How To Get More Women Into Grappling

by guest author Krista Scott-Dixon

I am often asked two questions by well-meaning male instructors:

  1. How do I get more women to join my school?
  2. And once they join, how do I keep them?

Good questions.

Before I answer them, here are a couple of crucial things to understand.

Why encourage women in grappling at all?

It’s important to recognize that most of the features about your gym that make it welcoming to women also make it welcoming to the 95% of grapplers that aren’t 18-year-old, superfit, natural male athletes who will thrive no matter what you give them. (And those 5% will probably appreciate the improvements too.)

Key point: Making a school and a space that welcomes all ages, shapes, abilities, and skill levels makes a better space for everyone.

It’s not a zero-sum game where some people suffer because other people get stuff. Everyone wins here.

If you’re running an elite facility that only takes top-notch athletes, you probably don’t need to read this article because your athletes will find you, and they’ll stay with you no matter how much your facility sucks — if it gives them what they want. But until people refer to your training facility as “The ___ Camp” during commentary on the UFC, it’s probably safe to assume that you want as many grapplers as possible on your mats.

The benefits of diverse training partners

Hey guys, how do you get better at BJJ? By going ape on other giant dudes all the time, right? Wrong.

If you’re male, consider the fact that training with all kinds of body types, skill levels, and abilities will improve your game. Whether you need to learn to dial it up or down, or make particular modifications, the finesse you develop from doing so will help you in the long run.

If you can develop the sensitivity to respond to the nuances of your partner — whoever that partner is — then it means you develop the sensitivity to make your game excellent.

Black belts are black belts because they can sense tiny deviations in their partner’s positions, and optimize those deviations efficiently to suit their own goals. They aren’t black belts because they act like Hulk. They can throw you because they can sense when you shift ten grams of your weight to the right, not because they run into you like a demented rhino.

Learn sensitivity to all your training partners and you too can do the ten-gram throw one day.

Beginners vs intermediate/experienced

It’s also important to recognize that “women” aren’t a homogeneous group. We all come to grappling with our own needs, wants, and agendas. However, I’m going to address some general features of this group, with one crucial distinction: beginners versus more experienced women.

It’s critical to consider beginners a special category.

The first 6-12 months of anyone’s grappling career is a unique time. If you attract and retain beginners, then you build an effective, robust school. You don’t get the privilege of higher belts unless you can get newbies in the door and keep them coming back. Every black belt was once a white belt. Don’t forget that.

If you turn women off who’ve been training for 2-3 years, they may continue to train in spite of it. Or they may leave. Or they may get up in your face about how to change things. But they’ll have been bitten by the BJJ bug, so it’ll be harder to get rid of them.

If you turn women off in their first few months, they probably won’t come back. Ever. Not to you, not to grappling.

What do women want?

It’s an age-old question asked by generations of perplexed males.

Some well-meaning men worry that they can’t give any resistance in training. So they turn into floppy rag dolls. Other similarly nice men worry that if they go too light, it’s insulting. So they smash us. Either way nobody really gets what they need and want out of training.

If you don’t know what the women in your school need and want, I have a crazy idea for you: Ask. Don’t assume.

For example:

  • When rolling, ask what resistance your female partner wants. Then do it properly. Don’t spaz out and insist you’re only giving 20%.
  • Check in with your partner regularly to see whether she wants more or less resistance.
  • Ask women students whether your instruction meets their needs, what else they’d like to see, etc. Keep asking, every so often. Then listen — really listen — when they tell you.
  • Etc.

Here are some tips on “what women want” from my own perspective and experiences both as a woman grappler and as someone who’s actively involved in building a women’s grappling community. Like I said, women aren’t a homogeneous group, but this is a decent place to start.

Getting women in the door

Step 1: The door itself

Ask yourself what people experience when they walk in to your facility.

  • Is there crap all over the floor?
  • Does the place smell like the inside of a hockey bag?
  • Is there a front reception area, and if so, does it look like a nest or like a place of business?
  • Can the person in that front reception area speak in complete sentences and clearly explain what your school offers?
  • Do the changerooms/bathrooms look like they’re from a gas station in Tijuana?

In other words, do you look like a professional organization that gives a shit about its members?

Women care about cleanliness. Many martial arts schools are disgustingly dirty and unprofessionally disorganized. Women on average have a much lower gross-out threshold than men, and usually a better sense of smell.

Clean bathrooms/change rooms, clean front/reception areas, clean mats, clean people… this is important. If women walk in and see a cluttered dump with the funk of unwashed gis and unshowered dudes floating in the air, they’ll leave.

In our school, the women actually had a bake sale to raise money to improve their changerooms. (We had extravagant demands like a working toilet and a shower curtain rod that didn’t keep falling down.) We raked in several hundred bucks! Now, our changeroom looks like a showroom at IKEA. I think the men’s changeroom is, like, a hook or two on the wall and a hole in the floor or something to pee into. Learn to bake, guys.

Step 2: Class offerings

Self-defense classes

Many women take up martial arts to feel safer. So if you put them into an environment where, initially, they feel unsafe, that actually achieves the opposite.

Self defense classes are often very popular, and they are a good intro to the defensive applications of grappling; then interested folks could pursue the more sporting angle.

Thus, consider offering low-cost self-defense classes as a way to get women in.

Women’s classes

If you can do it, offer women’s classes. I think this is really, really important. Beginner women especially seem to learn best in an all-female environment. Everyone worries about looking stupid, but perhaps women more so. They’ll just avoid things that make them feel stupid entirely. All-female classes seem to mitigate that.

Once you get women hooked, they’re more likely to be comfortable with co-ed environments. Again, the first 6 months can make or break a female grappler. If they’re turned off, they won’t come back. If they’re hooked, and allowed to get enough skill in an environment that’s initially safer, then eventually they’ll roll with nearly anyone, fearlessly.

Free, cheap, and/or pay what you can

Our women’s classes are free or “pay what you can”. We have four: two women’s BJJ, one women’s judo, and one women’s wrestling. Other schools offer discounts to women.

This might seem like a ripoff, but again, if you want women to come and stay, you have to entice them.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

If you can find female instructors or instructor’s assistants, that’s great. I team-teach the women’s BJJ classes along with two other senior women. We are lucky to have a female judo black belt (a national-level competitor) guest-teach the judo, and a national-level collegiate female wrestler do the wrestling.

If high-level women grapplers are in town, have them come in for a workshop or seminar. These workshops can be women-only, or co-ed (though I suggest an hour or two for a women-only component). We’ve packed the room with women-only seminars.

Consider even things like using women to help with demonstrations of techniques. Humans are monkey-see, monkey-do. If they see other women doing stuff, they’ll be more likely to feel they can do it themselves. But if women always see the school’s competition superstar as the role model, they won’t identify. (Unless they are the school’s competition superstar, in which case, again, you probably don’t have to worry as much about them.)

And, of course, send the ladies to women’s grappling camps! Check out womensgrappling.org for news about women’s tournaments and camps.

Keeping women

OK, the ladies have approved your facility and classes. You’re getting more women on your mats. Good job! Now what?

Step 3: Walk the walk

If you truly want women in your school, live those values with integrity. Think about how your actions and school climate operate to welcome or exclude women.

Instructors: Think about how you can truly create space for women. Do they need more mat time? Classes? A little extra attention, especially newbies?

For example, I’m super-grateful to Mark Stables at MECCA, who has been incredibly supportive of our women’s team. He’s allocated spaces/times for our women’s classes, and has been a consistent advocate of making our jiu-jitsu suck less.

As a result, we probably have more women at MECCA — especially senior women — than most of the other schools in the city combined. (Plus we bring Mark cake from time to time. Membership has its privileges. See baking, above.)

Training partners: Do you approach female students with respect?

I’ve benefited from many wonderful male training partners and other instructors who took me seriously and approached me with respect as a fighter with unique needs and skills.

When I was newer, they understood that their responsibility was to keep me safe and help me learn. Now that I’m more experienced, they understand how to tailor their resistance appropriately, challenge me without smashing me, and watch out for my omoplata setup. I’ve had senior guys who were basically complete strangers help me out by coaching me during competitions, or while watching me roll.

So to all of you dudes, big high fives. You’re awesome. And yes, we notice and appreciate.

Teaching and coaching women

Women want to feel genuinely valued, and they can smell bullshit. If you treat female students and their needs (including their classes) as the proverbial poop sandwich, they’ll know.

Sometimes male instructors don’t like to teach female students or women’s classes because they assume that women are less fun, less aggressive, less serious, etc. when in reality, women are usually an instructor’s dream. The men I know who like teaching women say that the average woman learns better than the average guy in a grappling class. They tell me that women tend to focus better, and women don’t have the macho baggage where they feel they have to prove themselves.

Our women’s team delighted Dave Camarillo when we all showed up to his seminar with notebooks for writing stuff down. He thought this was the bee’s knees, and pointed out how impressed he was to the rest of the assembled guys (who probably thought: “Teacher’s pets!”). At Dave’s next seminar, he remembered us as the students who really wanted to pay attention and get something out of his teaching. (Thanks, Dave! I’m still using your “danger leg”!)

Kill the sexist humour and insults. You probably wouldn’t tolerate racist slurs, so why is it cool to complain about so-and-so does such-and-such “like a girl” or a “whiney bitch”? It doesn’t make you look like a badass to put us down; it just makes you look like an asshat.

(Cursing is usually cool, though. Sometimes nothing captures the existential shame of getting caught in a triangle like the F-word.)

If you’re not sure how to coach your female students, ask them how they learn and what they think would benefit them. People vary in the coaching style they prefer. Some folks like Coach Hardass who screams a lot and tells people they suck. Other folks need a more nurturing, praising style. When in doubt… just ask.

But again, no matter what your style, make it real. If you truly respect us as fighters and students, we’ll figure that out regardless.

Mentoring women up through the ranks

As I’ve said, there’s a difference between beginner and intermediate/senior women. See if you can get higher-level women to nurture lower-level women, even just as instructor’s assistants if possible.

However, don’t assume that two women are a good match just because they’re women. At 110-odd pounds, I’ve been partnered with a 200-lb woman, just because we were the only chicks in the class. Probably it’d have been better to put me with the 140-lb guy and her with the 180-lb guy.

Nevertheless, understand that most people in grappling — which includes women — have a path towards something. Help them get there. Again, more mentoring equals more retention, which means more senior women, which means other women are more interested… it’s all good.

Women and aggression — don’t discount it

Women love cool stuff. They’re not scared of things, as many guys commonly assume. Women can be just as bloodthirsty.

Yes, often women have to be encouraged to develop their aggression, but it’s not because they don’t have it — just because it’s been socialized out of them.

On the other hand, most of my female students and teammates never had a problem with it. They love stuff like chokes or funky submissions. Show them a new way to rip someone’s arm off and they’re thrilled!

Every week in my class we have “Cool Submission of the Week” at the end, where we show something crazy. The objective is not to give newbies all kinds of pointless techniques, but rather to show our joy with grappling and the cool stuff you can do once you get better — in other words what grappling has to offer. They can forget the technique as soon as they walk out the door, but they won’t forget the feeling of “hey, grappling is cool and I just saw a girl bust out that wicked flying armbar”.

Have expectations, and stick to them

It helps for instructors to have a clear code of conduct and set of expectations by which they run all rolling sessions/classes.

It should be obvious to everyone — because the instructor makes it crystal clear — that smashing smaller people and beginners is uncool, and that people need to learn how to give appropriate resistance, and use appropriate self-control. If you’re two big male purple belts, go to town on each other. If you’re a big male purple belt facing a little female white belt, maybe not so much with the smashy smashy.

Have consequences for being a jerk. One rule we use is that if you hurt someone because you couldn’t control your body or your ego, you have to sit out for as long as that injured person does. (Or, if you were being a bully, we find another, bigger, meaner bully to teach you some manners.)

Again, when folks know how to roll and drill properly, then that makes it better for everyone.

Some practical suggestions

keep the gym cleanAs I said, most women are turned off by overt grubbiness, and our sense of smell is better.

Insist that your students come to class clean and properly groomed. Wash your gis after every time you wear them. Febreze or hanging the gi on a hook to dry does not count as washing. Nor does cologne — yuck.

If you can shower before class, please do so. In any case, smell like soap, Tide, or deodorant, please.

Fresh sweat is fine. We’re all rolling around in our funk by the end of an hour or two, and those synthetic rashguards don’t do anyone’s armpits any favours. But it’s the “fresh sweat that was then marinated for a few days into fermented cheesy stank” that we can’t abide.

Consider the pluses of smelling decent. One guy at our school smells so fresh and clean that all the women want to roll with him. We joke that we smell better after we roll with him than before. If you’re a single guy, stock up on soap and use it exuberantly! The ladies will think you fiiine.

Keep your mats and changerooms clean. Keep the whole place tidy and uncluttered. Yes, we care about it, and if you want us there, you’ll have to take the garbage out occasionally and wipe the fungus off the tatami.

Toilet paper. It’s a revolutionary concept. Have some for us. Yeah, we know you don’t use it as much as we do… but wouldn’t you be happy if it were there when you needed it?

Step 4: Keep working on it

You have to work hard to build a women’s team/community in your school. It doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be a genuine expression of support, and you have to make an ongoing commitment to building it.

If you are a male grappler doing this in any capacity, I salute you, sir! We are grateful. Thanks again to all the guys out there who are working on making this happen.

Support and engage all the women, and retain senior women to mentor the newbies. We’ve made an explicit commitment to this project. Now women seek us out and come from other schools to train with us. We also ran a women-only tournament last year, which totally kicked ass.

Remember: usually, improving things for women actually ends up improving things for everyone. If the space is more welcoming, cleaner, a better training environment, etc. then everyone wins.

About the Author:

Krista Scott-Dixon trains BJJ and submission grappling in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She also operates the renowned women’s fitness site Stumptuous.com

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Also check out Emily Kwok’s 5 DVD Set ‘How to Defeat the Bigger, Stronger Opponent’ with the techniques, tips, drills and strategies that she uses every day while training with, and competing against, bigger stronger opponents! It’s great stuff and it applies to all smaller grapplers, male AND female.

How to Defeat the Bigger, Stronger Opponent 5 DVD Set

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