A work in progress as I learn and grow, too. I want this to not just be we’re girls and we try hard so cut us some slack, but rather as a place to gather both the problems and the solutions that we ladies face out on the mats in a male-dominated world. (We love ya, boys, but we still need a little girl time.)
As always, comments, suggestions, criticisms, addendum, advice, etc. are all welcome. I certainly don’t know everything, nor do I pretend to. I just have an obsession with writing everything down
I’m also looking for posts and articles by women that touch on some of the topics in here. So if you know of one — or want to write one — let me know and I’ll link to it.
Jiu-jitsu is one of the most rewarding things you can learn, as a male or a female. Through jiu-jitsu, you learn how to use leverage to control someone else, even someone bigger and stronger than you. You will also learn more about yourself in a few months on the mat than in years of regular life.
Jiu-jitsu is also one of the most frustrating things you’ll ever do, especially as a female. Everyone in class will probably be bigger and stronger than you, they’ll know most of what you know (so they know how to really counter it), and they will generally fight like anything to avoid losing to a girl.
A lot of this can also apply to small guys who routinely work with lots of big guys. So if you find that it does apply, feel free to substitute “small guy” any time I say “girl.” (And yes, I say “girl” still, not “woman.”)
Bits & Pieces
Another thing — as you learn jiu-jitsu, you may start to wonder whether it could really work as self-defense because you try it in class on the big boys and… nothing happens. What the–? But remember, they’re training with you. They know all your moves. They know the proper defense. They know how to keep and recover position. Anyone attacking you, however, will not.
Training with Girls
I’m becoming more convinced that training with girls is essential. Even if you have great guys who actually let you work, find girls. If you’re the only one in your school, you will probably have to travel to train with girls. Do it. It’s worth it. You will find that you’re not some stunted jiu-jitsu reject, but that you really do know what to do. You’ll get to work on that elusive thing called “offense” that the boys are so enamored with. You’ll also get a chance to dust off those submissions you’ve learned and actually use them and they’ll work (well, better, anyway — girls are tough!). Tournaments are good, but you need to train with real girls, too.
Every time so far that I’ve gone and actually trained with other girls, I’ve come away refreshed and energized and motivated. And most of the time, I just got my butt thoroughly and completely whipped! But I feel the girls’ pressure and technique and I think, “Ah, so that’s it. I can do that.” And I can work some of my own technique and discover that I do, in fact, know some jiu-jitsu. When I go back and roll with my guys, they can immediately tell that there’s a difference, and they ask me what I’ve been up to.
An important part of girl jitsu time is talking to other girls about your training. When you need advice, other jiu-jitsu girls are the best to ask since they’ve probably experienced it, too. The guys in your school may not be able to help, and non-jiu-jitsu friends will just think you’re more of a freak than before…
The first time I went to train with other girls, I was amazed at how many blue belts there were. They’re real! They exist! I thought. It really is possible. At the last women’s training I attended after I got my blue belt, several white belt girls were just as giddy as I’d been when seeing so many female colored belts around. By now, I’ve met purple and brown and black belt females, and I’m encouraged to know that they’re not superhuman athletes — they’re just tough women who refused to quit. I want to be one of them, too.
Reasons to train with Girls
- Find out that your jiu-jitsu actually exists (and it doesn’t entirely suck, either!)
- Find out that other girls train hard, too, so no more slacking
- Find out that you’re not quite as abnormal as you thought
- Learn how other girls deal with Problem X
- Find out that what you thought was just the boys muscling you around is actually a pretty large hole in your game because all the girls ran right through it, too.
- See that higher-belt females actually exist — and aren’t all athletic prodigies
- For higher-belt females: provide encouragement to us lower belts
- Meet other very cool gals who do BJJ
On Girls Who Aren’t Really There to Train
There are stories of girls whose only interest in BJJ is to find a man. (It was called “getting your MRS degree” in college.) There are even several stories told around my academy of females who used to “train” there before I came along. I personally haven’t met one of these girls yet (unless I scared her off on her first day), but I probably wouldn’t make life easy for her if one showed up again. One, because she’ll probably be a good-sized training partner for me and I want to take advantage of that and will be annoyed when she doesn’t want to help me out, and two, because I don’t want my good male training partners distracted.
Now, my normal reaction to manhunters is to just ignore them as long as they don’t interfere with my friends or my routine. In the case of a BJJ class setting, however, she’d be doing both — messing with my friends and interrupting my training (because I know I’ll get paired with her a lot). I do think that most guys who are serious about training would recognize her type and would avoid her (and dump her on me again). I would guess that if she’s only looking for a man that she isn’t going to be serious about training and especially not with me as I’m not male. I don’t see a girl like that lasting very long in our environment. She’ll probably end up in the kickboxing or Krav Maga class before too long, and then I don’t have to deal with her any more. And then she can distract the boys after class all she — and they — want.
Working with the boys
See also: Jen Flannery’s Safe Training Rules for Women
As hard as it is to admit it, and as much as jiu-jitsu is for the smaller and weaker to overcome the bigger and stronger, it turns out that guys are in fact bigger and stronger than us and will usually use this to their advantage, especially when threatened. It also seems that, in most cases, rolling with a girl is inherently threatening, and most guys will do everything in their power to not tap to a girl. Often, they don’t even realize that they hit a different gear when training with you over other guys.
I used to think this was just my imagination. But I’ve had it confirmed by several other girls, including Clinzy, here. Again, often the guys don’t even realize they’re doing it. (And see, another reason to find other females: you find out that you’re not just imagining things and that you’re not an anomaly.) Also, this behavior isn’t limited to us smaller girls: even physically larger and stronger girls get the same treatment, and somehow with even more ego.
The guys like this, avoid when possible. They probably don’t really mean to hurt you, but they generally will. I don’t think they’re usually mean or even really misogynistic; they just have a sub-routine of “can’t lose to girl” that kicks in when you sit down across from them. And/or, they’ve just gotten their butt kicked by every smaller guy in class, and they’re looking for someone to take it out on. You look like a good target.
Many guys, too, seem to be focused on racking up “points” with everyone they roll with: positive points for tapping someone, negative points for having to tap, double negative points for tapping to a girl. (“Points” can be redeemed for belts, stripes, or a pack of really cool stickers.) And losing to a girl, even in class, immediately means you won’t get your next belt:
(Just sayin’, I bet a guy wrote that caption. Never mind that Hillary is amazing and awesome and just got her black belt in 4 years and has won lots of high-level tournaments, even placing 3rd at Abu Dhabi. Never mind that she’s actually really really good at jiu-jitsu. The implication is still that losing to a girl means you suck at jiu-jitsu so bad that you’ll never get your next belt.)
If you do have to roll with them, defense is your best option. I find that some boys go psycho-nutso if I get anywhere near a sweep, much less an actual submission. So I rarely try anything that might be misconstrued as offense. (I do try every once in a while just to confirm that he’s still an idiot; if “yes,” then back to defense.) And usually, I’m defending against injury more than against any real submission threat. Defense good. Injury bad.
Also, as much as it stinks to have to tap to a not-real-submission-just-some-dude-squeezing-the-crap-outta-me, often you’ll have to. Or when they just grab a limb and jerk you in to a position or pick you up and flip you over. Other guys can just pull away, but often it’s a strong enough grip or pressure that it’s hard to break. It’s so frustrating and so annoying (especially when they smirk afterward and are proud of themselves. Grr.). Maybe one day I’ll learn the secret Houdini method for getting out.
But as it takes them longer and longer to arm-wrestle their way through a submission attempt, take it as a victory for your defense and technique. When they have to outweigh, overpower, and overwhelm you and still fight hard for five minutes to catch something, they aren’t improving their jiu-jitsu, while you’re proving the validity of yours.
As you get better, you’ll probably find yourself thinking, “Well, I should ought to be able to handle that newbie or that white belt by now.” (I do it all the time. Even my guys hint at it sometimes.) However, such a course generally has “Disaster” written all over it. He looks safe now, rolling with a bigger blue belt guy, but once he sits across from a smaller female partner, the inner beast generally awakens. It’s happened to me several times, and every time I’ve found myself fending off injuries and/or trying not to panic. I don’t necessarily like playing it safe, either, but I don’t really want to be hurt, either.
That said, I do think it’s a good idea to expand the range of who you will roll with and to work with guys who give you lots of trouble. (There’s a big difference between a guy who gives you fits with his good technique or speed or pressure and a guy who seems as if he’ll throw you across the mat if you get a good grip. Roll with that first group. Be careful with that second group.) Just do it carefully and when someone is there to keep an eye on your roll. If I have to roll with a guy I’m wary of, I’ll often grab part of the mat nearest to where the instructors are or next to a pair of advanced belts so I know they’re nearby and read to help if I need it.
Ladies: In the previous section, I talked more about the logical reasons not to work with a particular guy: he’s spazzy, he cranks everything, he’s reckless with his partners, he outweighs you by 100lbs, he’s new, etc. But sometimes, you’ll just feel as if you shouldn’t work with a particular guy. You might not be able to explain the reasons, but you just know that you should stay away. And it might even be someone you’d normally work with, and it might be just for a single night. Please trust your intuition. If you really feel strongly that you should not work with a particular guy, even if everyone assures you he’s “safe,” trust your instincts. See Aparna’s story in the comments.
Instructors & Training Partners: We’re not looking for a free ride or an excuse. We ladies who stick with BJJ are tough chicks who are here to learn and to challenge ourselves. That said, there may be nights when we really feel strongly about not working with a particular person. Please create a training environment where we are able to act on our own judgment about who we train with.
Musing on Strength and Size
It seems to me that when guys say, “Don’t use strength,” they’re really saying, “Don’t add more force/effort than your normal grip/force/effort/strength.” And yet their “not strength” is generally stronger than my best grip/force/strength. When they hold me down “without strength” but using proper positioning and weight distribution, I cannot seem to counter this. (And sometimes, even when they’re not in position or are off-balance. I can see it, I can feel… I cannot do anything about it. Gah.) Whereas, when I put my entire weight on them, I get told to take my weight off my hands, feet, or whatever they think is still in contact with the ground, so I wave said appendage at them until they realize this is all my weight.
These size differences work the other way, too. Just recently in class, one of the guys was saying I’m too hard to triangle because my shoulders and neck are so much smaller, so he doesn’t even try to work to find them. On the other hand, if he sprawls, I can’t reach his legs — while if I sprawl, it’s like my legs never left and he can grab and sweep me right over.
And then you get to roll with a black or brown belt, and it seems as if he isn’t even touching you, and yet you keep falling in to sweeps and submissions. That to me is “no strength.” That is how I want to feel to my opponents one day.
Most guys initially get by on less technique and more natural attributes than we girls can. For example, I cannot muscle through a scissor sweep because my legs aren’t strong enough; I must get him stretched forward and off-balance, or he’s not moving. On the other hand, I can be turtled down on his legs and can even block the knee-through (that is, my entire base is back and down, entirely out of position for this sweep, and his fulcrum leg isn’t even in the right place), and he can just pitch me over with his legs. In his mind, he’s just completed a successful scissor sweep because it felt “easy” and as if he were using “no strength,” when really it’s only because he’s much stronger and I’m much lighter, which allows the improper technique to work.
I think a lot of times this gets labeled as “girls have better technique than guys”; really, it’s that a girl (especially at a lower level) is more likely to rely on technique than an equivalent guy because he hasn’t yet figured out that he’s doing it all wrong. (It works, he thinks; therefore, in his mind he’s doing it right.) It’s not that girls are better able to perform techniques than guys, but rather that girls are more likely to be doing the technique fully instead of taking strength shortcuts. Not because we’re “technically superior” by virtue of being female, but rather that in order for the technique to work, we have to hit every little detail almost exactly right.
Being a “Girl”
You probably aren’t a wimpy, hysterical, weak, whiny, sissy girl, or you wouldn’t have signed up to continue the
abuse fun past the first night. However, sometimes, the stress and frustration and anger builds up and, being female, our body’s first reaction is usually to cry. Guys seem to punch things. Sometimes other people. Or walls. (What’d that poor wall ever do to you?)
But, it does happen, and to probably all of us at one point. Hopefully less as you train longer (at least I hope so, though since getting my blue belt I seem to be crying more rather than less, generally in frustration now that my training partners seem to be beating on me more. Maybe after I’ve cried through every permutation, it’ll ease up.). So you’re not unusual or weird or wimpy because you broke down on the mat. I’ve cried at the end of class just from being exhausted; my body was too tired to do anything else.
Do try to figure out what set you off, though. Someone hit you? Frustrated that you’ve shrimped until you’ve grown gills, and you still can’t get out from under this dude? Stress from outside of class? I find that as I identify what caused me to break down and analyze it once I’m calm that I’m more prepared for the next time the same situation comes up. But then the situations try to be sneaky and disguise themselves…
And of course when you do have to cry, you’re trying hard not to do it in front of the guys. It’s embarrassing, for one, and for another, you know that guys have no clue what to do when you start crying. Running to the women’s bathroom or locker room, if such are available, and locking yourself in seems to be the traditional behavior. But, again, you already knew that.
Funny — I’m trying to write about how to deal with/avoid crying on the mat, and all I can seem to say is, “Yeah, it’s gonna happen. And since you’re a girl, you already knew that. So what?” Maybe, then, this section is more for coaches and training partners. So, coaches and training partners, listen up:
We know you’d appreciate us not crying on the mat. We’d appreciate us not doing it, too; trust us, we’re as horrified by it as you are. So please cut us some slack and give us a chance to pull ourselves together; we’re trying our best.
Failing and Frustration
See also: BJJ – a year on
You will fail more times than you will succeed in jiu-jitsu. That’s normal. And being smaller and/or weaker than your training partners, you’ll probably fail a lot more.
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
– Michael Jordan
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.
– Thomas Edison
You will hear many times in your jiu-jitsu training that your technique & timing have to be more perfect than the guys’ in order to work. This is true. However, until your technique & timing are perfect, most things will hardly work, if at all. This can be very frustrating to deal with, especially when the guys get by with imperfect technique and large doses of strength and speed. You’ll seem to be getting nowhere, and they’ll seem to be budding world champions. You’ll find yourself working on every little detail while feeling the guys muscle past and physically demolish your defenses. It may even seem to other people — and yourself — that you aren’t trying hard enough or that there’s something wrong with you.
Yes, you do need to work on your technique and your timing. You may need to drill more reps and more times than the guys do to get it down just right and to square away all the details. (And then it still may not work in live rolling, because they still know how to counter it! Ack! *cue beating head against wall*) I don’t have any answer for this right now, of how to work through it or how to find any hint of progress, since I’m smack dab in the middle of myself right now.
Breathe. Go train with girls. Remind yourself that your defense is becoming stellar.
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
Talking to Your Instructor
I would love to be able to come in, keep my head down, be one of the guys, work hard and not have to deal with the fact that the training & training environment are not really set up to work for women. And yet, they often aren’t. (One example that springs to mind: we’ve done bag hangs on the heavy bags before. I cannot reach around said bags because they’re too big. And yet I’ll be penalized [though not as much as the guys, since there's a structural reason for me failing] for not being about to stay on. Sheesh, even finding small enough gis, rash guards, and board shorts is a problem! When even the gear doesn’t seem made for you…)
I probably don’t (well, okay, I don’t at all) speak up about problems I’m having that seem to spring from gender differences because I don’t want to be seen as a wimpy little girl. I give 100% of what I’ve got, but the guys are still faster, smoother, can reach further, can do more, are stronger, last longer, can take more pressure, etc etc. I don’t want the standard lowered, either overall or preferentially for me, because I will aim for the standard as set. I suppose I’d just appreciate some acknowledgment that what is easily attainable by the guys is often at the extreme limits of my physical abilities and may be harder and/or take longer for me to complete. But I will get there.
Instructors who aren’t small females may have a difficult time wondering why a small female is having (seemingly) so much trouble with the warmup, the rolling, the drilling, the conditioning. I think sometimes they see us as just smaller guys. Maybe they think that just a little more motivation will set us straight, or that we’re somehow being lazy/not trying hard enough.
(And some of this could just be totally me. Could be because I’m an office worker the majority of the week. I get up, go to work, sit on my butt in front of a computer, go to class, go to sleep. Repeat. While I do want to compete and be competitive, I also am not devoting my life to training. Jiu-jitsu is a hobby to me; I want to be good at it, but it isn’t my life. Well, except for the fact that I’m completely addicted and spend nearly every free moment reading or studying jiu-jitsu. Other than that, just a little hobby…)
This is something I’m still struggling with. Are there things that I can’t do the same way as the guys because of the size/strength difference? Is there ever a time when I should say something? Is there ever a way to tell an instructor that what he’s asking of me is too much? Is it really too much, or am I secretly really a whiny little girl? Does my instructor understand more than I give him credit for and is just pushing me to be better, or is he really oblivious to the problems I’m having with this?
(I suppose I’m thinking of something like Crossfit. There’s the WOD… and then there’s the scaled-down WOD or bodyweight % that you use if you can’t lift 200+ lbs over your head. Crossfit acknowledges that a women can lift a whole lotta iron, and yet also takes in to account that she can’t lift as much as a man. Should women not do Crossfit because they can’t lift the man’s load? No, of course not! The WOD can be scaled down. If it’s “clean 125% of your bodyweight,” the guy might lift 200+ and the women, 100+. I don’t know. I’m grouchy about this right now.)
I did talk to my instructor at one point about some of the problems I’m having. I said I was frustrated. He said he was frustrated, too — because he says he knows what I’m capable of but so often I don’t seem to be measuring up to it during class. Oh. So we talked about the scary spazzy guys, and he said he didn’t realize I was scared of them. So he really didn’t know I was having a specific problem with these guys, which is why I was incapable of doing what he wanted, and we had both ended up frustrated with each other. Now that he knows they scare me with their freak-outs, he said he’ll pay more attention to who rolls with me.
See also: Jen Flannery’s Musings on Being a New Blue
Jiu-jitsu isn’t about belts and who taps whom. I think girls figure this out more quickly. Because if getting a belt depended on me either tapping out the guys at the belt above me or even tapping out all the guys at my own belt, then I’d be a white belt forever. Most days, if getting a belt depended on my even being able to sweep a guy or defend for a whole round, I’d be sunk. Not that I don’t still have a competitive streak — I do, and I want to do well, who cares if they’re all boys? — but I realized very early that it would be a long time, if ever, that I could measure progress by taps. I also realized that having a new belt would only make me an accessible target.
Most boys seem to take a little longer to catch on. They’ll spend longer keeping track of points and how long everyone’s been training (e.g., “So-and-so’s been training 2 weeks longer than me. That’s why he’s so much better.”) and predicting when they’ll get their blue belt. They seem to start “targeting” people, either guys who are newer or aren’t as good (to get as many taps as possible) or guys they perceive as being higher in the hierarchy (to move up in the “standings”). Targeting also seems to increase when a round of promotions goes through and these guys weren’t included.
About a month before I got my blue belt, there were several white belt guys — most who were very close themselves to their blue — who would chill and give me a good roll. As soon as I got my blue belt (before them), however, they changed how they roll and began to take every opportunity to crank and rip and jerk and overpower me. For the higher belts my promotion meant they could/should increase pressure and make me work harder (and, boy, have they ever! Thank you guys very much). For the white belts who didn’t get promoted, it seemed to have given them a blue belt target who they could beat to get “points” toward their blue belt…. Personally, I think if they had just chilled and rolled with me as before, showing off their technique (which is generally very solid but goes to crap when they get in a hurry), that they would have been promoted sooner rather than later. But instead, they focused on “points” and “beating” a blue belt.
Within a few months, though, the guys in this group who were close to their blue did get it. And guess what? 90% of the time now, they roll with me like a sane person again.
So belts are great, and they mean you’ve progressed. They also mean that guys will view you as a stepping stone and as a means of showing the instructor that they can beat a higher belt and so should get one, too. Blue, purple, girl/guy, 100-lb difference, age difference, crank/smother — doesn’t matter. All they see is the color of the belt, and bonus points for making you tap in any way possible.
(See the Comments for notes from Hillary (purple then, now black), Elyse (purple), and Dolph (purple). The “get the new belt” goes on and on.)
It still seems illogical to me — first I’m no threat because I’m the same belt as them and a girl so who cares if they tap me out, so they’ll just work positions and details; but then I get the next belt and suddenly I’m a threat and a legitimate proving-your-worth tap. *shakes head*
To instructors: please remember that your female students — especially if you only have one! — still have to roll with the boys every day. It’s great that she has good technique and that she does well against other girls, but she trains with the boys, and you’re probably promoting her over some of them. When you do promote her, make sure she’s ready to handle them beating on her to “prove” themselves. And please watch out for her in those first few months after a promotion.
Aggressiveness, Intensity, Intent
Ha. Like I’m one to talk… Maybe it’s just the words that are bothering me. Silly English major, having denotation and connotation dancing in her head.
When my coach tells me to be more aggressive, I don’t like hearing that. Aggressiveness, to me, is what the guys generally have too much of — pushing, pulling, ripping, pulling, fighting tooth-and-nail to win at all costs with no thought to your partner. Tournament speed. And for some reason I feel very small and vulnerable when he says that and often immediately start thinking defense, defense, defense. Perhaps my experience with the guys is that, when he says that to me, they become more aggressive. It seems that they interpret the coach telling me to be more aggressive as a sign that I will shortly be challenging and threatening them, so they go on the attack first.
I also seem to see this when my coach or an instructor says, “Good!” after I did something, as if by my earning a “good!” rating that my partner then automatically earns a “bad” rating. That is, if I did it right, they must have done it wrong. Usually, though, it was just that my “right” was slightly better or more appropriate than their “right.” And yet they go nuts. This ties back in to them going Captain Caveman/Incredible Hulk when I get near a sweep or (heaven forbid) a submission. This is what I think of when I hear “be more aggressive.”
I suppose I reason that the best thing to do against aggression is to not provoke it: slow down, use small movements, don’t give any reason to think you’re threatening. Being more aggressive myself, however, means that they in turn will be more aggressive, and they can always reach a higher level than I can. (It always reminds me Dragonball Z, where the characters fight at one power level for a while, then the one who’s losing “powers up” a level and then wins until someone else powers up to top him, and on and on. My top level of aggression is much, much lower than theirs, and they power up exponentially compared to me.)
Perhaps I should just try to hear something else when my coach says “aggression.” (Why can’t we just use a different word?) Intensity, maybe, or intent. Intensity means to me that I have a goal that I’m focused on and that everything I do is done with my whole effort behind it. Or Intent or Assertive — I will get off the bottom. I will finish this sweep. What would be another good word?
Maybe it’s just me and my dictionary and/or introvert baggage, or maybe girls do hear words differently than guys. “Aggressive” to me is not a motivating word; “assertive,” however, is. Hmm… what do you think?
Response = Wow!
When I started writing this page/essay, it was mostly as a personal backlash against some of the not-so-great experiences I’ve had in class recently. And I was half-way thinking that maybe a few girls would find it helpful but that others would say I was over-reacting, it’s not really like that, who are you to be saying all this, and that most other people would ignore it. And yet I woke up to tons of positive comments, and more throughout the day. Whoa. (Once again, a little affirmation for me that I’m not a complete abnormality.) So, basically, I was writing this to tell other girls that they aren’t freaks if they’re experiencing certain things in class, all the while feeling like a bit of a freak myself for writing it and thinking no one will believe me, and then you all affirmed that it’s true. Funny how that works out.
(Of course, if your experiences as a female don’t match what’s presented here, I’d love to hear about those, too. Different experiences are important to hear about. [I wonder what it's like to have the white belt boys walk in abject terror of you. Anybody?] So, don’t feel obligated to just post “yay” comments.)