Beginnings are often the scariest part of any journey. The road ahead is full of unknown experiences, some amazing and some horrible. However, beginnings are also a time of new opportunities. When I first started jiu jitsu, I was surprised to find myself the only woman on the mat. To this day, it’s pretty common for me to be the only woman in a class of 30+. But on my first day this had me asking, “ What on earth did I get myself into?”.
Starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was intimidating and extremely challenging. Like most people my first year and a half was spent tapping on repeat; I was one of the smallest people in the room and was SLOW to learn technique. But more than anything, being the only woman on the mat was lonely. Early on it can be a struggle to find training partners and it can feel like there is no one who understands your journey. At least that’s how I felt.
5 years later I find myself amazed at what I have been able to accomplish. I have a girl tribe of awesome jiujiterias and have many awesome male training partners. I’ve met my best friends on the mat and become the best version of myself yet. But there are a couple of things I wish I knew from the beginning.
Here are the 3 keys to survive in a male dominated sport:
Key #1 : You do not have to roll with everyone
This is something that took me a few years to realize. When I first started BJJ I felt that I needed to say “yes” to everyone who asked me to train. It didn’t matter if the guy was 220 lbs and it was his first week, I would slap and bump without a second thought. But this wasn’t always the best decision for my growth or longevity in the sport. I suffered several injuries because of my lack of discernment and had a lot of rolls that were just about survival and not about improvement.
There are certain situations that you need to realize saying “no” is essential to protecting your safety and overall well being. A situation that stands out to me was when a 260 lb, 6 foot 2 , white belt asked me to train with him. I said yes, because I was never one to back out. I ended up getting picked up and slammed; I got the wind knocked out of me and passed out. I was fine, but looking back I could have been seriously injured. All because of my ego/my inability to say no. If you want to make jiu jitsu a lifelong endeavor you have to find the group of training partners who challenge you and help you grow; but you also have to realize that it is okay to not roll with everyone.
Key #2 Hold your head high, even when people doubt you
Most women in BJJ have experienced some version of this. The cocky guy who slaps and bumps while joking, “Oh no don’t beat me up”. Or the one that dodges you all together because he doesn’t think he can learn from a girl. Most of those guys wise up eventually or they quit. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sting.
There will be times when people talk down to you and doubt your ability just because you’re a girl. They think you can not handle yourself or be a threat to them. Obviously they are wrong. Don’t let those people keep you from showing up and continuing to improve. Jiu jitsu is about the you of today triumphing over the you of yesterday. Don’t play small, just prove them wrong.
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Key #3 Be Clear on your boundaries with people
I want to preface this by saying that the vast majority of guys who train are awesome. Jiu Jitsu has been one of the safest spaces for me as a woman. And the guys I train with have really restored my faith in men. But occasionally, you run into a creep.
BJJ is a full contact sport and we find ourselves in a lot of intimate positions. Sometimes you will be training and someone will cross a line. Mistakes happen, but that is very different from someone intentionally groping or harassing you.
If that happens you need to be EXTRA clear on your boundaries. Don’t laugh it off like it’s okay. Don’t let it go unmentioned. You need to speak up and say; “Hey, that was not okay and do not do that again.”
Many of us women have been trained to be extra polite, to never make anyone uncomfortable. But if you never make it clear that it is not okay, the behavior might persist. If you do set a boundary, and that person crosses it again, you should tell your coach. That person is not a safe person to train or be alone with.
I hope you found some of this information helpful or at least true to your experience on the mat. Comment below, what are some things you wish you knew before starting BJJ?
About Maya Nazareth
Maya is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner out of Philadelphia, PA. She has been training 5 years. She is also the founder of Alchemize Fightwear!
Follow her via Instagram @maya.nazareth