An introduction to Female Participation at GSW

Jiu Jitsu is tough.
It’s not for the faint hearted. Its physical. Its cerebral. It requires balance and coordination of body parts, synchronising limbs whilst forming very peculiar positions. It has a unique language and culture. It’s sweaty, stinky, and intimate by nature and that can be one of the more confronting adjustments you need to make as a female entering the world of jujitsu.

On the flipside, these unconventional characteristics, in time; become your new normal. Jiu Jitsu is a puzzle that keeps on giving... You may start with 30 random puzzle pieces. Hopefully, they form the frame or structure that provides the WHY. Then you discover pieces that flesh out the middle and think “I’m finally getting the hang of this thing” only to realise there’s another 10 layers to figure out the art of jujitsu. Yes, it is an ‘art’ to be sure!

The truly wonderful thing about Jiu Jitsu is that your body type - your height, weight, length of your limbs, flexibility and mobility is your instrument and all are predisposed to various strengths and weaknesses. Underpinning all of this is your general fitness, stamina, and ability to apply and absorb force and recover from the demands of training.

Who you are as a person, cannot easily be separated from how you show up on the mats. Sometimes this process of discovery can provide both positive and negative feedback – how you interpret the findings is all part of your own narrative.

When you begin to ‘spar’ or ‘roll’ you realise that each person brings a very different dynamic to the game. If you think of training as a game rather than a brawl or an ADCC competition – the process of learning becomes way more enjoyable.  

Fact - most Jiu Jitsu clubs are male dominated. As a female this can be a daunting process to navigate. Obviously, you need a certain amount of courage / confidence to take the first steps into the environment. It helps significantly if you start your journey with a partner or friend, as this is a big advantage having someone you can share the experience with as co-constructing knowledge tends to speed up the learning process.

If you don’t have the luxury of starting with a friend or partner, feeling comfortable in the environment may take a little longer. Be patient and focus on building your Jiu Jitsu skills and lean into building relationships with other club members. As a female, you will be the minority, accept and embrace that fact.

The only thing that truly levels the playing field in Jiu Jitsu is your ability to develop your fundamental skills and knowledge. Being friendly and having a sense of humour is important to your longevity in Jiu Jitsu, and don’t stress to much about mistakes in the beginning.  

GSW has two nights focussed on fundamentals. This is the absolute best way to start your journey, learning with others who are also new and figuring out if Jiu Jitsu is the right path for them. Fundamentals are the building blocks of Jiu Jitsu. The better you grasp the fundamentals, the more successful your sparring will be in the future (in theory at least). Sometimes fundamental classes may feel a little repetitive and you might try to fast track your learning and move laterally into the more advanced drilling classes.

Maybe you’re ready, maybe you’re not, Ideally, you should continue in the fundamentals for a minimum of 3 months and check in with Geoff before moving out to the other drill classes. Fundamentals train your body to remember positions without the pressure of sparring and hopefully, if you do it well enough when you are under pressure, your body will remember the best version of each position because you have practised them regularly.  

Sparring or rolling is the goal of Jiu Jitsu. This is where you get to ‘test your metal’. This is where technical skills, knowledge, and personal disposition (personality and ego) collide to create the formula that is IN you. You could say that this is the “art” element of Jiu Jitsu.

Usually, the first few rolls are naff and awkward, however if you’ve spent enough time building fundamentals, your progress in rolling should advance relatively quickly. Sparring is unpredictable and dynamic in nature. Once you move into this aspect of Jiu Jitsu, you need to understand that you are completely responsible for your own safety and wellbeing on the mats.

It’s natural to push yourself out of your comfort zone to figure out where your limits are, but understand that the risk is all your own, so tap quickly in the beginning and extend your tolerance out slowly. You should also develop mindfulness of your partners safety during rolling as much as possible. If they tap – you stop. Period. And vice versus.

Here are a few things to think about as you embark on the sparring part of your journey:

• Every roll requires an act of courage and involves some level of risk.

• Once you have a sparring partner, briefly introduce yourself, slap, bump and go. After each submission there’s a brief reset, here you slap and bump – it’s like an agreement that you are both ready to go.

• Develop awareness of people rolling in your general proximity. An unexpected kick to the head or body can be quite a shock – it happens, so stay alert.

• Some males feel awkward rolling with females and may avoid rolling with you for a variety of reasons. If you’re new to the club, don’t sweat it. If you’re keen to roll the next round, place yourself auspiciously on the mat and catch someone’s eye. It takes a bit of practise, but once you get the hang of it - easy. If you fail to get a partner for the current round, move to the periphery of the mat for safety reasons.  

• Whilst Jiu Jitsu is touted to be the martial art whereby a smaller person can control and potentially dominate a bigger person, this does not happen without acquiring a substantial amount of skill. In the early days, you should be aware of your size and the size of your sparring opponent. Size really does matter in the beginning.

• Avoid rolling with new (larger male) white belts as much as possible. Often, they come into the club with ambitions to be the next ADCC competitor and whilst they might temper their actions a little during a roll because you are female and often smaller, they are still learning to manage their own strength and abilities just as much as you are. A 70kg male and a 70kg female are not equals in this environment.

• Blue belt skills, abilities, and temperaments vary across the spectrum. They are usually a good option to roll with, although be a little weary of some of them until you build confidence. Maybe watch how they roll with someone else to get a sense of their rolling style, notice if they transition quickly and safely, if they take big risks, is there control, have you noticed triggers that change the dynamic during the roll. Otherwise, you’re better rolling partner might be ranked purple and above. You can always ask Geoff to give you advice on who would be a good sparring partner in your early days of rolling.

• The choices you make should be about sustainability, this will help you be on the mat’s week in, week out. Injuries and illness take you off the mat and limit your ability to learn and bring your best self – so own your choices inside and outside of the gym.  

• Cardio is one of your best friends on the mats.

• Sometimes life can get in the way of training. Don’t give up – keep turning up, even if it’s only once a week. Ideally 3 times a week is the minimum, I did hear a story about a guy who got his brown belt after 14 years training 1 day a week – that must be the exception. Bottom line – keep showing up.    

• Communication is another important factor when it comes to sparring. After the roll, you can always ask your sparring partner what you could’ve done better. Do say if you felt uncomfortable with something that happened during the roll. Do talk to Geoff or other higher belts if you have questions. Do NOT take all advice to heart. Sometimes the advice guys give out, is not always best fit for females.

• Bruising is part and parcel of your body adjusting to the physicality of Jiu Jitsu training and sparring. Its normal and you can expect it to be around at least a year into your training regime unless you come into the club with previous martial arts experience OR don’t engage in sparring often. Guys do not seem to experience the same level of bruising that we do – of course this is a generalisation and there are always exceptions to the rule.

• If you’re wearing makeup on the mats and not cutting nails – that spells “faker” get your shit together. Respect the environment.  

• Don’t be that girl who’s only here to hook a guy – dramatic eyeroll. IF you take training seriously, you may well hook a great guy and we may even help you to do so – “this is the way” - wink wink.    

• If you are flat chested, you will have absolutely no problems with what to wear on the mats. If, however you have some ‘extra bounce on your chest’ you’ll need a very (very) supportive sports bra. Underwires tend to stab you in the heart when you least expect it (speaking from personal experience) so the risk is all your own. There are some good quality sports bras out there.

• Hair etiquette – you can pretty much do whatever is comfortable. High ponytails generally keep hair from getting stuck under your opponent. Hair caught under someone whilst rolling creates a nasty distraction that you must deal with. Use your words if necessary.

Don’t be that girl who’s always adjusting her hair mid roll, wasting precious minutes *another dramatic eyeroll. Save that for looking pretty after jujitsu.

In summary, Jiu Jitsu is like a puzzle that doesn’t have the big showy picture on the front of the box. You get to figure out where and how each piece fits together, often by creating your own construct borrowed from many different places.

Each visit to the club brings you closer to building the structure and narrative of where each piece belongs, and more importantly what you bring to the table.

It’s an adventure, an opportunity to learn something new, improve your knowledge and skills and test your metal as it were… hopefully in the not-to-distant future, we all get to figure out how to master the art of Jiu Jitsu – together!  


Melanie Wester

GSW Purple Belt

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