Interview with a Champion: Kristina Barlaan

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Story reprinted with permission from Gi Soap Magazine; it originally appeared HERE.

UPDATE: Since completing this interview, Kristina was awarded her black belt.

Kristina Barlaan is an excellent competitor who has been on a tear in the competition circuit. On top of that, she does excellent work in the BJJ community, especially for the women of the sport. Check out what she had to say:

GS Mag: Could you just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kristina: My name is Kristina Barlaan and I am a 4th degree brown belt under Caio Terra. I have been training for over 7 and a half years and I can honestly say that not only was starting Jiu-Jitsu one of the best decisions of my life, but it has literally saved my life and helped me to become a better person.

GS Mag: What got you started in BJJ?

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Photo Credit: CTRL Industries

Kristina: My first introduction into martial arts was Muay Thai and the program that I decided to train in happened to be inside a Jiu-Jitsu school; Cesar Gracie’s Gracie Fighter Academy to be exact. The first time I was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu, my Muay Thai coach tried showing me some no-gi submissions, but I just remembered that the moves didn’t make any sense to me. The concept of Jiu-Jitsu, which is that a smaller and weaker fighter could be effective against someone who was bigger and stronger, didn’t seem believable, so I just assumed that maybe Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t for me. After a year of just training in solely Muay Thai, my teammate encouraged me to give Jiu-Jitsu another try, but this time with the gi. The gi made all the difference.

All of a sudden, the movements made sense and despite being the smallest person in class, I felt strong and capable. Jiu-Jitsu felt natural to me and I wanted to do more. I even had to break up with my boyfriend at the time in order to start training because he didn’t approve of me starting a new sport where there would be so much contact. After trying to jump into classes whenever I could, I decided to sign up and I remember around that time was when Caio Terra first came to the academy as the new head instructor. As most people know, Caio is a very small athlete, but what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in his extraordinary technique. Caio was only a little bigger than me, yet he could sweep, submit, and control even the strongest of students with ease. His Jiu-Jitsu made me a believer and it is because of his attention to technique over everything else that I truly fell in love with Jiu-Jitsu. You can say I started because of the feeling of strength and empowerment I received and I stayed because of the limitless possibilities found within technique and finding what I believe to be my platform to bring purpose into my life.

GS Mag: You’ve had an amazing competition record, even winning Pan Ams this year. What sort of training schedule do you keep? Do you do any sort of programming to prepare for competition?

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Photo Credit: Erena Shimoda for Fightland.vice.com

Kristina: Schedule during a regular week involves a lot of training, teaching, and driving. Driving might seem like an ordinary task that everyone has to do, but it is because of the distances that I have to drive in a single day that makes it a huge part of my scheduling. I live 60 miles away from Caio’s academy and I also teach in several other affiliate schools which are also within 40-60 miles away from where I live. I like to train at least 5 days a week, but during competition camp, I will train 7 days a week. Depending on my teaching schedule I will train 1-2 times a day and I will also include weight training and Judo. In one day, I could weight train, drive 60 miles to do a 2-2.5 hour competition training session, drive another 25 miles in traffic to teach for 2 hours, then drive another 55 miles to get home.

Whether I am preparing for a competition or not, I am always at the gym. It’s literally my home away from home. When teaching isn’t as hectic, I can of course focus more on my training. That means spending anywhere between 4-6 hours on the mat in a day which can involve competition training, learning fundamentals, advanced training, and Judo. I only get one day in the week that I can use as a rest day from teaching responsibilities and, if I choose to train, I can make a lighter session.

GS Mag: You have been very vocal about the important role women play in the sport of BJJ. Could you give us some of your thoughts on how we could better improve the life of the female grappler? What are some ways that we could make the sport more appealing to women in general?

Kristina: The best way to improve Jiu-Jitsu for women and for anyone in general is to be fully supportive in every aspect. It may seem like a very broad answer, but I find that the simplest answers speak the most truth. The more opportunities and outlets women are given in the sport, the better. Women only classes, open mats, and seminars are great because it allows women to come together and be their own source of empowerment, but it is also necessary for women to be able to build trust with their male counterparts. We need to know and believe in the support we receive. We need to know that the opportunities we are given of genuine. I like knowing that I can look at any of my male teammates and have no doubts that they will see me as valuable and necessary to the success of the team. When a person realizes that they matter, that there is purpose in their presence, only great things can develop.

GS Mag: There have been many new competitions popping up and a number of competitors have voiced some criticisms regarding the way the IBJJF operates. Are you happy with where the sport is at in general, or do you believe that there are changes to be made?

Kristina: Change will always be necessary for anything to grow. I know the IBJJF isn’t perfect, but as of now, I’m pretty satisfied with where things are going. I also like the new variety of different promotions that are coming up. Diversity is also another important factor in growth and improvement. Speaking solely on organization and consistency of growth, I believe the IBJJF is doing the right things. The only thing I really feel the need to speak up on is the better treatment of female 10383014_814281101950815_3462171151874388462_nathletes, in ANY organization.

Female athletes have come a long way and that has been reflected in the addition of new weight and age divisions and the separation of belt ranks. Now, the next hurdle is for female athletes to receive equal pay and opportunities in prize money. Pro-divisions (divisions where money is awarded) are starting to become more common and the treatment in pay and available divisions between male and female competitors are very different. This can be most commonly noticed in the largest organizations like the IBJJF, ADCC, and UAEJJ. If people truly want more women in the sport and want the sport to grow more, organizations need to recognize and respect the value of their athletes and compensate and represent them properly and equally.

GS Mag: Was there ever a time you considered calling it quits?

Kristina: Whenever someone asks me when my toughest time was so far in Jiu-Jitsu, I always refer to my first year as a purple belt. Purple was the most challenging belt physically, technically, strategically, mentally, and emotionally, but it was particularly in my first year that I felt it the hardest because the transition from blue to purple didn’t feel smooth at all. I went from feeling at the top of my game and being put together to feeling like I didn’t belong while slowly unraveling. In my first year as a purple belt, I went through a series of different injuries, nothing that would require surgery, but serious enough to sideline me in training. There were popped ribs, dislocated joints, strained muscles and ligaments, pains in my lower back and knees, and a myriad of other problems that would really get into my head and suck the confidence out of me.

Then there were the tougher opponents. It seemed like everyone had their game together except for me and as things progressed, I started to really question if I was doing the right thing for myself. For the first time, I was painfully aware that I was scared to death of losing because my self-esteem as a person was heavily dependent on my ability as an athlete. I would think things like, “What good am I to people if I can’t even win?” and it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that that kind of thinking isn’t healthy. My value and self worth were so attached to my competition performances that soon I found myself making excuses for myself. Yes, I had injuries and my ability to “train hard” was hindered, but more and more I found it easier to blame those things for my lack luster performances just to save my dwindling self-esteem.

Also, having a history of depression and panic and anxiety attacks, I remember that it was at purple belt that I had the most breakdowns at competitions and at home. My relationships with my friends, family, and teammates were strained and I really felt like giving up on myself. It wasn’t until half-way through my second year as a purple belt that I admitted that I had a problem and that I need to help myself. It was only after having possibly one of my worst performances at a tournament that I realized just how severe my fear of losing and denial of needing help was that I finally decided to do something about it. I hated how my value as a person was attached to my value as an athlete and I wanted to regain the confidence I once had. I wanted that confidence to be real, regardless of if I won or lost, or if I performed well or not. I really committed to mental training and working toward rewiring my thought process and accepting myself. It was uncomfortable, awkward, and embarrassing

Photo Credit: Digitsu
Photo Credit: Digitsu

because it meant facing fears and issues that I had denied existed in order to mend and grow.

In one month, I went from one of my worst performances to one of my best performances, and I didn’t even win. For once, it didn’t matter. I placed 3rd in my weight and 2nd in the absolutes at the 2012 World Championship and it was that performance that made me a true believer in mental preparation and positive self-talk. I’m really thankful for my time at purple. I’m thankful for all the tears I cried, the injuries I nursed, the matches I lost, and the demons I faced. If it wasn’t for all of that internal struggling, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.

GS Mag: What advice would you give to people just getting started in the sport?

Kristina: It’s easy to become overwhelmed with everything in a Jiu-Jitsu class. You have to learn technique, learn new ways to move your body, figure out your body coordination, remember to breathe, and then experience the awkwardness that is rolling. You are going to be presented with a lot of challenges in the beginning, and there are many times that you feel like you are hitting a wall. These are the main pieces of advice I can give from my experiences as a white belt:

  • If you genuinely like the sport, bring that enthusiasm to class. It’s ok to feel intimidated, but remember why you are on the mat. You’re there to make yourself happy. Your teammates and instructors will be able to sense your enthusiasm, so when you show that you are putting in an honest effort, not only do you get to enjoy the challenge more, but you’ll feel the energy of the class rise along with you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Communicate to your instructors. Get advice from upper belts. You are sharing a mat with a whole bunch of other people who are there to learn and get better, so sometimes asking a question about a technique can be a big contribution to the class.
  • Focus on why a technique works more than just the technique itself. This is a big one. It’s easy to get lost with all the movements that make a technique, but the moves will never make sense until you understand WHY you are doing those moves. Why did the instructor use one grip over another? Why did they move their legs and hips a certain way? When you understand the meaning behind the movement, learning the technique becomes easier.
  • If you’re worried about training partners, try to pair up with someone of a higher rank. There’s nothing worse than training with someone who is not only bigger and stronger, but who also has no clue what they’re doing on the mat yet. Pick someone more knowledgeable. They will challenge you AND are less likely to hurt you since they know how to practice restraint.
  • Take a deep breath and HAVE FUN!

I have learned a lot over the years and the tips I shared are things I still do every day while I’m in class or at a seminar. They work for me and I’m sure they can be useful to anyone else.

GS Mag: Anyone you would like to give a shout-out to?

Kristina: There are a lot of people I would like to thank for constantly supporting and believing in not only me, but also in my vision. Firstly, I’d like to thank my Caio Terra and all of the black belts at the Caio Terra Academy for not only being my instructors, but for also being amazing coaches, mentors, and sources of motivation and encouragement. I would also like to say thank you to my sponsors Gi SoapCTRL IndustriesDigitsu, and the LA Jiu-Jitsu Club for seeing me and my dreams and backing me up so that I may go out to achieve my goals all while entrusting me to be the face of their products and company. Lastly, the biggest thank you goes to my friends, family, teammates, and fans. These people are who I choose to surround myself with on a daily basis and it is with that collaborative energy, drive, passion, and love that not only I, but WE, are able to accomplish great things.

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