Re-stoking the Fire: A Story of BJJ Burnout and an Unexpected Journey to Fuel the Fire Again- Part 1

Part 1

Around this time last year, I was amping up for Pan Ams 2020. March 7 was marked in bold on my calendar as the day I’d fly out to Irvine for the very first time and compete in my very first Grand Slam. I studied the names of my division with nervous anticipation, fearing how I’d perform against the likely-abundant Californian talent. I trained with an intensity with which I’d never trained in my near-three years in the sport. Then COVID hit, and along with it, a lockdown that would paralyze the United States and much of the rest of the world—and in far more than just jiu-jitsu. 

Part of me was a little bit relieved, however, at the tournament’s cancellation. I hadn’t been approaching my training (physically or mentally) with an adequate degree of moderation (or any degree of moderation). When I think about my prep for Pans in March 2020, I recall a few things: a strict 8-week plan of strength and conditioning workouts to supplement my jiu-jitsu classes, getting caught crying in the bathroom when I was too exhausted to hide the tears anymore, and, ultimately, a Leap Day hiatus from jiu-jitsu. February 29, one week before I was supposed to fly out to California, I memorably began my Saturday at a popular Vietnamese food shop around the corner from my apartment. Instead of grinding through my usual 3-4 hours of training on Saturday morning, you’d have found me drinking warm milk tea and stuffing my face with bright orange sticky rice dipped into a dust of ground peanuts and sugar (needless to say I was not concerned about this nutrition-less deliciousness affecting my weight class in the coming weeks). 

I told myself that when major competitions like Pans returned—if competitions returned, period—that I’d approach my training with a greater sense of balance and discipline to avoid burnout. I also told myself that I would approach jiu-jitsu, in general, with a greater sense of appreciation and joy. If there was one thing I’d learned during the months of quarantine, of investing in new running shoes instead of new rashguards, of my world shrinking to the capacity of my one-bedroom apartment and wherever I could run in said running shoes, it was that I shouldn’t take grappling for granted. Any day on the mat could be the last one—better seize life by the lapels.  

When Pans came back for a re-launch in Orange County, Florida instead of Orange County, California in October 2020, I had learned my lesson a little bit and outperformed the odds. While I probably overdid it on the strength work and wasn’t adequately recovered for my matches, I didn’t get to a teary breaking point and performed in a respectable fashion for my first Grand Slam, not to mention my first tournament since COVID. Being based in Boston, little to nothing had opened up in Massachusetts prior to October, in stark comparison to some of the Southern locales from which some of my opponents were hailing. Under these circumstances, placing third in the division with a submission win and a 0-0 loss on an advantage in the semifinals was an achievement to be proud of. 

While I burnt out a little less ahead of the Pans, I’d felt something even worse after it. I called it the Post-Pan-dum Depression (my Pans equivalent of post-partum depression). I’d given everything I had for the sake of performing well and didn’t know what to do with myself save for signing up for more things in the attempt to stir up a cause for motivation. I wasn’t happy as I threw my name into the registrations for the Atlanta Open and No Gi Pans, but figured I’d find something in me to stay the course. “Just dig a little deeper,” I said to myself, but I knew deep down that jiu-jitsu and I were on a breakup course if I continued to feel this way. I was already feeling apathetic at best and hateful at worst toward jiu-jitsu. At this rate, it would only be a matter of time before I stopped registering for competitions, stopped pushing myself in class, and stopped showing up at all, becoming another statistic who quit at blue. 

Shortly after Pans, I took a private lesson with my coach and asked him for his advice on BJJ burnout. The key tip he offered was to try to “date” jiu-jitsu again, not expecting that the initial fireworks would set me up for a net positive lifelong relationship. I took the advice to heart and reflected: aside from the feeling of performing well in competition, what did I like about jiu-jitsu? Getting better and pursuing mastery at something? Learning new techniques? Traveling and getting to train in new places with new people? Feeling like I was becoming a better person for having persisted in it? Something else?

I started seeking out resources that would help me break the funk I was in and help me “date” jiu-jitsu again. The one that would change everything was on Instagram.

I had been following the decorated, world-class competitor Margot Ciccarlelli (who goes by @thenomadicmars) for a while, ever since reading one of her blog posts on the Hyperfly website shortly after I had begun training jiu-jitsu in 2017. She seemed too hip and cool for me then and continued to now, as her latest social media post showcased her gracefully and acrobatically leaning through variations on her signature inversion—the ‘zen’ berimbolo. The post also touted her upcoming webinars, which I proceeded to investigate on her website. 

I didn’t know how to do a berimbolo—’zen’ or otherwise—and it was something my instructor never taught to any meaningful extent. If one of the things I used to most enjoy about jiu-jitsu was learning new techniques (which was something I hadn’t felt I was doing in my semi-continuous state of competition), perhaps Margot could be a facilitator of that joy. I responded to one of her Instagram Stories with an inquiry into her webinars and promotions she was advertising for them. She replied, “How can I enlighten you?” This was a response I might have found a little pretentious, but was exactly what I needed from the ‘zen’ buddha-like practitioner and the anything-but-zen (despite having ‘zen’ in her last name) student. 

What began as a conversation of which webinar was best for me led to a far more philosophical discussion. What were my goals in jiu-jitsu? What was I struggling with? Where did I want to go with the sport? How did I feel winning and losing, in a training room and outside of it? It felt a little bit like jiu-jitsu therapy. These were questions I often asked myself but not ones that anyone else had asked me before and cared to listen. It was a relief to be asked them, to have anyone hear me out on how I was feeling. I told her how burnt out I was, how I wanted to be more process- than outcome-focused, and that I wanted to see just how far I could go in the sport before I got too old. 

It was hard for me to tear myself away from my phone in those initial hours of conversation. I felt seen, heard, and understood for the first time in a long time. But most of all, I felt inspired—and then a little bit terrified: after saying I wanted to try a month of working with her for online coaching, she asked me this question: 

“Would you be interested in coming to Mexico to work together in person?”


Grapple happy women's Jiujitsu Erica Zendell travels and burnout

Written and submitted by Erica Zendell

Erica is a (soon to be wandering) blue belt under John Clarke at Broadway Jiu-Jitsu (Carlson Gracie Boston)

For more blogs and writing from Erica, check out her newsletter featuring other stories from her trip in Mexico City, the rest of her blog, or follow @zenintheartoffighting on Instagram.