It’s not for everyone
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!