Co-ed Martial Arts Training: Can it Be Done?

By Kaitlin Young

I’m going to preface this entire piece with the disclaimer that I will be making some generalizations throughout. These are based on my experiences in combat sports and with human beings in my 33 years of life. If you find them offensive, be the change you’d like to see in the world.

With more women joining combat sports and the professional sport of MMA, the gyms in the U.S. in particular are becoming more of a co-ed space than they’ve ever been. This in and of itself isn’t a problem provided the dynamic between the two is managed in a productive way. This is something I feel our team does as well as or better than any other I’ve witnessed, and as such, I feel emboldened to preach a bit. Please indulge me and lend me your ears (eyes) for a moment.

The Physical Differences Between Men and Women

Before we get into this conversation, let’s start by discussing what the actual physical differences are between men and women as they relate to athletics. Genitalia is certainly a part of it, and hopefully the guys know to wear a cup, but it is the secondary sex characteristics that have the greatest affect on sports performance.

I’ll be the first to admit there are differences between men and women. When I say that, I mean on average, in general, and as it relates to the individual. Generally, men are bigger, stronger, etc. A specific woman may be stronger than a specific man. It is not uncommon at all if a female athlete has had significantly more time under pressure. That same woman would not be stronger than herself if she had been born a man, however. When I discuss differences between men and women, it is through this lens:

If she had been born male, her heart would be 20% larger. Her chest cavity would be 10% bigger, giving her lungs the ability to expand that much more when pushing herself (himself). Her bones would be greater in density and size. She’d be roughly 10% leaner, heavier, and carry more weight in her upper body. Her skin would be thicker, but also contain less subcutaneous fat, so she’d be easier to cut. She would not have to deal with fluctuating hormone levels make her joints more prone to injury as the ligaments relax. She also wouldn’t have the 5-8 degrees of extra extension in her elbows, so she, as a he, would be easier to tap in an armbar. She would not have the relatively inefficient gait and susceptibility to knee injuries that come with hips that can birth a child. Her testosterone level would be roughly 10 times the level she has now.

These are differences you’d see between a woman and a man of the same genetics and same training/experience. They are not the full list of differences, just many that I’m aware of. An exercise physiologist could probably go into greater detail. In any case, there are some women that are stronger than some men, and some men that are more flexible than some women. All of these differences are only trends seen in physical variables among athletes. Being taller or shorter is a physical variable, as is a person’s weight, torso or leg length, etc. Being female or male affects these variables, but many other things affect them far more than whatever sex the athlete happens to be.  For example, a female who has been fighting for 10 years and training daily is not going to be as strong as the male version of herself, but she will definitely be stronger than other newb males at her same weight.

coed martial arts training

Treat Everyone the Same, with Respect

Think about how inappropriate it is for a coach, male fighter, or even female fighter to suggest someone not be pressured because she is female. “Don’t go that hard, she is a girl!” – insinuating that she is inherently weaker. How many times have we heard this expression in a gym? You would never dream of saying about a male fighter, “Don’t go that hard with Randy, he’s not that athletic!”  or “Everyone has to run with weights except Randy.” Why would you not say that? Because it is insulting and demeaning to Randy. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not. It certainly wouldn’t build the kind of confidence he needs to get locked in a cage to go beat the hell out of someone who is looking to beat the hell out of him. You’d say something to the effect of, “Hey, lighten up.” or, “Hey, why don’t you start with this weight and work up.” If you wouldn’t speak that way about a male athlete, don’t speak to your female athletes that way either. To be subtly suggesting to your female students, as well as all the males in the room, that they are less capable, you are creating a lot of negativity that simply does not need to be there and helps no one. Sometimes women will try to do this for themselves, and this is when it is important for the coach or more experienced women on the team to nudge them in the other direction. It is our job to bring out the best in others, and we don’t do that by giving them an easier path than the rest.

Unintended Consequences

Drawing this sharp line between male and female athletes can have some other unintended consequences. By suggesting that women need to be given less pressure simply because they are women, you are telling the men that women are less capable in this realm. As such, losing to a woman becomes a shameful experience. We are already battling this message from society at large, so we don’t need it reinforced in the gym. If you have a good female BJJ practitioner, she is going to tap men. If you have a good female striker, she’ll put men down in hard sparring. It shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not a big deal if a guy who is good, but lighter or less athletic, taps a bigger guy. This should be regarded as the same by all parties involved.

Just as a guy who gloats about what he pulls off in practice is a douchebag, so too can a female be a douchebag. If you believe yourself to be a capable martial artist, tapping someone or working them on the feet should be a normal occurrence that you aren’t overly excited about.

I had an experience several years ago rolling with a very good D1 wrestler on his first day of Jiu Jitsu. (He was an excellent training partner, a bigger guy, but one could roll and transition like he was light.) I caught him in a guillotine when he posted out the way wrestlers do when they haven’t yet learned to protect their neck. He whispered, “Please don’t tell anyone you got me.” with a genuine look of concern on his face. I assured him that what happens in training stays there, but that I was going to enjoy being able to catch him for a little while until he caught up . He was a great athlete and would be fighting MMA in no time. He looked relieved and we continued to roll.

What kind of turd would boast about tapping someone on their first day of rolling with submissions? I don’t think his concern came out of thin air. He was worried about being ridiculed for losing to a girl and having that girl rub it in his and everyone else’s face. He’d probably either experienced it or seen it happen before. I’ve seen it happen many times, or pathetically turned into a meme. If we ever expect to be regarded as equal there must be zero tolerance for that kind of behavior and guys need to stop giving each other a hard time for it as well. Just as being female doesn’t make one inherently less, being male doesn’t make one inherently more. Have some respect for yourself!

coed bjj training

I’ve also been on the opposite end of a sub, with an equally bizarre interaction. A decade ago there were considerably less women doing BJJ. It wasn’t unheard of to enter a men’s division if you wanted more competition that day. I entered a no-gi division and got paired with a guy who was a pretty good regional pro MMA fighter in the same weight class. He was so distraught! (My feelings on this are always half compassion and half It’s bullshit that you are underestimating me!)  He had serious reservations about violently grappling against a woman. I told him before our match to just compete as he normally would. It wouldn’t help me learn at all if he didn’t. I was a fighter, too.

I went in knowing that I was most likely about to get throttled because he was far more experienced, apart from our male or femaleness. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. I sprawled on the first attempted shot but after that, he kicked it into gear and I was on my back and defending submissions for a few seconds before he sank in a tight armbar. As he extended my arm, he hilariously said, “I’m so sorry!” not after, but WHILE he was applying it. It made me laugh out loud. Afterward, I told him it was just fine and that I wouldn’t have been competing if it was a problem. He went on to win the division, making quick work of most of the guys as well. He didn’t have a problem doing it to them though. Why is that? While he wasn’t about to let me win, he didn’t really want to win either. He felt that beating a female had no merit. He was happy to beat the guys that he walked through just as easily. He had nothing to gain by beating me. I had no value as a competitor to him. We can sugar coat that statement all we want, but it’s the truth. THAT sucks.

When coaches don’t praise guys besting the ladies on the team, they are expressing the same sentiment. It may seem counterintuitive, but one way to demonstrate an athlete’s value to others is to praise someone when they land a nice shot on them. If it were easy to beat them, it would not be worthy of praise, would it? I’m not talking about hulking one’s way to a submission using size and strength, but legitimately catching a teammate in a way one could if controlled for physical strength is always worthy of a positive response.

This Brings up an Important Point

Men don’t hack on smaller females in the gym because they believe they are good and beating them is a marker of their own competence. Men hack on women because they believe that losing to them is shameful. If an athlete believes their teammate is just as good or better than them, even if in another weight class, they won’t feel panicked at the prospect of losing a round to them. They’ll want to do better, as fighters are a competitive bunch, but they are unlikely to freak out and injure her. When one teammate believes that another “shouldn’t” be able to beat them, especially when that other teammate is good enough to do it, it sets the stage for an injury to happen.

With that being said, a female does not have license to hack away at the bigger guys or other women on the team. One would think that would go without saying, but sadly, it does not. I like to call this ‘Queen Bee Syndrome”. If you hang around gyms long enough, you will meet this character. She is either the lone or most experienced female in the space, and she has no chill with anyone. For some reason her coaches have decided this is acceptable and don’t intervene. “She’s only 115lbs!” is not a reason to be allowed to be a bad training partner. Hacks are aggravating, and potentially dangerous, no matter their size. You don’t have to be big to cut someone. If nobody wants to train with you, it should be a huge red flag that you are doing something wrong.

It’s important to remember that fighters have egos. It is normal, healthy, and necessary to perform in a competitive sport. Coaches NEED to be the one’s intervening when athletes fail to demonstrate control, regardless of gender. It should not be up to a fighter to have to say, “I’m afraid you are going to hurt me.” Many times, they are not afraid and would rather get into a pissing match when challenged. It is not a good mental practice for the smaller fighters to have to be asking others to lighten up. They, too, should be able to feel dominant in the training room if you expect them to be successful. Putting them in the position to have to say “I’m afraid” or risk serious injury is negligence. Don’t expect competitive people to submit in that way. They either will refuse, or they’ll be in the habit of recognizing their own vulnerability. Both are not conducive to the kind of strength and confidence we want to see on the mat, in the ring, or in the cage.

Though some gyms choose to separate their men’s and women’s classes, in my experience they do quite well together with the correct cultural model. The training is serious, and the heads of the gym make a concerted effort to squash any bad behavior. A good training partner of a similar size and opposite gender is in some ways ideal because they could never become an opponent. They are only there to help each other succeed, and that’s it. There should be no underlying anxiety involved, provided a healthy competitive nature is fostered between the two. This can only happen if equal value is assigned to men and women in the training room, in both a direct and indirect manner.


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