Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0: From Participation to Leadership

When I was coming up through the ranks in jiu-jitsu, I was routinely the only woman or one of maybe two or three women in class. I trained with anyone who was willing to train with me: man-mountains, scrawny kids, and everyone in between. I was a curiosity in those days, and the male students who ended up having to pair with me were rarely happy about it, at least at first. I felt stupid and awkward when I stopped to notice, so I tried not to. And the high I got from training—the pure joy and flow, which lasted for hours after I finished a training session—was more than worth the challenges.

It was even worth the casually sexist and uncomfortable comments I heard over the years when I was coming up through the ranks. Here is an incomplete list:

  • “I can’t train with you. I’ll get an erection.”
  • “No f*cking way I’ll ever let a woman tap me.”
  • “Frankly, I don’t think girls should train. My academy split up because two guys were fighting over the same girl.”
  • “I don’t think we should train together because it wouldn’t do either of us any good.”
  • “My wife doesn’t want me rolling with you.”
  • “Wow, I wasn’t expecting you to be good.”
  • “I’m glad you don’t have big tits.”

 And this does not include the stares, eye rolls, and jockeying for position away from me and the few other women that were also de rigeur in those days. Of course, some of this could have had to do with the fact that I was a white belt and, as such, in need of a bit more patience from my training partners. But then I became a blue belt and a purple belt, and the comments and body language from some people persisted.

It was a drag, of course, but I generally let it slide or attempted to deflect with humor. I was having fun, I had learned over a lifetime of experiencing casual and not-so-casual sexism to choose my battles, and I had not yet learned how to capitalize effectively on teachable moments—to hope for the best before I assumed the worst. I kept my head down and kept training, reminding myself that even though there were people who did not welcome my presence, there were others, instructors and students alike, who supported and encouraged me.

From Oddity to Acceptance

In recent years, there has been more focus on how to attract and retain women in jiu-jitsu, which I obviously think is fantastic. More events for women have sprung up: camps, open mats, tournaments, dedicated classes, and on and on. More women have lit up the competition scene with undeniable skill and competitiveness. More instructors (historically mostly male) have taken pains to learn about how to welcome women into their academies and how to equip their male students to do the same. I have even watched some of the men who said things like those on the list above change their tunes and make a point of training with women and trying to attract them to their academies. There is hope, then, for the niche gender in this niche sport.

I look back on the time when I was coming up and before then, when there were even fewer women, as Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0. Back then, the immediate goal was to get women to step on and stay on the mat, amid confusion and uncertainty about how to do so. Thanks to the work of instructors and thought leaders in the jiu-jitsu community, the tinkering and research during the period of Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0 has resulted in a general blueprint for welcoming women into the fold, in the form of articles, resources, and subject matter experts. Of course, there is more work to be done vis-à-vis compiling and applying that blueprint consistently, but many building blocks are now available.

A sign of the ongoing effectiveness of Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0 is the fact that, in increasing numbers, women are stepping on and staying on the mat. And at this point in the history of our sport, a “critical mass” of those women, as well as the men who have supported them, have now been around long enough to help our community transition into Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0. This is the version where women are not just present but are also widely accepted as leaders.

Leadership on the Mat: A New Hurdle

Like many of my male counterparts, I began teaching jiu-jitsu when I was a purple belt, sporadically at first, and then more regularly once I reached brown. There were no women’s-only classes where I was training, so I taught both men and women; if students wanted to train on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6pm, they got me as their teacher. My own (male) teacher had tapped me to teach, so nobody questioned it.

At least, nobody questioned it directly. There were some students, both male and female, who what-iffed, got furious if I tapped them, went to the other instructors (all male) to ensure what I was teaching was sound, and decided they needed to train at times when I was not teaching. Some new students, both male and female, sized me up and communicated to me through their body language that they were skeptical about my capacity in a leadership role. As with the comments and body language I got when I was just training, I ignored it or defused it with humor and continued to teach.

My first taste of overt sexism toward me as a leader in jiu-jitsu occurred when I gave my first seminar as a brown belt. Though I was used to teaching by then, I was equal parts excited and terrified to see in attendance a full house of men and women of all belt levels. It went as well as a first-time seminar could.

Sometime after, I heard the following story from a friend: On the evening of the seminar, a male student had come to the school that hosted me, not realizing the regularly scheduled-class had been canceled. The student said, “No woman is going to be able to teach me anything about jiu-jitsu,” changed back into his street clothes, and left. At the time, I just rolled my eyes.

What started to dawn on me, though, is that even though by then women had generally become accepted on the mat, this guy’s reaction was perhaps indicative of a lack of acceptance of women in other roles in jiu-jitsu, particularly leadership roles. Not everyone was as direct as this guy about their reluctance to be led by women, as evidenced by my own experiences at my academy, but my own experience indicated an undercurrent of skepticism.

The Future of BJJ Leadership

Happily, in my opinion, this has slowly and steadily been changing. There have been capable, talented, high-level women in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for a long time, demonstrating unrivaled leadership ability and commitment to the sport. What’s different now compared to when I was coming up is that there are more of them. Enough, in fact, that from my perspective, the jiu-jitsu community is in the process of upgrading to Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0, where women step on and stay on the mat as leaders and are received as such as a matter of course rather than as a novelty.

As with 1.0, however, while some people may have been early adopters of leadership from women, there may be others of us who are confused or uncertain about what we can do to support this upgrade. So in the follow-up to this article I will outline some specific steps and habits of mind each of us can consider to help us continue to embrace women as leaders in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design