I spent last week enjoying some gluttony and sloth and tried to focus on things that are not jiu-jitsu. Of course even when I am not training, jiu-jitsu is never far from my mind and I have so many friends through training that I can’t escape talking about it or thinking about it even if I want to (which I don’t).
A topic that has come up a lot lately is how to retain female training partners. This is a topic that has been on my mind pretty much since I have started training. As I have discussed before it’s always somewhat hard for women when a female training partner quits because we are very invested in them.
I have read many articles about how to attract women to jiu-jitsu and what you can do to keep them coming, Valerie Worthington recently wrote this article about it which created some good discussion both while she was writing it and then after it was published. While I do believe that there are things that can be done to make it more comfortable for a woman to start training jiu-jitsu, I have often wondered if there is anything that can be done to keep women training.
Even if a gym does everything right to attract a woman to train…they have changing facilities separate from/equal to the guys, the guys don’t flirt with her, no one smashes her the first time she takes a class, everyone is welcoming…is there anything that can be done to keep her training?
Inevitably no matter how awesome a gym is, every jiu-jitsu student is going to get smashed. If you are not one of the stronger or bigger members of your gym, this is particularly true. Most women are going to spend the first months (possibly years) working on defense and survival. I didn’t even think about getting submissions until I had been training for almost a year.
Even if you try to introduce a woman to rolling slowly and only let her roll with partners who will be kind and let her work instead of muscling, there is eventually a time period where she has to be released into the wild of rolling with everyone and she will get smashed.
This is when I believe it comes down to the individual and not the environment. Many people of every gender have quit jiu-jitsu after they started rolling because they realized that it is not for them. So again, even if the gym does everything to encourage women to train, there is nothing that can be done to change their desire to keep training if they don’t enjoy it.
This is something I’ve thought about a lot in my own gym. We have a lot of women who train Muay Thai and even more that take the kickboxing class but very few who train BJJ. I pushed hard for us to start a women’s BJJ class because I thought if we could create a less intimidating environment for the women to try jiu-jitsu, more would get into it. I know that if I were wondering what jiu-jitsu was about and I saw a mat full of 20 guys rolling around on the floor (ok there is also one crazy girl) I would maybe not think “I have to try that!”.
So we started a women’s class and I started to believe that my plan had worked. We got more women to try jiu-jitsu, there were times we had 6 or 7 women training in the women’s class. It was so exciting! As time progressed though, I noticed a pattern. They didn’t keep training.
I took this really hard for a while. I teach the women’s BJJ class and I felt like I was doing something wrong if they weren’t staying. As a blue belt, I definitely do not have the skills that our other coaches have. We only go over basics in the women’s class and I try to focus on things that I find work for me in rolling with the guys but I definitely cannot run the class like our black/brown belt coaches can.
I think I was operating under the assumption that all I had to do was get the women to try jiu-jitsu and they would fall in love with it just like I did. I guess I really couldn’t understand how someone could try it and not love it. But I know this is not true because most of the people who start jiu-jitsu don’t continue with it.
So in the time since we’ve started the class we have had maybe 10ish different girls come who were not training before we started the class. Of those 10ish there is only 1 that continues to come. There have been several occasions where the women’s class consisted of me and that one student, she even joked she might have to start paying me for privates (I consider the women’s class a labor of love but she occasionally makes me treats which is really the only payment I need).
This is a pattern that exists outside of the women’s class though. There are women who have started training in the regular classes and who also haven’t continued. In my gym we have beginners and advanced classes at the same time. Once you get a stripe you get to train with the advanced class. This is a format we adopted around May or June last year. At the time the format changed, there were two women who had just started and they eventually earned their stripe and made it to the advanced class. They have both since stopped training. In the year or so since those two women earned their stripes we’ve had exactly…wait for it…0 women come to the advanced side.
This realization came to me last week and I was somewhat astonished. Even though I know that most nights I am the only woman who trains in the advanced class (we have two other female blue belts but one trains during the day and the other works at the gym so doesn’t get to train with us that much as she has other duties during class), the fact that we haven’t had a woman train long enough to earn a stripe in a year seemed crazy to me.
So I started thinking about whether it’s something we are doing at the gym. Even though no gym is perfect, I think ours is pretty good. My coach has always been as encouraging and helpful to me and the other women as he is to the guys. Even though most of the students are men, there are some really great people to train with. I am in class 99.99% of the time so there is almost always a woman on the mat (plus I personally think if I had the chance to drill with me I’d work very hard for that stripe but I guess I am biased).
So assuming we are not doing something awful at the gym that is driving away women, why are they leaving? The only thing I can come up with is what I said above…jiu-jitsu is not for everyone. I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of the women who have trained for a while are very much obsessed with jiu-jitsu. You have to put up with a unique kind of hell to eagerly fight with a bunch of boys who are stronger than you. You either love it or hate it, there’s not a lot of room for middle ground.
I should also point out that I know that this phenomenon of people quitting jiu-jitsu is not exclusive to women. I don’t even attempt to learn people’s names until they are in the advanced class because I know many of them, male and female, will not train long enough to get a stripe. It just hits me harder when we lose girls because I want more female training partners (I am so self-centered sometimes).
So I’m going to try my best not to take it personally in the future when the women stop training and not to get too upset. I have been fortunate enough lately to get to train with women at other schools which has been awesome and has made my longing for more women at my own gym diminish. If anyone has any ideas on what we can do to get the girls to stay, I’d love to hear them. But I think a lot of it just comes down to the individual. It takes a special kind of crazy to train jiu-jitsu!
Sorry for the delay in updating you all about Grappler’s Quest. I promised myself a day of laying around doing nothing yesterday and I was really serious about making that happen. Anyway, on with the tournament breakdown!
I arrived at the arena around 12pm but was not surprised to see that they were running behind after witnessing the inefficiency of weigh-ins the day before. So after a couple of hours of waiting around they called my division and I went to the table to compete.
As I hinted about in my post Saturday, I was feeling very nervous about competing in the advanced division. 18 months is hardly what I’d consider “advanced” in BJJ and I was feeling very worried about who I was facing. After seeing some of the girls compete in gi, I realized that most of them in my division were purple, a couple of browns and even one black belt from another system (not following BJJ belts) who I’ve seen compete professionally in MMA as well. In contrast to most of my other competitions, I did not go first this time and was actually the only person who had a bye in the first round. I tried to watch some of the other matches but was trying not to feel nervous so I was going in and out with attention.
Finally it was my turn to go and I stepped on the mat. The girl jumped guard almost immediately (I suspected she would as I had seen her do it in her pervious match). She had a deep hook behind my head so I went to the ground and was ducking my head to clear it. I honestly can’t tell you what happened next or what I did wrong but the next thing I knew I was on my back and she had an arm bar locked on tight. I tried to turn into her and come up on my knees to escape it but she had it really tight and when I turned I heard (and felt) a pop so I tapped.
Well damn. That really sucked. I stood there at the end of the match holding my very sore elbow as they raised the other girl’s hand and couldn’t believe I had been almost immediately submitted again. I once again felt humiliated that my coach and my teammates and some friends who came to watch all saw me get submitted, probably inside of about 45 seconds this time.
I left the mat and told myself that I couldn’t focus on it because I might have another match (I did not) and I still had gi left. As the hours passed and I had time to reflect on my match, all I could conclude at the time was that I was probably outclassed. Whatever she did to transition to that arm bar was quite smooth (even talking with my coach later he wasn’t quite sure how she got it) and I got caught. My friend took video of it so I am anxious/apprehensive to see it so I can figure out what went wrong.
Before I go on to gi, I have to take a brief detour to complain about why it sometimes (often) stinks to compete as a woman. At first after I finished my match, I couldn’t help but think about the unfairness that I had to compete at advanced with just under two years of experience while the guys had an intermediate division at 18-36 months (I won’t even go into the lack of age divisions for women).
I don’t really want to be whiny and complain about things I can’t change but as I spent the next couple of hours icing my elbow in the hopes that it would be functional for gi, it occurred to me that having women fight as advanced with 18 months of experience was also quite dangerous. As I watched some of the earlier matches and the other competitors were going for foot locks and leg locks it occurred to me that I was in a division where anything was legal and I felt quite unprepared for that as a blue belt. I am not saying my elbow got popped because I don’t know how to defend arm bars as a blue belt, I know that could have happened in any of my past matches. But at 18 months there are a great many people who are still white belts and I just see a lot of potential for injury in having a division with advanced rules for people who have only been training a year and a half.
I understand that women’s divisions are often quite sparse and that is the reasoning behind the current breakdown but considering we had 7 women in my division, maybe they can add another bracket for women in the future. Ok end of rant…thank you for listening!
So after a few hours of icing, watching some of the guys from my team compete and watching one of my coaches have an epic 70+ minute match with Wilson Reis and then win $1000 in the Rough Zen submission only tournament, it was time for gi.
As I was waiting for the match before mine to end I was thinking about how awesome it would be to come back from my poor showing during no-gi and have a Hollywood moment where I triumphed despite my sore arm. You know, me standing in the crane position while her coaches were yelling “SWEEP THE LEG” (in French as it turns out).
However after my rather insignificant showing in no-gi all I could think was “just don’t get submitted this time, whatever happens, just don’t get submitted!”. In retrospect this is probably not the greatest attitude to go into a match with. So I went in just hoping to last the round and that was exactly what happened.
I do not remember all the details of the match (and sadly I don’t think anyone taped this one). I was trying to do the traditional, knee in the middle guard pass and my coach told me to push up on her belt. I could tell because of how loose her belt was that I was just pushing it right into her boobs. I could see the discomfort on her face and I just couldn’t keep doing it. I didn’t tell my coach that at the time but I just didn’t want to pass guard that way! Sorry coach 🙂
Anyway she eventually got to my back. She tried to go for a bow and arrow and I defended it. We spent most of the match with her attacking and me defending. My only moment of offense was when I noticed she had her feet crossed on my back and I went for the leg lock.
So again, not the result I wanted but I was at least happy that I was able to hang in for the round. I think finally being able to last the entire match is some progress and hopefully will move me past my “I can’t compete with blue belts” mental roadblock.
For now the game plan is to take some time off to heal up (at least two days, possibly the entire week depending on the elbow) then get right back at it. My friend suggested some sports psychology books I will read to work on the mental part of my game and I need to really start working standup more. I just have to stay persistent and it will pay off eventually!
I am writing this post from a hotel room in North Jersey (northern New Jersey for those of you outside of the area) where I am getting ready to compete in Grappler’s Quest in a few hours. I am feeling pretty calm and prepared right now but I typically am until right before I step on the mat.
This tournament is a new first for me though. It is the first time I cut weight to make a division. I got down to about 145 for the NY Open and the weight divisions for GQ were 120-139.9 or 140-160. I really had no desire to come in at the bottom of a 20 pound division so I decided to go for the 120-140 division.
After a good meal following the NY Open, I started this week at 148. I restricted all salt and started drinking massive amounts of water on Monday, two gallons a day until Thursday where I cut back to one gallon. I also cut back on food so that I was hardly eating any sugar (I typically try to stick to paleo anyway so this wasn’t too hard but I did miss fruit!) and skipped my post gym shake for the week.
Yesterday I woke up at an even 144. I had some coffee in the morning (as I had to function as a human I could not skip coffee) and then about 6 ounces of water. For the rest of the day I had about 8 walnuts, a spoonful of coconut oil and sips of water when my mouth got so dry I couldn’t stand it.
Around noon I headed to New Jersey wearing sweats (in the midst of quite a heat wave here, my car thermometer was over 100 for most of the drive) and drove the whole way with the windows down so I could get my sweat on. When I got to the hotel and weighed in, I was at 141.2. Close but not there yet.
Luckily I have a training buddy in the area and I headed over to his house where we were going to head to his gym to use the sauna. I decided the time had come to get serious so I put my sweats back on, got in the car and drove to his house (about half an hour) with the windows up and no fan of any kind on in the car.
By the time I got to his house I was drenched and hotter than I’ve ever been in my life. We headed to his gym and I checked my weight there, 139lb and 12oz (it was a very fancy scale). Under 140 but I wanted a little more insurance so I sat in the sauna for a combined 20 minutes or so and sweated out another pound.
We then headed over to the arena where the event is taking place and waited in 3 very long lines. One to get checked off a list and hand stamped (in a completely unfair world the line for those pre-registered was 10x longer than the one for people who were registering there), one for weigh in and, inexplicably, a third to get a receipt that said you registered and weighed in. My official weight was 138.8, woohoo!
I am hoping the knowledge that I am in a lower weight class this time than I’ve ever competed in before will give me a psychological boost when I compete. My coach also suggested warming up more before I compete because I am, as he put it, “a slow starter”. I can’t argue with this, I do tend to ease into rolling like an old lady into a bath. After last week’s pulling guard debacle, I am also determined to stay standing until one of us gets a takedown.
No-gi should be interesting as GQ considers 18 months or more of training to be “advanced” (we’ll get into the unfairness of competing as a woman in another post) so I am curious to see who is in my division. Hopefully if the black belts show up today, they dispatch of me with little damage 🙂 At least gi is blue belt only!
So win or lose today, I just hope I can go out there and leave it all on the mat. A lot of people from my team are competing so it will be a fun day no matter what. Ok, enough typing…time to get ready for war!
I guess I should have put “spoiler alert” in front of the title. Oh well. Now you know how the NY Open went for me. I am not really going to focus on the details of the tournament but for those of you who like such things here is a brief synopsis: I pulled half guard (despite my coach and I agreeing right before I stepped on the mat that I was not going to pull guard no matter what) and then got smashed from the top and finished with a Kimura.
I feel obligated to warn you that my typical cycle after a loss is a day or two of self-loathing and doubt followed by a few days of figuring out what went wrong followed by resolve to keep training. So what you are about to read is written while I am in the throes of my “I am the worst jiu-jitsuer who ever jiu-jitsued” phase. Probably I should apologize for that but I am too bogged down in self-pity to care.
I try not to get upset just because I lost. I don’t so much care about the win or the loss but every time I compete I go out there hoping to be able to do all that I am capable of. Lately I know I have fallen short (really short) of this and that is what tears me up afterwards.
I know that technically I did things wrong or else she wouldn’t have been able to submit me but I also know that my biggest problem right now is between my ears. I try to focus on the tournament leading up to it. I train aggressively, I visualize what I want to do, I tell myself that I am good enough to roll with whoever might show up and give them a hard time. It all works for me as I am preparing to train. And then I step on the mat.
As I am standing there, staring at the mat, looking at my opponent, I feel the nerves take hold of me. They take control of my mind and make me do things like pull guard despite the fact that my coach and I both agreed I didn’t want to. They take hold of my body and weigh me down so I can’t move like I normally can and I lay there like a rock panicking.
It seems that lately my pattern has been to not draw things out and lose with points but to be submitted quickly and early, without having any kind of offense to speak of. Like I said I don’t mind losing (much) but I feel like I do it so spectacularly that I can’t help but feel shame as I step off the mat. I feel shame that my coach drove all the way to NYC and I was on the mat for 90 seconds. I feel shame that my friends and teammates in attendance watched me get dominated. I feel shame every time I have to answer a text from a friend asking how I did.
In my brain I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed. I went out there. I tried. I did more than a lot of other people do. My coach doesn’t care if we win or lose, he just wants us to go try. Many people got submitted at the open, probably even some of them earlier than me, it is highly unlikely that my match was the talk of the tournament. My friends are probably not going to stop hanging out with me and seek the winner of my match because they don’t want to be associated with a loser anymore. But in my heart I can’t help but feel like a failure.
I went to the tournament with a teammate and friend of mine. I have always admired her presence when she competes. She is the nicest person off the mat but you can see a change come over her as she is about to compete. She becomes extremely focused and intense. Saturday was no different. I watched her fight like a beast for 3 tough matches and take silver in her division, only losing on points in the final.
As happy as I was for her, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was so easy for her and so hard for me. Being a former fat kid, I don’t have a history of competing in athletics. Am I just the proverbial old dog trying to learn a new trick? Do I just not have the mentality to compete? Am I too old? As a 33 year old woman I am lucky if the tournament I am fighting even has a masters divisions, let alone anyone registered in said division.
I was thinking all this as I walked off the mat and ran into my teammate and friend who was also there to compete. I told him that I wasn’t sure I could keep competing because I didn’t know if I’d ever have the mentality for it. He told me to remember it is a journey and I am not there yet.
I am somewhat of a stubborn person (sorry for those of you who know me and may have choked while laughing, I should have warned you not to take in any liquids before reading that) and I am also a fighter. Sometimes I doubt that but you don’t keep coming back to jiu-jitsu night after night if there isn’t something inside of you that wants to fight and win. These characteristics make it really hard for me to give up. Ultimately I’d rather be a loser than a quitter. I also truly believe that if I keep making myself compete I will figure out how to do it better.
So although I am bummed out to have lost and feeling pretty awful still, I know that I will keep going. I don’t really have any more time to dwell on this loss as I am competing in Grappler’s Quest this weekend. Hopefully I can channel this upset and anger into my fights there and have a better show. As I am fond of saying, the only answer to jiu-jitsu problems is more jiu-jitsu.
There are certain universal truths that I’ve had to accept as a woman who trains jiu-jitsu. One being that whenever the instructions of a move include “put your hands on your partner’s chest”, there will be a moment of awkwardness as my partner tries to figure out where to put his hands. Another being that I have to remember to be super careful when I’m doing cut passes while rolling with the guys. These are not particularly annoying things and I’ve accepted them as part of training.
One of the things I’ve had to acknowledge and accept though still bugs me and probably always will. That thing (sorry to get all technical with the terminology) is the fact that no matter how much I train, no matter how good I get, I will never be able to be as physically strong as the guys I train with. It’s just not possible. It’s not a matter of giving up, it’s just simple biology.
Now some of you might be thinking “oh great, another girl who is going to complain about strength”. To you I’d say, shut up and stop reading my blog! No wait, I kid, I kid…come back! The reason that you hear a lot of women, and smaller guys for that matter, talk about strength a lot is because it is not something that is ever going to go away. Knowing that I am smaller and weaker than the guys I train with affects each and every roll I have with them.
When I am rolling with the bigger, stronger guys at the gym, I often find myself not even attempting submissions. Knowing that much of the time they are likely going to be able to use their strength to escape the submission, I tend to focus on sweeps and position instead of submission. This is particularly true during no-gi weeks when I can’t even rely on grips.
It also changes what kinds of sweeps and escapes I will go for when rolling. There are just times when I doubt my ability to execute a move while I have the weight of someone who is 50-80 pounds bigger than me on top of me. And of course any time you roll as the smaller, weaker person you have to think about your personal safety first before you think about BJJ as you are much more likely to get hurt than your bigger, stronger opponent.
This is not always a bad thing. If I ever had to use BJJ for self-defense the chances are that I would be fighting a stronger guy who outweighs me so training like this is great preparation for real world applications of jiu-jitsu. But at times like this, when I am trying to prepare for tournaments, I sometimes find it really frustrating. The game I would play against a girl my size is different than the game I play with a bigger guy and so sometimes I worry that training with the boys isn’t always the best way to get ready for competition.
I also find that being weaker makes it harder for me to understand when I get submitted because of bad technique or lack of strength. There are times when I know that someone used brute force to get a submission, for example when someone lays on top of me, holds me down and spends a few minutes digging my arm out from where I’ve safely tucked it in to lock it and get the submission (this is a personal pet peeve of mine). But I also want to be careful not to blame strength every time I get submitted as I know sometimes it was a failure on my part.
I am also aware that there are women who will be stronger than me and thus this is not a problem isolated to rolling with men. All things being equal, strength is often the determining factor. The problem is that I will never have the strength the guys have so it makes it difficult for me to gauge sometimes what would and would not work with an opponent of my size and strength.
But besides the affect it has on tournament prep, there are times when being the weakest person is just humiliating. When a guy who is new to rolling manages to get me in a weird position and get the tap on a move I know would not work on 90% of the gym, I can’t help but feel embarrassed. I get caught in positions that most of my training partners would not and sometimes it just sucks.
One time during open mat a few months ago, I was rolling with a newer guy who is very big and strong. Somewhere in a scramble he went for a triangle but did not manage to capture my arm and ended up just trapping my head between his thighs and using his strength to pin me to the floor. Since the triangle didn’t work and he wasn’t sure how to transition he just started squeezing my head with his thighs. He was so strong I couldn’t get his legs off of me but it was not something I wanted to tap to. He continued to squeeze for a bit and I finally looked up at him from my precarious position near his groin and said something along the lines of “um…you know this isn’t actually a submission right?” to which he replied that he did but inexplicably kept squeezing my head until the round ended shortly after.
I know that a lot of the humiliation and embarrassment comes from me. In my head when the new guys catch me in something because I am not strong enough to escape it, I picture them bragging to everyone about how they beat a blue belt when they have barely started rolling. I know that anyone can get caught by anyone on any given day but I sometimes feel like I am the low-hanging fruit for the new guys. This is just something I have to get over or I’ll continue to feel frustrated. But I think there will always be times when I get caught in something stupid and want to stand up, stomp my feet and scream NO FAIR.
I also know that even though I will not ever be able to match the strength of my male training partners, I can learn to deal with it. I handle strength now so much better than I used to. When I first started training and I would roll with a big, strong guy, my way of handling it was to curl up in the fetal position under said big, strong guy and pray for a quick round. I am now focusing on using their strength to get position when they over-commit their weight and I have to believe that as I keep training, more submissions will come. Someday I will not be the one who gets caught with her head being squeezed between a white belt’s legs.
So what is the point of all this rambling? I guess part of it comes from the fact that while I am preparing for my upcoming tournaments (NY Open next week and then probably Grappler’s Quest the week after), I am feeling the frustration of lack of similar training partners.
Admittedly, some of it comes from my ongoing quest to make people understand that it is sometimes really difficult to train when you are the weakest person in the gym. I was teasing one of my training partners a few weeks ago and telling him he wished that he was as strong as I was. I jokingly said “it’s easy to come to the gym and train when you are the biggest and strongest, try coming when you are smaller and weaker than everyone else”.
As I reflected on the exchange later I started to think I was at least partly right (of course I always think I’m right). I also realized that probably the big guys would never truly understand what it is like for me to train, just like I am sure they face training challenges I cannot understand. Being out-muscled is the cross I will always have to bear when I train. So I guess I just wanted to share some of my thought on why sometimes it sucks to be me.
Note: I am very sorry for the long delay in posts and for the fact that I have not kept up with anyone else’s blog in the last couple of weeks. I am on a very code heavy project at work right now so have had very little down time. Add to that the fact that I accidentally wiped out a whole chunk of code last week that I had to recreate on my own time over the weekend (the title of this post is what my boss said to me when I told him about the missing code and my plan to replace it) and hopefully you can understand the delay. I will do my best to catch up and keep up from now on though!