Joanna Ziobronowicz is one of Gymbox’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructors, working as part of the Roger Gracie Academy. She’s recently returned from the World Master IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Las Vegas where she walked away with a gold medal, proving that when it comes to instructors, we’ve got the very best.
Hi Joanna! For those who don’t know, what is BJJ?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art and a combat sport derived from Kodokan Judo, focusing mainly on ground control and utilising joint locks and choke holds to control or defeat an opponent. Most importantly however, BJJ is a lifestyle, promoting health, physical fitness and building character. I feel like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is also a great empowering tool for kids and women, as its intention is for a smaller person to be able to beat a bigger opponent.
When a big guy comes to a BJJ dojo to try it out and gets triangle locked by a small kid half his size with barely any muscle there are two possible outcomes - he either embraces the challenge, gets fascinated and signs up - or he secures his ego and never comes back.
We have a saying in Jiu-Jitsu that unless you leave your ego at the door, you will never learn. Possibly this is one of the reasons why you very rarely see people with the wrong attitude in a Jiu-Jitsu gym. We compete with each other, but we shake hands and exchange hugs after each session. The spirit of Jiu-Jitsu truly unites people, creating very strong bonds.
Taking Gold in Las Vegas must have felt incredible. Tell us about the competition.
Before the competition, my training consisted of Jiu-Jitsu every day – twice a day wherever possible – and rest on the weekends. I also did some strength and conditioning.
On the day of the competition, I was very focused; I chose not to think about the fights and relaxed my mind. Stress drains your energy levels, so I prefer to keep my mind off the competition in the hours leading to the event. 10 or 15 minutes before my fight I put the headphones on and listen to the music that puts me into a good mood. I remind myself why I’m there and why I’m doing this. I feel excited and ready, without hesitation or fear taking over.
Fear is a funny one, because it always tries to creep in, but you can’t let it control you. For me, mental focus and readiness is crucial. Once you are called out and you step on the tatami, you are in ‘the zone’, and it’s just you and your opponent. You can’t hesitate, as it will break your game. You go for it, as if your life depended on it. It's then up to your reactions and timing, your cardio and endurance. You give your best.
Then the whistle blows and you hear your teammates' screams - the most wonderful feeling in the world! And of course, after the win we celebrate...
What inspired you to get into the field of self-defence, and then compete?
I must have been about 6 when I first saw Van Damme on the TV with his fancy spin kicks and splits. That’s when I first recall being fascinated by martial arts and dreaming of becoming a fighter myself.
In what ways has it changed you most as a person?
It changed my life in too many ways to mention, but most importantly martial arts are huge character builders - teaching you how to be resilient, how to remain calm in stressful situations, how to support each other, teaching you respect, discipline and perseverance. When things go wrong in life and you face adversity you think to yourself: If I survived all those training sessions and matches, I can survive anything!
Tell us about the training programmes that you develop and run.
Martial arts for me wouldn’t mean much if I wasn’t able to share it with others. I don’t only do it for the endorphin kick - I believe in Jiu-Jitsu and the ways in which it can improve people’s lives. It can help overcome many barriers. It’s amazing for kids as an anti-bullying program, or it can empower women and give them confidence.
When I see young kids being taken off the streets and ‘saved’ by jiu-jitsu’, or young girls overcoming their fears, this is very rewarding indeed.
In the words of the great Mahatma Ghandi:
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.
“It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination.”
The above is especially applicable to martial arts.
How can people benefit from taking on a self-defence course?
Self-defence courses are mainly about awareness, preparedness, prevention and deflection. It is all about being assertive and setting boundaries, and preparing for the unexpected.
I think self-defence courses for women as well as anti-bullying courses for kids should be implemented in every school. For women, self-defence is not only about being able to de-escalate a conflict, or being able to protect oneself. It is also about giving women the confidence and power over their circumstances.
What would you say to someone who was interested to try out a class, but who felt anxious about it?
Self-defence courses are not physically straining - we don’t aim to train athletes or prepare someone for a battle. They’re mainly to ingrain certain values and behaviours in women so that they feel more confident and brave.
You can follow Louise on Twitter: @iamlouisesmith