BJJ Women: Rectifying the “Gentle Art” with Competition

Today’s article is a guest post by Chelsea Bainbridge-Donner, the woman behind of one of my favorite Jiu Jitsu blogs, leaahh.com.

Jiu Jiu invited me to write a post, and I’ve been really wishy-washy about what I want to write about– which means it just hasn’t gotten done.  But she gave me some things that she’d like to hear about, so I’m going to talk a little bit about competition.

Women face different challenges in the gym than men do, but this could easily be a primer for small men who train with heavyweights.

Chelsea competing in jiu jitsu

Chelsea, black gi, competing in jiu jitsu

I’m pretty lucky, since I live geographically close to a lot of major tournaments, and I can compete on an international level regularly.  I realize that not everyone has this ability or even the drive to compete on this level, but I’d still like to talk about competition– specifically, competition for women who aren’t in a really competition-oriented academy. Some people may ask me why I’m writing this “for women”– doesn’t it go against everything I usually write about?  Yes and no, I suppose.  Women face different challenges in the gym than men do, but this could easily be a primer for small men who train with heavyweights.  There are also challenges when it comes to being a gender minority in an athletic environment, which is another issue I’ll address.

THE “GENTLE ART” IS REALLY NOT THAT GENTLE

Here’s a secret that it took me almost a decade to learn: the “gentle art” is really, really not gentle.  The “gentle sex” is super-ultra-mega not gentle.

Chelsea administering a choke

Chelsea administering a not-so-gentle choke

If you’re a female, particularly a small female, your male training partners go easy on you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t train hard, or that they don’t push you, put pressure on you, test you, challenge you– it just means that for the most part, they aren’t (and shouldn’t be) smashing down on you with everything they have.  No one learns anything that way.  But if you don’t have any female training partners that are of the same level, what you may be shocked by in competition is the pressure that women can put on you, and how it’s completely different from the pressure that men put on you. Women are tough, angry, and nearly every woman you come up against trains mostly with men. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is assuming you’re the only one who does. My female training partners have hurt me worse than any of my male training partners ever have– once, Angelica kneed me in the face so hard I needed emergency dental work. There’s nothing particularly gentle or fragile about women who train BJJ.

TRAINING WITH OTHER WOMEN IS INVALUABLE

I get questions all the time about how to compete, and what it’s like to be at Atos, training with one of the best competition teams on the planet right now. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that even with the fantastic training I get, having more small women around would be better for me. I think that’s something really valuable that people overlook– having another woman on your team who is close to your size gives you a sense of the way women distribute their weight, how their flexibility alters their game, and the speed differential of smaller, lighter limbs.  There are physiological differences that lead to a different type of game, like a stronger lower body– as one of my teammates points out, shaking his head, “women can find a knee-cut from anywhere.”

I don’t claim to be the best competitor out there, but I’m getting better at it every time I step on the mats.  One thing that I struggle with at Atos is how to make the most out of the training opportunities I have, and how to make the things I’m learning applicable to me, and to my competition style.  I’m lucky to have good friends on the mats, people who are always willing to work with me, but most of my training and learning is self-guided.  I work out problems in my own game with the help of my teammates and coaches, but all the problems have to be recognized and addressed by me, because for the most part, I experience technical difficulties that my coaches and teammates would never foresee, let alone plan for (for example: being unable to triangle anything because my legs are too short).

THE LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH COMPETING

When you step on the competition mats, it’s a fight.  If you come to a fight armed only with vague philosophies and a belief that “technique beats strength,” you’re going to lose.  Gabi Garcia doesn’t win matches based on technique, people– Bea Mesquita runs technical circles around her, but still loses because she’s just overpowered.  How strong you are and how athletic you are matters a lot, especially when your opponent has good, or even passable, technique. It’s stated over and over again, but I think everyone should compete if they’re physically capable. I love competing, but I hate it; it lays all my flaws bare, but it’s so rewarding when it’s done right.  If you’re a competitor, I think you need to lay aside the theory that BJJ is a “gentle art” at times, and accept that every match is, at its heart, a fight for dominance and ultimately, submission.

Chelsea winning a BJJ match

Chelsea winning a BJJ match

About the Author: Chlesea Bainbridge-Donner is a brown belt training at ATOS in San Diego, CA. She is an active competitor, and she blogs about BJJ at http://www.leaahhbjj.com

Jiu Jiu’s Question: Men and women – How have you found training with women different than training with men? Did it surprise you? Did you find their aggression levels were different? Women – Have you trained with men then competed with women? How did that differ?