Meet the Pandas – From Grasshopper to Valhalla – Valerie Worthington, PhD

The Panda Nation is not only comprised of mat savages and sneaky-jiujiterios like Alex da Silva, who we introduced earlier, but it also includes true warrior-scholars. For this edition of Meet the Pandas we talk to Valerie Worthington. Black belt under the Carlson Gracie lineage, certified life coach, PhD in educational psychology, jabbing voice of reason in the BJJ blogosphere.

Second degree black belt Valerie ‘Valhalla’ Worthington (47) has been involved with the art since the late nineties, learning under the legendary Carlson Gracie Sr. – amongst others. Known for her highly effective instruction at Princeton BJJ and Groundswell Grappling Concepts, Val is also a prolific writer on the gentle art with two influential books published. More importantly, thanks to the art and the jiu-jitsu community she was able to battle the darkness of depression and anxiety.

How did you get started in jiu-jitsu?

Valerie Worthington: Around 1997 I was a graduate student, and I had gotten kind of sedentary. I wanted to do something to stay fit and active, so I ran a couple of marathons. That was a great way of getting into a goal-orientated mindset. But of course I got bored with running. Then I remembered Grasshopper from the TV-series Kung Fu – the monk who walks the earth, fighting evil with Kung Fu. I figured a martial art would potentially keep my interest for a long time – maybe forever. So I had my mind set on learning that stuff. I happened to live close to a place that offered a bunch of martial arts, and I started with Muay Thai. Well, wouldn’t you know it: kicking, kneeing, punching and elbowing people is totally awesome, but NOT so much fun when you’re on the receiving end.

Even if you win, you still take a beating.

VW: Exactly. Your shelf life in that art is very short. Thankfully the same place offered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I saw people doing (what I later learned were) mount escapes, hip escapes up and down the mat, guard sit-ups – those sort of things. I looked at them and thought they were absolutely crazy... But I also knew I had to be one of them. I tried it out, and that was that.

Were there other women training when you started?

VW: Yes, a good handful! I think that made me realize that the art was right for me. As I moved around I trained at other places that had fewer women on the mat – but still a lot of welcoming men. However, I think it that having a bunch of female training partners was a great way to start.

When did jiu-jitsu ‘click’ for you?

VW: Let me give you an analogy. When I learned statistics in grad-school, I felt like I was taking in a whole bunch of information at once, and I couldn’t process any of it. The professor was speaking a language I understood, and I knew he was using words I’ve heard before, I just didn’t understand his particular combinations of words. Halfway through the semester, all of a sudden I felt like I had some sort of a structure. I could see how the material fit together. That’s exactly what happened with jiu-jitsu, only it took longer. I’m trying to remember that exact A-Ha!-moment. There was one time when I actually swept someone and ended up in mount. I thought: Oh my god, this actually stuff works! Immediately followed by: Okay, I have no idea what to do from where (laughs). But it was something. Being able to execute a sequence, getting on top and stabilizing for a while – that was the first time when I saw how the separate pieces fit together.

What did you struggle with most?

VW: My main obstacle was psychological. I was really intimidated, and I had the presence of mind to know just how terrible I was – so that was a double hurdle. It took me a while to learn how to take my place, to take up space as a student and to be okay with that. It’s funny. The physical part didn’t hinder me in the same way that it does a lot of women. What also bothered me was claustrophobia – which I didn’t knew I had, until my instructor’s gi top fell on my face and I tapped in panic. He said: ‘What are you doing?! I didn’t have a finish yet!’ I said I felt I couldn’t breathe. He said: ‘Well, you’re going to need to work on that.’ So I did. I still don’t like to have my face smothered, but at least I don’t do the Tap of Shame anymore. Guess that’s progress.

Tell us your journey through the ranks.

VW: I had my first classes in Michigan, and then I moved to Chicago for a job. That’s when I started training with Carlson Senior and Junior. I went from white to purple at their school. I actually got my purple belt from Carlson Gracie Sr. before he passed away. Then I moved to California. There, I got my brown and black belts from two other instructors from the Carlson lineage: John Ouano and Johnny Ramirez, who are both under Rodrigo Medeiros, an old-school Carlson guy. So it all stayed in the same side of the family.

Did you go into competition mode right away?

VW: I think I competed one or twice as a blue belt when I lived in Chicago, but I decided that it wasn’t for me. I figured I didn’t need it to get better at jiu-jitsu. But the real reason was fear. I was terrified. When I landed in Southern California I realized there were competitions being held every week, so I got in the habit of helping my teammates prepare. Eventually I dawned on me – after my instructors gently started to push the issue – that I might do okay at competition, and that I should give it another shot. Finally I was able to tap into my fear. Once I admitted that I was scared I just went for it. At purple I competed a lot, because I wanted to learn how to contain the fear. After a while I developed a comfort with my discomfort – as my friend likes to put it.

Sometimes you have to go into the places that scare you.

VW: Definitely. A lot of it is just in your mind. By going out there I was able to take out some of the mystique, the abject fear that surrounds it all. I know so many people who get so excited to compete, but I never got to that stage. Right before I stepped on the mat, I would always hope there would be an earthquake or something (laughs). Anything that would cause enough of a disruption so that I wouldn’t have to compete.

How has your perspective changed?

VW: The longer I stay in this game, the wider my perspective gets. Winning tournaments is fantastic, the level of skill you need just to be able to contend is insane – especially these days. But it’s only a small part of what jiu-jitsu can do for people. In my case, I’m 47 years old. No spring chicken. I’d like to think I’m ageing as gracefully as a I can, but if I want to do this for the long haul I need to be smart about my training. Right now, that doesn’t include training for competition. Although I’ll never say never…

So where does the nickname Valhalla come from?

VW: Believe it or not, there was a time before social media and YouTube. In order to find out about what was going in the jiu-jitsu scene, we had to resort to obscure online message boards with screen-names. Valhalla sounded vaguely combative to me, and there was also a great gi company around by the same name. It sort of stuck.

What do you do besides jiu-jitsu to stay injury-free?

VW: There was a time when I was beating my body into the ground. I was training twice a day, lifting weights and doing metabolic conditioning workouts – all that stuff. Well, I started to break down badly. My hair started falling out, I got incredibly sick. I realized I was treating my body like it was something other than me, I was beating it into submission. I had to realize that my body is a partner in crime that needs to be taken care of. So now I work with a physical therapist who helps me with a smart weight training regimen. Once a week I squat, once a week I deadlift, and once I week I do a workout that involves some kind of power cleans. I keep it simple. Another thing I love is walking. I live in Philadelphia so whenever possible I walk everywhere. It’s both a physical thing and it gives me mental clarity. It’s almost like a walking meditation, it’s how I find balance.

How did you end up in a teacher-role?

VW: Back in California, I had gotten my brown belt from Johnny and John, and I think they just needed someone to fill up a spot. They had done so much for me that I wanted to help out, and at the same time teaching was also something I was terrified of doing – so it was important for me to tackle. I thought: oh crap, here’s jiu-jitsu again helping me stretch myself. Stretching yourself is annoying. What I really appreciate about my instructors, is that they never made any fanfare about me teaching. I got no special treatment, they just supported me all the way. As I progressed and taught more classes and seminars I built up more confidence. For the most part my teaching experiences have been very positive.

You’ve been very outspoken about your battles with depression and anxiety. How has jiu-jitsu helped you cope?

VW: Jiu-jitsu was a double-edged sword. It’s hard to explain. Even as a child, I always remember feeling sadness, while at the same time recognizing that there wasn’t any reason for me to be sad. I had a wonderful home life and loving people around me. So many benefits and opportunities. For a long time I thought I was just being ungrateful and not doing life ‘right’. When jiu-jitsu came along it gave me so much joy, that it really threw into contrast all of the other things that weren’t going well – and in some cases were actively pulling me down. Jiu-jitsu was a kind of shoehorn that pried me out of my daily existence, it provided a new perspective. I think that part of my depression and anxiety was chemical, and part was circumstantial. The art and the sense of comradery made me able to address the circumstantial aspects. That was really hard. But it helped me to see that it IS possible to have feelings, goals and connections in your life that really make your heart sing. Before, I hadn’t felt a lot of that.

Did that struggle help you become a better instructor?

VW: I think I became more receptive. Jiu-jitsu in teaches you to read people pretty well. One of the things I have tried to do, is to take my first impression of a person and act on it. I’m at the stage of my development where I can pull people aside when I see they are tense or troubled, and to offer some help. Either through showing jiu-jitsu moves to help them move better, or just being there to listen to whatever’s troubling them. Over the years I’ve found myself in many situations in which people felt safe enough to share their experiences with me. So I decided to become a certified life coach. That gave me some tools to make sure that I wasn’t doing any harm (by giving bad advice), or inappropriately imposing my view on whatever people were going through.

You have a background in psychology, right?

VW: My doctorate is in educational psychology. I’m not certified to see clients, but I understand learning theory and how the characteristics of the learner impacts the learning situation. Like motivation, culture, prior knowledge – those sort of thing. So I bring all of that to the training environment. Right now I’m working on a master’s degree in mental health counselling, because the life-coaching only took me so far. Ultimately I’d like to work more with our community, because there are many people suffering from depression. It’s heartbreaking.

Pick one thing you’d like to eliminate from jiu-jitsu, forever…

VW: Technique wise, I’d have to say the lockdown – when it’s only just to stall and hang out there. I consider that to be a very, very annoying position. I can get out of it, but I don’t want to have to (laughs). Another thing I’d like to get rid of, is the idea that a black belt confers status and power in any other aspect but jiu-jitsu.

Why does the art keep you intrigued?

VW: Why do I keep training? Like my friend David ‘The Rock’ Jacobs says: I just can’t not… The other reason is jiu-jitsu is the no. 1 mechanism that allows me to do the stuff I want to do. I love it for itself, and it’s a way for me to write, to teach, to have fun, and to help people. Ultimately, my life goal is to be a good person. A force for good in the world. More than anything I’ve tried in my life, jiu-jitsu gives me the most opportunities to pay it forward.

Find more about Valerie Worthington at Follow her on Instagram: @worthingtonvalerie

Daniël Bertina is a writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami

To hear more of Val's story, read Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jumpstarted My Search for a Fulfilling Life, a memoir of her experiences since starting BJJ and the cross-country journey it lead her on.

Available as a digital download from Artechoke Media and in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.

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