The BJJ Fighter Who Never Gives Up - Teanna Taylor
Updated: Aug 27
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I’ll always get up after I fall. And whether I run, walk or have to crawl, I’ll set my goals and achieve them all” – Chris Butler
I remember this like it was yesterday. I was working as a Teaching Fellow in English for Academic Purposes at the University of Leeds and mentioned to a colleague that I was going to start BJJ. She looked at me for a good few seconds and with a puzzled look on her face, she said Teanna, I don’t mean to be rude, but aren’t you a bit old for that?
I was 29 at the time, had never stepped foot on the mats and had no background in any martial arts. Was I offended or discouraged by her comment? Absolutely not.
I heard something completely different. She believed I was too old. I believed she didn’t have the confidence to try something new herself and proceeded to project her own perceived limitations onto me.
While many women, and indeed men, begin BJJ a lot earlier than verging on the cusp of the Master’s 1 category, I’m a great believer that the biggest poison in life is regret.
My attempt to get into this new art I knew so little about could be successful or disastrous. Either way, I was willing to find out.
For a long time, it was disastrous and I honestly considered myself as one of the worst white belts that existed. It took me nearly two months to shrimp down the mats (a very basic movement that involves moving your hips backward to create space between you and your opponent).
Just as I’d mastered what a lot of new starters grasp after a couple of lessons, I was hospitalised for abdominal surgery and unable to train for several months. By the time I’d recovered, it was like starting all over again, but I didn’t give up.
Just as I was getting back into the swing of training and making slow but somewhat noticeable progress, I fell ill with what doctors initially believed was a brain tumor. Although this was swiftly ruled out, BJJ and weightlifting were prohibited by my neurological team as they didn’t know the underlying cause of my symptoms.
Once again, I was back at square one. Everything was pointing to me quitting BJJ because of my slow progress and health issues. Although I might not possess special, tangible talents, I do have an unreasonable level of persistence and perseverance and giving up just wasn’t an option.
I moved to Madrid in September 2016 and found a BJJ academy next to my house, which initially seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the instructor didn’t embody the characteristics of patience, humility, respect, and lack of ego, which are held in high regard in the BJJ community.
In the three months before my black belt partner and current coach moved to Madrid, I could count on two hands the number of times I didn’t leave training in floods of tears. My instructor told me outright – and I quote verbatim – I don’t know why you train. Your jiu-jitsu is sh*t and you don’t understand Spanish.
I explained I’d never claimed to be anything other than a low-level white belt and the reason I was attending classes was to improve. When I told him that in the UK I always had a matted room to drill, even if was the same technique for an hour, his response was that’s a complete waste of an hour.
I left in floods of tears and felt absolutely crushed. Being constantly yelled at for executing a technique incorrectly and humiliated in front of the whole class was tough but I didn't give up...
Soon after, the silver lining came; Stealth Oporto and Stealth Aluche were established, which I co-run with my partner. They’re the only bilingual clubs in Madrid where classes are translated between English and Spanish.
You might have seen the memes on social media about jitslexia, a pun on dyslexia that refers to observing the instructor demonstrating a technique, but when it comes it actually executing it, you do everything in the wrong order.
While I’m pleased to say my BJJ is now completely unrecognizable in comparison to the incredibly awkward white belt I used to be, I still struggle to pick up new techniques. When this happens, I keep working on the technique rather than advancing to the next one. As it’s an extension of what we’ve been practicing, it makes much more sense to refine and perfect the movements before adding extra details to what I’m already struggling with.
My instructor has no problem with this, but as each academy is different, do check with the coach out of respect to see if it’s an issue.
A common mantra in BJJ is don’t fear the fighter who does 1,000 techniques; fear the fighter who does one technique 1,000 times. As someone who needs to constantly drill, I consider it much more beneficial to continue working until everything falls into place, rather than getting only part of it right and then adding a more complicated move.
I find it difficult to learn visually, which might sound somewhat confusing giving the nature of BJJ demonstrations and the numerous tutorials available online. I learn kinesthetically and physically need to repeat the technique numerous times until my body remembers, so I can still successfully execute it even if my brain forgets.
People learn differently and at their own pace. Some will pick new techniques up in a heartbeat; for others, it takes longer. I’m unashamed to say I fall into the latter category and have to train every day, in addition to having 1-1 private sessions.
BJJ is a slow process but quitting doesn’t speed it up. The key is to avoid comparing your chapter five to another’s 25 and aim for progress, not perfection.
I started competing in October 2017 and was so excited to step onto the mats after having to withdraw from two previous planned competitions due to health reasons.
In the run-up to the competition, I was feeling very run down but believed this to be due to the stress of working. My next competition was two months later and I was thrilled to win gold but I was becoming increasingly aware that my heart wasn’t beating properly...
The day after the competition I was rushed to the hospital for the first of three suspected heart attacks. The underlying problem turned out to be issues with my internal organs that significantly affected my liver, heart, lungs, and intestines.
I was so unwell but still trained as much as I could, although at times that meant having to stop after the warm-up and sit at the side of the mats.
Nevertheless, I never once quit nor turned around to go back home, despite living just two minutes away from the gym. I rested when I needed to and ended up having seven surgeries in a year, which affected both my ability to train and compete but once again, quitting never once crossed my mind. I knew I’d come back stronger, despite the constant hospitalisations, preparation for surgery and recovery.
Just because you’re taking longer than others to progress, it by no means makes you a failure. On average, it takes a BJJ practitioner ten years to earn a black belt because of the intricacies of the art. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
Because of my health issues, I spent four years at white belt, twice as long as the average. After such a tumultuous ride at the lowest belt in BJJ, I knew I’d come too far to only come this far. So many people would have quit years ago but there was always something telling me to keep going, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Turning extreme adversity into advantage has developed my mindset to an extent that I undoubtedly wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for all the setbacks I’ve experienced so far in my BJJ journey. Although I officially have a blue belt tied around my waist, I’m a black belt in perseverance, persistence and resilience.
My refusal to give up has seen me make the podium in every single competition I have entered since white belt. In January 2019, I won silver at the Europeans in Lisbon – not a bad feat for the girl whose previous coach advised her not to bother with BJJ because she was so incompetent.
As Les Brown said: "Someone's opinion of you does not have to become your reality."
Don’t ever let someone tell you that you aren’t capable of doing something. Only you know what you have the capacity to achieve. Dream big, and dream fiercely.
If you’re not seeing results with your BJJ and feel like quitting, consider this: The last thing to grow on a fruit tree is the fruit.
Never give up.
Teanna Taylor is a blue belt under Stealth BJJ. Based in Madrid, she co-runs Stealth BJJ Oporto and Stealth BJJ Aluche, the only two bilingual clubs in the city. She also co-runs Jits and the City, a project that provides accommodation for fighters who want to combine a city break in Madrid with BJJ training.
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