A Female Gym Owner’s Take: Keith Owen’s Blog Post
There is a lot of talk and controversy regarding the blog posted by Keith Owen (http://keith-owen.blogspot.ca/2013/02/can-women-really-handle-brazilian-jiu.html?m=1) about women in jiu-jitsu. Before I get into my take on Keith Owen’s article, I think it is important to tell you a little about who I am. I am a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a 2nd degree black belt in Karate, and the owner of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu/MMA/Fitness facility in Wisconsin (with my fiancé James). I have been a female in a male-dominated arena for the last 18 years.
When I started jiu-jitsu I was the sole female in the gym that I now own. We now have 8 women in our jiu-jitsu program, which is unprecedented for our school. I would like to take full credit as a female school owner/instructor for bringing women into the gym, but I am not sure that I honestly can. The truth is, it is so difficult to tell which women are going to keep at it and which ones will disappear. Some women come in for their free trial, take one class (with me!) and never come back. Sometimes, I think it isn’t what women expect and decide it isn’t for them (it is too physical, it is hard work, they don’t like the contact with other people). Some women sign up, but end up quitting, usually due to time constraints from work and family. Some take long breaks for injuries. And, to be honest, there are women that come in for the wrong reasons: They want to feel “like a fighter”, want the male contact, or are looking for a boyfriend (these are the most irritating reasons of course). When they get or, perhaps, don’t get what they are looking for, they leave.
The thing is that (with the exception of “looking for a boyfriend”), the reasons that women leave are the same reasons that men leave. Free Trial participants don’t sign up. Turnover happens in schools. It is part of the business. But, as many have said before, it is more apparent when one of the few women in the gym leaves. The question really is why it is so frustrating and such a topic of conversation when schools cannot seem to retain or quickly increase the number of females in their programs. As a school owner, I have my own reasons for wanting to recruit and retain women in the program:
1) Women help complete the community: Part of what makes BJJ so amazing is its ability to bring people from all walks of life together. Different minds, bodies, perspectives, and personalities make a fun training environment. Women contribute to that environment too!
2) I like training with other women: I like training with women because they tend to be more technical and mimic the types of games I may encounter in competition. I am a feminist, but I know in my heart that men and women are not built the same and, therefore, many times do not roll the same as many men. I partner and roll with men and women alike; I get different benefits from both.
3) A good female BJJ practitioner is impressive and a good representation of the martial art: Having the underdog (smaller, not as strong, etc.) be able to win a fight is the essence of the art. I have had men sign up and keep training because they were submitted by a woman and decided “I have to learn this!”. As instructors, we love seeing the underdog blossom and become an ass-kicker!
I have tried different things with incoming women and my female teammates. I have gone easy on them, made them take their lumps (like I had to), created all women’s classes (which did NOT work), and made everyone train together. It has been a frustrating process in many ways, which I think Keith Owen failed to express appropriately. I think he is scrambling for an answer to this apparent issue and, in the process, making some sweeping generalizations that come off as sexist.
I will say that being a woman in jiu-jitsu can be a journey that is more frustrating than some men realize. I got my butt kicked for years…tap after tap after tap; getting crushed by big guys; feeling like I got run over by a car some days after rolling with guys that lacked control or knowledge (we had a LOT more white belts back then). Now I have guys in my beginner class that get upset if they get tapped once in a match, or get positionally dominated for 5 minutes. It takes guts to hang in there while you get your butt kicked and take the little victories of each practice with you. You have to be patient, develop your technique, your game, your strategy against different body types. It took time for me to do that; but now, I am a TRUE contender in my gym.
I think when it comes to keeping students; it comes down to creating an environment that truly embraces BJJ as a personal journey. It’s not about winning in practice, being the best in the room, being the strongest, imposing your will, getting instant gratification. It is about developing your technique and game, about learning…about developing as a martial artist and person! This should be a rule for men and women, big and small, strong and weak alike. Those that truly love jiu-jitsu will stay; but we will always lose students, men and women alike.