Mothers In Jiu Jitsu – Interview With Johanna Thulin

A baby. At some point in your life you would like to have a little one by your side. Maybe you already do. So how does this combine with jiu jitsu, and life in general? Can you train when you are pregnant? How do you get back to competing? What are the ups, the downs and how to deal with this?  We sat down with Johanna Thulin to discuss these matters. Enjoy this Mother’s Day interview!

Can you tell a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Johanna Thulin. I was born and raised in Sweden but moved to Luxembourg three years ago for a job as a translator in the European Parliament. I am 35 years old.

Where do you train?

I am a blue belt under professor Leonardo Neves (my companion and father of our son Tiago) at his gym Uplay in Luxembourg City. Leo is a brilliant professor and an amazing athlete and he inspires me every day.

What do you do in everyday life?

My life circles around three main activities: my work as a translator, training and competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and, most importantly, trying to be the best mother I can be to my one-year-old son.

How often do you train?

I try to train jiu jitsu every day, morning, lunch or evening. Besides that, I do weightlifting twice per week and mindfulness meditation every day.

What does your training look like?

Our jiu jitsu training consists of technique training, drilling and sparring, with more focus on the latter the closer to a big tournament we get.

Can you tell a little bit about your son?

My son’s name is Tiago. He was born a little over a year ago, and he is a very sweet boy. I laugh with him every day and I am blessed to have him in my life. I look into his eyes and I reflect upon the fact that it is so very natural to love him. It is frustrating and sad to think that so many parents are bored or annoyed with their own children.

To me there is no such thing as spoiling a child with too much love or affection. The more love you give, the better a human being he or she will grow up to be, this is my firm belief.

Did you train during your pregnancy?

No, I did not train during pregnancy, because I lost motivation completely. Martial arts was not an option for me because I didn’t want to risk anything. Even though I could have trained yoga, pilates and probably other sports too, I just didn’t feel like it. I have never been a sporty person and I have never trained to stay healthy or fit. I do martial arts simply because I like the fight. So if I can’t fight, I prefer not training at all!

How do you combine being a mother and doing jiu jitsu?

To be perfectly honest I don’t think I have found a perfect way to combine being a mother with training, and especially competing, in BJJ. However, I have come a long way compared to a year ago. One year ago, I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to step on the mats again. I sat at home on my couch and I felt miserable!

So how did you start training again?

My desire to train eventually had become too strong.

So I had to come up with a solution. We decided one day to bring Tiago with us to the training session, because it was our only option. As it turned out, he loved it! He is friends with everybody in our team. Everybody helps us to take care of him. He is super comfortable around people and I am positive about the benefits of letting him grow up on the mat.

So, bringing him to the training sessions has probably been the least difficult part for me!

That sounds like that part was easier than you thought! What are the things that you sometimes run into?

I have encountered other difficulties. My main problem is that I have come to realize that combining all the things I do – the hard training, raising Tiago and having a demanding job – leads to both mental and physical stress. I have to admit that I have been either sick or feeling bad during every single one of my post-baby competitions.

I have a strong desire to compete, to perform well, to achieve results, to win. But I find it difficult to focus having to bring my son to competitions, and physically I have sometimes been a wreck. It is also sometimes frustrating not to have the time to drill and master my techniques.

How do you deal with this mentally? 

Despite these difficulties, I feel privileged to be able to work, be a mother and train/compete at the same time. I am still trying to find a balance, and I am sure it will all get better in time!

In life, you cannot have everything, so you have to do the best with what you have.

You competed in Abu Dhabi, how did that go?

Yes, a few weeks ago I competed in Abu Dhabi, at Abu Dhabi World Pro. This was a rewarding experience and a revelation for me. My mental training has paid off and finally I felt relaxed and focused before and during the fights. I achieved my goal to feel well during the competition.

This is different from what you mentioned previously about competing. What changed?

I am pretty sure that one success factor was not having to bring along Tiago. Having said that, I think I have learned my lesson: in order to feel well and perform well in a competition, I need to focus on myself, and myself only.

So you will do this more often?

In the future, I will try to leave my son at home when I compete, even if it means that I can’t compete as often as I want. The pleasure of competing for me lies in the challenge to perform at my best under extraordinary circumstances. This just is not possible when my attention is split between the mats and my son.

Do you have any tips for (potential) mothers who (want to) do the same?

The first thing I would like to say to any future mother who also wants to pursue a career in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is that the sport can or will never be your number one priority again (for good and for bad). There will be many times when you will have to make changes in your schedule and cancel classes. And even when you do have time to train, sometimes you are just too tired to make it happen. Having said this, I do encourage any mother to continue training and competing!

So what attitude do you have towards training now?

I guess it starts with letting go some of your perfectionism.

Accept that the baby’s needs come first. Be open-minded, flexible and intuitive in your motherhood in order to create a balance.

And how does this work out practically for you?

Is your baby happy in the gym? Good! Then don’t worry too much that it is past bedtime. At least that is how we do it. If I want to attend evening class, then our son hits the pillow later. If I attend lunch class, then he will have lunch an hour later than normal. If our son is tired or sick, then of course I take him home! This kind of flexibility is key. And to be honest, I believe mothers (are forced to) become experts in organising their time to fit in as much as possible in their already busy schedules.

If I can do it, then anyone can!

The “struggle” of being a mother, having a professional career and being an athlete all at the same time ultimately feels like a blessing. Having to care for someone else other than myself has been nothing but good for my ego.

Anything else for advice?

My final advice for future mothers in the sport is to be patient. Don’t start training too soon! Giving birth can be compared to being injured, technically speaking. This means a lot of “rehab” is needed before you can start training hard again.

Is there anything you’d like to say to women in jiu jitsu?

I would like to give a big shout out to all women! We still fight everyday against inequalities, and there are so many things that I cannot get my head around. Why do women always have to fight twice as hard to get not even half the recognition that men get? We are paid less, we are not welcome in all competitions, and in the academy of one of the biggest names in BJJ, women don’t even train with men.

You don’t even need arguments to justify discrimination against women. “Because you are a woman” – is often used as a reason. To me, being a woman equals being strong. We overcome prejudice, fear, social convention and many other obstacles. We step into martial arts gyms with physically stronger men who stare at us, wondering what we are doing there. We outdo ourselves over and over again. Yes, women are my heroes! I am hopeful that things will change. But until then, women need to stick together and support each other.

Thank you for your time Johanna, and Happy Mother’s Day everyone! 

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Rose el Sharouni

Rose is a purple belt at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy Amsterdam (Checkmat). Besides being one of the co-founders of Ladies Only BJJ, she is a full-time med student and holds a MsC degree in Human Movement Sciences.

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