and I'm no longer the only woman on the mat. I miss my old school, and I wish I could have stayed there. I miss the guys, I miss the drive there, I miss having a change room to myself, I miss the gruelling workouts. But here's the thing: I choose respect over jiu jitsu. I could have stayed where I was, and continue to be bullied, but I failed to see why I would choose that. I didn't want to let one guy ruin my experience, but it got to the point where I couldn't focus on training. I wanted it to be about the jiu jitsu, not about some petty guy.
When you've been hurt by an instructor you've been hurt by a real person with their own issues. I've fantasized on more than one occasion about one day running into him and then "accidentally" pulling off a RNC on him in the street (though in my fantasy, he ceases to retain any of his jiu jitsu skills and I somehow actually pull this off). I'm ready to let my revenge fantasy go, because as much as he hurt me, I want to be able to confront his actions with love.
I do think that someone in a position of authority should hold themselves to a higher standard and act with integrity. I'll never know why he did the things that he did. I'm glad that I can at least say that I confronted the situation head on with him more than once, and offered ample opportunity to work out our conflict as the adults that we are.
I wanted to love jiu jitsu enough to not have him matter, but the thing is, jiu jitsu necessitates relationships. You can't do jiu jitsu alone. Whether you like it or not, you need to be somewhat social in this sport because you'll always be working with different people.
I may love jiu jitsu, but I love myself enough to not sacrifice self-respect for it. Nothing, not even learning from the best, is worth that much.