#103 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Women

women bjj girls hanette staack gabriela bermudez
Hanette Staack wins the 2007 lightweight world championship in the womens’ black / brown division. Her opponent, Gabriela Bermudez, would take the silver medal.

This week on The FightWorks Podcast we discuss the experience of women Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If you’re a guy, is it awkward when training BJJ against a girl? If they are a higher jiu-jitsu belt, are you afraid they’ll tap you? If you are a girl and train BJJ, does getting that close to sweaty guys for a long time make you uncomfortable? And what about dating another person at your BJJ school?

Fear not, 600,000. We will speak with Valerie Worthington, a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who writes the popular BJJ blog Prancing and Sucking. Val has been training for quite some time and due to her position in the BJJ community, has had the opportunity to train in schools all over and has lots to say on the topic of being a woman in jiu-jitsu.

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Excerpt of Val Worthington Interview:

Caleb: For those who don’t know you Val, you won the Best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Blog of the Year in 2007, so congratulations!

Val: Thank you! I was honored.

Caleb: No problem. This is a good time to give a basic background about you to the few folks out there who haven’t heard of you. We’ve talked about your blog on the show before. Could you talk about your background a little bit? How long you’ve been training, and what rank you are?

Val: I was trying to do the math earlier. I think I’ve been training about nine years. I started out with a couple instructors in Michigan, one of whom is Ryan Fiorenze, who is now a black belt under Rigan Machado, then I moved to Chicago and trained for six years under Carlson Gracie and Carlson Gracie Jr. I was honored to be able to train under them, and had the singular honor of having Carlson Sr. tie my purple belt around me. So right now I am training at New Breed Academy in Santa Fe Springs, California, which is all in the family because the instructors there, Johnny Ramirez and John Ouano are blackbelts under Rodrigo Medeiros, who is a Carlson Sr. black belt. So right now I have three stripes on my purple belt.

Caleb: In a very last-minute move I emailed and sent out a blast on MySpace asking folks if they have any questions or ideas on the topic of females who train BJJ, that experience for them, and how it affects everybody on the mats. I got a few in. Do you mind if we start with some of these?

Val: No, that would be great.

Caleb: A listener of ours named Sara sent in this email: “Specifically, I would ask if they have ever had people refuse or be reluctant to grapple and if so, how you reacted. A lot of people seem to get hung up on ‘my momma said I can’t hit a girl’, which is understandable. But how can they be convinced you are a legitimate training partner as well?”

Val: That is a really good question and something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. I’ve been thinking about what it means for me personally to be a woman who trains, because I happen to be a woman and I happen to train. I’ve been refused for several reasons. One of them is religious. Some men’s religious beliefs preclude them from training with women. Another reason is that men have told me that it would make their wives or their girlfriends uncomfortable. And a third reason is that sometimes men who are significantly bigger than I am assume that there wouldn’t be any benefit in the two of us training together because of the size difference. So obviously I am going to respect someone’s wishes. If they don’t want to train with me it gets frustrating sometimes when that diminishes the number of training partners that I have. But what I have just done is what I always do, because it helps my jiu-jitsu improve: I come to class, I pay attention, I joke around with people because that’s the way I interact. It’s kind of my personality, and I find that it does help to put people at ease.

26 thoughts on “#103 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Women”

  1. Thank you for tackling this subject! I started taking jiu jitsu about 6 months because I love the sport and know it is great for self-defense. The whole gender thing never even crossed my mind when I started training, that is until my first class. I was the only girl there and no one wanted to train with me. It took several classes for the guys to loosen up.

  2. I just don’t know what to do when I feel I should, or I need to put my hands on a girls chest. I dont mind rolling with women, I’m a 21 year old guy, I love rolling with girls, I treat them like any other student on the mat, and off the mat I try to get their phone numbers (because I can’t seem to find a girl in my love life who likes the things I do) But I don’t want to cross boundaries and make a girl feel uncomfortable and think I’m feeling her up, when really, that’s not the case… And I don’t have boobs…. doesn’t that kind of thing hurt? What about a chest protector or something? What do I do Val?

    http://www.myspace.com/easyfatstacks

  3. Hey, everyone. Thanks for the comments! Jonny, in answer to your question, I have a couple thoughts.

    First, chicks can tell when you’re trying to be respectful and make them comfortable. So you have that taken care of already. Don’t worry that it won’t come across. It will.

    Second, a practical suggestion, which is: Place. Don’t grab. With your hands, that is. Place them flat on the chest. Don’t grab what’s under them. I have trained with women with big chests, and it’s challenging for ME. But there is usually a way to maneuver through to the sternum so you’re not actually on top of boob. And other women have smaller chests, so the sternum is more accessible.

    I don’t find that kind of pressure painful, especially if you’re on the sternum.

    Third: talk to the chick. No need to have a huge conversation, but if you’re placing your hands in preparation to post and put pressure down, just say, Is this okay pressure? No need to discuss the boob aspect. Just focus on the mechanics. Then she can say yes or no to the pressure part of it. You can both understand that you are asking about the boob issue, but you don’t have to actually TALK about it.

    Make sense? As you get more experience rolling with women, I bet you’ll find it’s not an issue anymore. But thanks for being thoughtful about it! Let me know how it goes. :)

  4. What a great episode! You answered many of my questions. I have been training a little over four years and have 3 stripes on my blue belt. I am basically addicted to the sport. I hurt my knee and was out for about 2 months and that was a depressing time.

    I think you said in your interview that you were 37 (hopefully I heard that correctly!). That was good to hear because I am 31 and wondered how long I would actually train for. I never see older women train, mostly teenagers. That’s how it is in tournaments as well.

    Another thing you discussed was training with men and about training with different people of different sizes. I recently rolled with a guy in class who got me with a gi choke. He was a 3 stripe white belt. It had been awhile since I had been tapped and I also hadn’t rolled with him in a very very long time. At first I was like man I really suck and I shouldn’t being wearing this belt. But as I thought about it longer I realized I just had to change my game a little bit. He was stronger and probably out weighed me by 20lbs but so what. I had to be quicker. I thought about that match for several days and could not wait for that class again. I wanted to roll with him. It was a good challenge.

    As far as rolling with guys I don’t mind at all in fact I sometimes perfer it. I have, over the years, encountered guys who were reluctant to roll with me but they got over it right away. I was not a big fan at first. I used to watch my fiance train and think ugh why would I want to roll around with sweaty men. After a little while I tried it and love it.

    Sorry for the long post and thanks again for the interview.

  5. I have been doing Brazilian jiu jitsu for almost two years.. I am a 37 year old women and I attend class 3-4 times a week.. I have competed a few times and loved it.. My son’s also compete and train every week.. We love the what we do.. I have never been in better shape in my life.. As for rolling with guys’..I never really had a problem with it.. I grew up with brothers and it’s normal to me.. There are alot of guys that help me train and push me to be better..Yes, there sweaty but so am … jiu jitsu is the fountain of youth.. Peace!

  6. I just recently started taking BJJ. At first I was frustrated because the guys in the class were taking it really easy on me and every time they “hurt” me they would stop and apologize.
    A few weeks ago one guy did just that and I said to him,
    “You are doing me no favors by taking it easy on me and I will let you know if I’m REALLY hurt.”
    Since then I have seen a huge improvement with how I am treated in the class.
    Luckily my instructor shows me no mercy and treats me like any other guy in the class, if anything he is tougher on me because as a woman he wants me to be able to defend myself in a real life situation.
    The only real issue I am facing at this point is my husband. He does not understand WHY I want to train like this. He does not understand when I come home, covered in bruises, beaten and battered.
    The answer to this is because I feel empowered and I get a real sense of achievement when I get through a class.
    He really has a problem with the idea of me rolling with men and commented the other day that I “smelled like man sweat”. I keep asking him to come watch a class so he will see there is NOTHING sexual about it whatsoever.
    So far he hasn’t taken me up on this, but hopefully he will soon, because I’m not giving up my BJJ classes.

  7. I understand this completely. So far my boyfriend and I have not reconciled with each other about me taking BJJ classes. The bruises are really a big issue and I really do believe it’s because he does not like seeing me hurt, or worry that other people will think he beats me. For now, all I do is buy some heavy concealer and I don’t talk about BJJ at home (which can be really hard sometimes b/c I get so excited when I execute a great move!). As for getting other guys to roll with me, I’ve never had a problem, not even with the big UFC guys in class. From day one the instructor (whom I knew outside of BJJ) went hard with me and never gave the guys the option to not spar with me. Keep up with it everybody! It’s worth it!

  8. Sarah said:

    I don’t talk about BJJ at home (which can be really hard sometimes b/c I get so excited when I execute a great move!)

    Sarah I think anyone who trains BJJ and has a BF/GF/spouse can empathize with that. If it were up to us, all we would talk about is BJJ all day!

    – Caleb

  9. hi, i recently started my first few classes in jiu jitsu and at first i felt very nervous and intimitated by all the men in the class and the fact i’m the only girl there too. after doing my first few classes i felt so empowered even though i taped out a few times but i love the feeling afterwards and the fact im learning new techniques every week. I get excited also and want to talk about it when i come home but no one will understand or appreciate the sport, especially the fact i have to roll around with other guys… It gets frustrating at times because i know some of the guys get a bit uncomfortable because I’m a girl but I just want to feel good and try new things and so far i enjoy this sport more than going to the gym! I do find it hard sometime though to motivate myself only because im the only girl because i fear that im ruining others training lessons. do you think I’m silly for thinking this way? thanks heaps for reading

  10. Hi Caleb,
    it’s me again Sue!
    I did a class last night and it was more complex than other classes I’ve had and only this time i felt more of an idiot because the partner they put me with was new and not so keen to fight with a female and it really put me down by his negative attitude! I know if i put my head to it I’ll be ok. I just wish more Females can be involved… and i can understand why… (I was practically thrown in the air and it was a big shock to my body! but very fun!). What do I do when i feel so incompetent? this class is to make me strong and confident????
    thanks Caleb : )

  11. I have been training about a year and I was at first very cautious when rolling with women. I’m lighter then most of the guys at my school so women often pair off with me for a more fair match. I knew some would have a problem if I “took it easy” on them, my issue was more of me being paranoid about not making them feel as if I was coping a feel. I quickly got over that since the girls in my gym aren’t shy about grabing all over you to get their position! Now I love to roll with women because it allows me to relax more and be very patient and technical. I know I’m stronger so I focus on perfecting the technique and not trying to bull my way through moves. I just don’t have it in me to crush their head like I do when I roll with fellow guys, and I hope this doesn’t bother them.

  12. I have only been training in BJJ for a month or two now. Although there is a women’s college team in the city that I live in, I opted instead to train with my husband, even though that means being the only woman on the team. I was fortunate in that I felt immediately accepted by these guys. My husband and I discussed me joining ahead of time though, and he was able to talk to some of the men that he trains frequently with to kind of feel out their comfort with me. The main feedback he got was that they felt as though he would be uncomfortable with them rolling with me, he was able to assure them that it was definitely not the case. I’ve only met a few of their wives/girlfriends, and so far my experience with them has been positive as well. I’ve been trying to get a few of them to join too :)
    The down side is that I’m small, 5’3” and 130 lbs. This means that even the small guys outweigh me by 20lbs or so. On the up side, this makes me more technical, since I don’t have a chance of muscling out of things. A frequent grappling partner of mine is actually a 10th grader at the local high school because hes about the same size.
    Overall, I’ve had a very positive experience with BJJ and I’ve been trying really hard to get other women interested. I really feel like its the best martial art for women….and it’s awesome exercise too.
    I don’t even mind the bruises. :)

  13. I have always been the only female in the jujitsu classes I take. (In the American South, there are still some pretty intense gender-role expectations)
    Generally, I find that having a sense of humor about the whole gender thing from teh beginning relieves any tension between the guys and me.
    I do, however, tend to tap them if they “go easy” on me and let their moves go too soon, or forget to maintain their guard. Getting tapped a few times brings them around pretty quickly to the idea that beign female doesn’t make me a “soft” roller.
    One guy, though, insisted on treating me like a paper doll. Finally, i just told him that a rapist jumping otu of some bushes wouldn’t be gentle with me – I needed him to pretend to be that attacker now, so I would be prepared for the real thing. Making him feel as though he was doing ME a favor by being tougher helped him get over the whole “we don’t hit girls” thing.

  14. This is great to see other women discussing BJJ! I am also addicted and cannot imagine my life without it. I started at 30 yrs old and have been training for 2.5 years. The guys in my gym were always nice and respectful but distant until two months into it when I started coming to more classes and attending tournaments. Now I’m family and wouldn’t have it any other way! There have been some guys reluctant to spar hard but no guy wants to be tapped by a girl! And at 6′ and not light ;-) I’m bigger than a majority of guys in the class so it doesn’t take them long to get competative. I suppose the funny thing is I’M worried when I spar another woman! Even smaller guys worry me…but that’s the great thing about this passion…you fight and train with every body type to improve and become your best!

  15. I Have been training BJJ for about 14 months now. I was introduced to it by my husband when we first started dating but it took me about 2 years to finally start training. it was very intimidating to even want to do it because there was only one girl and she seemed preatty tough, I have never practice any sports or been in a fight in my whole life so i felt i didn’t have the condition or confidence to do it. but i had been on a very abusive relationship so there was a little something in me that was giving me the courage to try it out. i didn’t want no man to lay a hand on me again so Finally my husband convinced me to do it. First class i was able to train with him wich was great cause he introduced to everybody in the class. I totally loved the experience. i learned the rear naked choke that day and it made me feel so powerful to be able to do it that i couldn’t wait for the next class. Ever since that day my life has change dramatically. I am confidetnt, fit, i feel strong and my relationship with my husband has improve so much because now i also do what he loves to do and it has become our passion.

    I am now a four stipe white belt and still get beat up all the time because all the guys at the academy are bigger and stronger but i don’t let that discourage me. i am determined to become a black belt someday no matter how long it takes, how many bones i brake and how many competitions i lose. i belive i can do it.

  16. I just started my first class and I loved it. But my downside is that the knee that I had surgery on acted up and so now I feel like I have to quit before I even begin!!! Any advice?

  17. My boyfriend has been training jiu jitsu for about 2 yrs and we’ve been dating about 2yrs also. I have come to love the sport and have been desparately looking for a school with women becuse he feels very uncomfortable me rolling w the guys. It’s really frustrating me because I would think that him training he would understand but he says absolutely no. I love him very much but I have been considering breaking up with him over it…any advise?

  18. im 14 yrs old and id rlly like to enter in jiu jitsu classes. but the problem is that i would be the only girl their and my parents dont agree. theyre afraid that im gonna get hurt or the guy might do somethin to me. which i dnt think thatll happen. jiu jitsu is the 1st sport that ive rlly been excited to been in for a long time. and i would be extremely happy if i could go. help!!! how can i convince my parents to let me go?

  19. Yesenia,
    I studied jiu jitsu in high school, and still do. My father was really supportive and insisted that I couldn’t date any boys until I had my blue belt. He was convinced that if I knew jiu jitsu I’d be better able to defend myself if I needed to. I guess I did a good job picking boys because I never needed it. Anyway, I’m sure the guys you’ll roll with in class will be great training partners.

  20. Hi im 50 years old female brown belt also a teacher in juijitsu in new zealand when I first started competeing people laughed at me as I was the oldest by far now I have medals in the pan pasifics and international master and seniors in brazil I love Bjj and I have no problems now people love me to visit there gyms so keep going and dont stop training

  21. Hi, I come from Athens – Greece and last September I decided to begin bjj. I’m 43 years old and at first I had a great interest. Sooner or later I realised that I was losing my faith and I stopped to believe in me. You see, I was thinking that I couldn’t manage to be in the same level with all the other young partners (guys and women). Now I think that it was a big mistake for me to quit bjj and I intend to start again. Any advice? Thanks in advance.

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