TSMMA Cherry Hill Students Overcome Bullying and Abuse Through MMA Training
When I signed my son up for MMA, I expected him to learn how to defend himself and gain confidence to face up to the bullies in his life. The reality has fully surpassed all expectations. What started out as a resource for my son has turned into the best thing that could have happened to either of us.
I was never the athletic person. Content to keep my nose in a book and watch from the sidelines, I never felt coordinated enough to participate in team sports. Always 10-30 pounds overweight and with acne scars, I never felt like I fit in or stood a chance in the perpetual beauty contest of Southern California where I grew up. I was smart, but struggled with self-esteem issues most of my life.
Being fairly independent, I found myself at UC Santa Cruz, where women are celebrated and empowered. Heard the horror stories of women who find themselves in abusive relationships and believed that would never be me. Six years later, with just one suitcase, I left my entire life behind and began a new life with my baby boy in Westmont, New Jersey. Those first few years were tough as I struggled to deal with the mental, emotional, physical fall out, work full time, and raise my son.
Those who know him know my son, Chaos, as a gregarious, bright, personable, energetic person. An extrovert if you ever met one. My social butterfly, so opposite of me. Although the youngest in his class, being big for his age meant he looked like the older boys. He faced his share of personality differences in school and had a love/hate relationship with one of the biggest bullies. Chaos stood up to the boy from day one, was suspended in first grade for it, but always claimed there was something good in the boy, and seemed to be one of his few friends. One of the things I am most impressed with my son is how many of his closest friends are the kids who are shunned by others. He doesn’t judge by looks, but by action and character. And he’s adamantly, fiercely held to this.
In third grade, the school principal and counselor opened communication with me because Chaos was saying some disturbing things. Over the years he’d also had conflicts with another boy; a boy who was a lot smaller than him, but who rubbed Chaos the wrong way. Chaos once told the boy his life would be so much better if the boy had never been born. And over time began telling people he wished he was dead. Afraid he would hurt himself, the school and I worked with Chaos and monitored things to be sure he was safe. He didn’t explain a lot about anything in particular that was bothering him though. He appeared to be happy and energetic, get great grades at school, but when he would say he wished he was dead, we knew something wasn’t right. It took through most of fourth grade before I finally understood the extent to which this boy was bullying him, right in front of teachers and classmates. Chaos hadn’t stood up to him and even though he tried to tell the boy to stop, he never used more than words to defend himself. The boy was small, so I couldn’t understand why Chaos wouldn’t do more, except that he was terrified of getting suspended or expelled from school. The bullying had happened for so long, Chaos felt paralyzed whenever the boy was near him.
By the end of the year the teacher cried and apologized for not paying closer attention and protecting Chaos from the situation. The boy would harass Chaos every day, usually some form of verbal taunting, but also throwing things at him, threatening him, kicking him under the desk. The school suggested fifth grade would be better, but only because the boy was going to a different school. I asked how they would resolve the situation for middle school, and they didn’t have an answer.
A few weeks into the start of 5th grade, we attended the Township block party. Tiger Schulmann’s had a table set up, with a costumed tiger and students in their uniforms. I had seen commercials for TSK and had wanted to move Chaos from gymnastics to martial arts for awhile. Joshu Shane Baker explained about their program and offered us a trial class. Two days later he called and scheduled a time for us to come in. Joshu Alexander was the instructor at the time, and Chaos went into the kid’s class with an open mind. His introduction to the world of mma was through the loud game, the focus game, and a class ranging from black belts to beginners where he felt included. After class Joshu asked Chaos if he liked it, if he could give 100%, focus, and become one of his students, and Chaos answered with a resounding YES. He was hooked instantly.
On the way home I knew I had to let him sign up. But I had to tell him we’d have to make some sacrifices to pay for it. He knew what that meant but begged me to figure out how to make it work. I sat and watched every class Chaos attended. He didn’t participate in team sports, so I wasn’t a Soccer mom. But, evenings and Saturdays, juggling work, school, and guitar lessons, I was an MMA mom. I watched, listened, and learned along with him. I was immediately impressed with the holistic sense of the school. Although they were being taught how to punch and kick, it felt like self defense was just a piece of many things they were being taught. Instead they were learning discipline: focus, to not give up even when things get hard, to have a positive attitude, to try, to work through pain, to be tough and strong, and to have fun. They were given instructions on how to face bullies; on nutrition; on applying discipline to all aspects of their lives. And my favorite observation was the positive atmosphere, positive attitude of the instructors. Everything began with a positive statement, “that kick was great! Try it this way now and it will be even stronger.” The children were treated with respect. They were not belittled. I listened to this and thought about how I could apply this communication tactic in my own life as a manager at work.
During this time of focusing on Chaos and encouraging him to stand up to the bullies in his life, I found I had to stand up to the bullies in my own life and took the final step of filing for divorce. I felt like I couldn’t promote everything to Chaos if I wasn’t following my own advice. And watching him at MMA gave me a sense of empowerment and courage to do what I had to do. Chaos started middle school and the bullying started again along with it. Together we immediately approached the school administration and teachers. Within a day, their schedules had been rearranged so they no longer had any classes together. Chaos flourished through the next two years and is looking forward to even more fun in 8th grade. Chaos knows he has a support team through MMA who will help him through if any tough situations arise again.
After a few months of watching his classes, some of the adult students started asking me when they were going to see me on the mat. Initially I was hesitant. It was sweaty and smelly and looked hard, but over time, the beginner class began to look like fun. I could punch and kick a pad. I didn’t have to grapple and roll around in the sweat. So I decided if I could re-arrange my budget, I’d sign up too. It started with parent night, when students were invited to bring their parents in for a class. I was hooked. It took a little while, but a year after Chaos started, put on a uniform. It was so much fun. Such a hard work out. I was hugely impressed with my son. By then he was in the advanced kickboxing and grappling classes too.
I spent a year going two nights a week. I told Joshu Baker I didn’t intend to do anything more than core class. He said, “ok”, didn’t push me, but hinted eventually I might change my mind. Sure enough I asked to add a night, and by the end of the first year, I wasn’t squeamish about the sweaty mat any more. So after all my ranting about how I wouldn’t do it, I started grappling warm-ups. I felt ridiculous in my first few grappling sessions, tied up like a pretzel. But, being taught step-by-step, I knew with practice, over time, I could learn. It was a whole new level of work out, as much mental as physical. Typically the smallest person on the mat, I had to learn to breathe, not panic, move myself not them. From there it didn’t take long to start kickboxing. I was afraid of that more than anything. Afraid of how I would react the first time I got hit. What kind of memories would it bring back, would I panic, would I ever get over it? Boy did I get to test all of those questions quickly. One of my first classes, my partner had especially powerful round kicks, and great flexibility (although I’m only 5’2 so it’s not that hard to kick up to my head). I didn’t quite understand how to hold the muay thai pads, so when she threw the kick, I absorbed it with my face. I was stunned. Embarrassed. It hurt a little, but I’d been hurt worse so I knew I’d be ok. The real problem was the rush of emotion, the sensation I felt brought an onslaught of memory how I’d felt that before. I didn’t know whether to be mad or sad or how exactly to shake it off. People thought I was just hurt, and didn’t know half of my reaction was from the memories, not my throbbing jaw. I didn’t quite feel myself the rest of the day, and we still talk sometimes about that kick. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. I’m strong. I didn’t break. The whole point of this class is to learn how to protect myself. Rather than cower down and take a beating, I’m learning how to defend, protect, and fight back. I had a choice. I could get stuck and let the memories keep me down or I could listen, learn, and figure out how to get past the fear.
Today I still don’t like when I take a hit to the head, but that’s because it means I didn’t block or duck and I need to work on something. I no longer have that onslaught of emotional reaction. I’ve worked past it, and it is just that – the past. I am who I am now – a strong woman, getting stronger everyday – I have a yellow belt in MMA. It makes me smile with disbelief sometimes. I think of where I’ve been, how far I’ve come, the people in my life I cowered to, and wonder what my highschool classmates would think if they could see me now. I turned 40 this year, and am in the best shape of my life. Toned, fit, strong, I almost have 6-pack abs. Unbelievable. I’ve learned how to throw combinations in kickboxing; how to use tiny openings to create more space in grappling; how to breathe and re-gain composure quickly. And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.
In the first 10 years that I lived in NJ, my only social life was through work. I didn’t have friends to socialize with, I didn’t date, and aside from my sister, entire family is on the west coast. I had some friends at work, but only saw them at work events. Similarly, Chaos had friends at school, but didn’t attend sleepovers, talk on the phone, or spend much time with them outside of school. In the past two years, all of that has changed. We have an MMA family who opened their arms to us, made us feel welcomed, and gave us a sense of belonging. Chaos has friends at school, camp, and mma that he spends time with in social settings. I’ve been to parties, movies, fights, and picnics. I’ve watched coaches help build confidence in my son to compete and win or lose give him a hug after. This winter, for the first time, I plan to compete. Every step along the way where I’ve said I’ll do this, but not the step after, I’ve decided I want to push harder to the next step and beyond. If my 12 year old can do it, so can I. The men ask me sometimes how it feels to be the only girl on the mat. I tell them after my initial embarrassment, I don’t mind. The whole point is for me to learn to defend myself against a much largerman. The only way I’ll ever be able to do that is to train with men. So I end up a little bruised or sore, I earned these bruises and wear them proudly. I got better because of them, the pain is a welcome reminder of how strong I’m getting. We both have goals to achieve our black belts. However long it takes, we know we can do it. It’s hard to put into words how proud I am of my son. He is not an aggressive person. For years he refused to watch mma on tv with me because it’s too violent. He’ll train in it, but not watch it. That was until he watched Sensei Louis Gaudinot compete in UFC. Now he’ll watch on occasion. It makes me smile every time because we know what the moves are. He still gets nervous when we go cheer on the fight teams.
He was moved into adult classes early because of his size and faith that he could keep up. It’s hard as a mom to encourage your child to push themselves and want to protect them at the same time. So here I was telling him to push as he’s facing men punch and kick him. He and the other boy in class with him were both in tears by the end of the night. But everyone in the room was so proud of them for facing their fears and sticking with it. My son’s father hasn’t been in his life to teach him how to be a man. But he has a whole team of people stepping in to help.
We are happy. We have friends, we have a family who includes us, invites us, encourages us. We are in a place where we can include, invite, and encourage others. Joshu Baker has become a mentor to an entire class of young men who need a safe place to be; either an outlet; or a place to gain confidence. In turn, the rest of us take on similar roles and watch them blossom, open up, grow. TSMMA is far more than a martial arts school. It is far more than I dreamed it could possibly be. Completely unexpected. It is a way of life.
– Tracie and Chaos Burruel