How to Run a Female-Friendly Martial Arts School

How to Run a Female Friendly Martial Arts SchoolA little over a week ago, a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu school owner wrote a blog post openly discussing his frustrations that women don’t seem to stick with their training. This sentiment is not uncommon in the martial arts world, which is largely dominated by men. There was some backlash from the female martial arts blogger community at some of the comments that he made, and questions were raised as to whether he really was doing right by the women who come through his doors. I’m not looking to further that discussion, because the only women who can make any such claims either way are those who train at his dojo, and frankly, I believe the instructor who wrote the post genuinely wants to do his best to develop female students. Rather than writing a “he said-she said” style response post, I’d like to offer my own insights from my experience of being a female martial arts instructor who has been in the industry for 20 years.

Just to be clear though, this post isn’t about trying to attract more women who aren’t fundamentally interested in real martial arts training by offering watered down pseudo-martial arts fitness programs and the like. This is meant to help instructors keep women training who are truly attracted to the martial arts.

1. Learn to adapt techniques for different sized people. One of the issues women face is that their instructors are often men, and therefore, usually larger and stronger than themselves. As a result, many techniques which come more easily to men, whether it’s due to a difference in height, weight, or strength, prove frustrating for women to learn, especially when they are trying to directly emulate the way their instructor is doing it. Some techniques can be adapted to make better use of the physics behind them for a person of a different size. By developing one’s understanding of this, you can help women improve more easily, which helps keep them motivated in their training.

2. Help students understand the value of training with different sized people. One thing that can be frustrating for women training in a martial art is that their male training partners sometimes don’t seem to want to train with them because of the lack of challenge. After all, they are never going to face a woman in a tournament or in a self-defense situation, right? This is a narrow view of how one can develop as a martial artist. There are plenty of ways to learn from training with someone smaller than you. Having the size advantage can give you the opportunity to focus on relaxing and honing your technique. You can also learn from seeing how someone smaller than you has to adapt to be able to pull off the same move on someone bigger and stronger. Read more in my blog post, The Benefits of Training with Someone Your Own Size (Or Smaller). Conversely, help your female students understand that their smaller size can be an advantage. In the long term, they’ll develop better form than larger/stronger students because they have to for things to work. Also, from a self-defense point of view, they get to practice with more people who are of a size that better simulates a real attacker.  And be sure to use women as demonstration partners once in a while too. Most students see this as an honour, plus it shows your students that you consider them to be worthy training partners, which plays into the men’s impressions of the women. All this will help keep them from continually looking to work only with other women or smaller men, making for more balanced training for all.

3. Foster a friendly, mutually supportive atmosphere. Approaching a martial arts school for the first time with no background or experience in it, even when someone is very interested in the training subject, can be intimidating for many people (male or female). The best way to help people get past this fear, and become more comfortable putting themselves in the vulnerable position of learning something entirely foreign to them, is to make the training atmosphere more welcoming. This can be done in a variety of ways. Encourage students to reach out to new people by smiling and introducing themselves and asking about what they do, their interest in the martial arts, even putting them at ease by telling them about their experience when they first came to the school. Another thing is to discourage overly competitive attitudes that express themselves at the expense of others (verbally or physically). Most importantly, develop a culture of mutual respect, not just between men and women, but for everyone in the community. Students should never be marginalized in any way because they’re different. Everyone is there to learn. Intolerance of any kind should be strongly discouraged, on the mats, in the locker rooms, or at school social events. Try to regularly remind students (men and women) that if there is ever any issue at the dojo, that your door is open and you want to hear from them so you can help solve things that come up.

4. Be conscious of choice of words and the expression of personal views. There are certain turns of phrases and ways guys talk that can unintentionally come across as being chauvinistic. Some men use language that is derogatory towards women (like referring to women as “chicks” or referring to someone as weak by calling them a “pussy”), which is clearer and easier to deal with. Others will talk casually complain about their wives or girlfriends, or discuss their sexual exploits, which might not be so bad if there are only guys around, but the “bros before hos” attitude when expressed in front of women can be at best exclusive, and at worst, highly offensive. Other men can be chauvinistic in much subtler ways. Some will simply soften their tone when addressing women, as though talking to a child, when teaching women, which can make them feel singled out and marginalized.

5. Be considerate, but don’t coddle your female students. This is probably the hardest thing to do for many men. They want to be careful with women when they teach and train, after all, from an early age, they are taught not to hit or rough-house with women. But in most martial arts schools, they have to do exactly that. As a result, some men are afraid to make contact (even light contact). Others will avoid putting any weight on them when grappling. If women only ever get dealt with in this way in their training, and they stick with it, they’ll be coddled up the ranks until they become a black belt that is not on par with the quality you would expect of that rank. On the other hand, women are still smaller and usually not as strong as their male training partners, so you can’t just ignore the fact, throwing safety out the window. (This should be true for smaller, weaker training partners regardless of gender, of course.)There is a fine line, and it’s the instructor’s job to encourage students to help push the women they work with, but in a way that is safe. The best way to do this is to encourage open communication between them. When a man and woman are working together, tell them to keep an open dialogue, especially if they’re not familiar with each other’s training patterns. Encourage the man to ask for feedback when applying joint locks (i.e. Is this speed okay? Is this level of force okay?). Remind the woman that because her body is smaller, sometimes the effects come on faster, so she’ll have to be ready to tell her partners regularly what her limits are. Of course, men should do this with other men too, not just with women.

Even if you do all these things, realize that it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily maintain a more even split of men to women on your student roster. The fact of the matter is that more men are interested in martial arts training than women are, even if you do everything right. I’m a woman instructor, and I STILL have about the same ratio of women to men as most other martial arts schools. People quit, and based on the research I’ve done at my own dojo, the ratio of people who quit is proportionally the same for men as it is for women. Both men and women tend to fall away from their training, sometimes partially, sometimes completely, when they start dating someone regularly, get married, have children, get a new job, go to school, etc. It’s just a little more noticeable when it’s a woman because there aren’t as many in the first place. As for those who are frustrated like the BJJ instructor who inspired this post, my message is this: Do your best to maintain a female-friendly school, give them (and all your students) the best instruction you can offer as a teacher, but don’t take it to heart when women (or anyone for that matter) quits. It sucks to lose any student when you put a lot of effort into their development. Life changes and people move on to other things, regardless of gender.

For my next blog post, I offer some tips for women who are training in a male dominated martial arts school or style to help them and their training partners get the most of the experience.

Do you have any other advice or suggestions for making a martial arts school more female-friendly? Please add to the conversation in the comments. :)

Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “How to Run a Female-Friendly Martial Arts School

  1. Thank you!

    This is the best response to the original blog post i’ve read. I felt like there was a lot of reaction to the article–however i seem to be a part of a martial arts community that heavily supports and welcomes women (although there still arent many of us), im sure that impacts my thoughts on the subject. I dont want to be treated like a woman, i want to be treated like a martial artist. I’m there to grow as a person–and i expect my instructor to both push me out of my comfort zone and support me during my growth process.

    There are people i dont want to work with in my school– but gender has nothing to do with that, its usually because they lack control and i dont want to get injured in the process. In fact, there are women i truly dont want to train with and men that i really enjoy training with.

    • Thank you for your comment! I’ve been lucky myself to have trained at a variety of schools that have had great attitudes towards women. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few bad eggs here and there, but for the most part, I’ve had good experiences. I’m like you. I want to be treated like a martial artist, not a woman.

  2. Great response, Lori! So many good points in there. A lot of women, myself included, responding to Keith Owen’s ridiculous article on a more personal level (which of course had no effect on his skewed view of females in BJJ). However, it’s really nice to see more professional responses as well, that approach gym etiquette as a whole. Nicely written :o)

    • Thanks Reese! Just trying to do what I can to help, but I think that’s what everyone is doing. It’s good that all these women are making some noise because it at will at least make instructors think a bit about how they look at the women at their schools. :)

  3. As one that trains regularly with my wife, the only issue we’ve ever seen, is she apologizes and would stop, when landing a good strike. After a year of training, it was finally discovered she used to take TKD and was trained there in point sparring.

    To the point of she was frustrated and got to the point of leaving.

    It is part of the #5. don’t coddle. Once that little old habit was deleted, she has re-arranged my insides and moved the ribs quite a few times.

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