In this feature interview I talk with Emily Kwok who is a very smart, very talented jiu-jitsu practitioner.
She’s been involved in the woman’s competition circuit for a long time, having competed both with and without the gi, and in MMA overseas.
Her ability as a teacher of jiu-jitsu – to both men and women – is proved every time she steps on the mats at her BJJ Academy in Princeton, NJ.
In this interview she shares survival strategies when you’re always the smallest person on the mat, how women should deal with inappropriate situations they encounter during training, how to pick a school that fits your needs, and much more.
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Stephan: Hi guys, I’m here with Emily Kwok. Emily is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, she’s had some MMA fights and done very well (which is to say she’s won), she’s got a shelf full of medals from the Mundials and the Pan Ams (gi and no gi), and she’s also a friend of mine. And as such, I think she’s qualified to discuss a couple of topics.
I’d like to start out by asking you about about fighting the larger, stronger opponent, because as a woman, you’re going to be dealing with that all the time. And also training as a woman, because it’s really not something I’m qualified to talk about.
Emily: Really? (laughing)
Stephan: Yeah, I promise. As long as those photos from college don’t come out, I’m good! So take us through your jiu-jitsu history, just to give people a bit of a background of where you’re coming from.
Emily: Sure. I started jiu-jitsu about 10 years ago in Vancouver, my hometown, where you and I met. I started out there training with a blue belt, and really, it was kind of by coincidence that I stumbled into jiu-jitsu.
My trainer, Roy Duquette, was trying to help me find some sort of a sport to help out with my physical fitness because in college, I wasn’t really happy with the way I looked or felt. I tried boxing. I tried working out at the gym and I wasn’t getting results. So he suggested that I might try some ground fighting, and of course, I had no idea what that was.
Stephan: A lamb to the slaughter…
Emily: I actually started out in a Sambo class that didn’t work out so well because there were some very masculine personalities that wanted to teach me how to escape wristlocks for a month and that got very boring.
So I moved on to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That was suggested to me by a classmate. And I thought it was really on and interesting and somewhat thrilling.
And at the same time, I saw there was one girl in the class and I admired the fact that she could pass the guard, which was a new thing to me at the time, and I told myself that I wanted to learn how to do that.
So I started training in a small community center under a blue belt named John Kefalonitis. I trained there for a couple of months and then moved to New York City over the summer. And when I was in New York, all of my teammates at home said “look, you’ve got to look up a Gracie, the Gracies are there.” And I had no idea what “a Gracie” was.
So I looked up Renzo Gracie and tried out his school. At that time I was a white belt: I stayed there a few months and got some good fundamentals.
Then I moved back to Vancouver where I started training with Denis Kang. I started with him because some of my classmates said “he has excellent technique and he’s an up and coming fighter: you might really enjoy it.” So, I started with Denis and that’s where actually you and I met because you used to come in and substitute teach for Denis sometimes.
Stephan: So that training was without the gi and focused on MMA…
Emily: Yes, all no gi. That was new but it kept me rolling around and I really enjoyed it. I stayed with Denis for about a year and a half until I moved to Japan. Just prior to moving to Japan, I received my blue belt under Renzo during a trip to NYC.
I moved to Japan just for the life experience and stayed there for a year. I trained with Team Paraestra in Koiwa, a city close to Tokyo, under a gentleman named Takashi Ouchi. And Takashi was a brown belt at that time under Yuki Nakai. I stayed there for a year and that’s where I jumped into MMA. I’ve been doing really well in the tournament circuit and a couple of my friends were promoters in the women’s fighting organizations over there…
Stephan: Was it the ‘Smackgirl’ organization? I’ve got a t-shirt that says ‘Smackgirl’ that I wear around town and I get some really strange looks…
Emily: Yes! (laughing). One of my really good friends there Kinya Hashimoto, who’s at a lot of jiu-jitsu tournaments recording what’s going on in jiu-jitsu for the Japanese. He was really encouraging and said, “Emily, you should fight MMA.”
I have a sort of motto where I’ll try anything almost once. So I started taking boxing lessons from an old Japanese guy that I couldn’t really understand very well. And they created extra classes to teach me takedowns and other skills. I ventured into my first amateur fight against a girl that was about 45 pounds bigger than me.
I won that fight, at which point Kinya said, “we’re going to do our first promotion in Korea. You should come. We’ll make you a pro fighter.” I thought, “well hey, I’m already here, let’s go to Korea”.
So we went and did Smackgirl in Korea (and mind you, when I heard that the thing was called Smackgirl, I was a little taken aback too). I had my first and only professional fight in Korea and won that by decision.
I received my purple belt in Japan, then went back to Canada for a few months, and frequented a lot of the jiu-jitsu gyms that were around at that time. I trained at Marcus Soares and Tim Shears. I was only there for a few months before I received an opportunity to come back to the United States.
Part of the reason I wanted to come back to the United States was I absolutely loved New York City and I felt like there were a lot of opportunities for me to grow. At this point in my career I really wasn’t thinking jiu-jitsu was going to grow into what it is to me now; it was just a hobby. I was really looking more for experiences. So, I moved back.
Stephan: A real ‘bi-coastal’ life, huh?
Emily: Yeah, totally bi-coastal! I did this all through my 20’s. And I ended up in New Jersey having taken a job through an old friend working as a creative director for a small event management firm. So I had a very corporate job, and jiu-jitsu was just a really passionate hobby.
At that time, I had been competing in the United States which was a big plus for me because I was a little insecure about my abilities only having competed in Canada and Japan. Every time I’d been to a competitions there were only a handful of people to fight and I didn’t know if I was a real purple belt or not; I didn’t really know if I had the skills.
So in the States I started going to NAGA and Grappler Quest and performed really well. In 2007 I was training with Ricardo Almeida and a group of us went to the Mundials. I’d only been a brown belt for a couple of months old, we went to the Mundials and I happened to do really well.
Stephan: “Doing well,” is that code for saying you won gold?
Emily: Yes, I got a gold medal in my first shot at any IBJJF tournament. It was a brilliant moment that, in retrospect, I wish I relished a little bit more. At that time, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just went.
Around that time I made a transition in my work: I was offered a job to actually start managing and working a jiu-jitsu school. I was a little nervous because I was raised very white collar and I didn’t know if jiu-jitsu would provide me with the type of lifestyle that I wanted.
I decided to take that path and give it a try for couple of years. Very quickly I saw that it would be possible.
And at that point, I started to look around and I started to see that the reason why there was never anybody new to fight at tournaments (or why there was always the same one or two girls) was because that was the generation I was a part of. That’s why we often had to fight in the absolute division, or fight girls that were all different levels…
Stephan: So the guys had different weight divisions, and the girls had a single all-weight, all-rank division…
Emily: Yeah, it was kind of whoever showed up, all together.
It was funny because guys would complain that they’d been bumped up a weight division because there’d been only one person in their division, and now they had to fight a guy who was 5 or 10 pounds heavier… Oh, boo hoo! Why don’t you try being a girl, because sometimes, as a woman, you have to fight people that are much bigger than you all the time!!
Anyway, I decided jiu-jitsu was going to be more than a hobby. I started working in jiu-jitsu in 2007 and received my black belt in 2008. I also switched jobs and started working in a different facility, seeing how mixed martial arts, Muay Thai and different things fit into program management and direction. And I started thinking thatI would really like to have my own academy at some point in the future!
I also started co-directing women’s grappling camps with Valerie Worthington and Felicia Oh. That was an incredible eye-opener, to see that all of a sudden there a market where there had never been one before. I mean we figured that nobody would show up to women’s grappling camps, but we’ve consistently had 20 to 30 women showing up, 3 or 4 times a year, all over North America!
Stephan: From how far away have they come?
Emily: From Canada we got women from Toronto, parts of Ontario and a few from Quebec. The vast majority of them come from the United States. What we’re trying to do now is branch out and bring the camps to other areas that we haven’t had a presence in so far.
So it’s been really wonderful. And last year, I took the opportunity to come train at Marcelo Garcia’s school because his wife, Tatiana, had reached out to me a number of times before. I told myself that the time was right to take the plunge, because I’d been feeling a little dissatisfied with where my own training was heading, I felt like I wasn’t progressing very much.
And when I went to Marcelo’s that all really changed. I found a really wonderful group of people that have helped me rediscover my passion for jiu-jitsu, not only as an instructor and someone in the community, but also as a student. I really enjoy being a student again.
Stephan: There are a lot of people who stop learning when they become instructors, aren’t there? And it’s kind of cool to be both and instructor AND a student; it keeps you enthusiastic.
Emily: Yes. And it’s amazing because training with Marcelo I have the opportunity to see a lot of high level training and high level instruction. I admire that someone like Marcelo is able to find different ways to push himself, all the time. It’s really difficult to do and I think that lot of people, when they make that transition to being instructor, forget what it’s like to be a student.
Stephan: Can you give some examples of what ‘pushing yourself’ actually means?
Emily: Absolutely. From my perspective, I know I’ve had to just go out there and create opportunities for myself. I’ve had to take ownership of my own training; to go out there, seek what I want and not just accepting whatever is given to me. That, in a basic way, is competition training.
Sometimes I didn’t have the opportunity to train with the rest of the guys – I wasn’t big enough or whatever – so I have to run stairs or do cardio on my own. It was a very individual, solitary process.
When I’m here watching Marcelo training, I’m constantly amazed at how he’s evolving his game all the time. He has a very open attitude towards training and he’s very passionate about what he does. He trains with everyone. There are no boundaries and I’m really impressed by that.
I wish that more people chose to push themselves that way. He’ll be doing something in training, and then the next day, it’ll show up in a lesson. Or he’ll play with things, go home think about it a lot. It’s fascinating and it’s wonderful to be around and experience it first hand.
Stephan: Let’s change gears a bit. One question I get all the time is: “Stephan, there’s this big, strong, athletic guy at my club and it’s so hard to fight him because he’s a football player. He’s twice as strong as I am, he can bench press 400 pounds, he’s heavy and just crushes me.” In my own training I’ve sparred, fought and competed against people who are 280 lbs , but it’s still a bit of a rarity. I’m a pretty big guy (Stephan flexes madly).
But as a woman you deal with this situation day in, day out… So strategically, what advice can you give to people who are training and competing against bigger, stronger people?
Emily: I look at it in 2 different ways.
It’s very different if you’re a white belt or blue belt who’s new to the sport and training or fighting than if you’re a brown or black belt who is more experienced. As a white belt or a blue belt with training partners that are much larger than you, you have to be careful because you don’t have all the skills necessary yet to keep their weight off of you.
So, a lot of the times when I’m faced with this question, either in my own jiu-jitsu career or at camps or seminars, I tell people that YOU are responsible for your own safety and your own body.
First and foremost, if the larger person is just going to smash your head through the wall to try and hurt you, it’s not really worth risking. I would just straight up and say, don’t train with them, especially if you’re female. Sometimes with guys, even smaller guys, you have a battle of egos and even though somebody’s outweighing you by 100 pounds, if they really want to prove a point, then they’re going to!
Stephan: Because they DON’T want to get tapped out by a girl…
Emily: Guys don’t want to get tapped out by a girl – they think they’re going to die if that happens or something. So it can be dangerous. Mind you, if you have a much larger training partner that knows how to move and knows how to train, that can be a really great training relationship. There’s a sort of balance of personalities there, but it has to be with somebody that’s a little bit more experienced.
Stephan (interrupting): When you and I sparred yesterday, I think I only picked heads with the wall once…
Emily: That’s true, and I scrambled up your legs a few times! (laughing)
So with somebody that’s more experienced you have a little bit more leeway and a little bit more control over those types of situations because you possess skills to attack and defend.
Stephan: Can you give us a concrete example of keeping a heavier guy’s weight off you? So, I’m assuming, well, tell us what you mean. Give us, like push with your legs?
Emily: I would say that your legs are extremely useful. And the other thing that I’ve become more aware of is grips. Marcelo is a hug fan of grips and it’s the entry to everything that we do. So grips, in conjunction with using your legs, are key against bigger people. Whether you play spider guard or you post them on your partner’s hips, there’s a lot of power there that can be generated that you can’t get from your arms and your hands.
And one of the most fundamental mistakes I see people making faced with somebody bigger who is on top of you, is just trying to push them away with their hands, as opposed to using your body or the power generated from your legs.
Stephan: Great! And what kind of specific techniques do you like to use? What technique can you use to choke out somebody bigger and stronger?
Emily: One thing that I’ve been using a lot lately is the bow and arrow choke. Marcelo has a beautiful way of gripping the collar that, I think, makes all the difference. This is a great choke because you’re on top of them. The last thing I want is to allow myself to get completely underneath them and have their weight sit on top of me.
Stephan: If they’re on top of you and the choke doesn’t work, then that’s not good…
Emily: Yeah. I call it beached whale syndromes: it’s not pleasant. So I always try to attack either from the top or the side. The other choke that I really enjoy is a choke that Fabio Gurgel taught in a seminar here not too long ago, but it’s a cross side position choke where you take your own lapel and bring it across your partner’s neck and then walk around in a circular direction to tighten the choke. The moves where you’re able to use your body weight to strategically pin your opponent down work really, really well.
I’ve been trying to play a lot more guard, especially the single leg X guard and regular X guard. I have some success with these but they’re also techniques you work on when your game’s a little bit more technically developed. X Guard is a tricky position, I think, for beginners to start out.
Stephan: So your guard game is still a work in progress?
Emily: A work in progress? Absolutely!
Stephan: Let’s talk about the female thing, and I ask for a couple of reasons. First of all there are a growing number of women in the sport (and women thinking of starting the sport) and they want your perspective on uniquely female problems.
And also there are guys who train with women who have no idea about that aspect of training. And there are also instructors who have women in their classes with no idea about some of these issues.
So let’s get into the nitty-gritty! How should a woman approach jiu-jitsu, and why on earth should she want to lie on her back and wrap her legs around somebody?
Emily: I don’t know! (laughing)
Stephan: Come on! You can do better than that!! (also laughing)
Emily: It’s safe to say that some female black belts are slightly crazy for doing it this long…
Stephan (interjecting): Present company excluded of course…
Emily: Seriously, I think jiu-jitsu is a fantastic sport for females. It gives you a sense of self-confidence and strength that starts from within and goes way beyond. I think having awareness of your body and learning how to be in control of your body is a great way to take ownership over how you’re interacting with people and how you are present in the world.
Stephan: Alright, but why jiu-jitsu, as opposed to Tae Bo or ballet? Because those other activities are still being in your body…
Emily: Body contact is really powerful. Some people never receive hugs, or don’t know how to make a handshake, or put their arms around somebody. And regardless of whether it’s a comforting motion or some sort of other body contact, touch puts you in contact with somebody else’s energy. And it’s really important because it teaches you boundaries and how to move within somebody else’s field.
Stephan: That makes sense, although I’m trying to resist teasing you that the reason you’re doing jiu-jitsu is you just want a hug(laughing). But just about every culture has a form of wrestling.
Stephan: I was in Switzerland last summer and at the time there was a big ‘Schwingen’ tournament which is a type of Swiss wrestling – it’s not nearly as kinky as it sounds, relax (laughing)! Wrestling really is the oldest martial art and it’s very primal.
What about the sort of self-defense aspects of jiu-jitsu? In the movies you see Angelina Jolie knocking out an army of bad guys or robots with spin hook kicks, which is, I would suggest, somewhat unrealistic… But this is your interview, so why don’t you talk a little bit about the connection between jiu-jitsu and self-defense?
Emily: Yeah, when you look at the history of jiu-jitsu, it’s often connected with self-defense. It is a defensive sport, a way of protecting yourself, but it’s also evolved in many ways and there’s different ways you can interact with it.
As females, we are not raised culturally to roughhouse that much, at least not in western culture. Guys roughhouse from the time that they’re born. It’s common to toss your friends around or roll around on the ground together. Women are not typically raised to do that. I’m not going to say that it never happens but, typically, you’re raised to like things that are pink and be a little bit more feminine…
Stephan: Sugar and spice and all things nice…
Emily: Yeah, pretty much. And when you have the aspect of self-defense, some people will find that word very appealing, very non-threatening, and very empowering. So, it’s a great gateway to have someone look at jiu-jitsu.
Now, whether or not they choose to study jiu-jitsu in a self-defense form and only focus on staying on the feet and doing a lot of the typical Gracie movements, or taking it to the next level and maybe becoming competitive with it, I think that’s somewhere where women find a little bit more of a bridge useful. The alternative is to jump into a room of 30 sweaty men that are all really competitive and trying to tear each other’s heads off….
So, I think the history of jiu-jitsu, and the role that self-defense plays in it, is very, very important in how it’s perceived by people.
Stephan: What do you think about this? Often, when I’m sparring with new big guys, and I hold them down, I can feel the panic rising within them. Then they hold their breath and try to bench press their way out of the position. It’s a claustrophobia thing…
When I roll with a woman, however, I don’t try to freak her out by giving her claustrophobia. But if I’m rolling with a big, strong football player, then sure, I’ll use that if that opportunity presents itself, otherwise, he’s going to throw me across the room.
My point is that I have some first hand experience of seeing and feeling claustrophobia-induced paralysis on the mats.
Now, from the female self-defense perspective, and especially from an anti-rape perspective, do you think that simply developing a sense of comfort with physical proximity allows you to think, move and respond in a way that you might not otherwise be able to do? Might not your brain just shut down in a physical confrontation if you weren’t spending time fighting with sweaty men wearing pajamas?
Emily: Yes. I do have a really big problem with how things are marketed, like when someone says ‘rape-safe’ or ‘self-defense for rape scenarios.’ Rape is a very strong word. Marketing a 2 hours seminar on Sunday afternoon and saying that you now have the vital skills to protect yourself, is very misleading regardless of whether you’re male or female.
If you’re attacked, then the fight or flight response, the adrenaline dump is paralyzing. Before I trained jiu-jitsu I had an incident where a man reached out on a subway platform and grabbed me around the neck. I froze, I had no idea what to do.
I look back at that experience, and one of the powerful things about jiu-jitsu is that having the regular body contact with people, being able to feel what it’s like to push and pull and to fight your way out of something on a daily basis allows you to handle threatening situations a lot easier. But this comes with years and years of practice, not 2 hours on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon.
Stephan: Just to put things in perspective, Emily’s fairly short, fairly petite, and I would put her up against a 200-pound muscled dude anytime! I bet that within a minute she’d have that guy drooling unconscious on the mat or on the pavement. So I believe in the power of jiu-jitsu technique, but I’m glad we’re talking about the psychological aspect.
Now, being a woman training in a mostly male dominated environment, has anything inappropriate happened to you on the mats?
Emily: Oh yeah, lots of inappropriate things.
Stephan: Uh-oh. Alright, let’s talk about the situations, what you did and maybe what you should’ve done. And also let’s talk about it from an instructor’s perspective, because you’re teaching at your own school in Princeton, New Jersey.
What should instructors keep an eye out for and how should they deal with inappropriate behavior, for example, when a female student comes to them and says, that some guy is doing something inappropriate.
Emily: Well, the uncomfortable situations with men that I’ve had during training and sometimes after training have generally been somewhat sexual.
I will say that it’s a very limited thing. I don’t think most men act this way. Getting to this point in my career, I’ve trained with 99.9999% males and that’s thousands of people . We’re limiting it to maybe like 1 or 2 strange experiences that I’ve had.
There’s 2 different ways you have to look at this. You have to look at it from a male perspective and a female perspective. Actually, I shouldn’t say male perspective: I should say from the perspective of somebody who’s been training for a little while and somebody who’s absolutely new to the sport.
Someone who’s been training for a while doesn’t look at this as a sexual thing. Obviously, you can look at some of the positions in jiu-jitsu and say that they resemble a lot of other things we do…
Stephan (interjecting): Usually done in the privacy of our own homes…
Emily: Yes, but someone who’s accustomed to training jiu-jitsu doesn’t think this way. You thing about the technical positions that they are.
Someone who’s absolutely new to jiu-jitsu, when they’re introduced to the sport and they look at the various positions that you have to be in, they do freak out a little bit. I’ve faced this many times with females. They say, “wait a second, why am I going to let somebody sit in between my legs, why am I going to let somebody sit on my face.” There are a lot of very awkward barriers that you have to soften and work past.
For any odd occurrences I think you always have to bring it back to respecting the sport, respecting your partners and understanding that you are choosing to engage in practice with someone. That you should appreciate that opportunity and not do anything to offend someone.
Again, most people are going to be absolutely fine at doing this. They understand that barrier. If you do encounter something strange, the first thing to do is to disengage.
Stephan: Let’s talk specifics…
Emily: Okay. For example, when I was a white belt, I had a partner who was in cross side position and I felt a ‘third knee,’ you know… (laughing)
Stephan: Okay, that’s awkward… (laughing)
Emily: …I didn’t know where it came from. So that kind of made me freeze a little bit because I was a white belt. I stopped and looked at my partner and said “I think it’s time for me to take some time off from the mats.”
And they know! Perverts know they’re being perverts, but nonetheless, it’s good to put them on the spot a little bit. And afterwards I addressed it with my instructor.
The guy with whom I’d had the incident had the tendency to come in from time to time, watch class and see if I was training. If I was training, he would train, and if I wasn’t training, he would leave. But my instructor knew something was going on and would forewarn me, saying “say, look, such and such is here, I don’t think it’s safe for you to train.”
Stephan: But your instructor didn’t kick the pervert out!!?
Emily: No. In the instructor’s defense I should say he probably didn’t feel it was a situation where he needed to kick him out because he thought the person would leave on their own. Not to say that that’s always the best way to handle a situation like that – obviously if that had happened to a female student of mine (or any student for that matter) I would say something.
Stephan: Okay. Let’s move away from the explicitly uncomfortable situation and just talk about what you would suggest to women who are going to try out this crazy sport – let’s say that they’ve been talked into it by you, so it’s all your fault!
What should they wear? What are some things that guys don’t even think about when they go to class? What should they do? How should they behave that’ll make them fit in more naturally, and make training a pleasant and productive experience?
Emily: There’s a couple of different ways that you look at this.
For anyone that’s looking to begin this sport, I’d really suggest that you go into a class with somebody you know, or if it’s something that you’re curious about, check the school a couple of times. Go watch, see what people are like.
There are women that will appear in jiu-jitsu schools that are looking for attention. And it’s very obvious by the way, that they dress. When you dress for class, if the instructor isn’t already helping you with that, I think it’s appropriate for women to keep themselves covered. For myself, anyways, the last thing I want is to be sexualized while I’m training or after training. When I train, I train. I love the sport equally. I don’t want to turn it into something else.
And that’s where the lines can blur a little bit, because some women don’t realize the implications of wearing a low cut tank top showing cleavage when someone has cross-side position on you. Or when you’re wearing thong underwear and you go to pass the guard and somebody gets really a great look at your whale tail…
On one level for the other females in the class, it’s disrespectful and sometimes very irritating, because once someone bring that provocative element into training, it sometimes changes the way the men in the class will look at you or interact with you as females, period.
Stephan: So what should you wear, then?
Emily: Women need to wear a rash guard on top of your sports bra, or at least a fully covered shirt; something that won’t allow your shirt to get pulled down or something unusual to happen.
It’s also appropriate to wear full briefs, spandex shorts or something that will cover you up. The gi pants that we often wear have drawstrings, usually with little holes on the side. Of course we double-tie everything but a lot of times people have to stop in the middle of their matches to tie their pants up again.
I think it’s just really important, as a females, that you keep yourself covered . There’s a lot of body contact in the sport and you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where people think you’re asking for attention, or where you’re distracting people to point where it’s irritating for other females in the room.
Stephan: What about hair and nails?
Emily: Cut your eagle talons! I’ve never been into getting my nails done, probably because I started with the sport when I was in my early 20’s. It’s always good to have your hair tied back, jewelry off, wash your face. It’s irritating when you’re trying to help girl with cake-face make-up and then her face comes off on your gi (laughing)
Stephan: That’s the Shroud of Turin effect (laughing) .
Emily: That can get expensive – you’ve got to wash your gi a few times. So again, it’s about putting yourself on neutral ground and focusing on what you’re here to do, which is to learn something. It’s not a parade. It’s not a fashion show. If you want to dress up, do that on a different day.
Stephan: What about earrings, nose rings, tongue rings, other piercings?
Emily: For safety, you’ve got to remove them or if they can’t be removed, just tape over them. Make yourself safe.
Stephan: You don’t want the piercings forcibly removed from your aforementioned bits…
Emily: Yes, I’ve never actually seen it happen, but I’ve definitely heard of people getting earrings torn out by accident, a belly ring getting hooked on somebody’s belt and getting torn out. I mean a lot of nasty things couldhappen. We’re not skydiving, and we don’t need helmets, but we do want to be appropriately dressed.
Stephan: So for some girl who lives in small town USA who is looking to train jiu-jitsu, what advice could you give her about school selection? Let’s say that she’s interested in a bit of self-defense, a bit of self-development, maybe thinking about competing down the road…
Emily: It’s now a very different scenario than where I was 10 years ago. The Internet is more widely used and jiu-jitsu is a popular sport, so you have the luxury of being able to look online and do your research. Look at what’s in your area. You can go to and ask questions on forums…
Stephan: Which forums?
Emily: Popular ones would include mma.tv, and nhbgear.com (which is really popular on the East Coast). You also have sherdog.net. It’s easy to find resources where you can ask people in the community what their opinions are…
Stephan: For example, “hey, what do you think about instructor so-and-so?”
Emily: Yeah, or “have you visited this school before?” And I find there is a lot of talk and opinions about schools on forums, because people want to be honest about the information that’s out there. It’s a pretty serious thing.
Upon shortlisting a handful of schools in your area, do visits to each school. Go check out the environment. Make sure that you’re comfortable with the instructors, that you like that energy that’s in the school.
A school that does both MMA and jiu-jitsu is going to have a very different feel from a school that’s strictly jiu-jitsu. Competitive schools will be have a different feel from more self-defense oriented schools.
Knowing what you’re looking for is important. It’s important to pay attention to everything that you see and everything that you feel. If you’re hoping to compete it’s important to find out whether the school has a competition team, or whether competition is even allowed? There are schools where their students entering competitions are really frowned upon.
Some of these things may only come into play later on, but when you join a school you’re going to develop camaraderie with the students and respect for your instructors and staff. You don’t want to do all that and then be in a situation where it’s suddenly not the right fit for you, where you can’t find the things that you want and can’t be fulfilled. Changing schools is a very difficult thing to go through, whether by choice or not…
Stephan: What about the gi versus no-gi? If your emphasis is on self-defense and self-development, what do you think about training with the gi or without it, or focusing on MMA?
Emily: If you’re strictly looking for self-defense then maybe start with the gi. The gi is realistic in the sense that people do wear jackets, jeans and suits. The gi is an alternate for the garb that we wear on top of our body.
No gi training is fantastic, but it’s also a little bit more reliant on athleticism and speed. It also tends to sometimes attract a lot of wrestlers and MMA people, so the energy in the environment can be a little bit…
Stephan: More macho?
Emily: Yeah. It can be. Not always but it can be.
And the same thing again with MMA. It’s a matter of what you’re looking for. I think that a self-defense focus has more of a feeling of traditional jiu-jitsu or traditional martial arts and that could be a bit more comfortable for someone who isn’t looking for heavy competition down the road…
Stephan: Okay, Emily, that’s been very interesting to me and I hope it’s interesting for other people. Hopefully it’s inspiring for women to see what you’ve accomplished, and maybe they’ll follow some of your advice and proceed with their own journey.
How can people get in touch with you if they want to train with you, bring you up for a seminar?
Emily: There’s a couple different ways. You can reach me through my website at emilykwok.com. And my school is in Princeton, New Jersey, princetonbjj.com. I’m also involved in women’s grappling camps that travel around the country. Our website for that iswomensgrappling.org. And you’ll also frequently find me in New York City at Marcelo Garcia’s school because I also work with his online instruction site at mginaction.com.
P.S. If you like the interview then also check out Emily’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.