Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts on training with women or training as a woman

Every few weeks, another thread on one of my favorite BJJ forums gets started that's some variation on "how do I train with the new woman" or "is it okay to ask women to roll" or "why don't the men ask me to train" and so on. This is my take on handling all of those issues, and a few more. Training is tricky enough without adding inadvertently getting to second base to the mix.  I'm curious about the tips other people have for women that train or want to train, and for men that are unsure about training with women.

If you are a woman that wants to train

1) BJJ / grappling is a contact sport. I know this seems obvious, but you need to really think about this before you start. You will likely have to overcome some issues with this. It might be that you feel a little funny wrapping your legs around a strange man's waist. It might be that having someone sit on your chest is more than you can handle. Maybe you'll be totally fine until someone accidentally pulls your hair. At some point, there will be some contact that surprises you (read: someone whose name you may not know yet is going to touch a lady-part). Odds are really good that it wasn't intentional and if you don't make it weird, it won't get weird. Just keep rolling.

2) In BJJ, some days are going to suck. You are going to lose. A lot. This happens to EVERYONE. This has nothing to do with your gender. Everyone gets the crap kicked out of them in the beginning. And, here's a little secret: it's going to happen the whole time you do BJJ, unless you magically morph into Roger Gracie sometime soon.

3) If you don't take training seriously, the other women in your gym will not treat you kindly. This means dress appropriately, remove your makeup, and don't giggle and flirt with the guys in the gym. There are still men out there that think we don't belong on "their" mats, and we don't need any women coming in that are going to make it harder for us to be taken seriously there.

4) Some guys will roll with you like it's the Mundial finals. If this is happening to you, protect yourself first. Don't get caught up in that game. "Winning" a round isn't worth getting hurt and being out for 6 weeks. Be aware of your partner's breathing, muscles tensing, etc. If he's having trouble passing your guard and you feel his frustration meter creeping into the red, give him the pass. Big deal. You're not hurt and now you get to recompose guard. Everyone needs to work on escapes. You don't need to tell him later that you gave him the pass, either. It's the gym. You're supposed to give up position sometimes. Just make a note about him, and ask him if he'll drill something next time, instead of rolling. Eventually, you'll have your own group of preferred sparring partners, but you will want a way to cope with people who you are less comfortable training with until you can trust your BJJ. And, if you're ever in doubt, tap. I can't stress this enough. I don't care if you're in a gym where you aren't allowed to tap to a position. I say that's bunk, and if you aren't comfortable (whether it's physical pain or you have a creepy feeling in your gut), you tap. Reset, or take a break if you want.

5) Some guys will never train with you. This is on them, not on you. It could be a religious thing. It could be a jealous wife/girlfriend. It could be because they're a little awkward and don't know how to ask you to train, or don't know what's "allowed" when rolling with a woman. You can ask them to train (BJJ is not the school dance, as much as it may feel that way in the beginning), or you can stick with the more friendly guys. Again, if guys don't ask you to train, you can ask them. Don't become a BJJ wallflower and wait for someone to ask you to drill or roll every night.

6) BJJ will change your life, if you give it a chance. You will make new friends (male and female). You will get into shape. You will learn a physical skill, which keeps your brain young. You will laugh and cry (please make it to the bathroom/changing room/car before the waterworks start if it's not injury-related). You will come back for more if you are stubborn and like puzzles and have never stuck with anything before because you bore easily. You were probably looking for BJJ.

If you are a man who doesn't know what to do with women at the gym

1) We won't break. You don't need to train with us like we're made of porcelain.

2) We aren't as strong as you. You don't need to Hulk Smash us every round. There is no shame in "losing" in the gym, to anyone. I'm not saying to roll over and play dead, but you aren't going to make any friends in the gym (male or female) if you're trying to steamroll people all the time.

3) If you are brand new and you are paired up with a woman wearing a blue, purple, brown, or black belt, expect that she knows a little something about BJJ. Expect that she can use what she knows to obtain a better position, and it's quite likely that she can even submit you. There is absolutely no shame in this. If, for example, she catches you in a triangle, you should not pick her up and slam her onto the mat to avoid tapping to a woman. The whole point of BJJ is for a smaller person to be able to use it against a larger one that doesn't know anything (this is you, right now). You'd be okay tapping to a dude wearing a colored belt if he were smaller than you, right? This is jiu jitsu winning, not the person wearing the belt. Jiu jitsu works.

4) We're part of your team. We're there to learn BJJ, just like you are. We aren't there to bring the bandages, ice packs, carry the Gatorade to tournaments (except for our own), and so on. We aren't the mascots or the den mothers. We are grapplers, just like you.

5) Sometimes, your hands are going to end up in places that they probably shouldn't touch. If we've been training a while, we know that. It's cool. A quick "sorry" and move on is sufficient. Oh, and we know the difference between someone posting and someone, well, groping. So, no cheap thrills. We know.

If you are a man or a woman that isn't sure how to train with another man or woman

1) Get off of the internets and talk to them. Ask them if they'd be more comfortable just drilling or flow rolling or if there's too much pressure or if you're being too much of a limp dishtowel. We give our partners constant feedback in the form of pressure and resistance with our bodies. Sometimes, we can use our words, too. Just ask the question, and then listen. The answer could change from day to day. At the end of the day, we all tend to over-think all of this too much. Grapple one another with a little common sense and all will go fine. Don't go after someone the size of a 14 year old like they stole your lunch money. Don't wonder if you're rolling the "right" way. Roll with some decorum (as much as possible while laughing at fart jokes, anyway).


  1. I would add a few things:

    1. Not all women are alike. This seems obvious, but one of my teammates refused to roll with me because he had hurt another woman. He felt like he was dangerous to all women, regardless of the fact that I have at least 20 lbs on him.

    2. Communicate with your partner. If you think you might be going too rough you can ask them if they think you're going too rough.

    3. Trust that your partner will tap. I don't mean that for brand new women, but especially if she's been doing bjj for 6+ months, trust her to tap. Don't feel like you're going to break her. That said, don't go so fast that you don't give your partner the opportunity to tap. It's important that you trust this so that you can feel more comfortable knowing you won't break them!

    4. If you do see that she's upset during or after the roll, LATER ON I would recommend asking her how you can be a better partner. You can even say "I thought you looked upset - is there something I could do differently" just make sure you don't say "You were upset" because she may not have been. However, again - don't treat us like fragile princesses.

    5. Along with the "women are different" you'll also find a variety of reasons they are there. Some may be there for a friendly gym roll, some may be there with a huge chip on their shoulder with something to prove, some may have no idea why they're there, some may be there to lose weight, or some may be there for self defense. This can affect how they roll and train.

    6. Finally, if the woman is new, understand that she may have some negative strong reactions to some of the moves. I remember when I started, there was one move that stirred up a huge emotional reaction in me - which involved the person on top yanking open the bottom person's gi and pressing it to the ground. It was my first week and I wouldn't let my partner practice that with me because it felt too emotionally scary. If I had been forced to do it, I don't know if I would have stayed in BJJ.

    1. Those are all EXCELLENT additions. Thanks for taking the time to send them in!!

  2. Excellent post! May I add some advice to my sisters:

    Cut your nails. Please.

    Wear well-fitting, appropriate undergarments. G-strings and thin t-shirts may not be your best option for this sport.


  3. This is a great article. Even if you are grappling with people of the same gender and size, a lot of these things are still good advice.

    As a male, I'll say this one other thing. Don't be offended if the guy who's a good bit bigger than you doesn't want to be your training partner every night. He's there to progress as well, and sometimes rolling with someone 30lbs lighter won't let you train in a way that you're getting everything you can out of class either.

    1. That's a great point, Sean.

      We can't take advantage of the nice guys (and Sean is one of these - I know from experience) and make it difficult for them to get their own training in. The same goes for brand new women that always expect to train with the upper belt women just because we have matching parts. Sometimes, the upper belt women need to train with upper belts of their own.

  4. I think it help if you can put all gender aside on the matts. And that should be everyone in the gyms take. I know that is my instructors policy. And once I got over the initial awkwardness of wrapping my legs around a man that is not my husband, I have found some of my best training partners have been guys.

  5. I have been training in a dojo with all men and two women who aren't my size . I'm more evenly matched with guys at 5'11" and 150 lbs. I love BJJ and I completely resonate with this article - after 9 months if training - the guys know me, and treat me as a teammate. The new guys seem to pay attention to the rest of the pack and follow suit. I'm always wary of the new guy who seems spastic and hell bent on proving himself- but then again most of the guys are wary of him too.
    My advice to add is, women don't be shy about asking your male training partner if he is wearing a cup. Just like we need a sturdy sports bra- when breaking a dudes guard... You should have some idea of what else you might be breaking.

  6. I had trouble finding partners for a long time. I felt awkward always having to be the one to ask. I felt like "if they wanted to roll with me, wouldn't they ask me sometimes? Maybe everyone is annoyed by me waaaaaaah!"

    Now I sit in the middle of the mat and yell "I need a partner! Partner? Partner!" and I always get one, but I don't have to go around the room and get rejected a bunch of times.

    This might work better for non-white belts.

    1. KC, that's a great way to deal with it. At my old gym, if you were on the edge of the mat, you were sitting out or taking a break. If you wanted to grapple, you stayed in the middle just like that. Well, sort of like that. I've been known to do the same "I NEED A PARTNER" thing, though.

  7. Great post! As one of very few women in my gym, and unfortunately the smallest, there were many times when I first started when I felt like I didn't know the "protocol" for getting guys to roll with me. My boyfriend got me into it but he outweighs by 100 pounds so rolling with him, at least in the beginning, didn't work. I'm trying to figure out a polite way to post your advice on my team's Facebook page for new women and men who are starting.

    My advise I would give to women, especially smaller women, is you have to give BJJ at LEAST six months before deciding if you really don't like it. It's hard being the smallest person on the mat but when you see the jiu jitsu start to work and come together, it's the greatest feeling ever.

    I would also say, don't take things personally. If a guy, or a girl, doesn't want to roll with you, chances are it has nothing to with you and everything to do with them. If they're a higher belt they may want someone more experienced to work through some techniques on this particular day. If they outweigh, you they may be worried about hurting you. Jiu jitsu is frustrating. But if you remember that when you lose it's not a personal insult, you will enjoy it that much more.