Most of the time I am the only woman at my gym. Every now and then, a pair of women will come in, stay for a bit, move on. Sometimes a singleton will brave a class or two. Most do not stay. Let’s face it, most guys do not stay, either, am I right? You have to be a special kind of person to enjoy being smushed repeatedly, miserably punished, striving bleakly to overcome the gargantuan dude crushing your thorax.
But, some guys do stay. Almost all girls leave. Perhaps it is their acculturation--it’s not
nice to beat people up. I know I had to “unlearn” that. But if jiu jitsu is about the smaller person overcoming the bigger and stronger person, who needs it more than the ovaried sex? So, coaches, what can we do to keep the ladies?
- First, you have to really want ladies in your gym. Most of you will reflexively say, “Of course I do!” But, do you really want them at your gym as equal participants? That answer should be yes, because women are paying customers. If you do not welcome women, you have a 51% smaller customer pool to draw from. Once you decide that you really want women to be an equal part of your gym, the rest of these tips can help you keep them.
- Welcome them. This sounds easy. But remember when I called a gym to visit and the coach told me that women weren't interested in BJJ? For sure he's not going to get any women in the door, never mind to stay at his his gym. And he seemed okay with that (See #1, above). But you don’t have to say something like that out loud for his attitude to come across. Welcoming women is reflected in all of the other tips here. When a woman walks into your gym, don’t think, “Oh, she’ll never stay.” Think, “This woman is interested in BJJ. How can I make her feel welcome?”
- Give them space. What does your changing area look like? You don’t necessarily need a separate area for women, but you should offer an equally comfortable environment for both gals and guys. For example, if you have a locker room for the guys and a closet with a shower curtain for the ladies, that does not broadcast that you want women in your gym.
- Take women seriously. One coach made me grapple with a dummy instead of pairing me with a partner. I had another coach for whom I was an afterthought. He focused on the men in the gym and rarely rolled with me. Still another never put me with newcomers, even though I was one of the highest belts. I think he was worried that a new guy coming to a BJJ class was expecting to work with a beefy, skin-headed, tattooed man, not a ferociously petite, middle-aged mom. I get that he wanted to portray his gym as legit and masculine. But this made me question my own ability—did he think I wasn’t good enough? Years later I realized it was him, not me, but the damage to my BJJ ego was done. Make sure you support your women in your words and your actions. Your students will follow your lead, positive or negative.
- Actively foster their growth. I am very aware that I am different in a BJJ class. Therefore, I am more self-conscious. I don’t want to cause waves or appear to be a complainer. So, coaches, watch how women are rolling and offer tips and suggestions. Tell them what they are good at (See #9) and give them areas to improve. Pair them with the appropriate partners who will help them develop their skills (See #8)
- Don’t “see” sex. I know, I know. We all see it. What I mean is, make decisions based on the sport, not gender. Don’t partner the girls in the gym together just because they are girls. Partner them because they are the right partners for each other. One time I was paired with a much larger woman who did not know how to roll with small people. She hurt my shoulder during a practice throw. It is still tweaked. She wasn’t the best partner for me, even though she was female. Of course, initially some women may feel uncomfortable sparring with men. A good coach should have an open conversation with newcomers about how the gym works and what their expectations are. Some men have restrictions, too.
- Remember that women are designed differently. We have different centers of gravity. Moves work differently for us. I get frustrated when I try to execute a move that is harder for me because of my design, and the coach says, “Just do it like this, you will get it.” I know I won’t. Educate yourself on how women move differently and help them tweak moves that you show so that the moves work for the female body. This might require some research on your part. But that is what it means to be a coach, right? As a high school teacher, I can’t just say, well this method works for most of my students, then force the others to do it the same way. I have to figure out ways to help those who learn differently. It’s part of my job. And it’s part of yours, too, if you want to keep women in your gym. (See #1.)
- Choose partners during rolling time. And choose them meaningfully. You can even set goals for your students: “I want you two to work on this.” Women, even those with higher belts, may feel self-conscious about choosing a partner. Sometimes we feel like the boys see us as a wasted roll. Some men avoid eye contact so we don’t have to roll together. This may not be a problem in a bigger gym. But in a small gym it can be a big problem. Coaches can help this by not only choosing the partners but also explaining why this match is a good one, and verbalizing confidence in the woman (See #9). For example, one time I visited a sister gym. The coach partnered me with a young man whom he knew well, but I did not. As he matched us, he said to the man, “She’s good.” This vote of confidence from the coach set the tone for our roll and showed my male partner that his coach respected me, so he should, too. I will never forget how that very simple gesture changed the dynamic between us., In fact, I now use this technique when I partner students in class. I say things like, “You are working with Susie, She really knows her vocabulary!”
- Foster leadership and empowerment. In a male-dominated sport, women might feel uncomfortable taking a leadership role. Encourage women to be leaders and help them identify their strengths so that they can feel confident. Be aware that women may be more self-conscious than the average student about their abilities. If you see them doing something right, ask them to demonstrate.
- Model appropriate behavior. Your male students take their cues from you. So, make sure you support your women in your words and your actions, your students will follow your lead, positive or negative.
- Cancel “bro” culture. Foster acceptance, tolerance, and skill- and team- building over bravado and bluster. Include women in all aspects of your gym. Play music that does not negatively portray women. Can you imagine, as a woman, trying to roll with a guy while music about “bitches and hoes” thumps in the background? I can not only imagine it, I have lived through it. You may say, Well if women really want to do BJJ, they will get a thicker skin and tune it out. I did just that. But, if you are serious about attracting and keeping more women, take my advice. If not, see #1 above. (Note: this does not apply to just women. I cringe when a person of color visits and the music drops the “n” word. Or, what may be worse, when the coach changes the playlist because a person of color is visiting.) Look, at home you can listen to and enjoy whatever music you fancy. Bitch and hoe it up, and I won’t judge you. But it’s not about you in the gym. It’s about your students. And your music choice telegraphs a lot to your students. It sends a message not only to women, but to everyone. This also includes banning sexist language and holding people who use it accountable. On several occasions mid-roll a male partner called me a bitch. I walked off the mat each time. But no one said anything to the guy. Not even my coach. What did that tell me? That he was more important to my coach, my gym, and my teammates than I was. I was expendable. If I quit the gym in outrage, they would all shrug and continue on, female-less, able to say and do bro things without any estrogen-fueled repercussions. Do you really want women at your gym? How do you show it?
- Ban sexy talk. For everyone’s sake, not just the ladies. In a sport where we get so close to each other, where the positions mimic sex acts and we are trying to submit each other, there is no room for sex talk. It makes everyone comfortable. I have had someone call from the sidelines to me while I was rolling with a guy, “Wow! You are in 69!” Seriously? Can you imagine how awkward both my partner and I felt after that? And what did the coach say to this person afterward? Nothing. I had to take this person aside myself and let them know I did not appreciate their comments. I did my part. But the coach did not. Coaches set the tone. Coaches determine what is appropriate behavior by what they allow and what they do not allow in their space.
- Use Behavior Contracts. Some schools have members sign contracts that delineate rules about behavioral expectations that include inappropriate touching, language, etc. This makes me feel more comfortable as a woman because it lets me know that the coach has thought about these issues and will likely enforce the appropriate conduct.
Note: I recognize that I am not addressing transgender or LGBQ issues. As a cis-woman I do not feel qualified to give that advice. Please share
your LGBTQ welcoming tips in the comments. I am also not addressing physical harassment here. Thankfully I have no experience with
that in a BJJ setting. But clearly coaches should address issues of inappropriate physical contact swiftly and decisively to make women