Meet the Pandas – The Panda from Paris – Claire-France Thévenon
In Meet the Pandas we explore what drives the many members of the Panda Nation. In the previous episode we introduced Javier Palomo: walking encyclopedia of the grappling arts, host of the Grapper Union Podcast and combat wrestling world champion. Now, we put the spotlight on BJJ black belt Claire-France Thévenon of MK Team, multiple time IBJJF medalist, 4th degree judo black belt, half guard sweeping machine and French panda.
After Claire-France Thévenon discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it took a while for her to let go of her judo instincts, ingrained by years of competition. Now, she teaches and trains full time at her academy MK Team Paris, adding visualizations and mental conditioning to her already powerful hybrid judo & BJJ game.
How did you get your start in martial arts?
Claire-France Thévenon: I took up judo when I was nine years old. All my brothers and sisters trained in that art at one point. I wanted to give it a shot, because we would always fight and wrestle around the house. So it felt totally natural. I loved it from the first moment I stepped on the mat, and I never really lost my love for judo. Even after I discovered jiu-jitsu.
How did you find BJJ?
CFT: My first sensei Bruno Louis was a 6th dan in judo, and he really liked the traditional forms and ne-waza (matwork in judo). So he taught me some basic grappling on the ground. But it still was mostly focused on pins, very different from the stuff we do in BJJ. Bruno was an old school judoka, but blessed with an open mind. He also trained in traditional jiu-jitsu, and he was always looking for new ways to expand his skills. He taught me early on that the practice of martial arts should be a lifelong journey of learning – on every level. I owe a lot to him. Bruno discovered BJJ and started blending those techniques with his judo. Then at one point, he invited me to a BJJ seminar for the French Judo Federation, taught by Olivier Michaïlesco. Olivier then became my BJJ ‘mestre’. And I have been with him ever since.
What do you remember about that seminar?
CFT: I was just blown away. Olivier showed me a bunch of fantastic moves, but it was very hard for me to process what was actually going on. It was really different from the ne-waza I knew. I understood some of the basics like hip escapes, shrimping and bridging. But I knew nothing about mobility, inverting, or even the entire concept of having a guard! The only thing I did understand right away, was that I had a serious lack of knowledge.
Can you describe how BJJ was different?
CFT: In France, the style of judo groundwork focuses mainly on stability. Because there is very limited time to work on the mat, the objective of ne-waza is mostly getting a quick pin, the immobilization: oseo-komi. But all the principles that are dominant in the standing part of judo (tachi-waza): grip fighting, subtle movement and balance, those somehow weren’t addressed at all when it came to mat work. For me, BJJ filled that void. Even in my judo school we did some lapel chokes, because my teacher liked them. But even then, most of my ne-waza training revolved around blocking and stalling. The weird thing about the French ne-waza system was, that it was taught with linear techniques. The idea was that the moves work the same way, every time. But that’s not realistic. You always have to deal with stronger, faster, and more skilled opponents giving you resistance, so in reality you need to constantly adapt your techniques. This awareness is obviously there in tachi-waza, but on the ground it was totally lacking. I found that hiatus fascinating.
What was your first weapon in BJJ?
CFT: Deep half guard. It’s weird, even as a white belt I ended up in that position a lot. It was an old reflex from judo, because when you trap one of your opponent’s legs in half guard, you break the pin and get a standing restart. Without even thinking about it, I would always end up in that position. I’m super comfortable there.
Tell us about your lineage.
CFT: I got all my BJJ belts from Olivier Michaïlesco of MK Team. He’s a third degree black belt under Flavio Behring, and he started his BJJ training at the oldest BJJ academy in France, Cercle Tissier. It used to be a very strong team, but there was a big falling out and now most of the black belts have gone their own way. Two years ago we also decided to become independent, and to build up our own team. Now we have about 25 affiliated schools in France. I’m a member of the directional staff of the academy, and I’m very proud to be a part of this organization.
You’re an active competitor. Is that due to your judo background?
CFT: Definitely. In the judo nationals I competed in the first division at heavyweight. Or, to be more precise. I was among the best in the second division, and always placed at the bottom of the first division. So let’s say I was really good at the medium level, but I got killed at the top level (laughs). I started competing when I was a kid, so when I entered BJJ tournaments I had a lot more experience than most people. But I never fought at white or blue belt. I started at purple.
That’s a brave move. At purple belt most people are killers…
CFT: I was lucky, because I was pretty heavy. A lot of my opponents just didn’t have my athleticism and competition experience from judo – and that carried me a long way. To be honest, I think I would have had much harder matches at a lighter weight. I have a lot more trouble with tricky spider guards and flexibility based games. Last year we sent two judo girls from our school to a major tournament at purple belt. One of them was a lightweight, with Olympic level judo. She lost her first match even though she was athletically superior, because she was out-smarted and beat by a more technical game. The other fought at a heavier weight, and she had far less difficulties. So the scary technical wizards are definitely at the lighter weights.
What match has made you the most proud?
CFT: To be honest, the fights I’m most happy about, are not always the fights I’ve won. And I have won fights I wasn’t proud of, because they weren’t big challenges. Now I’m discovering the level at black belt. So far I’ve lost plenty of matches, but I’ve learned a lot from each and every one of them. It’s a shark pool at this level, all the girls are there to kill. I love it.
Let’s flip it around. Which match taught you the most?
CFT: There are few matches that stand out. I remember when I fought a tough Russian girl at a judo ne-waza tournament ran by the JJIF. It was a super hard match. I knew I was more technical, but she immediately scored 5 points. Somehow, during the match I was able to switch it up mentally, and I was able to pull out the win. It wasn’t anything technical I did – it was more of a state of mind that helped me to win the match. Then, in Lisbon at the Europeans, about three years ago, I won the brown belt division with an ippon seoi and a bit of movement from the top. It wasn’t a spectacular match, but my whole team was there with me, and that was a powerful moment… Oh, and recently in Dublin I fought and lost against a crazy featherweight making quite a name for herself, Ffion Davies from Wales. That was a super intense fight. That girl is only 23 years old. It should be illegal to be so young and so good.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
CFT: In general, I think the BJJ world is not an easy world for girls. So it took a while for me to find my way. When it comes to techniques, I learned that there are unlimited techniques – but some positions are just not made for your body. For example, I would love to be Paulo Miyao and do the super modern cool stuff, but the fact is that I’m not that flexible. But there are other things I can do very well, like pressure passing and deep half guard. Like in judo, you have to find and adapt techniques that work for your body. In the beginning you just have no idea, so it becomes frustrating. Once as a blue belt, I tried to use the Electric Chair on a black belt in our academy. I’d seen it on YouTube (laughs). But she could do the splits, so my move went nowhere. The biggest thing I had to learn, was to figure out which moves work best on different body types.
Are you doing this BJJ-thing full time?
CFT: Yes, both training and teaching. In France it’s not easy to make a living with jiu-jitsu, but I manage. I don’t live like a princess, but I do what I love. And that’s most important.
What do you do for physical and mental well-being?
CFT: I used to do a lot of physical training. But I don’t really have time now. Nowadays I do a lot of visualization and mental conditioning. It’s been very important in my life. I would have never been able to compete at such a high level without it. Sometimes, all that’s holding you back in life are the mental blocks you put in your own path. You have to believe in yourself. I have a mental coach that runs me through different scenarios, like when you’re losing and you have to find a way to win. Some people lose their minds because of pre-competition stress, but that was never a problem for me. There were other moments of stress in my life that I managed to deal with effectively, thanks to my mental training.
What else to you do for fun in Paris, drink wine and eat baguettes?
CFT: I would like to drink more, but I’m dieting so… unfortunately, no room for alcohol (laughs). To be honest, I don’t have much free time, because I work a lot. When I’m not on the mat I take care of the business side of our academy. To relax I like to watch movies. I studied cinema and I work as a writer for a few websites, like Jits.fr – but that’s more on the side. To be a good writer you need some ‘boring time’ to clear your mind. And I don’t have a lot of that right now.
What’s the most important thing you learned in the art?
CFT: Jiu-jitsu is truly addictive. But it’s a really bad idea to go crazy,start training multiple times a day, and then completely burn out after a year. I tell new people to take it easy, train just a few times a week and keep that going. Whatever you do in the art, it has to be sustainable. You have to take care not to overload yourself. You’ve got to be aware of the BJJ trap – always trying to pull you back in.
Why have you stuck with the art for all these years?
CFT: I was really passionate about judo before, but in BJJ I found a way to learn all the time. Because there is constant evolution in the art, you can always experience something totally new. But most importantly, I love how it’s so very primal. It’s great to wrestle with another human being. It takes me back to feeling like a kid, roughhousing with my siblings. In essence, BJJ is a child’s game. One that keeps you young.
Claire-France Thévenon trains and teaches at www.mkteamparis.com. Follow her on Instagram: @panda_jjb