Jiu Jitsu for Women: Self Defense, Community, & Confidence
Jiu Jitsu is one of the most popular combat sports on the planet. It's increasingly accessible (with more Jiu Jitsu academies on average per city than Starbucks), it's one of a handful of martial arts forms currently applied in professional Mixed Martial Arts (meaning it has maintained its relevance and effectiveness in the evolution of martial arts as a combat-tested martial art form), and it's one of the most fun, full-bodied workouts on the planet. Its rise in the world of martial arts is no doubt also by virtue of its unparalleled sense of community and inclusivity. There is more diversity in age, gender, cultural, and social background on the Jiu Jitsu mats than in almost any other setting you'll encounter. Anyone can become good at it and there's something in it for everyone. And regardless of why you first develop interest in it, you'll discover - as all of us have - that there's more to love about it than we first realize.
Women's Jiu Jitsu in particular has grown tremendously over the past several years, in part due to the same reasons the sport has grown in general but also because of the overall acceptance of females participating in Jiu Jitsu. The OG women in our sport who trained during a time when they were outnumbered 99 to 1 paved the way for the rest of us to follow suit and discover, solidify, and evolve our own place in the grappling world. Many gyms now offer women's-only Jiu Jitsu classes and open mats to cater to the growing population of interested females. Organizations like Girls and Gis offer women's-only seminars and camps in a safe and relaxed group setting. Professional opportunities, sponsorships, and the market for quality women's training gear have also evolved alongside the increasing numbers of Jiujiteiras, creating exciting opportunities for female athletes to make a living doing what they love.
Another reason that we'll continue to see growth in women's Jiu Jitsu is due to the nature of the martial art itself, as so many aspects of Jiu Jitsu relate directly to women's self defense. For instance, its effectiveness comes from the application of leverage, technique, and timing versus size and brute strength, making it extremely relevant for women and girls as the (generally) smaller, weaker gender. Jiu Jitsu is also well known for the unexpected offensive techniques that can be applied from one's back using the powerhouse muscles in our legs that offer women a realistic way to attack from a position that otherwise seems vulnerable.
As a woman beginning her Jiu Jitsu journey, here are a few benefits you can expect to gain (and a few challenges you can expect to face) from the sport:
Benefits of Jiu Jitsu for Women & Girls
- Strength & Conditioning - Every class will involve some degree of live sparring or "rolling" which is the opportunity we have to test our developing skills against real resistance. Rolling is the practice of using our entire body to grapple against someone else's entire body. You'll find this true full-body workout requiring muscles you didn't even know you had and it won't be long before you'll start noticing your physique change as you build muscle and burn serious calories.
- Confidence & Self Defense - Few things are more empowering than the ability of a woman to protect herself and what is precious to her. With consistent training, this is one of Jiu Jitsu's greatest gifts to us, and the best part is there are no tools required - only a determined mind and willing body.
- Community - Perhaps one of the most understated but powerful benefits from Jiu Jitsu is the camaraderie. We develop close relationships with those who have been through the grit with us, and sometimes Jiu Jitsu is "the grit." It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally wearing, but it's those friends that we make in the sweat - the ones who are pushing their own limits right alongside us and challenging their own bodies and egos to be a little better today too - are the best friends. And because the mats bring us all together no matter where we came from, you'll find that whether you're checking out at Target or going in for surgery you're just as likely to run into one of your favorite training partners.
- Body Positivity - Jiu Jitsu works for all body types. You don't have to be tall and strong and athletic to be good at it. You don't even have to have all of your limbs - one of my favorite training partners is missing half an arm. In Jiu Jitsu, body diversity is celebrated and every body type presents its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Small boobs? Making competition weight will be easier and you'll have a higher threshold for chest pressure. Thicc thighs? You'll appreciate them like never before the first time you strangle someone with them. Heavyweight? Men will tremble at the thought of you passing their guard. Short and stocky? Harder to get to your legs for takedowns and leg locks. Tall and lanky? Your guard and triangles will be a nightmare. And so on.
- A Catalyst for Healthy Habits - Jiu Jitsu is often the catalyst we didn't know we needed that sets off the chain reaction of other healthy life changes. It is not uncommon for new students who previously smoked to quickly decide that smoking is no longer serving them. Overindulgences of alcohol or sugar are also often let go fairly early on in one's Jiu Jitsu career as the pursuit of something greater and consistent endorphins eclipse the fleeting peaks of superficial highs. Toxic friends are replaced by those who are challenging themselves to be better. The forward energy, the excitement of discovery, the humbling vastness, the thrill of the exchanges, and the support of the community eventually exhaust out unhealthy habits that came before.
Challenges of Jiu Jitsu for Women & Girls
- Finding Comfort in Discomfort - There is no denying that some Jiu Jitsu positions are awkward or physically uncomfortable. Especially when we're losing a fight, it's not uncommon to get flattened out, balled up, or thrown around which can be jarring and demoralizing for an unprepared mind and body. However, a significant part of the appeal of this sport is in the realistic training it offers. If we avoided such positions in training then we'd never be prepared for them in real life, and panicking under pressure is a surefire way to quickly lose a physical exchange. Approaching discomfort with the mentality that it is an essential part of gaining competence will help you develop the calm, confident mind that will come in clutch in a truly high-stakes scenario.
- Being Outsized and/or Training with Men in General - Some of the men at your school may eventually become some of your favorite training partners, but the truth is that not all men know how to train well (or safely) with women. Size differences can also make training difficult, even if both partners are well-meaning. The instructor should be your guide - ask him or her which men are safe to train with and which are not. If you do not feel comfortable training with men at all and your academy does not have the women's team you hoped for, feel free to find a different school. However, if you do find yourself the only woman (or one of the few women) at your gym and the men in your gym turn out to be good training partners, you are in a unique position to help pave the way for other women in your community to follow suit - and they will! Find an online support group for women in Jiu Jitsu if it helps remind you that you are not alone.
- Past Trauma Triggers - Women with a history of sexual or domestic abuse may struggle more seriously when grappling, especially with men and most especially when feeling dominated. Strangle-holds, pins, or feeling "stuck" in vulnerable positions may trigger past trauma to resurface. If this applies to you, talk to your coach and training partners so that everyone you roll with is aware of your situation and can respect your needs. You may also find that the same scenarios that present the most serious challenges are opportunities to heal and re-learn trust. Finally, there is a growing number of online groups for women in Jiu Jitsu working through trauma which can provide a relatable community and support system.
Jiu Jitsu is a fast-growing sport loaded with benefits. It is fun, challenging, communal, and well-known as the most effective form of self-defense for women and girls. Expect to take your beatings just like the men do, but also expect to dish our your fair share of beatings in return! Finally - as with everything new - approach your Jiu Jitsu journey with humility and a learning mind and you'll quickly discover the magic in it that hooked the rest of us.