Being Female in Jiu Jitsu Has Inherent Challenges

By Elisabeth Clay 

While for the most part, I am super comfortable being the different one in the gym, many women struggle with the issues that come with it. People often ask: 

  1. Do we treat the female soft and tender or push/challenge her? 
  2. Is she one of the boys or the outsider? 
  3. Which conversations are OK and which are not? 
  4. Is it better to have the women separate from the men?  
  5. Where does the normal horseplay” between guys fall into the training environment? Should it? 

My Take is a Bit Different

I grew up with six brothers, three older and three younger, so my take is likely different. The answer is different for the highly competitive female than it is for the female who comes in with a bad history. Together we strengthen each other. Women who are too insecure or uncomfortable to roll with men may need a bridge program to transition them into a regular class with men and women. Whether for defense or competition, women need to roll with men. Women who are there for self defense cannot learn how to “disarm” a male attacker if they only train with women, or at least not effectively. Women who train regularly with men for competition become stronger and a more formidable opponent against women. 

The Answers to the Above Questions

Women bring different challenges to the gym. We bring mood swings, weight fluctuations, and so many different opinions and outlooks that differ from men. I think it is important to know why a woman came to your gym and adjust accordingly. Some gyms may not even have the right knowledge to deal with certain types or women with certain needs. Some do well catering to the woman who wants to be treated softly. Some do well with the intense female athlete. Jiu jitsu is a great art/discipline to strengthen all people and help them overcome insecurities. I love the saying, the same boiling water that hardens the egg, softens the potato. My outlook is that if we are treated only softly, we never become strong. 

I know that for me, I want to be one of the boys ON the mat, and I want people to roll with me like they would a guy at the same weight and belt/experience/technique level. Do not treat me like a porcelain doll.  

The Other Side to This

I am not one of the boys off the mat. Do not talk to me about checking out other women (eye groping) when you are married or have a girlfriend. Do not brag about going to strip clubs and dropping a bunch of money I expect to be respected (not babied or coddled). I will respect you for the type of jiu jiteiro you are on the mat, and what type of human off the mat. I do not care if you curse and I do not care if you think other women are good-looking (even if you are in a committed relationship), but I do care if you talk about women like we are meat. Also, acting like we are not strong enough to handle hard rolls or being held to the same technique level as men. 

As for Separating Men and Women

For some women, it is good to bridge the comfort level by having them begin in a women’s only class. It could be because of self esteem issues, body comfort/acceptance, traumatic past, or just simply not being used to having people, especially men, in your personal space. The other side to this, I strongly believe, is that women will hit a ceiling of progression if they do not train regularly with men as well as women. Men think differently, move differently and for the mostly part are genetically stronger. I am confident, for me, that rolling with 200+ pound men with good solid technique has made me think differently and adapt. I take that knowledge onto the competition mats with me. It has proven to be very effective for my game. However, you do risk a few more injuries , but that competitive edge payoff is great!  

Having so many brothers, I love the guy horseplay, but it may take some getting used to for some females. When I say guy horseplay, I do not mean the type of horseplay that is demeaning to one another. Additionally, women should leave the catty mean stuff at the door as well. 

Know Who You Are

Ladies, know who you arewhat you are looking for, and what you need in a jiu jitsu gym. Find the place that fits you. There is no one size fits all ladies gym, at least, I have not found one. We are all so different, and that is good. Do not expect a gym to change who they are for you. Instead, find the one that fits you. Also, remember you may find as you grow and change throughout your (jiu jitsu) life, your needs in a school change too. 

My Advice

My most fervent advice is do not be the girl that walks into a gym and expects them to change what works for them for you. At the same time, do not settle for a gym that does not support you. It is my fervent desire for women to find their own inner strength. I do not believe another can give you power, but we can help each other find our OWN strength!!!!

Go where you fit! Become strong! Become your lioness! See you out there on those Zebra Mats.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (Elisabeth Clay) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Zebra Athletics.