A training partner is somebody who has agreed to let you use their body to help you get better at a sport that you love. Without training partners, every person reading this would not be a Jiu Jitsu practitioner but a Jiu Jitsu spectator. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone that steps on the mats with us. Why then do women feel uncomfortable at some gyms? Why do women have a hard time finding someone to drill with? Why do people bypass them when it comes to rolling? Why do they feel more comfortable in Woman's only classes?
I was completely oblivious to the challenge that women face in today’s BJJ. Shit, I was completely oblivious to the challenges that women faced in BJJ 15-20 years ago, which I believe was worse! I was oblivious because I was, and still am a male. 20 years ago I didn’t have the EQ to be empathetic to the rare occasions that women would step onto a BJJ mat. I was very new to the sport and was fearful every time I stepped on the mat myself, that combination didn’t allow me to have any capacity to put myself in a woman's shoes.
It has been over the last 4-5 years where there has been an explosion of female grapplers that many opportunities to learn have come up. Additionally, my wonderful purple belt girlfriend sees and expresses to me the challenges she faces as we travel for Jiu Jitsu. From people not shaking her hand, not making eye contact when it's time to roll, to blatant misogynistic behavior. She loves the sport and believes that training partner equality from a respect basis is an attainable goal.
What is to blame for training partners not being treated equally? We men are. The male ego that is shaping gym cultures. Gym’s are primarily owned by men. Tough men that have dedicated their life to a main component of fighting. When you fight, it is useful to have a chip on your shoulder. It motivates and drives people past fear. It helps to support confidence which is the mental fuel to any good fighter. Those same traits that help make a good fighter also build up a giant ego if not checked. While Jiu Jitsu can be a great tool to check ego, if you are always the best one in the gym, which gym owners normally are, it can start to be difficult to pop the ego balloon.
Someone with an ego judges people immediately, often without active listening, and acts in accordance with that judgement. IE. When a woman enters a dojo, a man may automatically assume many things regarding her. He treats her a certain way. His students pick up on that and follow suit. This is how cultures of organizations are born. (Dealing with these cultures in business settings is my career. Here is a link to learn more MYODISEE) In what I consider to be an unhealthy culture, people fight to win every time they roll, people disregard size, speed, strength, age variables, and students are not actively listened to. When anybody walks into a dojo with a culture like that it is unhealthy, but it is especially unhealthy when a woman walks into it. She most likely has less supporters in that gym and the likelihood of injury is higher.
Why would injury be higher? Because on average women are smaller than men. Additionally, men tend to be more aggressive, especially when the culture dictates as such. Not all people are created equal. Some are big and some are small, some are fast and some are methodical, some have had a longer life than others. It all plays a role in jiu jitsu and how we interact with each other.
Here are some facts for us men that this may be the first time thinking about this topic. -A woman is fully capable of beating up a man based on the same factors that would determine a man vs man fight. -Because of our culture, Women tend not to come from backgrounds where it was normal to punch their friends in the dick and wrestle around with them. It makes sense that they may be a little stand-offish at first -You do not need to be scared to grapple with women. If you don’t “know how” because you are much bigger and stronger you also then don’t know how to move precisely to practice good jiu jitsu. Your strength is probably giving you false positives on how good your technique is. -Women may be more expressive while on the mats. Their goal may not be to win that round but to move and learn. That's wisdom you can learn from.
Women, it should be said that I believe the vast majority of men don’t know that they are treating you differently. They are unaware that your experience is markedly different from theirs. They believe that you should win every roll because that is what they were taught. The overall intent for most men is a positive one. You always have a choice on how you let anyone's behavior affect you. Hopefully knowing that most men mean well will allow for some conversations on improving the gym culture.
Men, since you read this blog you are now aware of the challenge. Here are a few suggestions to make all your training partners happier. Smile and greet both men and women when they enter the gym. Make sure to roll with both men and women. Be aware of physical disparities and learn to roll more precisely when you face them. Talk to a woman about their BJJ journey. Work on your active listening skills to pick up on things that a woman may be uncomfortable with. All in all, just be a good dude equally.
It needs to be said that I have been an egotistical douche at certain points on the BJJ mats and certainly in life as well. From all my experiences, 17 years of BJJ training, travel, and mindfulness training I am now someone who is constantly trying to improve myself and the culture I create at the gym. While this blog may come off as judgmental of men, I don’t intend it to be. My intent is to open the door to tough conversation. It is my personal opinion that we are not all physically equal, but on the mats we are all giving to each other equally. If this way of doing things resonates with you, I suggest you sign up for notifications for new blogs below. Have a wonderful rest of your day my BJJ Friends!