This page is a collection of my thoughts, ramblings, and opinions (as if you don’t get enough of that by reading my blog) on women and jiu-jitsu. This page is mostly talking about women, and so is more intended for non-women. Comments are welcomed and may find their way in to my opinion.
And yes, I am female, I’m over 30, and I still refer to myself as a “girl.” I’ve heard that some other chicks (yes, I say that, too) don’t like it, but “woman” reminds me of my mom and sounds too responsible to be doing something as nuts as rolling around on the floor with sweaty guys. So.
More for Women
I have a page to list resources — blogs, webpages, interviews, etc. — for women in BJJ. Check it out here: Women Resources.
I also have a page on Training as Women. This page is addressed to women and the issues we face on the mat.
Table of Contents:
- How come women don’t like BJJ?
- She’s That Kind of Girl
- What a Girl Wants
- Marketing to Women
- For Guys: How to Train with Women
- On Girls & Tournaments
How come women don’t like BJJ?
The question on the Sherdog forums was “How come women don’t like BJJ?” Basically the guy was saying that because he didn’t see a lot of girls training BJJ that girls must not like BJJ. Which, I think, is making a judgment and so isn’t really the right question. Those of us who do it love it, and when you have a base of girls training, more will join.
It’s not that girls don’t like BJJ; we do, once we start it. We like it just as much as you guys do. We feel strong and capable, and we aren’t limited by our size or strength. But there’s that tricky step of getting a girl in to a class, getting her past any preconceptions she may have, and making sure she feels comfortable in class. So the question becomes “Why aren’t more women training BJJ?” or “How can we convince more women to train BJJ?”
(Besides, we could ask why so many guys don’t show up to class when invited or come to a class or two and then leave. Why don’t all guys do BJJ, either? I don’t know the statistics on how many guys start and then quit because they “didn’t like it” for some reason, but I think it might be quite high. We have about 1 new guy a week who comes for a few days and then leaves or switches to the Krav Maga or kickboxing class. And I’m curious what their reasons might be. Everyone always wants to know why girls start or stop BJJ; what about the guys? Why do guys start BJJ? Why do guys quit BJJ?)
There are lots of good answers in that thread about the intimate contact level, sweat, and other things that would throw off most girls from most sports, not just jiu-jitsu specifically. I think some of those answers may answer why guys don’t do it, either. And all these answers are coming from people who already regularly do jiu-jitsu, so we’re mostly just speculating. Would be interesting to talk to those people who don’t stick with it. Some of my answers may repeat what was said in that and other threads, but here they are:
- Some girls won’t do any sports or physical activity and have no special prejudice against BJJ. They just aren’t going to get their hair messed up or cut their nails or get sweaty for any reason beyond a jog on the treadmill in an air-conditioned gym. (Reminds me of guys like my little brother who only lift to get big and look good. Actually doing something functional with those muscles is out of the question.) The most these girls might do is a self-defense class, and BJJ is great for that, but they’re not actually interested in continuing any sport as a hobby.
- Some girls don’t want to get bruised up and will stop after their first bruise. I know during my first few months, the backs of my arms and legs were black and blue. I got nervous looks from strangers. I didn’t care (I was actually rather proud of each one), but many girls will not appreciate having bruises all over their skin.
- There’s also the “You do what with those guys? Your face goes where?!” response. That’s how my mom and most of my female friends react. One of my friends, on seeing one of my jiu-jitsu books, flipped through it and started making jokes about “I’ve been in this position, and I’ve done that, and that, and — hey, I should try this one!” For some women — and guys, too, I’m sure — the first response to seeing jiu-jitsu is based on sex, and they may not be able to get past that. (Could be one reason why some guys don’t want to train, that being in certain positions with a guy is just too much to handle.)
- Related to the previous, she may think that since the class is mostly male that she’ll get hit on, groped, etc. (And from reading some of the male responses on Sherdog, she should probably count on at least one jerk per school.) She can ignore the guys in the gym by keeping her headphones on and pretending she doesn’t hear him, but it’s hard to ignore him when he’s sitting on top of her.
- Sweat and smell, particularly someone else’s sweat and smell, all over you, all over the mats, all-pervasive. Heck, I do BJJ, and I still find that repulsive, especially the smelly guys who don’t seem to wash themselves or their gear. Absolutely gross. I could see that being a definite turn-off for a lot of people.
- She may think that BJJ looks too hard or too intense, or that the conditioning looks too hard. A girl who visited our academy for kickboxing said that BJJ looked “intimidating.”
- They may associate BJJ with MMA and don’t want to do MMA. My mom refers to my BJJ as “fighting,” though I tell her that it isn’t. I’ve tried explaining BJJ without referencing MMA, but it usually gets introduced to the conversation. Even if a school doesn’t offer MMA classes, women may think that the guys who would be involved in BJJ (intertwined with MMA in their minds) are not people they’d want to work out with (tattoo-covered, motorcycle-riding meatheads, thugs, & “tough guys”). And they may assume that there are no other women doing it (because what other woman would want to hang around those kind of guys?), and they don’t want to be the only one.
- Closely associated with the previous point, they may think BJJ is a striking art. This came up at a recent Women’s Open Mat; one of the girls said she’d tried to get her friends to come out, but they all thought BJJ involved punching, and they didn’t want to get hit.
- The guys at the school she visits may give off a creepy, macho, or otherwise off-putting vibe. No one wants to train with the creepy guy who just stares at the girls.
- The overall vibe of the school may not work for her. We had a girl say that the atmosphere at our school was “not welcoming” (of course, she said this as the guys are including me in everything outside of class, so I think the problem was more her than the guys). I don’t know what her personal vision of what a jiu-jitsu school should look like was, but our school apparently didn’t match. However, it has fit me quite well. Different strokes…
- She may assume she needs to be in a particular kind of shape in order to start BJJ — some baseline of cardio, lifting, etc. One of those “I don’t want to start until I’m in shape” people. Lots of guys use this excuse, too.
- Even if a girl is interested in doing BJJ — or even anything new — she may first be trying to find someone she knows who will go with her. And there may not be a friend who will go, at which point she’ll drop the idea and go along with a friend to something else, like cardio kickboxing. (I’ve recently met a few guys who use this reason, too.) I tried to find a friend when I started, but no one was interested. One of the hardest things I ever did was walk in the first day of class all by myself. I didn’t know anyone.
Ultimately, though, I think the answer for most girls is that they don’t start or stick with jiu-jitsu because there aren’t other girls doing it. Seeing other girls doing it will assure them that girls can do it. Not just because it’s hard to be the only girl (though it sometimes is), but also because we girls like a supporting community when we do something. That community can be other girls, if you’re fortunate enough to have multiple girls training, but if not, the guys on the team have to fill that role (no group nail-painting, we promise).
That’s taken me a while to realize even for myself, as I didn’t have a large coherent group of female friends growing up, just different friends who didn’t even know each other. I never really got the girl “group dynamic” thing, like why all the girls have to go to the bathroom at the same time. (I still don’t really get it.) But I know it’s there. It’s something about knowing that the people around us are going with us, are helping us, aren’t laughing at us, and will be there if something goes wrong.
She’s That Kind of Girl
Not every guy trains BJJ or kickboxing or boxing. Or wants to fight MMA, or play football, or shoot guns. Not that it isn’t great for everyone, but not every guy is going to like it, so why should every girl? Certain people will prefer certain activities. What kind of girl might like BJJ?
Perhaps: if she’s mentally tough and/or stubborn (I plead stubborn); if she doesn’t like to be told she can’t do it or won’t like it and so has to prove you wrong; if she grew up a tomboy or always wished she had been; if she’s played contact sports throughout her life; if she’s done other martial arts previously and is aware that her style has no ground game; if she does want to fight MMA one day; if she wants to learn groundwork for self-defense and beyond; if she likes to train hard — then maybe she’ll stick. A lot of those apply to guys, as well.
And again, having girls already training is huge for most women. It’s like a signal that says, “Hey, this is a good place to train. See, this other girl has been here for a while.” Which leaves us in a delightful Catch-22: the best way to get more girls to train is to have more girls training.
Beyond just who the girl is, there’s the guys she’ll be working with — if they can find that balance of treating her like a part of the team as well as a girl; if they can be her friend without hitting on her; if they can include her in the social side of the team — then maybe she’ll stick. Seems to me that it’s harder on the guys’ side: the girl is who she is, and BJJ will bring out parts of that, but the guys on the team have to be part of the process of keeping the girls coming back.
There have been guys who have come through my school that, if the whole team were composed of guys like them, I wouldn’t have stayed. Something about them — some vibe, some creepiness factor, some something — that I just didn’t want to be around. Thankfully, my guys aren’t like that, and they don’t tolerate it in other guys, either.
What a Girl Wants
We want to feel that we’re safe in what we’re doing and that someone is keeping an eye on us and our partners. We don’t want to feel as if we’re everyone’s grappling dummy, but we also don’t want everyone to treat us with kid gloves. We want to be included, none of this “boys vs. girls” stuff, and yet we want you to remember that we are girls and we are different from boys. (Yes, we do want it all; why do you ask?) And we want to have friends.
Safety is important to us. While it’s nice if you beat down a guy after he spazzed and hurt us, we’re still injured and now very wary of that guy. When possible, pair females with more experience guys and/or guys who will check their ego and will actually work with her rather than just mash her down.
Let us know that if we’re having a problem with a specific guy that we can talk to you about it. We don’t want to be tattle-tales, but sometimes we can’t fix the problem ourselves, and sometimes ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. We need to know we have support when we have a problem.
(Also, this thread.)
I’m not saying to cater just to a single female in class or to constantly ask “Are you okay?” or to roll lightly and slowly with her and always let her “win.” But I am saying that you should choke out the creepy guy who stares at her, keep muscle sharks (and creepy guys) from slamming her around just because they finally have someone to “beat,” and let her know that she can speak up if she’s having a problem with something or someone. And don’t be the creepy guy. Most girls who do start a jiu-jitsu class want to learn, not get hit on.
We don’t want to be coddled and “given” submissions and passes, but we do need training partners who will roll at a pace we can handle and not just mash us. Be technically hard on us while being strength/weight easy. My training partners frequently roll at a lesser intensity with me than with each other, hard enough that I’m working my butt off but not so hard that I’m overwhelmed, but they do not play sloppy jiu-jitsu to give me things to take advantage of. They also let me finish the transition, sweep, or submission without trying too hard to escape, provided I have every single detail spot-on perfect with appropriate pressure. If I mess it up badly, they escape. If I don’t recognize what was there, they move on.
For nearly two years, I’ve been the only girl on my team. On days when I think I’ll never come back because I’m so angry, upset, or frustrated, I come back anyway because of my guys. They’re my friends. They’re superamazing and awesome. From the beginning, they’ve worked with me and included me and made me feel as if this was a place I wanted to be and these were people I wanted to be around. They look out for me in class, they make me do crazy things after class, and they make me eat more than I should. I’m still a girl, but I’m also part of the team.
So if your school is having a hard time attracting or retaining women, don’t immediately blame it all on the women not being able to handle it or not liking BJJ — check out the team dynamic. You may be giving off a vibe that turns women off. (That might also be impacting your dating life, too… Oops, now I’m meddling!…)
Marketing to Women
(See thread here, too.)
As for how you might get more women to train, first, keep the women you have. Ask them what else, if anything, they’d like to see. Not in terms of making things “easier” or ignoring what the guys want (heck, ask them, too — improvement is a good thing), but there may be something obvious you’ve missed. Encourage them and help them to network with other female BJJers and to do tournaments against other girls. Rolling with girls is different than rolling with guys, and while you guys get to experience that in every class that you roll with us, we don’t get to until we find other girls.
Host or send your women off to a Women’s Open Mat every once in a while. Rolling with other girls is different than rolling with guys. Often I can’t tell if I even know anything around just the guys, but one Women’s Open Mat and already I can see that I’m normal, I’m not an idiot, and I’ve actually learned some jiu-jitsu. Women need to see how they compare to other women, and not just at tournament time. We need to know that there are other women out there; we need to interact with these women and realize that they’re just like us and aren’t all Amazons and prodigies. (And we need to know that female blue belts and purple belts exist!)
Second, have a self-defense seminar. You may find the 1 or 2 women from the bunch who actually are interested in going further. I started BJJ after a self-defense seminar. While working the ground techniques — and launching several larger guys — I realized that this was fun and I wanted to try more of it.
Third, ask women who don’t train BJJ what concerns they have about starting to train or what reasons they wouldn’t train. (If your school also has fitness kickboxing, yoga, or other classes with an abundance of females, ask them what they think of the BJJ classes and students.) Asking non-BJJers is important because those of us who are doing it and staying with it are the exception in the population. Consider having a free introductory class (or entire week of classes, separate from the regular class) to show them the basics and acclimate them to class. Works great for guys, too. Maybe offer group rates or discounts for referring their friends.
Check out your facility. Is it relatively clean? Is there semi-private changing space? Is it in a non-seedy location? How the place looks is going to be a factor in whether a woman can see herself training there. It doesn’t need to look like Martha Stewart trains there, but the bathrooms should probably look like they’re cleaned regularly.
Check out your team dynamic. If women are coming in but leaving soon after, it may not be a case of not wanting to do BJJ, but it may be that there’s something or someone on your team that’s turning them off.
As for a women’s only class, I don’t know if those help; I’ve never had one. I would think, though, that being able to work with people at your own weight and strength level would be a good thing. And women shouldn’t feel as if they’re limited to the women’s only class; they should be welcomed in with the big boys, too. And they shouldn’t feel as if their class is easier (less conditioning, less drilling, less advanced technique, whatever); the only difference should be the gender, not curriculum. Women’s Open Mats, on the other hand, where you encourage women from anywhere to show up, are definitely a great idea.
How to Train with Women
New guys: This is mostly in response to an experience I recently had in class, and is especially aimed a new guys. If you’re the new guy to a school, and there’s a girl on the mats, here are a few tips:
- We are not necessarily the lowest-ranked or least-skilled grappler in the class, so kindly stop assuming that we are. (Related: until you find out otherwise, do not assume that it is my first day.) There is not “girl jitsu” and “boy jitsu”; I didn’t earn my rank in an inferior style, I earned it every day in this class with these same guys. Jokes about “oh, I’m scared, I bet you can kick my butt” are old and no longer funny. Also, please stop being surprised when I sweep you and otherwise know what I’m doing.
- Notice that we were here first. That means that right now, the guys in the school are our friends, not yours. Despite the gender difference that seems glaring to you, you are the outsider, not us. My guys side with me over you because I’ve worked my butt off alongside them for months.
- You already know the guys in the school are sizing you up. That includes your behavior towards us. A roomful of those protective, white-knight instincts you guys are so proud of are currently bristling in your direction, bub, and if you go Captain Caveman on me, you’re asking for a world of hurt.
- If you get paired with a girl to roll or drill, it is not an insult to you or your “manhood.” (If anything, we’re more insulted that we got stuck with the punk idiot spazzy new guy.) It’s probably to keep you safe and/or to let you work with someone controlled and experienced, and to let you see up close that this stuff we’re showing you does actually work even when done by someone smaller and weaker.
- If you say, “I don’t want to lose to a girl,” prepare to get your limbs ripped off or to get choked out. And if not by us, then by one of our friends. Once again, you’re the outsider, not us.
- When you do “lose to a girl,” remember that no one saw. No one noticed. And frankly, no one cares. (And if you don’t tell your friends, they’ll never know!) Maybe the instructors saw, but they don’t care — you’re the new guy; you’re supposed to “lose.” She’s more experienced; she’s supposed to win. (And anyway, there’s no “winning” or “losing” in practice. It’s freaking practice!) Besides which, the fact that a smaller, physically weaker girl can dominate you on the mat is simply proof that jiu-jitsu works.
- After you “lose to a girl,” don’t think that going harder, smashing more, throwing in little punches and elbows, etc. is going to help you. It won’t. And you’ll just draw attention — negative attention — to yourself. The next guy you roll with is going to tear you into little pieces.
For more experienced guys: I suggest using your rolls with a girl as a way to work your technique. Your strength will easily beat us, and you should know this. We cannot power out of techniques. Techniques, when applied correctly, will work. You don’t need to bring your “A” game unless you’re working on a particular sticky part of it. Your “A” game will beat me every time; you know this and I know this. And while I’m flattered that you feel you need your “A” game when you roll with me, at the same time that means that I will get very little work beyond defense (and I really get plenty of that with everyone else).
“…we don’t want the guys to go technically easy…”
1. Don’t muscle stuff on the girls that would never work on the guys.
2. It’s ok to win.
3. It’s ok to lose – don’t spazz out just because a girl is catching submissions or positions on you.
4. Mind your weight <— Come on…don't hurt your teammates. If you have 100lbs on your partner, don't put it all on their ribs. Just use enough to pin them when appropriate.
5. Girls are intuitive. If your mind starts straying we'll know, but if you're honest, we will know that too. Just focus on bjj and your grips will be fine.
6. Listen to your partner. If you are not sure about your intensity, ask them.
“Technically easy” — loose, sloppy jiu-jitsu that leaves gaping holes for us to “exploit” for transitions, submissions, and escapes. It implies that we don’t know how to do these for real and that we need help to do it right. (It also trains us in bad habits and bad jiu-jitsu, especially if we don’t realize you’re patronizing us.) Instead, make us mind our details and our timing. Also, make us tap if you really have it — don’t always move on or let us escape, because otherwise we get conditioned to submissions not being finished (and/or we think we know how to escape, when we really don’t) and then we injure ourselves by not tapping in time when someone really has it. We don’t always need to “win” in class, and we don’t leave in tears because we tapped; sometimes, we really do need to “lose” to learn.
Try new things. I’m great for practicing technique on because I can’t muscle you around, so technique you do will work, but I also have enough technical knowledge myself to make sure you do your part correctly. If I actually manage to threaten something, practice your technique for escapes and defenses. Start with a lower intensity; as I increase pressure on you, you can increase pressure back. Don’t just lay there like a wet blanket and let me do anything I want; give me resistance and pressure, but try not to smother me and hold me down just because you can. That doesn’t do either of us any good. Maybe limit yourself, if we’re not challenging enough on our own: e.g., don’t use your hands or only work your weaker side. If I get you in a bad spot, work your escapes. (Heck, let me get you in a bad spot. You get to work escapes & defense, I get to glimpse a dominant position.) This has the added bonus for me of letting me work against technique, too, and then I can tell when I’ve made a mistake because you capitalize on it. And if you are letting me practice finishing a submission, please make sure I really have it right before you tap. Tapping when I get kind of sort of near it doesn’t help me learn how it should really be done.
On Not Training with Women: If you have a valid reason for not training with a woman, please let the instructor and even the woman know before starting to train. That way, everyone knows that you two can’t be paired up, and the class can run smoothly. The only valid reasons I know of are religious restrictions and homicidally jealous wives/girlfriends. Not wanting to lose to a girl is not a valid reason.
There is a man in my school whose wife will not let him train with women. (He’s in his 40s, I think, and his wife is much younger.) He told me, he told the instructors, and there are no problems. We can talk, and he keeps an eye on the younger guys rolling with me; they spazz on me, he goes after them.
On Girls & Tournaments
This is an answer to slideyfoot’s comment below that pointed out a thread on whether women should be allowed to enter men’s divisions. It was originally a comment, but it got big and I think I might expand on it later.
I think a couple of good points can be pulled from the thread:
- there need to be more women competing so women have someone in their own division to compete against
- women probably need to be more proactive *before* a tournament to ensure that women will be there to compete against (in skill & weight classes)
- it makes more sense (or, rather, is preferred by the competitors) to put a women in with guys of her own weight than with much larger girls
Especially on that last, personally, I think I’m finding that a huge WEIGHT difference is more difficult to overcome that a huge STRENGTH difference. I can move around when they’re strong, but if they’re bigger, I just get sat on and can’t move them off.
I think my opinion is that, if there’s an available women’s division — that is, a normal, as-advertised actual class based on skill level and weight brackets, not like the 100-lb difference cited in that thread (I like Penny’s description that it’s like having a whole other person out there!) — women should enter it and not have the option of entering the men’s. I know some of the complaints were that you might have only 1 or 2 matches if there aren’t a lot of girls there, but even if there were a large field and you lost your first match (even with both gi and nogi), you’d still only have 2 matches.
Another reason is because I don’t want a girl to give herself the excuse that, “Well, of course I lost; he was a guy.” Compete to find your weaknesses, and being a girl isn’t one of them.
Also, despite what my posts about choking out guys’ egos might imply, I do feel badly for the male egos. Getting tapped by a girl in class is one thing; losing in front of a crowd is another. And not all guys get to roll or train with girls regularly, so it’s a whole new, unfamiliar, and possibly uncomfortable experience for them. (“Is it okay to put my hand here? How hard should I go? I’ve never been this close to a real girl…” etc.) And maybe a little unfair — I’ve seen stories of guys who think they should ‘go easy’ on a girl the first time only to have her quickly kick their butt. (But in a tournament, who wants to be the jerk who crushes a girl?) Guys who regularly train with/around girls would already have that worked out and will know to bring it on.
But if there’s not a women’s division, let the women in with the guys their size. Seems more fair. And jiu-jitsu is supposed to favor the smaller and less strong, anyway. All the talk of greater risk of injuries, etc., is just trying to make excuses.