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Can You Handle It?

No this is not a post about frozen yogurt. Although I will say that 16 Handles rocks! If you haven't tried it, get yourself there pronto! But this particular post is about jiu-jitsu. And women.

Recently a BJJ black belt and instructor named Keith Owen wrote a blog post entitled " Can Women Really Handle Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu"? ( I think he genuinely meant well.  I think he really wants women to stick with their training. Perhaps he is just not so good at that putting words together thing called writing.

I am not going to dispute the things Mr Owen says, except to say I don't think he really intended to come off as sexist and clueless. For an excellent rebuttal to this post, check out this blog: All I will say is he kind of missed the point. And he should not talk about pregnancy anymore. Please leave that to the female bloggers.

I am a woman who "handles" jiu jitsu. I have done so for a little over two years now, and prior to starting BJJ, I had trained in karate for over 20 years. I still practice karate and I run a dojo. So I am no stranger to being a woman in a man's world.

The main question Keith Owen's post raises for me is whether or not women should be treated differently in BJJ training than men. For the most part, my answer is no. But there is a right way to teach all beginners, both male and female, and it is different from the way black belts train.

Here are some reasons why BJJ is hard when you are new:
1. The contact thing. There is a lot of touching. I have blogged about this before so that is all I'm saying about it today. Someone will sit on you. It hurts.

2. There are hundreds of techniques and none of them are simple. At least not in the beginning. Each submission is like doing an intricately choreographed dance number. Well, if a dance number involves choking, that is.

3. You will have to tap out. Often. Constantly. If you are me, like your arms and have no shame whatsoever than this is no problem. But some of you may get frustrated with all the "losing" you do in the beginning. I admit, it can be a bit demoralizing.

Those three are obvious. Here are some things you may not have thought of when you signed up:

4. There is no solitary training. Having a bad day? One of those days where you really don't want to talk to anyone? One of those days where you would just like to run on the treadmill as fast as you can or hit the heavy bag until your knuckles bleed? With headphones on so no one bothers you. There is no place in BJJ for this kind of day. You are forced to interact with others, all the time. And, unless you are a big fat jerk, you have to be nice about it.

5. It's your first day at a new high school. You just transferred from some other town, in the middle of the school year and it is lunchtime. Where the hell are you supposed to sit? Some days, jiu-jitsu is like that. Maybe you joined a gym where the instructor pairs people up for every round. Good for you. But maybe you are training at a place where he/she just says "Everyone find a partner." Like I am. And you're shy. My teacher jokingly refers to this as the "life skills" part of class. And sometimes, when you are new, it can be hard.

Of course, all of these issues apply to beginner men too. Here are some specifically female problems that you have to get over when you decide to start BJJ:

1. White gis and your monthly friend. Also, knee on belly and your monthly friend. Hell, everything about that friend sucks. Enough said.

2. The contact thing. I know guys have to get used to having a dude sitting on their chest too. But it is a little different for us. Many women have been taught to not be aggressive, that it is unfeminine. I am not saying I agree with this (I teach karate for a living and I wrestle with my daughter often, so clearly I don't). Just that it happens. Also, for some women, it is a little hard to get used to a man choking them without freaking out. (By the way, this happens in karate too. Often women have a hard time with sparring in the beginning because a man is punching them, which is so far outside our comfort zone it is like Jupiter.) You get over it. If you stick around, that is.

3. Pregnancy. No I did not grapple when I was pregnant. I do not know anyone who has. But pregnancy eventually leads to childbirth, which leads to breastfeeding, which leads to crying in agony whenever anyone touches your boobs. Which makes training difficult. All you mommy grapplers understand.

Ok, so now to my question. Should training be different for women? Should jiu-jitsu teachers treat female students differently? Do women quit BJJ for the same reason men quit (it is too hard, life gets in the way, you lose interest, etc.), or is there something else going on?

In my opinion, the responsibility lies with the women who train, not with the gyms or with the teachers. I mean, obviously you have to cultivate a feeling of mutual respect among your students. No sexist comments or inappropriate behavior should be tolerated. (Insert Lloyd Irvin joke here.) But beyond that, just teach jiu-jitsu. You don't need to coddle us. Women who sign up should know what they are getting into. This is not a yoga class. You will be choked, arm barred and swept. And you will get to do those things to others. It will be hard. You will sweat. You will be sore. And hopefully, you will learn to love it.

I did. Eventually.

Jiu-Jitsu is not for everyone. It has nothing to do with how tough you are, or whether you are male or female. I know people like to use this statement as a braggart badge of honor, as in jiu-jitsu is not for everyone you weakling! I guess it is only for tough guys like me! But the truth is, it just isn't for everyone. Gymnastics isn't for everyone either. Neither is sushi. No one walks into a sushi restaurant and expects the chef to cook up a spaghetti carbonara.

It is what it is. Ladies (and men) will jump in, or move on.

And now I am off to promotion to watch my BJJ friends and training partners get new belts. And yes, some of them are women.


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