In my last blog post, How to Run a Female-Friendly Martial Arts School, I offered advice to martial arts instructors on retaining women who are truly attracted to the martial arts with the goal of alleviating some of the frustrations losing female students they see as having long-term promise. There is something to be said about the woman’s role in all this though, particularly when training in a martial arts school or style that is dominated by men. There are some inherent awkwardnesses for both men and women that can occur, but the woman can do a number of things to help make the training atmosphere better themselves and the men they train with. Here are a few ways how.
1. Provide clear feedback. Many men aren’t sure what level of contact/force is appropriate when working with smaller partners, especially women. Some will use too much, for fear of the perceived humiliation of being “schooled” by a woman. Others will be overly cautious, avoiding making any contact, even at safe levels that are important for their own and their partners’ development. When working with new partners, give them feedback so that they’ll know exactly how much contact/force to use with you. Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary. One of my female students went so far as to take her partner’s hand and whack it on her groin (she was wearing a protector) to demonstrate that she was totally comfortable with the contact and so he wouldn’t feel so awkward about it. The male student on the receiving end was a little surprised at the time, but always cites this as having been exceedingly helpful when he was still new to training. As your training partners get to know you better, you won’t have to do this sort of thing as much and everyone will feel more comfortable.
2. Have a sense of humour. When awkward situations arise, be ready to laugh them off. In contact martial arts, inevitably there will be some sort of accidental touches and grabs in places that would normally be considered taboo. Usually the men are more embarrassed about it than you are so the best thing you can do to put them at ease is to laugh it off. If they don’t realize they’re doing it (sometimes it’s not apparent in the moment), point it out so they know, and can do their best to avoid it, but do so in a light-hearted fashion. Sometimes, men will also say things that are inappropriate and/or chauvinistic in front of you. This may be because they forget themselves because they are used to only being around guys when the train. Try to recognize when comments are mild in nature, and use humour to bring to them to light and discourage them. One time I was teaching and the student that was attacker for the demonstration commented that my hair smelled great. I looked at him, stunned, and said, “I don’t want to hear what you think about the smell of my hair any more than you want to hear what I think about the smell of your jock strap.” He blushed in embarrassment, and the point was taken.
3. Be willing to confront the serious stuff. Beyond the milder comments and situations, there are occasions when more serious stuff goes down. Sometimes men will say openly misogynistic things, no matter how much humour you use to try and diffuse it. Sometimes, a man will keep “accidentally” touching you inappropriately during class. And sometimes a guy will hit on you during class. Be willing to confront the person causing the trouble openly and assertively, but not publicly. Speaking to him honestly and in private gives you the chance to voice your concerns without making him lose face in front of the guys. If this doesn’t work, or if you’re not comfortable talking to him directly for whatever reason, tell your instructor your concerns. In all likelihood, he or she will want to address the situation firmly, and would want to discourage such behaviour in their school. If one person has a problem with their behaviour, it is likely there are others.
4. Teach the male partners you work with (when appropriate). If you’re a more experienced female student, you have probably learned a thing or two that has helped improve your technique so that it’ll work on bigger, stronger guys. Sometimes men use way more strength than they need to when working with you simply because it’s so easy due to the size advantage. Use your knowledge to help them understand the technique better. It’s win-win. They get to improve their technique, which leads to them applying it in a way that is usually much safer for you on the receiving end. Below is a wonderful video of Jennifer Weintz (now a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu brown belt, 2x Pan-American champion, and the foreword writer of my ground defense book) teaching a man who is fairly new to grappling.
5. Explore what works for you. Sometimes you’ll face difficulties in your training. You will sometimes find it harder to learn something that your larger/stronger training partners are able to do with ease. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an instructor that is versatile and able to help you learn the technique so well that the size issues don’t matter, or they’ll be able to make adjustments to make the technique work for someone your size. But sometimes, your instructor won’t have all the answers. If they’re really good, they’ll work with you to explore the options. Of course, there are instructors out there who will just proclaim that someone your size isn’t able to do the technique. Sometimes this is true, but it’s worth it to spend some time on your own exploring it if you have willing partners. There were a number of techniques I learned while coming up through the ranks that I was told just wouldn’t work for me because of my size. At first, I accepted this, but as I gained more experience, I started to notice that I could make certain adjustments to make things work. There have been techniques that have fallen flat in some situations, no matter how much tweaking I did. This is okay too, because at least you’ve taken the time to put it to the test. It’s all part of the creative process in the martial arts, so go with it. This is how women come to make their own valuable contributions to the development of the martial arts.
If you’re a woman in a male-dominated martial art, you may face difficulties from time to time, which is to be expected when you’re blazing a trail. If you really love your training though, and you’re at a school that is open and versatile enough to work through situations if they arise, the efforts you make to make a great training environment will be worth your while, in the short and long term.
Do you have any advice for women training in a male-dominated martial arts school or style? Please share your thoughts in the comments.