In yesterday’s post, I began to answer a reader question. She asked: “I have the opportunity to do weight training and martial arts training either with all women or in a co-ed environment, and I’m not sure which I should do. What do you think?” I covered weight training yesterday, and today I’ll delve into martial arts. (You may want to look back at yesterday’s post, too, as a lot of the factors I mentioned [cost, location, equipment, etc.] still apply.) Although I’ve trained primarily in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and no-gi submission grappling, I have also dabbled in boxing, Filipino martial arts (knife and stick) and, of course, did many years of traditional martial arts while growing up. However, since the vast majority of my experience is the ground game my answers will be colored by that. Your mileage, as always, may vary. Having said that, here’s some specific criteria to look at.
This is absolutely the most important thing I’d look for in a training environment, and it has nothing at all to do with gender. I’ve trained in good gyms and bad gyms, all of which were either with all guys or with just one or two other women. Do you feel safe and comfortable at your gym? Is it relatively drama-free and devoid of cult-like behavior and people getting overtly upset for no legitimate reason? Do you have freedom to say, read and watch what you want outside of class? Do people take you seriously as a martial artist? Do you trust your coach(es) and training partners? If not, you won’t be able to learn as well and you may have trouble being consistent. (You may have trouble with consistency even if you have an awesome gym, but that’s another article.)
If you are at all planning on competing, or even if you simply want to gauge your skills in class, training with people close to your size every once in a while is important. Again, this isn’t entirely based on gender. I personally would rather train BJJ with a 165-lb. male than a 205-lb. female. It is true that women move differently, though, and since I compete against women ideal training partners for me would include women my weight at various skill levels. But that brings me to the next point.
When I’m training primarily with men, I sometimes find myself making excuses about why I am not able to execute a technique. My training partner is stronger or way bigger than me, I’ll tell myself. I recently visited an all-women’s jiu-jitsu class and found myself having the exact same problems against women my size, so perhaps it’s the technique I need to hone after all. Training with people around my size and strength (who usually happen to be women) is a great way to stop myself from making excuses.
On the other hand, there’s another way to stop making excuses–and that’s to realize you’re doing it. I’m aware of the fact that many of the (bigger, stronger) I train with are not going as hard as they could be and many are not using their weight. I also know that everyone feels heavier and stronger than they really are in a tournament anyway. Training with people my size is a good reminder of this, but not absolutely necessary.
The skill level of your coaches and training partners is important, and becomes even more important as you yourself become more skilled. This has more to do with experience than gender. I’ve rolled with a female wrestler and female judokas who were insanely skilled in their arts, and I’ve rolled with men who had absolutely no martial arts background. And of course working with people in different levels is great to work on both offensive and defensive techniques. Finding people who are both more advanced and less advanced (or will pretend they are less advanced momentarily to allow you to try things) is crucial. I’ve never gotten good enough that I’ve had to worry about the skill level of my coaches and training partners, but I hear this concern often from other women.
This is the elephant in the room. I’ve heard lots of men discuss how uncomfortable they are working with women because they don’t want to accidentally put their hands in the wrong place, and likewise I’ve talked to women with the same concerns. I don’t know how much this has to do with gender as it does experience levels and it’s personally something that’s crossed my mind with women as well as men (and something I don’t think about anymore) but if it’s a stopping point for you then that’s something to consider.
We all have our own stuff. It often has nothing to do with the people around you but rather the stories you are telling yourself. These may be colored by your training partners. For example, I always get really self-conscious in male-dominated gyms during warm-ups. I worry that my conditioning isn’t as good as it could be and that I’ll stand out for finishing last in a drill and people will attribute it to my gender, think I’m not as serious or it would otherwise reflect poorly on me. This has nothing at all to do with my training environment, but it feels that way in my own mind. (I’ve never been in an all-female training environment for long enough to know which of my stuff will crop up, but I’m sure something would…probably something similar if it was studly women who I desperately wanted to keep up with.) Anyway, if your stuff is getting in your way too much you may want to experiment with a different environment while you work through it…especially if you are getting super emotional in the middle of training on a regular basis, which can make things awkward and uncomfortable for everyone else there.
Definitely there are people with ego who enjoy smashing people who are smaller and weaker, as well as people who will quit because they don’t want to get beaten by a girl. Again, though, this goes back to gym vibe. There are male and female bullies and a good coach won’t tolerate either. Ideally, they’d have a conversation with them to discuss it instead of just smashing them (which usually doesn’t solve the problem).
Their Stuff, Part 2
Some men don’t feel comfortable training hard with a woman. A little bit of this can be a good thing, helping you prevent injury and work on technique. Too much of it is incredibly frustrating and a waste of time (or it’ll just lead you to believe your skills are way better than they are). You’ll want to make sure that the *majority* of time you spend in the gym actually allows you to perform against a realistic level of resistance.
I was the only woman in a submission grappling seminar once, and although I stood next to the smallest guy I could find I of course did not find a partner. Once you become a part of a gym and people get to know you, this can improve but it sometimes still lingers. Most guys would prefer to work with people around their weight and skill level (just like we do) and if you ARE at their skill level some guys also don’t like that. And it’s hard to tell what’s going through anyone’s head at a given moment so you could either be not noticing it or imagining it completely. *Smile.* In any case, this is something to keep in mind.
There’s a really annoying thing that can happen in martial arts classes when two women are present, and that’s that many coaches will not allow women to switch partners when it’s time. They’ll say, “Oh, you girls can stay together.” This can be incredibly frustrating, especially when there’s a huge weight difference (probably it’d be better to put the 135 lb. woman with the 155 lb. guy, and the 205 lb. woman with the 195 lb. guy, even for drilling purposes). It also creates a weird dynamic when one of the women is far more skilled than the other. This makes the more skilled woman feel resentful that she can’t work with people closer to her level all class, and is likewise not fair to the less skilled woman who is either getting smashed or maybe even just wants some variety or would like to test techniques out against someone else. Or she could just feel bad for wasting the other person’s time (no matter how gracious her training partner may be). Anyway, just something to be aware of in co-ed classes with just a few women.
Dude(tte) With A ‘tude
One of the worst things that can happen when training in a co-ed gym with just one other woman is that they sometimes hate you for no reason. This isn’t always the case (I’ve had some awesome female training partners in co-ed gyms–Michelle and Kirsten in AZ come to mind), but happens more often than you think. For a while I thought this was just me, but have since talked to two female MMA fighters and several women who train in BJJ, boxing judo, and they’ve all noticed it too: the token female who’s been there longer getting bent out of shape and eyeing you up and down because you are infringing on their alpha female turf, or women who behave strangely and are either hypersensitive or downright hostile. So this is another thing to be aware of.
Save the Drama For Your Mama
I’ve always made it a practice to *not date guys in the gym* and would highly recommend this to both men and women. Although there are some people who can pull it off, people who date multiple training partners and/or instructors and/or students in one or more gyms can create awkward or tense situations which spill over into training as much as everyone tries to ignore it or remain uninvolved. (This isn’t to be heterosexist. The potential for men dating men or women dating women certainly exists but for various reasons is less likely.) Then, of course, there’s people who hit on their training partners which is a whole ‘nother can of worms. (Luckily this never happens to me.)
The chances of you having both a co-ed environment and a women-only environment to train in is not that common, so for most people the choice doesn’t even exist. It goes without saying, though, that you can do both. Most places with women-only classes also have co-ed classes you can attend, which can help you test your skills against men (important if you’re training for self-defense). I myself train at a co-ed gym but just recently visited an awesome all-women’s class which I loved. It’s a bit of a drive, but I very much enjoyed dropping in. I absolutely love training with men (in a good environment) but also appreciate working with women, especially when they’re my weight but way more skilled than I am. It’s all good.
I think I just about covered everything, but am interested in your thoughts. Whether you’re an instructor or a student and whether you’re male or female, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.