The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu landscape is roughly 85%-90% men. (An ‘official’ stat may exist somewhere, but this percentage is my observation based on our numbers at URSA Academy, tournaments, and my experiences with the sport for over a decade.) Our academy actually has more women than most jiu jitsu academies, but more on that later.
Not only CAN women train, but I believe they SHOULD train. Men get so many benefits from their jujitsu training: physical fitness, weight loss, muscle tone, social interaction, friendships, emotional balance, stress relief, healthy hobby, etc. NOT ONE of those benefits is gender specific. Not only these, but I personally believe that there is no better form of practical self defense for women than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The main Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) positions, closed guard, mount, back, side, etc. all take place on the ground with one person dominating the other. When you picture some of the worst case scenarios, or attacks that can happen to women, many of these attacks involve positions that look very similar to jiu jitsu positions, most obviously ‘closed guard.’
I think that is one of the most common reasons I’ve heard from women about why they don’t want to train. While some of them enjoyed the technique, many women don’t like the close contact involved in live rolling. Knowing that the close contact and the realistic situations are what makes the training both ‘real-world’ practical and essential, how do we help women to overcome these barriers?
First, choosing the right jiu-jitsu academy is crucial to your success. It really is the make or break element to a woman’s future in the sport. As with most things, this part of the culture is led by the Black Belt Professor of the Academy. If he or she is respectful, encouraging, and inclusive of women, most likely, the entire academy will be as well. If the Professor makes you feel like the exception, or awkward, or too fragile, then it’s going to be very difficult to get the most out of your training experience at that academy.
Women’s Only classes are not essential… In fact, in my opinion, women’s only classes can limit the growth of female BJJ practitioners. This may be a little controversial, but I stand by my opinion. Our academy has one of the largest single academy women’s teams in the state of Michigan. Many of the women who train at URSA Academy have expressed that while they genuinely enjoy rolling with other women in class & their camaraderie off the mats, they would not want a separate class just for them. We actually had a women’s only class in the early days of our academy, but it wasn’t until after we dropped that class that our enrollment grew! It seemed that many women who self select into male dominated sports are looking for an inclusive environment, not a separate ‘club within a club.’ While I initially eliminated the class because our clients were not interested, I am now a firm believer in having everyone train together. In my experience, separate training has never produced equal results.
Both male and female BJJ practitioners benefit from rolling with a wide variety of training partners. Women, especially those learning for self defense purposes, need to practice technique on men. Men and women, even those who learn and practice in the same academy, roll very differently. It’s important for women to roll with men to understand how their physicality changes the game. For men, it’s important to roll with women because women rely much more heavily on technique, especially at the beginner levels. At the white and blue belt level, women are far more likely to push their ego out of the way, experiment, and try out new styles or the technique of the day in the end of class matches. Everyone has something they can learn from a training partner who approaches the sport from a completely different angle and the only way that learning can happen is when everyone is training together.
Although she’s not currently training since she gave birth to our second child, my wife, Amy, is a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. While we were dating, she came to my tournaments but mostly stayed out of the academy because jiu jitsu was “my thing.” It wasn’t until after we got married and opened URSA Academy that she decided she wanted to start training. She said to me, “You teach people self defense for a living and I know nothing. If something ever happened to me, I would feel so stupid to have had jiu jitsu at my fingertips the whole time and never learned anything.” So, she put on one of my old gis, and jumped in a class.
Amy told me that her interest in BJJ started with purely self-defense in mind, but she quickly realized that there was a lot more to it. She started toning up, losing weight, & getting in great shape. She loved feeling strong. Her confidence increased & she walked on to the mats excited for the next class and for the next challenge. She was a high school/college athlete & decided that she wanted to jump in and compete almost right away. Since she had competed so much in the past and I knew that win or lose, tournament nerves or results wouldn’t shake her, we both entered a tournament together in London, Ontario, Canada. We also competed alongside my Professor, Saulo Ribeiro. It was a great experience & something fun that we did together.
In a very short amount of time, Amy got to see every side of jiu jitsu. She continued to train for her own benefit in our classes and at one of our affiliate academies, she learned ground self defense, she competed, & then she started helping me teach the kids classes & writing our BJJ kids curriculum. So, from the beginning, she has been part of our Academy. When I was on the mats, she was in the front helping clients. Our students always saw our academy as a husband and wife team or a “mom & pop” shop. I never liked testosterone driven ‘meat head’ gyms anyway. So, when we started ours, I wanted everyone to feel welcome. Throughout the years, my wife and I have continued to work together to create a culture at URSA Academy that is comfortable for our whole family, and for both men and women to train & socialize together.
For any women looking to train, I highly recommend that you try out as many academies as you can to see where you feel comfortable. If you walk in and it feels like a ‘boys club,’ it probably is. You have to decide if that’s a place where you are going to feel comfortable, or if you think that environment will inhibit your own training and development. Then choose the academy where your professor & your team will support & encourage you, and you can comfortably train, learn, & grow as a BJJ practitioner.