Women and Jiu Jitsu – Part 2

I discussed in my last post that there may be historical reasons for the disparity between the number of male and female practitioners of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  However, I don’t think the sexist attitudes of the early pioneers of BJJ are solely responsible for the scarcity of women in the sport.  In this post, I’ll discuss some attitudes and behaviors (of both male and female practitioners) that I’ve encountered in my several years of training that likely also contribute.  In one way or another, all of these experiences trace back to the stereotypical “women can’t/shouldn’t fight” attitude.

Women can’t fight? Miesha Tate’s arm begs to differ.

This first experience is something I’ve encountered many times – and although I describe a situation that occurred during a kids BJJ class, I’ve seen similar attitudes in adult classes as well.  A few weeks ago during a children’s BJJ lesson, the students were preparing for the sparring component of the class.  When the children were told to shake hands and begin sparring, I noticed that one boy was refusing to spar with his partner, and instead was intent on watching two girls spar.  When instructed to focus on his own sparring session, the boy replied “No, I want to watch this.  It’s hilarious when girls try to fight.”  This, of course, was coming from a boy who was approximately the same size, strength, and skill level as both of the female students he was watching.

This particular student hasn’t competed yet, though I think if/when he does, he’ll have an eye-opening experience.  Since young boys and girls compete in the same divisions in most BJJ tournaments, I’ve seen lots of boys walk off the mats crying after being easily handled by their female opponents.  One of the head no-gi instructors at our academy has a young daughter that competes regularly, and I can’t remember the last time she didn’t take home a gold medal.  Needless to say, I doubt that any of her male opponents still think “it’s hilarious when girls try to fight,” since most of them came away from the match with a loss.

Hillary Williams’ opponent also doesn’t think it’s hilarious when girls try to fight.

Disappointingly, I sometimes hear male practitioners refer to other male students as “ladies” or “women” jokingly during class, in an effort to encourage them to work harder (e.g. “come on ladies, you can do better than that!”).  It’s a seemingly innocuous expression coming from well-intentioned men.  While the expression doesn’t offend me personally (having had the accusation leveled at me before), I wonder how female onlookers (or worse, female students) feel about being compared to unmotivated, weak, or inattentive men.  Furthermore, comments such as these, however well-intentioned they may be, only serve to reinforce harmful stereotypes in impressionable students.  For example, I know I’ve heard younger students and kids called “ladies” in jest, even when other female students were in the room.  I doubt that these types of comments are entirely responsible for the attitudes of the boy in my first story above, but they certainly can’t help.

Finally, and perhaps most frustrating of all, I’ve encountered several male practitioners who are not opposed to female participation in BJJ,  yet refuse to train with women themselves.  I’ve had several men tell me that they are completely fine with training alongside female students, but would never actually roll with them.  In some cases, men have told me that grappling with women would make them uncomfortable – almost always due to anatomical differences between the sexes.  Some men have told me that their wives or girlfriends would be jealous if they knew they were “rolling around on the ground with other women.”  For example, guard passes that require placing a head on an opponent’s chest would be out of the question when training with a woman.

From my perspective, this is no different than the claim that “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is gay because you are rolling around on the floor with other guys.”  This attitude is so immature it barely deserves addressing.  Nevertheless, apparently it needs to be spelled out: there is nothing remotely sexual about training to break people’s joints in self defense situations.  When you see stars after getting caught in a neck crank, I can promise you that sexual thoughts about your training partner will be the last thing on your mind.

Broken Arm

Probably not thinking about sex.

Ideally, we could chalk these types of concerns up to immaturity, say “good riddance,” and find other willing training partners for women interested in training.  However, even as a man I sometimes have a hard time finding willing training partners – especially when I want to gain experience against a variety of body types.  Having large class sizes is a luxury not enjoyed by BJJ schools in many areas of the country, and further limiting the training of a particular group of students due to juvenile uncomfortability with the opposite sex is just a shame.

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Women and Jiu Jitsu – Part 1

BJJ is a male-dominated sport.  At almost any academy you go to, you’ll find that the vast majority of practitioners are men.  In tournaments, there are usually fewer women’s brackets than men’s, and within each bracket there are usually fewer female competitors.  At the academy where I train, we don’t currently have any adult female practitioners – only recently have there been a few female kids that have begun to train.

In last year's ADCC (perhaps the most prestigious tournament in the world), there were only 16 female competitors split across two weight divisions. By comparison, there were 5 men's divisions with 16 competitors in each.

I’ve often wondered why so few women decide to take up BJJ.  Over the next few posts I’ll discuss some of the reasons why this might be the case, as well as some tips (from my perspective) for aspiring female practitioners.

Although there are probably many reasons for the highly skewed sex ratio in our sport, I think the picture becomes clearer when we examine Brazilian Jiu Jitsu within a historical context.  I’ll try to keep the history lesson brief, since we’re probably all familiar with the story of the Gracie legacy.  If you are not, you can check out a very well-done biographical documentary of Helio Gracie for free on Youtube.

BJJ is a fairly young martial art, and the techniques developed by the Gracie family were secretively safeguarded for many years after its inception in the early 1900’s.  Only in recent decades, following the notoriety it garnered by the early UFC events, has BJJ begun to enter the mainstream martial arts spotlight.

Helio Gracie is considered among the most important figures in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history, both for developing the martial art and for his competitive achievements that promoted it.  However, while his contributions to the martial arts cannot be overstated, the sexist attitudes of the early pioneers of BJJ are often glossed over in historical accounts.  Indeed, Helio did not envision women participating competitively in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Only men are included in nearly all historical images of the "Gracie Clan."

In the documentary I referenced earlier, Helio explains that “a man’s life is directed towards fighting.  A woman’s is to procreate” (15:29).  He goes on to explain that “women were made exclusively to be a wife, mother, and take care of the children. . . Every woman who doesn’t do exactly this is not right” (16:02).

In another interview, Kyra Gracie (one of the most decorated female grapplers in the world, and the most famous female grappler in the Gracie family) explains that she was told to “leave this [to the men]” and was patronized by the male BJJ practitioners in her family when she expressed interest in competing in BJJ at a high level (3:10 of the interview).

Kyra Gracie executing a picture-perfect armbar.

Viewed within this context, it isn’t surprising that female BJJ practitioners are rare – until relatively recently, they were discouraged from actively participating.  This attitude is a relic of an unfortunate past.  Without a tradition of female practitioners in the sport, it is completely understandable that women remain underrepresented.  Luckily, this overtly sexist position towards female participation in BJJ no longer exists in most academies.  I’ve yet to hear of any current academies that openly discourage women from training (at least as part of their policy).

The hope, of course, is that any remaining barriers preventing women from taking up the sport will continue to erode.  However, there may be additional, more subtle pressures that discourage female participation.  Over the next several posts, I’ll discuss some of these pressures and share of my experiences of training with women.

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In day-to-day life, it’s easy to become complacent when we can choose whether or not to challenge ourselves.  We tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and rarely search for dissenting opinions.  Why should we walk to campus when we can just as easily drive?  When we come home hungry from a long day at work, how many of us would choose the DiGiorno 15-minute pizza over the healthier, but much harder to prepare, homemade alternative.

Jiu jitsu is no different.  If one aspect of our game stands out, it’s easy to become over-reliant on it.  Nobody likes getting tapped out, and if we have a better chance of surviving when we play guard, what incentive do we have to improve our top game?

Personally, I hate training takedowns.  I’ve never had a knack for them – I didn’t wrestle in high school, I gave up on Judo after getting rag-dolled in my first two or three classes, and as a result, I’ve become pretty comfortable pulling guard in competitions.  In 30+ tournament matches, I’ve scored exactly two takedowns (both were body lock/trip combinations).

How I want my takedown attempts to end.

How most of my takedown attempts actually end.

Fortunately, I had a bit a wake-up call this week.  After practicing my wrestling shots for an hour or so on Monday, I’ve been nearly unable to walk, use a staircase, or get up from the toilet after sitting down.  Frankly, it’s downright embarrassing that training takedowns with no resistance for a few minutes has essentially crippled me with muscle pain for the following 4 days.  Ideally, we should be able to objectively assess our strengths and weaknesses, determine where the unbalance lies, and adjust our training accordingly.  Failing that, sometimes our body does the assessing for us (as it clearly did for me).   Well body, I’m listening.

At the end of the month, our school is competing at a local jiu jitsu tournament.  Between now and then, I intend to continue working on my takedowns.  I don’t have any illusions of scoring a flashy takedown in every match, but if I could at least develop the confidence to try for one or two, I’d consider it a small victory.

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Guest Post: The Issue of Time

Last week after Dave made a comment about his lack of time to post on his blog, I mentioned (half jokingly) that I should write a guest post for him.  Dave thought that was an excellent idea! So here I am, Dave’s girlfriend – Ashley – posting on his blog.  I do blog myself but mostly about natural resources, knitting, and baking and rarely anything even closely related to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (although here is a link to my blog post about MMA).  When trying to come up with an idea for a post, one issue or concern that I feel is very salient to any significant other of someone who trains jiu-jitsu was at the forefront of my mind. The issue of time; specifically time management and balancing training with other aspects of life. As anyone who trains, or has dated/been married to someone who trains BJJ, knows – training, preparation for training, and after training rituals can become incredibly time-consuming.  For some relationships this can be huge problem or point of conflict. What I present here is one girlfriend’s point of view on the issue of time.

Continue reading

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It’s been over two months since my last post, which is perhaps ironic since my 60+ day absence from the blogosphere came right on the heels of my post about consistency.  Alas, between working towards finishing my degree this semester, training/teaching jiu jitsu, spending time with family and friends, and blogging, something had to go.

Lately, even training has taken a back-seat to thesis-work (though I am still managing to make at least 2 classes a week).  For anyone afflicted with jiu jitsu addiction (which is probably most of the people actually reading this blog), you know how hard it is to pull yourself away from regular training for any stretch of time.  However, I think it’s important to set realistic priorities (both inside and outside of the academy).

As much as I’d love to train jiu jitsu full time, I think it’s probably a good idea to stick with wildlife biology.  Well, at least until I win the Mundials and ADCC a few times and can charge people $250 a month to train with me. Once that happens, maybe I’ll re-evaluate my chosen career path.

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