Inverted Gear Blog / Valerie Worthington

Redefining Respectful Rolling: It Takes Two to Train

Several years ago, I was warming up at an open mat. I was a black belt at the time, and the person nearest me was a large male blue belt, maybe 220lbs. I asked him if he would like to pair up, and he responded by looking back at me with what could only be described as discomfort and saying, “Uh, sure.” Not sure what he was concerned about, I smiled and cracked a joke to try to put him at ease. We slapped hands, squared off, and started training.

Or, I started. My partner did very little, lying mostly still while I climbed around him trying to get a reaction. He was paying attention, keeping his elbows tight and his chin tucked, but he did not try at all to advance. After about a minute of this, I tapped and disengaged. I was a bit annoyed, wondering why my partner refused to move, and assuming for a split second that his discomfort stemmed from some manifestation of sexism. I was tempted to voice my annoyance, vehemently.

Instead, I theorized about what might be motivating his behavior. I said, “I want to thank you, because I get the sense that you are trying hard not to hurt me. I want you to know I really appreciate you being concerned for my safety.”

He almost sagged with relief. “I thought you were going to yell at me for not going harder with you,” he said. “I get that from some women and smaller men. They think I am dissing them. But my parents taught me to be aware of my size and to watch out for others’ safety. I’m not going to stop doing that anywhere, even on the mat. Even though you outrank me,” he added, then looking down, worried he had miscalculated with the last comment.

I used to be the woman who would yell, or at least who would want to. For many years, I believed that the only way for a man to show me the respect in jiu-jitsu that I craved was to go all out with me, show me no quarter. Especially if I outranked him. Anything else was sexist and disrespectful. Over time, though, I came to realize that there is something to be said for the “feeling out” period of a roll, where you take a few seconds to experience your partner’s energy, tension level, and skill set, AND that after that there are choices besides going full-bore to try to reduce him or her to a grease spot. This becomes even more important as I age. I am still willing and able to go hard, but first I need to learn more about the nature of the hurricane coming at me so I can adjust accordingly.

That day, with that 220-lb male blue belt, I took the time to listen to him, and it turns out his rationale was one I appreciated and could work with. Since we were talking, maybe we could come to an agreement about how intensely to train together. I replied, “I completely understand. I do want to make sure we both get something out of this round, so would you feel comfortable going a little bit harder?”

He agreed, and I reiterated that it was okay for either of us to tap if we thought the energy was problematic in either direction. We spent the five minutes of that timed round figuring out a pace that was comfortable for both of us, and then we decided to train again the next round to take advantage of what we had puzzled over together. As with many things jiu-jitsu related, I learned more from training with him than just how to advance against a larger opponent. Here are a few of my takeaways:

It is okay for us to use our words, especially before they become heated. You would think it would be more common for pairs to have conversations on the mat about pacing and energy level, given how much trust we must place in our training partners to allow them into our personal space. Using our words when doubt exists is not generally modeled, however. If I had to guess, I would say the reason is twofold. First, newer belts may not feel comfortable speaking up and may not even know what they need to ask for, and second, upper belts, socialized in an environment where these kinds of conversations do not often happen before the boiling point, do not have practice naming the various elephants in the room even though they are better able to identify them. For this reason, teachable moments may pass unnoticed, and misunderstandings may occur and persist when they could have been nipped in the bud.

It is important, then, for instructors to watch for problematic dynamics and address them before they spill over. It is also important to model the use of conversations to make sure both people in a pair are on the same page, and to encourage everyone, white through black belt, to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. These do not need to be lengthy discussions, but sometimes even a few words can make all the difference. This leads to the second thing I learned.

Upper belts are in a better position than lower belts to set the tone. I relearn this at least once a month, usually when I have missed an opportunity to help a student learn something or to learn something myself. We will never know, but I am willing to bet that if I had not stopped to talk with my blue belt partner, he would have continued to do what he believed was right. He would not have had a chance to explain why, though, and he might have continued to believe he should take heat for it. As the higher belt, it was appropriate for me to take more responsibility, and it was also tacitly expected that he would defer to me.

Big people have feelings too. A training session between a large man and a smaller woman, for example, is not just about making sure the woman feels comfortable. If I had not asked my blue belt partner about his motivation for (not) moving the way he was, I would have assumed he was being disrespectful or disengaged on purpose. Instead, it turns out he had very strong beliefs about how he should behave with others, and it was I who was in danger of being disrespectful. I did not get to corner the market on getting my training needs met simply because I was smaller.

Now. Lest you think I am advocating for people coming at each other a million miles an hour or for bigger people squishing smaller people, rest assured that I am not. It is still no fun to be on the receiving end of a Tasmanian devil of any size or gender. I would rather be partnered with a sloth than a wind-up monkey with cymbals, at least at first. Sloths can move when they want to, but wind-up monkeys with cymbals will keep clanging until they wind down.

My point is that it benefits us to assume the best of people when they are going slowly with us, even those of us who are highly-ranked women or smaller guys. Even before that, it is never a bad idea to proceed with caution when we train, especially with people we do not know, except perhaps in competition, which may require a different kind of caution. It is also important for us to communicate with each other, assume responsibility for the tone of a training session, especially if we are the ranking belt, and recognize that we and our training partners are in it together.

So, use your voice, use your authority, and use your compassion every time you roll.

Photo credit: Charles Smith

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Confessions of a Jiu-Jitsu Instructor

At the beginning of my jiu-jitsu journey, I thought my instructors were flawless. I had enough difficulty trying to execute technique, and they could not only execute but also teach, down to the finest details. They answered questions I did not even know needed to be asked, and they had a commanding presence I would never have been able to muster. Of course, as time went on, my technique and my ability to explain both improved, and I also became better able to allow my instructors to be the complex, talented, flawed human beings they were.

Now that I am a black belt and an instructor, I hope other people do not view me the way I viewed my instructors in those early years. Knowing what is on the other side of my particular curtain, I can say that, at least in my case, you should not believe the hype. Well, you can believe some of it. I work hard to be a good instructor, but you can spy chinks in my armor if you pay enough attention. Here are just a few:

I do not like anticipating teaching jiu-jitsu. Let me clarify. I like teaching jiu-jitsu. When I am “on,” when I feel I am explaining details well, when I can tell my energy is where it needs to be, there is precious little that is more rewarding than playing a role in helping people improve at an activity they really want to improve at. It always makes me happy when I have useful answers to questions and when I can encourage students to keep trying until they finally succeed at whatever they are attempting.

Still, I experience performance anxiety good and thoroughly, before every class, seminar, open mat, or other teaching situation. Even if I am teaching something I have taught many times before, even though I believe in the techniques I share and the people who taught them to me, I am tempted before every teaching obligation to pretend I fell in a deep hole and cannot get out, so sorry. I understand that some great actors throw up due to nerves, so I guess I am in good company. I wish it did not happen, and I am sure it does not happen to all other instructors. I must be one of the lucky ones.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about music. Many instructors will play music during class, particularly during sparring. This happens so often that when there is no music, the silence can seem deafening. I have Spotify on my phone, and it is great, though since I refuse to pay for the upgrade there are regular commercials. Then there is the question of what genre to play. Reggae is always a safe bet, but some genres have blue language, some are on playlists that feature good songs followed by duds, and some I find to be too shouty. Recently I used a playlist that was one of the search results for “funk,” and that was a goldmine. (“You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Give up the Funk,” etc.) Much as I may want to, though, I cannot play it during every class because everyone will get bored.

I am similarly challenged when it comes to social media. I am not the person who is going to remember to take a picture of her restaurant meal—until after I have eaten it. I take a perverse pride in the fact that I have never taken a mirror selfie. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have been involved in other selfies, including ones using a selfie stick, but never the mirror variety.) Still, I understand that social media is a way to get the word out about things I think are important, and I believe in the school and the art that take up so much of my time.

The challenge lies in the fact that I am not eager to feature myself in pictures or videos, and after a time, even the coolest free rolling session can look exactly like the last one I captured and shared. This
means I do what I always do: Go for the funny. I find something around the school to take a picture of and then make a joke about it. For instance, the coat hooks on the wall of the school look exactly like pugilistic octopuses. I was not the first person to point this out, but I am one of the people who is exceedingly glad somebody did. You may not find my “Still Life with Water Bottle” humorous, but I do, which means at least someone is always laughing, even if it is me.

I am always shocked when someone acts star-struck in my presence. I am not nearly as well-known as many of my friends and colleagues, and this is okay by me. I have been around the jiu-jitsu world for a long time, and I am doing my best to make a meaningful contribution to it. It still surprises me, though, when a fellow practitioner wants to take a picture with me or thanks me for something I have written. It is gratifying but also unexpected, because from my perspective, I am just me.

I have a pretty good poker face, but it is not perfect. Jiu-jitsu instructors and students are people, and people are annoying. I know I am, and I know I (usually) do not mean to be, so when students do annoying things, as they are wont to do because they are people, I have a very long fuse. I can empathize with their frustration, their need to stroke their own egos, or their distractedness. I have been there, and I still go there sometimes. I know they are usually doing the very best they can, and if that still results in me finding them annoying in some way, I can usually let it slide. Even I can reach my limit, though. Sometimes a confluence of minor annoyances from multiple students or even from life circumstances that have nothing to do with training (we *all* bring our stuff onto the mat) can create the spark that reaches the end of my fuse, and I get snippy or short or even shouty, like those playlists I hesitate to use.

I always process the situation afterward to try to identify learnable moments and will apologize if I think it is warranted. I also do my best to deal with the situation and then move on rather than dwelling on it.

I am getting worse and worse with names. Sometimes I have heard a student’s name multiple times and it just does not stick. (I am getting older, and, though some commercials would have you think otherwise, not all parts of me are getting better, including my memory.) Sometimes it is simply that my window of opportunity for learning someone’s name has closed. I should know it by now, but for whatever reason I do not, and I am embarrassed about it.

On the other hand, I am terrific at remembering details of students’ lives, and I find them truly fascinating. If I call you “bro,” please forgive me, and then rest assured that I really do want to see pictures of your hamster’s new babies. I may even do a better job of remembering their names than yours. (Plus, I will never, ever call you “bro.”) More importantly, I am paying attention to you in class. I watch your reps and suggest ways to tighten up your technique, and I watch the training when I am on the sidelines, to keep you safe and to learn more about what you like to do so I can tailor my feedback. I aim to do better about names, but whether or not that improves, I do work hard to see to the care and feeding of the entire grappler.

I am not the best instructor in the world. I have my foibles and my weaknesses. Maybe I am not as good at hiding them as I think I am, so this confessional is akin to proclaiming that water is wet. I wonder if other instructors have a secret dark side too, though, and no matter how imperfect I am, I will always share whatever knowledge I have that will help students improve, even if some of it comes with a side of snark.

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The Modern Martial Artist: What Does Bushido Look Like in the 21st Century?

Earning a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a huge accomplishment, the result of many years of dedication and hard work. Some who have earned one feel like the black belt gives them the platform they need to really start learning. Some go on to be role models and serve their teammates, peers, and students. Some have been indicted on and convicted of charges of rape and child abuse, among other crimes.

I make this last observation not to be salacious; believe me when I say I wish it were not true. Rather, I offer it as context for questions I have been thinking about regarding our expectations for leaders in the jiu-jitsu community. Black belts in jiu-jitsu can be the targets of hero worship, where we sometimes assume that people who have a black belt and/or a successful competition record are also “good” people, as if these accomplishments magically confer some special capacity to be ethical and principled.

Our community is not alone, though. Some permutation of the following equation follows countless prominent sports, entertainment, and political figures:

Intrinsic Value of Famous and/or Talented People > Intrinsic Value of Other People

It is probably clear that there is some faulty math going on here. During a typical jiu-jitsu day, though, at the height of the excitement most of us who train feel about our training, it is not uncommon for people who are learning jiu-jitsu to believe their instructors walk on water due to their grappling ability. On the flip side, if we who are black belts and leaders hear it enough and are not vigilant, it can be tempting for us to believe the same of ourselves.

This tendency may have some longstanding roots. Central to the history of martial arts is the concept of “bushido,” the way of the warrior. This is the ethical code that ancient martial artists adhered to, which emphasized loyalty, honor, and duty. Notably, the dictionary.com definition reads: “(in feudal Japan) the code of the samurai, stressing unquestioning loyalty and obedience and valuing honor above life.”

Perhaps each of us can name some jiu-jitsu leaders who expect this kind of behavior from their students, as well as some students who expect it of themselves toward their instructors. At the same time, perhaps some of us are unsettled by the concept of “unquestioning loyalty and obedience,” as it is at odds with the American ideal of independence and individuality, not to mention with healthy relationships of any kind. Perhaps this topic takes on added significance in the current political climate. At any rate, laws and sensibilities have changed over time such that the feudal idea of blind, one-way fealty on the part of an apprentice toward a master is now untenable. Or should be.

As a community, we who train jiu-jitsu may be learning to have more realistic expectations about our leaders, which includes the reality that they are people, who are equally capable of acting with integrity or with deceit, depending on the choices they make. Even those of us who work hard to walk an ethical line are far from perfect, on the mat or otherwise. In the aftermath of some of the more recent accusations against higher-ups in our community, we in the community have had more conversations, individually and on a broader scale, raising questions about how we should be policing ourselves. This leads to the question I have been considering: What should bushido look like nowadays, and who has the right/responsibility to identify and enforce it?

A logical place to start looking is at some of the prominent organizations in our community. A quick search shows codes of conduct from two sources that few would deny are major influences on the jiu-jitsu world:

The IBJJF’s Professor’s (sic) Code of Conduct includes general admonitions about behavior as well as specific rules governing coach behavior and dress at IBJJF events. There is a short section about penalties for violating the code.

The Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation’s Code of Ethics provides expectations for members of the federation and a separate set of expectations for black belt members. (The link provided connects to the website of Leonardo Xavier’s academy, as I was unable to find the JJGF Code of Ethics on the JJGF website)

In addition to these larger organizations, many individual academies of all sizes have also articulated their own sets of expectations, and sometimes these are displayed on the wall in the mat space, as well as being made available online. Just two examples are listed below:

The Gracie Barra Code of Conduct emphasizes principles including brotherhood, discipline, and respect. The Gracie Barra website also features separate pages on its etiquette expectations and philosophy.

The Art of Jiu Jitsu Code of Conduct includes rules for mat behavior as well more general admonishments about humility and respect.

These codes of conduct only go so far, however. Questions remain about how broad and deep we should go in articulating and legislating “appropriate” behavior among community members, how codes of conduct such as those listed above are and should be disseminated and enforced, and how infractions are and should be handled. Perhaps my experience is skewed, but over the course of many years and visits to dozens of academies, I have been involved in few if any conversations about ethics and my ethical responsibilities. It was only when I and my circle of colleagues and teammates heard about some of the more recent incidents that we started to discuss ethics at all. I learned through osmosis what constituted appropriate behavior and added that to my desire to be generally law-abiding and principled which I arrived at independent of my participation in jiu-jitsu. I have signed many waivers, but those are intended to protect the academies.

So, how much discussion and awareness of bushido belongs in the day-to-day instruction at the typical academy, in the larger conversations among our community’s governing bodies, and among individual practitioners in their lives off the mat? We work very hard on how to move. How much attention should we be paying to how we act? Right now, I have more questions than answers, but I intend to investigate further.

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.

 

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Purple Belt Purgatory Part II: Feeling the Itch and Showing the Grit

Question: I recently heard someone call purple belt “purple purgatory,” and it seems to fit. When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Now that I'm teaching more, I'm really starting to question everything and sometimes I feel that I was a more confident teacher at blue belt. Is that something you experienced? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?

Answer: In Part I of my response to this question, I observed that there are actually two questions in it: a question about dealing with purple belt purgatory in general and a question about the challenges of becoming a purple belt who teaches. I addressed the second question in Part I, and here, in Part II, I will address the first question: “When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?”

The short answer to this question is: absolutely; I questioned everything and found purple belt trying. Just like I have at every belt and continue to do every time I stop to think about where I am relative to where I think I should be in terms of skill, leadership, and maturity.

I would not be me if I did not have a long answer to this question as well. This long answer involves the concept of the “seven-year itch,”1 which is the title of a 1952 play and 1955 film adaptation of the play. The title refers to the amount of time the protagonist and his wife have been married, as well as the fact that he is considering being unfaithful. The idea is that around the seven-year mark, married couples tend to feel the honeymoon has ended, and boredom, irritation, and dwindling connection may prompt them to consider divorce or extracurricular activities.2

About a year after I got my purple belt, I experienced my own jiu-jitsu seven-year itch. I had become increasingly disinterested in training, dreading going to class and being elsewhere in my mind when I did attend. I ended up turning my back on training completely for the better part of a year, instead doing things “normal” people do: happy hours, movies, jogging, sleeping in on weekends, spending time with family and friends who thought “rear naked choke” was something dirty. I liked it for a while. Eventually I was eager to get back together with jiu-jitsu, but for the time I was gone, I was gone.

Perhaps your own jiu-jitsu journey has become a bit itchy. Perhaps the Christmas-morning excitement that accompanied your every discovery from white through blue belt about where to place your foot or how to position your hip has given way to a sense of world-weariness or obligation. Your jiu-jitsu honeymoon may be over.

This, along with the awareness you are probably starting to experience as described in Part I of this response, can combine to create the purple belt purgatory you described in your question.

My friends Steve Bowers and Paul Miller run Main Line United BJJ, an academy in Ardmore, PA. It is a great place to train, and, if you are looking for motivation, it is also a great place to be a woman, because when you sit down in the Main Line United BJJ bathroom to do your business, you are confronted with this sign:

In addition to providing motivation, the sign is a reminder that neither purple belt purgatory, blue belt blues, nor any of those doubts and hesitations from white to black are isolated incidents: You are not alone.

It bears mentioning that if you are really disillusioned with jiu-jitsu, or if other life goals are competing with your training such that you really feel the need to take a break or stop altogether, then it is doubly fortunate that you are free to do what you want any old time, per the Rolling Stones. Make sure you ask yourself the tough questions about whether you still want to be doing this, and if the answer is no, honor that.

Now, what can you do if the answer is yes? The best solution for your itch just may be to get gritty.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has written a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In it, she defines grit as “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals,” arguing that excellence is not limited to those with natural talent but rather can be cultivated through a combination of interest, practice, purpose, and hope—grit. Many of her comments sound like they could be about the experience of training jiu-jitsu, particularly the times when the going gets tough. Her comments in an interview on Freakonomics Radio underscore the existence of the phenomenon we call purple-belt purgatory; indeed this phenomenon occurs in a wide variety of endeavors. She says,

“I interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100-meter-freestyle representing the United States, and he estimates that in the years up to the Olympics where he won that gold medal, he swam equivalently around the world, right? Roughly 20,000 miles. And so I asked him, ‘Do you love practice?’ And he said, ‘Are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a black line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t, but I love the whole thing. You know, I have a passion for the whole sport.’”

The point being, we do not have to love every minute of what we do to pursue our passions. In fact, it is unlikely that we will. But if we do not love our passion overall, we will not make ourselves persevere when the going gets tough. You do not like feeling as if you are questioning everything you have learned in your purple belt-ness, and this is understandable. However, this is the price those of us with a passion pay for pursuing it. I can almost guarantee that this will not be the last time you have doubts or fears along your jiu-jitsu journey. The question is how you want to face those challenges. Are they something you do not want to deal with, or are they the shadow side of the thing you are passionate about? In the latter case, it may be time to answer the call of nature and then get gritty.

Good luck and thank you for the question!

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.

1 Nagy, J. (January 28, 2013). The seven-year itch: Fact or fiction? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-nagy/the-sevenyear-itch-fact-o_b_2443171.html

2 Edmonds, M. Is there such a thing as the seven-year itch? How Stuff Works. Retrieved from http://health.howstuffworks.com/relationships/marriage/seven-year-itch.htm

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Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0 Part II: Supporting Women in Leadership Roles in BJJ

In a previous article, I observed that the jiu-jitsu community is moving into what I refer to as Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0, where women not only train but also take on leadership roles in increasing numbers. This is happening as a matter of course in the development of the sport, but those of us who want to show our support may wonder how we can do so. This article provides some suggestions.

If we want to promote the growth of women as leaders in jiu-jitsu, we must make the following assumptions:

First, women are capable of being leaders in jiu-jitsu. Some women are not great leaders, just as some men are not. Some women are fantastic leaders, just as some men are. The point is, a person’s capacity to be a good leader has nothing to do with where his/her private parts are situated or with the gender with which s/he identifies. Therefore, if we want to support women as leaders in jiu-jitsu, the first step is to withhold judgment about any person’s leadership abilities until we have seen them in action.

Second, women’s jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu. There may be some truth to the idea that women and men learn and apply jiu-jitsu differently. However, at its heart, the jiu-jitsu women learn is no different from the jiu-jitsu men learn, even in gender-segregated classes. It is jiu-jitsu. A competent female leader in jiu-jitsu, then, will teach, referee, coach, and train jiu-jitsu, not some watered-down version.

Third, and here is the heart of the matter, even if we have no women or few women in our own academies, each of us can promote the growth of women as leaders in jiu-jitsu. Here is how:

If we are jiu-jitsu instructors, academy owners, and/or coaches:

  • We can groom interested women in our classes to be leaders. This does not mean throwing a female blue belt into teaching a women’s class by herself while we take a break. Instead, it means apprenticing and mentoring interested lower-belt women just as we do interested lower-belt men.
  • We can model desired behavior. If we believe everyone can learn from women in jiu-jitsu, then we can seek out opportunities ourselves to do so. As above, note this does not mean suggesting to a female student that she attend a co-ed seminar hosted by a woman while we do something else. It means encouraging male and female students to attend—and going with them.
  • If we do not have higher belt women at our academy, we can expand our search. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen female brown and black belt women who are great instructors, accomplished competitors, and otherwise eminently qualified to assume leadership roles in our community, and who are available to be brought in for seminars or guest instructing. Chances are there are a few in our geographic area, and if there are not, we can consider investing in a visit from someone who is farther away.
  • If we leave the academy in charge of upper belt students for some reason, we can choose the best people for various roles, regardless of gender. Maybe the right person to staff the front desk and/or teach the women’s and kids’ classes happens to be female, and maybe the right person to teach the “regular” classes happens to be male. The question is whether we thought about this before we assigned tasks, or whether we automatically reverted to stereotypical gender roles.

If we are students (which all of us are, even if we are also instructors, academy owners, and/or coaches):

  • We can search ourselves for bias. Do we ask higher-ranked women for technical advice, or even lower-ranked women who are particularly good at a finish or escape we want to improve at? Do we look to them for clues about proper behavior in the academy? Or do we assume a man will know better, even one who has not been around as long?
  • We can practice our poker faces. Even if we are used to mostly male instructors and academy owners, when we encounter their female counterparts do we support that by training as if everything is normal? Because it is.
  • We can police ourselves and each other. Ideally, the message at any academy is that good leadership is good leadership regardless of the package it comes in, but as evidenced by my own experience, that may not entirely convince some people. If we know the powers that be in our academy are dedicated to good leadership and we see or hear someone saying or doing something that runs counter to that, we can call it out.

If we are men:

  • We can consider our language. Phrases like “Don’t be a p*ssy,” “Use the rape choke,” and “What’s the matter, Mike? Got your period?” all have implications. I am not the PC police, but I do try to make sure that my actions and my words are consistent with one another. To my mind, acting in support of women in positions of leadership while simultaneously feeling comfortable saying things like, “Dude, Jeff has sand in his vagina” is a bit dissonant. Ultimately, our immediate training community decides what is appropriate for our immediate training context. I encourage all of us to make sure our decisions are conscious ones.
  • We can consider the odds. Women are making strides in BJJ, but the proportion of women to men in the sport is still small. Many of us are used to being the only woman on the mat, or one of very few, but not as many of us are as used to overseeing situations featuring that kind of gender breakdown. It can be intimidating, so positive energy and enthusiasm go a long way.
  • We can be evangelical. It would be odd if I did not believe that women can be leaders in the jiu-jitsu community. I obviously have a vested interest in the idea. While this does not lessen the validity of the argument, the weight of other voices can support it.

If we are women:

  • We can educate ourselves about what being a leader in jiu-jitsu entails. Coaching, teaching, refereeing, running an academy, simply being in this world in the most productive and positive ways possible, are all options we have for demonstrating leadership. There are resources available for us to ask questions and educate ourselves. We can embrace the need to develop our own leadership skills as part and parcel of our commitment to developing as grapplers.
  • We can value our own skill and experience. Sometimes more experienced female grapplers believe we know less than we do, devaluing our skills and experience in the process. We can teach others how to treat us by respecting ourselves and our knowhow.
  • We can celebrate the skill and experience of other women. Men are not the only ones who can be sexist. Sometimes, when we are the highest-ranked woman in an academy, even if we are a blue or purple belt, we can forget that just as there are always men better than we are, there are also always women who are better than we are. Women are also frequently stereotyped as catty, in jiu-jitsu and in general. If we are tired of this stereotype, we can prove it wrong by supporting women who are leaders in the jiu-jitsu community.

To paraphrase Kent Brockman, I, for one, welcome our new female overlords, because I believe increased female leadership can benefit the jiu-jitsu community. If you agree, give some thought to how you personally can support its growth, in your academy and in general.

If you do not agree, I would love to hear from you. Not to harangue or yell or belittle, but to learn more about your perspective.

Photo credit to Stafford Sports Media.

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