Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Toro BJJ's 12 days of Christmas workout

The Holidays can be a stressful time for all of us - visits with relatives, traffic at the mall, scrambling to pick up last minute gifts and - if you're a compulsive grappler like myself - cancelled jiu jitsu classes.

Now, hold your reindeer. It is still possible to get in some high quality, high rep drilling. Grab a partner and some mat space and give this 12 days of Christmas workout a try. 

It works like an ascending ladder. You start with 1 rep of move 1, then you do 2 reps of move 2+1 rep of move 1. Then you do 3+2+1, then 4+3+2+1 and so forth. The numbers correspond to the move you are drilling, but they also represent the number of reps. Your last round will be 12+11+10+9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1

Here is the workout (bonus points if you sing the song while you drill!).

Toro BJJ's 12 days of Christmas workout:

1. An omoplata for me

2. Standing sweeps

3. Take downs

4. Guard openers

5. Back escapes
6. Arms a draggin
7. Guards a passin
8. Foots a lockin

9. Legs a trianglin
10. Arms armbarrin
11. Sweeps from kneeling
12. Side mount escapes


I gave this workout a test grapple and it took an hour fifteen minutes for just one partner. If time is an issue, you can split legs of the ladder with your training parnter.

Other tips:
- go at a quick pace and stand in base each time you get up. By the end of the session, your legs will be toast
- pick and choose the techniques you want to work on. If you have a particular triangle setup that you want to incorporate into your game, maybe you choose that for each round of "legs a trianglin." Don't feel like you need 9 different setups
- For "guards a passin," have your partner set up different open guards. Then, you recognize and execute the appropriate passes
- To maximize the cardio benefit, commit the song to memory before you start or have a handy printout near by

Give the workout a try! 

**You may notice the extremely well dressed grappling dummies in the photos. My sponsor Toro BJJ has been very good to me this year.  Check out their awesome gear for your last minute shopping and support the company that supports me! Toro BJJ


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mansplaining: what it is, what it isn't, and how to not be THAT guy

Lately I have been thinking about the issue of mansplaining. What is that, you ask? Basically, it's an assumption of the incompetence of women, often in careers and subjects traditionally dominated by men, and the subsequent effort of men to "help" women by explaining to them what's going on.

Think about a woman who is well versed in car maintenance, has read her Consumer Reports, and knows exactly what she wants in her new car. But the salesman, instead of discussing performance specs like he does with his male customers, explains to her what horsepower means and then shows her where each of the nine cup holders are in the car. Without gauging her actual automotive knowledge, he gives her a sales pitch that is technically watered down from what he gives male customers. 

I was discussing mansplaining with some of the guys who I train with and they had never heard of the term. So I asked some other jiu jitsu women to help me explain it. Nikki-Lea Miller has a great, succinct answer:  "If he wouldn't explain it to a guy but feels the need to explain it to a woman, it's probably mansplaining."

Rachael Ayanami furthers the definition. "Mansplaining is NOT thoughtful, constructive criticism from a man who knows about whatever subject he is trying to educate a woman about. Mansplaining is men who are dismissive of women's thoughts and opinions simply because they're women. Mansplainers often think women don't know as much about a subject because they're women, even if the mansplainer knows nothing about the subject."

In my 5+ years of training, I've witnessed mansplaining now and again and have been on the receiving end of it once or twice. But it's not a pervasive problem at my school or the schools that I regularly visit. But it got me wondering - how big of a problem is it for jiu jitsu women as a whole? I polled some women who train to find out.

Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), the women polled reported more mansplaining in their professional lives than on the jiu jitsu mats. In fact, "bluebeltsplaining" may be a more pervasive problem in jiu jitsu than mansplaining. However, a few women shared some pretty annoying tales of the latter. I'll share a few here:   

"I have had white belts, NEW white belts to be precise, immediately jumping to coach me or remind me what's next, without me asking them first because for whatever reason I paused during a drill and they think I'm hesitating. Then we roll and I can see they're surprised and even getting frustrated by getting controlled or not being able to get a submission. They just assumed oh, she is woman, she doesn't know, she didn't get it, she needs 'help'." - Anonymous

"On a no gi night, a male white belt who had been doing BJJ for a few months talked me through each move we were drilling, never considering that I might know these things too, let alone that I might be more familiar. Then it was time to roll, before failing to arm bar me he said, 'Sorry I'm about to do this to you.' I escaped that stupid arm bar very easily. I've been doing jiu jitsu for three years and am a blue belt." -Amy Rose

"Another situation I have encountered is when guys (same rank) keep telling me how I should be doing a technique during open choice drilling, without even asking if I would care to learn another way to do it. So it is just them assuming I'm doing it wrong and never stopping to consider that I'm doing a variation more suitable to my game, strength, height/weight...or that they just haven't learned that technique or variation to begin with!" - Anonymous

Brown belt Liz Sussan sees mansplaining from an instructor's point of view. "It's the over-helpful guy, with the help directed toward women in class. As if women are in need of help in ways that men are not. In these cases, you don't see the 'helpful' man looking over and offering advice, tips, and teaching other men. You see them giving all of this 'help' to women. As if the women won't get it without the extra help or can't figure it out on their own. The women aren't seeking extra help, the 'helpful' guy assumes that his assistance is better than her mind. In the broader sense, men are left to struggle in BJJ while often women are given constant 'helpful' tips from the men around them, as if they don't get to experience the struggle too, or like it's not okay for them to struggle. As an instructor, I see huge value in the student having to expend mental energy to remember the steps while drilling or needing a few reps to get the movement correct...Women shouldn't be seen as people always in need of assistance or help. That extends outside of BJJ."

Liz's comments made me examine my own behavior. If I am honest with myself, I'll admit I'm much nicer to new women then I am to new guys at my gym. Often with brand new women, I try to flow with them and offer encouragement; with new men, I'm more likely to try to submit them right off the bat. What accounts for my own double standard? It may be that I remember how hard it is to be a new woman in jiu jitsu so I want to be as helpful and welcoming as possible. But by denying women their just due white belt struggle, I may be doing them a disservice.

Stephanie Fitz does not excuse mansplaining, but gives a possible explanation for its prevalence among new white belts - "I also think there is an odd mixture in BJJ of some white belt guy's assumption that women might know less about BJJ and also their fear - fear of physically hurting her, touching her in an inappropriate manner, loosing to her and being shamed. I think this type of fear makes lots of white belt guys' first few rolling sessions with women a bit awkward and also that the fear brings out the mansplaining as way of them trying to control that fear."

So how do you know if you fall within the category of the dreaded mansplainer? You might be a mansplainer if...

- you are male and duck partners of your own size, strength, and skill in order to "help" the new women
- you are male but have either attended, been denied entry to, or been kicked out of a women's open mat or a women's self defense class
- you are male and frequently ask women to roll and they say no. Women whom you have never rolled with also refuse to roll with you. (This doesn't necessarily mean you are a mansplainer. It might mean you are spazzy, creepy, or stinky. But mansplaining is one possibility).
- when a woman teaches class, you fill in extra details for her or demonstrate your own approach to the technique while she is teaching 
- you are male and you feel like there are women at your school who write blogs about you. (Haha! Kidding).

You probably are not mansplainer if...*
- you give equal value to your male and female training partners
- while drilling, you help your (male and female) training partners fill in details they may have missed from instruction. They do the same for you and there is mutual appreciation
- female training partners frequently want to roll with you. They tell visiting women that you are someone who is good to roll with
- after rolling, when your partner asks for feedback or asks how you got a certain move, you gladly provide insight. When the situation is reversed, they reciprocate. With your best partners, you might give feedback without being explicitly asked, but it is still well appreciated

*I am not trying to instill the fear of mansplaining into my awesome male training partners. You know you are awesome. I'm not talking about you.

Food for thought: Is there a female equivalent to mansplaining behavior? Is there an underlying assumption of the incompetence of men when it comes to child rearing and domestic duties?  To all the competent, thoroughly involved dads out there, have you ever felt "momsplained"  by moms (or others) who assume that you are clueless about how to run a house or raise a kid?

Watch this video and tell me what you think.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Jiu jitsu practioner dies 2 days after rear naked choke

A while back, I wrote a blog about the medical risks associated with being choked during jiu jitsu - Jiu jitsu and "the choking game" - so just how dangerous is it to be choked unconscious? The risk of developing a stroke after a jiu jitsu choke is very slight, but it is described here:

I asked Jason Goldsmith, a pharmacology Ph.D. who is finishing his MD and also runs a martial arts school. "Any strong choke (that can generate a tap), has roughly the same risk whether it makes someone go unconscious or not," he says. "The big risk is causing a stroke, from a cholesterol plaque being dislodged from your carotid artery and wedging itself in your brain." He refers to this as a caratoid embolism leading to an ischemic stroke. "This is a "normal" mechanism of stroke," he continues. "It occurs outside of grappling. With chokes there is some very small increase in risk of this for going unconscious there is no added risk from that, unless someone holds the choke for 30+ seconds after they pass out. Then you worry about brain damage."
Unfortunately, this unlikely scenario has claimed the life of a jiu jitsu practitioner in Brazil. During jiu jitsu practice, Napoleon Jose Alves was choked with a rear naked choke and did not feel well subsequently. He went to the hospital, where he was sent away for not having a real emergency and was asked to come back another day. When he later returned to the hospital, it was found that he had suffered a stroke and he unfortunately died from complications of that stroke. Jiu Jitsu Times has an article about this sad course of events:  32 Years Old Jiu-Jitsu Practitioner In Brazil Dies 2 Days After A Choke

I can't help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if Alves' complaints were taken more seriously and if he had received prompt medical attention. The American Stroke Association has a saying: "Time lost is brain lost."  While our risk is small, jiu jitsu practitioners should be aware of the signs of stroke and should seek prompt, medical treatment if they recognize any of these in themselves or in their training partners.

First, look for the following:

Beyond F.A.S.T., The American Stroke Association lists the following signs of a stroke:
  • "Sudden numbness or weakness of the leg, arm or face
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause"

Napoleon Jose Alves did the right thing by seeking immediate medical attention, but unfortunately he did not receive the prompt care that he sought. Death due to stroke is very rare in the jiu jitsu community, but it is important that any signs of stroke be treated as a medical emergency. My thoughts are with Alves and his family during this time.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Training jiu jitsu with the drooling stare-bees, better known as ADHD: a survival guide

Growing up, I had what my family called "the drooling stare-bees." The name is pretty self-explanatory. I basically I zoned out and stared off in space a lot, oblivious to what was going on around me. (No, I didn't actually drool, except once when on a bus at Disney World).

Now, as an adult who works with kids with special needs,  I realize that what I had was likely a case of undiagnosed ADHD. When you think of ADHD, you probably picture a hyperactive boy, wired as if on a constant sugar rush. But here's the thing: Just as many girls have ADHD as boys do, but boys are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed. Why? Attention issues present in different, less obvious, and less disruptive ways in girls. I found a good overview of the issue with: Girls and ADHD: Are You Missing the Signs? Here's a quote:

“'ADHD doesn’t show up in the same ways in girls,' says Kathleen Nadeau, a clinical psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and coauthor of Understanding Girls with AD/HD. For instance, girls are much less likely to display hyperactive or impulsive symptoms. Instead, they may just appear 'spacey,' unfocused, or inattentive." In other words, they are less disruptive in the classroom and find ways to compensate for their attention deficits, often times still performing well in school.

Unfortunately, I still suffer from the drooling stare-bees, even during a highly motivating activity like jiu jitsu. Attending for an hour long class is doable with moderate effort, but a three hour seminar? Forget about it. I had a major zone out moment at a recent seminar, after my mind had reached its capacity. When it came time to drill the technique I had spaced through, I had no idea what to do. Several people came over and tried to help me, but I just got more frustrated. I wasn't getting it. I finally gave up and hid in bathroom to escape until the next technique was taught.

Incidents like these don't happen to me that often, because I've developed some strategies to help me focus on jiu jitsu instruction. (I also have strategies in place for other attention related tasks, like finding my car in a mall parking lot). Give these a try if you too are a spacey grappler:

Take notes: just the act of note taking keeps me engaged in the subject matter. While the instructor is talking, writing keeps me actively involved, while my body is keeping still. I used to take notes during class, but now I mostly reserve it for longer seminars. I'm less likely to zone out when I take notes but if I do, at least I have a resource to consult later.

Ask questions: I try to digest information as it is presented and then ask myself "where might this break down?" and "how will I apply this in my game?" Breaking the move down focuses my attention on the technique. I try to ask questions because that too keeps me immersed in the subject matter. Some of my questions may seem dumb: if I thought about it enough, I could probably figure out the answer myself. But thinking critically and engaging with my instructor keeps my mind from wandering and keeps me attuned to the topic as it is presented.

Seek multi-sensory input: Sometimes I am the ranking person in class and am asked to be the instructor's uke. I can have a harder time attending when I am the uke because I am losing a major source of information - visual.  Since I am aware of my tendancy to drift, I am never shy about asking to see the move on someone else. In the end, receiving multi-sensory input (kinesthetic + visual) is better than receiving information from only one source. When I have the opportunity to both feel and see a technique, I experience input from multiple sources and am able to stay better engaged.

Do you ever have trouble attending to instruction? If so, what strategies do you use to stay engaged? Feel free to leave your own experiences and tips in the comments below. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to safely train heel hooks and other advanced techniques

There's a reason that certain techniques are reserved for advanced ranks in most competitions - these techniques are considered the most dangerous. Either because a) there is a shortened window for tapping before injury occurs or b) the effects of not tapping in time are more devastating than those of most techniques or c) both a and b.

Heel hooks, neck cranks, cervical locks, bicep/calf slicers, and flying scissor take downs all fall in the category of advanced (usually no gi) techniques.

While I learned a few of these techniques as a white belt (the heel hook is part of the fundamental curriculum at my school), it wasn't until recently, as a mid level purple belt, that I began rolling for these during training. Why? Well, safety is really important to me. I've been an athlete all my life and the threat of a possible game-changing injury is quite intimidating. Even more than I want to win, I want to train smartly so I can train for a long, long time.

But, these techniques are legal for me in the no gi division for local and regional tournaments and not training them was doing me no favors. To stay competitive, I had no choice but to begin to train techniques outside my comfort zone. Here's a guide on how I stayed safe and gradually grew more comfortable with advanced submissions:

Communicate with your training partners
I never assume that advanced techniques are on the table. I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but I always ask my partner before rolling for advanced submissions. I also ask that we not crank on them. Yes, it gets tedious to have this conversation over and over again, but safety is worth this extra step.

Choose your training partners wisely
When I first began playing with advanced techniques, there were exactly 3 regular training partners whom I felt comfortable rolling for these with. These were 3 folks whom I felt very confident would not hurt me and also 3 folks whom I would have no qualms tapping quickly to because they tap me all the time anyway. However, these folks were also better than me, so I caught them with the advanced submissions I was working on approximately never.

They tapped me with these techniques quite a bit though and, eventually, I got better at defending them. I also got better at recognizing danger and knowing when to tap. And THIS made me feel comfortable expanding my repertoire of advanced technique training partners. Eventually I expanded my list to include folks whom I roll competitively with and folks whom I often tap.

Set an example in not being douchey
Are you someone who will go to sleep before tapping, even during a friendly roll? Do you throw some form of hissy fit when someone taps you who you think shouldn't? If so, you may want to rethink your interest in advanced submissions.

One of my training partners likened the heel hook to the knockout cross in striking. Namely, it's a game ending technique that, if you have it, will sometimes get you wins over more skillful practitioners. So if you lose your shit when getting tapped by a lower belt, maybe you shouldn't be playing around with heel hooks. Think about it - is it really worth an ACL tear?

Go slowly 
Like I said before, no cranking! Apply submissions slowly and ask your training partners to do the same. 

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap! 
This is a non-negotiable. Tap early and tap often. Otherwise enjoy not walking.

It's important to give advanced submissions the respect they deserve and to roll for them thoughtfully and with caution.  However, with proper communication and boundaries in place, training heel hooks doesn't have to be much more dangerous than training arm bars.

Hide your feet, friends.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The unwritten rules of jiu jitsu etiquette: 5 things I wish I knew as a white belt

There are myriad explicit rule sets governing jiu jitsu. Competition organizations have their own sets of published rules (the IBJJF rule book is 44 pages long!).  In addition, different schools have their own sets of rules, which are often posted around the academy. It's easy enough to avoid breaking these types of rules, since they are explicit and readily accessible. But what I'm talking about here are the unwritten rules of jiu jitsu: things that no one tells you but can nonetheless get you in trouble.

Here are the unwritten rules of jiu jitsu that I wish I had known when I was a white belt:

- Do not ask black belts to roll. I'll admit, this one has gotten me in trouble a few times. Some schools even go as far as to say that you can't ask any upper belts to roll. The line of thinking here is that rolling with black belts is a privilege and once you have achieved that rank, you have earned to right to roll with your choice of training partners. So, if a black belt wants to roll with you, she should be the one to ask you.  

- When you collide with upper belts, be the one to move. Jiu jitsu is magnetic. Even when there is plenty of space on the mats, rolling pairs tend to gravitate toward each other. When this happens, the lower ranking pair should yield space to the upper belts. As a courtesy, the lower belts should be the ones to get up and reset someplace else.

-It's cool to help your training partner. But when your instructor walks over to make corrections, stop talking and let him take over. I often miss details when I learn a new technique. I am grateful when my training partner picks up something I didn't and helps me fill in the blanks. I'm happy to do the same for them. But when the instructor approaches to make corrections, it is time to shut up. The instructor is the one who taught the technique, so let her take it from there.

- Assume the most restrictive set of rules while rolling, unless otherwise specified. If you are rolling no gi with a purple belt or above, do not assume that heel hooks are on the table. There's a reason that certain techniques are reserved for only advanced ranks - advanced students know when to tap in time but they also know how to apply the techniques with control. Personally, I have a limited set of training partners whom I feel comfortable rolling for advanced techniques with. When in doubt, ask your training partners what techniques are on the table and always respect their limits. 

- It's great to ask questions, but there are times when silence is golden. Such as when the head of your affiliation is visiting. I think it's fine to ask questions, even stupid questions, 98% of the time. But when a high level bad ass comes to give a seminar, we all know folks who would benefit from a gag order, for the sake of their own image and that of the school. We all say the wrong thing from time to time, myself included. If you are prone to putting your foot in your mouth, it is best to speak only when spoken to when your instructor's instructor is visiting. Take notes and ask questions to your instructor in private later.

What about you? Are there any unwritten rules of jiu jitsu etiquette that you wish learned earlier?

Monday, May 11, 2015

If you missed Metamoris last weekend, here's why you should watch Toro Cup 2 instead!

I've always liked Metamoris. I was looking forward to watching it on Saturday. But after reading Ralek Gracie's condescending remarks toward female jiu jitsu practitioners, I no longer wanted to give him my money or my time. So this time I didn't watch.

If, like me, you sorely missed your BJJ tube time last weekend, might I suggest an alternative - watch Toro Cup 2 this weekend instead! (*Disclaimer: I am competing in Toro Cup 2, so I may have a biased perspective on why it will be awesome).

Sure, Toro Cup is on a smaller and less elite scale than Metamoris. But I am going to offer you my humble opinion on why you should watch it instead.

1. It raises money for a good cause.
Ralek Gracie has faced a lot of slack for not offering women's matches on his cards. His response? "We're not a charity right now."

Well, guess what?  ALL Toro Cup matches, male and female, really ARE for charity. This time, the proceeds are going to the Animal Protection Society of Durham. Some awesome pets come from that shelter, including my very own Daisy!

2. Live stream for Toro Cup is free! Watching Metamoris costs $30, which goes into Ralek's slimy, little pocket. But you can watch the Toro Cup for free at!

3. The rules for Toro Cup are similar to those of Metamoris but are modified to eliminate the possibility of draws. 

James Hogaboom, one of the Toro Cup organizers, explains the rule set. "Metamoris, better known as Meta-SNORE-is, consistently has more than 50% of their matches end in a draw.....BORING!"

Conversely, the Toro Cup rules are modified to eliminate this possibility:
If after 15 minutes there is not a submission, the match goes to an immediate 5 minute points match.
If after 5 minutes the match is tied, the match goes to an immediate “sudden death” match – first point scored wins.

Case in point: Toro Cup 1 featured 11 matches and all 11 matches had a winner!

4. The organizers of the Toro Cup support women's jiu jitsu.

Out of the 6 past Metamoris events, only 1 featured a women's match. Sure, it turned out to be one of the best matches on the card, but instead of giving the athletes the respect they deserve, Ralek said this: "We had that one match and it was cool, but that was more of, 'That's cool and that was interesting and I want to see that again if the girls are cute'." And he has not featured a female match since.

On the other hand, when I asked James Hogaboom about Toro Cup's first female match, he said the following: "Arguably the most exciting match of Toro Cup 1 was between Ashley McClelland and Christy Cherrey - two purple belt ladies. This match had the entire audience on their feet cheering." And he said nothing about either woman being cute.

Toro Cup organizer Jeff Shaw explains why he wants to see women's matches at both the elite and regional levels. "We need great cards with great matches, and some of the best matches I've seen in my life are women's matches. To build the next generation, it's important that today's blue and purple belts get to watch and learn from people like Leticia Ribeiro, Michelle Nicolini, Bea Mesquita and so many more. It's really important to me that regional events like Toro Cup pick up that torch as well. Women athletes put on great matches, and the more great matches we have, the better."

5. The organizers of the Toro Cup are better rappers than Ralek 

Ralek Gracie produced the musical abomination "G in a Gi." At this point, maybe it's time to cut him some slack. It's clear from this video that he doesn't have friends, or they would never have let him make this song public.


The organizers of the Toro Cup are better rappers than Ralek. Watch here as Jeff Shaw raps the part of "nerdy white zombie with glasses." 

In summary: There are many reasons to watch Toro Cup 2 instead of Metamoris. Live stream is free, admission raises money to help animals, the rules are more exciting, the organizers are not sexist douche bags AND they can rap!!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In the context of rape culture, is promoting women's self defense anti-feminist?

Tides are changing in the way we think about rape prevention and maybe it's over due. Advocates have long armed women with strategies for preventing rape - walking to your car with a buddy, never leaving your drink unattended, avoiding isolated areas at night, carrying pepper spray and rape whistles, and even studying martial arts.

Lately, there has been a shift in this way of thinking. The onus of preventing rape should not fall on would-be victims, who are in no way responsible for the crime. Instead, some feminists argue, it should fall solely on perpetrators. If you want to prevent rape, do not teach your daughters a hundred ways to defend themselves. Instead, teach ALL young boys and girls the absolute necessity of consent.

I recently came across this video, which drives home these points:

The issue of martial arts in particular for rape prevention was brought to the spotlight when taekwondo black belt Nia Sanchez won the Miss USA pageant in 2014. Sanchez was asked during the interview portion to comment on the problem of campus rape. Her response called for more awareness of this issue but also cited her own martial arts background. "You need to be confident and be able to defend yourself," she told judges.

While many fellow martial artists lauded this answer,  it ignited much feminist criticism on Twitter:

  • "If Miss Nevada wins this, I quit. You CANNOT say teaching women how to protect themselves is a way to combat rape."

  • “I get that the college sexual-assault problem can’t be solved in 30 secs but still icky to pretend like self-defense is the answer.”

  • “Let’s hope Miss Nevada uses her media tour to reiterate that teaching girls self-defense is NOT the best way to protest against assault.” 

  • "Miss Nevada was asked about rape at colleges and answered that women need to learn to defend themselves... OR MEN COULD JUST NOT RAPE."

  • "Miss Nevada Sick of hearing 'women need to learn selfdefense from sexual violence.' We need a culture we don't have to defend ourselves from." 

Sanchez faced further criticism from news and online media. "The implication, though Sanchez likely didn't intend it this way," wrote Amanda Marcott in, "is that women who do suffer rape are not confident and are insufficiently interested in their own safety."

My response to anti-self defense critics

It is true that women are not responsible for getting raped. Sexual assault is the fault of the attacker, plain and simple. I feel fortunate to have never been the subject of a violent attack and I hope that I never will be. But we live in a world that is not all rainbows and butterflies. The scary fact is that, according to RAINN, "1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape."

These are not odds that I want to play around with and I know plenty of feminist, martial arts women who feel the same way. We face a choice - we can do nothing and hope that everyone we meet has been enlightened about the necessity of consent. Or we can learn how to recognize danger and fight back.

Let's look at this from another angle. I own a computer that I use for work, email, social media, and blogging. I paid good money for this computer and for my home internet. I really hate shelling out $100 a year to pay for Norton anti-virus software to protect my computer from cyber threats. It's not fair that I have to do this. I shouldn't have to invest money to keep bad people from doing bad things to my computer. But yet I do it every year, because I value my online security.

You know what I value even more than my online safety? My personal safety. So for the same reasons that I invest money in anti-virus software, I invest time and money into studying jiu jitsu. And it is not anti-feminist to do so. I am not letting rapists off the hook or excusing a system that too often blames victims. It's not about them. It's about me staying safe. And I'd rather be proactive than reactive when it comes to protecting my own well being.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Recruiting and retaining women in jiu jitsu

What do jiu jitsu women want?

The question of "what do women want" has puzzled men since about the time they became bipeds. And it's never had an easy answer. We women are a complex, heterogeneous lot, difficult to lump together in broad, blanket statements.

But what I am interested in here is "what do women want in a jiu jitsu school?" Specifically, what is it that got women's feet in the door at their first academies? What made them choose that academy over other options?  And if they one day move on, what will jiu jitsu women look for in their future schools?

Women are a fast-growing segment of jiu jitsu, but we remain a stark minority. I'm going to offer you some best-estimate, completely made up statistics here. When I started training 4.5 years ago, women appeared to make up less than 10% of total jiu jitsu students. Now, in my estimate, they make up 15-20%. This is progress, for sure! But the fact is, women are still grossly under-represented in jiu jitsu. 

Why should academies care about recruiting more female students? The way I see it, the reasons are three-fold. Whatever drives your instructor, increasing the female membership is a benefit:

  • Financial: Let's say that your academy falls in the high range of my estimate and is 20% female. That's pretty good, right? Not if you consider the missing 30% lost revenue. How much more money would be brought in if female numbers were brought up to the level of males? More women = more dues paying members = more money for the academy.
  • Self defense: If the mission of your school is to empower students with Gracie self defense, women should be a major part of your targeted student base. Jiu jitsu self defense is about using technique and leverage to defend oneself against bigger, stronger opponents, which makes it perfect for women. The unfortunate reality is that women are disproportionately victims of violent attacks and therefore need self defense skills even more than men do. 
  • Competition: If your school is competition oriented, recruiting women makes good sense too. More students means there are more opportunities to score points for your school. Also, since fewer women train than men do, their divisions are often less dense, affording them more opportunities to place in tournaments. (This isn't always the case, though, since women have fewer divisions than men do).

Schools benefit from recruiting women, but for some this is easier said than done. To find out what women are looking for in their jiu jitsu schools, I used Facebook to poll 45 women from across the country. Here's what I found:

What attracts women to their first jiu jitsu academies?

For women who have never trained before, what got their feet in the door at their first schools?  A significant number of women whom I polled had backgrounds in other martial arts - boxing, Aikido, muay thai, judo, and Krav Maga - and looked to jiu jitsu to expand their martial arts practice. A few had survived some type of violent attack and turned to jiu jitsu for self defense training. The vast majority, however, walked into their first jiu jitsu school via referral from someone they knew - usually a friend or significant other. Personal invitations from current students was the most common method of bringing women into schools.

Location and convenience were also huge factors. Online media played a role as well. A couple of the women reported that they would not have tried jiu jitsu if not for the inexpensive Groupon deals that brought them in. Interestingly, more than one reported that they chose their school because there were pictures of women on its website but not on those of neighboring schools.

For other ladies, the presence of a women's only class was the clincher:

"Having a women's only class was just a way to get my foot in. After I was comfortable I took all the regular classes with the guys." - Cimonnett Guilbeau
"I started with a women's class, because it seemed like a good way to ease in. Some people roll their eyes at women's-only classes, but I think they're important. I know a lot of sexual assault survivors who do BJJ and women's classes can go a long way towards making them feel safe." Megan Katsaounis


What do experienced jiu jitsu women look for when choosing a school?

As for women who have trained for a while, what do they value in their jiu jitsu schools? What would they look for when searching for a new place to train?


First and foremost, women want to feel safe when they are training.

"Of course as a female in a male dominated sport, I want to make sure that I feel safe. BJJ is a very intimate sport and I have to trust my partners won't take advantage of that. " -Lebecca Rekim

"Although my training partners are predominantly male, they all feel like my big brothers. We joke around and play a lot, but I feel that if someone were to walk in and harass me in any way, it would be taken care of by my training partners and instructors in a heartbeat."- Beverly Huang

"The first time I met my instructor, he told me that if anyone at the school made me feel uncomfortable, I should tell him so he could take care of it. That meant a lot to me. It showed that having women in the school was a priority for him and that he understood how intimidating it could be." -Megan Katsaounis


This was a huge factor that was mentioned a lot. On the mats, cleanliness and safety are 2 sides of the same coin. No one wants her health put at risk due to poor hygiene. 

"Facility has to have clean bathrooms and mats." Lynn Ferri

"Clean mats, of course!" Elizabeth Cates 


Lots of women stated that if they had to find a new school, they would first look within their affiliation. If that were not available, they would find another affiliation of good reputation.

"A lineage I can be proud to be part of [is important]. If I don't respect the person that promoted you, I don't want them promoting me. This means no 'hilarious' stories about beating people up in bars, rape rumors (naturally), and just generally not being a d-bag." -Chrissy Linzy


"Respect. No to any kind of bigotry. If the teacher makes misogynist, racist, homophobic comments or allows them from students this is a BAD sign." - Josefina Lozano


The vibe within the school means a lot - community and partnership were common themes mentioned.

"I see almost all of my teammates as comrades rather than rivals. They've pushed me on the mat and also have been my support as my friends." - Lebecca Rekim

"The other thing that made a big difference was the enthusiasm of the other women at the school. It was clear that they love jiu-jitsu and see other women as partners not rivals. They went out of their way to be welcoming: instructing me, lending me gis, inviting me to events, etc. I've followed their example and tried to be extra accommodating to new women." -Megan Katsaounis 

"I am not sure I would have seriously continued to stick with it...if not for the other women who really took the time to work with me and made me feel wanted and welcome...Strong community goes a long long way for me." - Chelsea Kurtzman 

Open door policy 

"I travel a lot, so I won't train with an instructor that doesn't have the 'train with everyone' attitude. On top of that, I am an adult. I don't need my instructor's 'permission' to visit another gym." - Chrissy Linzy 

"My ability to train other places is important. Women's Grappling Camp and open mats are non-negotiable." - Jen Whitcomb   

The presence of other women...?

While a strong female community is a definite plus, it is not a deal breaker for most women who have trained a while. Also, forced segregation due to sex is a big no-no.   
"My instructor thinks that what recruits women to BJJ is other women who do BJJ. Where there are women others follow and that's true I think. I would love to train at a school where there are other women aside from one."- Geeta Bhat    

"As far as training with women, that's totally optional for me. I would rather have zero women than be expected to train with the same woman night after night." - Chrissy Linzy 

Josefina Lozano sums the issue up wonderfully. "No FORCED pairing according to gender. You are paying money and have a limited time to train, is a no when the teacher always pairs women with women...regardless of height, weight, rank." She continues, "but the fact that there are other women is usually a good sign, that there are higher belt women is a better sign. And if the group is composed of women of different ages and athletic backgrounds AND THEY HAVE STUCK AROUND [that] is definitely a sign of a school that has found the right formula to promote a good environment for women that can bring more female students to BJJ and KEEP THEM. Ergo, is a school I definitely would consider trying." 

Different women have different priorities, of course. But these were the most common qualities mentioned that attracted those I polled to their jiu jitsu schools. How does your academy stack up?