Conquering the Jiu Jitsu Gender Divide

From mount, I scrambled for her loose arm, throwing my head down on top of it to secure

it in what I hoped would be an Americana. The ref knelt down, knowing a submission was near. I rehearsed exactly what I had learned at class, pin the wrist down, lift the elbow up, slide the wrist toward the hip.

She wasn’t tapping.

And in my hesitation, she wriggled and got herself safely to her side.

I learned an important lesson that day. I had been training for a few months alongside the men in my gym. But the reality was that they weren’t as flexible as the women I faced at that first tournament. I loved the guys and had no qualms with being the sole

Competitors at Grappling Industries

woman for that first year of training. However, there is value in rolling with a diverse group of training partners. That diversity may manifest itself as differences in strength, flexibility, gender, skill level, age, or speed.

It isn’t uncommon for gyms to be disproportionately, or even completely, male, but as the sport of Jiu Jitsu evolves, there are more and more women coming up through the ranks. And as a female practitioner who has gym surfed from time to time, I have found that there are environments where women are more likely to converge. These “hot spots”” have commonalities that other gyms can emulate.

Welcoming New People

People who train Jiu Jitsu tend to be fanatics. It is easy to get so absorbed in the Jiu Jitsu that you forget what it is like to be that brand new person trying out class. How you choose to greet new people matters. And if it is the lone woman walking into a room full of testosterone, it matters even more.

Go out of your way to greet newcomers. Make it part of your gym culture. Knowing simple things like where to leave your shoes, how to bow on and off the mats, or where to get dressed can take some of the anxiety out of trying something new.

And when the class begins, someone has to be there to explain the nuances. It doesn’t have to be the instructor, but even during the warm-up someone needs to monitor how she is doing and explain the intricacies of movement. These details help someone to feel welcome and also help them to realize that it isn’t unusual to struggle, especially in the beginning.

Train to Get Better Not to Get the Tap

Yes, women come in all shapes and sizes — all training partners do. How you set the tone for training will help to build the mindset of your students and will help students of many different body types feel comfortable training in your gym.

Jiu Jitsu is a unique art, one where technique can conquer size differences. However, when we are all learning together, it is not okay to pretend that size and muscle don’t matter.

I weigh 125 pounds and have been training for about two years. Of course an opponent who outweighs me by 100 pounds and has been training as long as I have can smash me into submission, but doing so isn’t making the most of his training. He should be taking advantage of rolling with a smaller opponent to work on speed and technique. At the same time, I can work on not letting myself get trapped on the bottom and on getting out of compromising positions.

What keeps a student coming back to a gym is the feeling that she is learning and growing alongside her partners. For that to happen, egos need to be set aside. You can’t learn if you aren’t allowed to move. Helping bigger, stronger students understand how to roll with people lighter them will help everyone’s game.

That being said, never underestimate the power of a lighter female opponent. It is just as wrong to take the opposite approach and roll “lightly” with someone because they are female. I’ve rolled with men who have treated me like I am going to break and have apologized at every turn. It is demeaning and a good way to end up in my triangle. Women are there to roll, just like men are.

So, let us roll.

Class at CTA Madison

Rolling is for Everyone

I recently encountered a woman who had tried out a new gym. After only a single visit, she was completely turned off from the gym.

The problem was a rule, and the rule only applied to women. Not only were the coed classes referred to by the instructor as the “men’s classes,” but women were not allowed to roll in these classes until they had a stripe on their blue belt. He said it was for “their own safety.”

A rule like this is a red flag. It sends out the message that women are a liability, and not welcome there. If an instructor is not able to create an environment of safety and inclusion, he is doing something wrong and everyone, male and female, is at risk.

This is an extreme case, but it brings up an important question. Are there unspoken (or in this case spoken) rules that apply to women differently than men? If so, get rid of them. Rolling is for everyone.

Mix It Up

While rolling is for everyone, it also works differently for everyone. There are techniques that work better for larger opponents, and others that favor someone who is smaller or more lanky.

One of the many things I love about my instructor (and the Caio Terra Curriculum) is that he teaches a diversity of techniques. And he doesn’t keep it a secret from his students that some techniques will work better for certain body types.

Take the head and arm choke (Kata Gatame) as an example. You have everything in position, your head and shoulder pressuring their arm across their neck, everything cinched up super tight. If you are significantly bigger or stronger than your opponent, you can walk your hips up, pressure down, and finish. That’s not me though, and luckily I work with a curriculum that honors my smaller size. I have been taught to set this up the exact same way, but to then walk my hips away from my opponent, getting closer to perpendicular to my partner as I close that space around the neck.

Both techniques are correct. Both can end in a tap, but the latter is more suited to my body type. A good instructor will point out those fine details and differences, regardless of which works best for him.

The Value of Female Teammates

It takes a little extra to submit some of my more flexible teammates like Liz.

Rolling with women has taught me unique lessons. When executing a choke on a smaller opponent, you have to use better technique. A triangle I successfully land on a larger partner can leave a vast amount of space around a thinner opponent’s neck.

Doing a kimura on someone with flexible shoulders can show you flaws in your performance. “Why aren’t you tapping?” is a question that frequently accompanies my training sessions with women.

Women also quickly learn that when you cannot out-muscle someone, you need to compensate with precision and speed. This is exactly what makes women amazing teammates and formidable opponents.

Promote Networking

It may well be that you don’t have women at your gym right now, but you are working on it. If that is the case, it is even more important that you promote networking with your female students.

I’ll never forget that day I was talking at the water cooler with a teammate. At the time, I was the only woman at the academy and that was the topic of our conversation. I asked him how he thought we could get women to come train. He said, “We’ve taken the first step. We have you.”

Women in Jiu Jitsu have a desire to share their experiences with others. Helping them find outlets for that can make them more satisfied with their training experience, regardless of whether or not women are well represented at your gym.

If women are well represented at your gym, consider hosting an all female event or having a weekly women’s class. While some women are completely comfortable rolling with men, it may help bring in those who are hesitant.

Putting up a poster or mentioning events such as Girls in Gis or Queens of the Mat are simple ways to hook women up with others in the sport. Another option is to promote online forums such as the Women’s Grappling Network. These are all incredible resources that provide athletes a space to discuss what it is like to be in a sport where women are still underrepresented and to share experiences that are unique to women.

Queens of the Mat event at Red Schafer MMA

Put Women in the Forefront

If your academy really wants to grow their female clientele, take a closer look at how women are representing your team.

When I am surfing gym websites, I notice when all the pictures are of men. When I am at a seminar or visiting a gym, I am aware of it when an instructor only demonstrates techniques on men and dismisses higher belt women.

If the women are always on the sidelines or in the background, it becomes more challenging for female teammates to maintain their inspiration.

When women are training with a more experienced female partner, they are getting a glimpse of their future. The first time I rolled with a female brown belt, I was giddy. I saw where my hard work, effort, and time spent training could take me. We all need a taste of that inspiration from time to time.

Just Ask

If you have women at your gym, don’t take my word for it, ask them.

After that first class and periodically thereafter, instructors will gain a lot of insight from asking the women at their gym how things are going.

There can be differences with how women and men experience class. The truth of the matter is that you will not know how anybody else is experiencing your class without asking. Feedback is important. It validates the feelings of the person giving it, and helps the person receiving it grow.

It is that simple — it goes something like this. Pull her off to the side and say, “I notice you are training really hard and progressing. How do you feel like things are going?”

And then listen.

Come Train With Us

At Caio Terra Academy Madison, we are inclusive of all abilities and have many female practitioners. Come check out a class and train with me!

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