Punchy title that is slightly misleading, CHECK!
Note: Please consider your feelings validated. Regardless of what you’ve experienced or not experienced thus far in jiu jitsu, your FEELINGS are valid and important. What I want to discuss right now is that the source of those feelings may or may not be due to external reasons, and that’s OKAY!
What got me thinking about this were two things. First, a thoughtful comment by Jon from JonJitsu (his comment is really good – go read the whole comment!)
some of the issues that have been brought up in this guest post, some of your writings, and the writings of a few others, have had me scratching my head. Issues of inclusion, intimidation, all of that, I just simply never clued in on. [. . .]The fact that, in the words of your guest writer, I had training partners “on the outside looking in” never registered.
And secondly, an article that Val Worthington wrote, called “5 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Started Training BJJ”
5. Sometimes it’s not about gender.
Turns out sometimes when the guys didn’t want to roll with me when I was first starting out, it wasn’t because I was a woman, which I wondered. Rather, it was because I was pretty lousy at BJJ. And as I’ve come to discover as my skill has increased somewhat over the years, sometimes I decide I don’t want to train with a certain lower belt dude, not because he’s a dude, but because he’s signaling with his behavior and his words that he’s gearing up for a game of Whose Is Bigger? and I don’t feel like playing. (And rest assured that women can play that game too. It’s an equal opportunity pastime.) The point is, sometimes upper belts make decisions about whom to roll with that may look gender-based but in fact have to do with self-preservation or making the most of limited training time.
I think that nearly all white belts struggle to feel like they fit in. That is NOT a gendered concept. It’s all about the white belt, baby! I’ve been at my BJJ gym for nearly 3 years, so when NewWhiteBelt joins and sees me palling around with my established friends and feels like he’s not part of the group, it’s because he’s not one of us. He’s new. He’s an unknown white belt who might injure me or may have no clue what he’s doing. Would I rather roll with a friend I know I enjoy rolling with or this new person? Ding Ding!
Now imagine NewWhiteBelt is very fat. Is it likely they’ll feel the reason you don’t want to roll with them is because of their weight? Sure! If NWB is super small, will they probably guess it’s due to size? Absolutely! If NWB is a woman, will she believe it’s due to gender? Probably! If NWB is missing a limb, will they believe it’s due to that? Of course!
And you know, sometimes they’ll be right. But very often it’ll be because they are a new white belt. Most white belts have access to the same mental playlist.
Regardless of their source, your emotions are absolutely valid and important. Jiu jitsu is HARD, and not just because it’s a difficult skill to learn, but because it can bring up a lot of internal crap that’s brewing inside you. It can bring up feelings of insecurity, inadequacies, ego, fears, etc. Some of these are simply due to being new at something.
[Adult second language learners often experience “anomie,”] the feelings of social uncertainty or dissatisfaction which characterize not only the socially unattached person but also, it appears, the bilingual or even the serious student of a second language and culture. [. . .] The process of learning a new language temporarily takes away people’s ability to talk, and the resultant sense of inadequacy leads them to experience shame. –Trosset, quoted inTeaching English as a Second or Foreign Language
This loss of personal identity, loss of status, loss of competency is not relegated only to verbal second languages, but physical ones like jiu jitsu as well. I experienced that as well – “So in my classes I do feel DUMB. I feel like that stereotypical dumb jock who is trying to take Latin. Except now I’m the nerd girl doing a sport. Brain=smart. Body=dumb.” No one LIKES feeling dumb, and adults who are used to a certain level of respect and comfort may experience this to a deeper degree.
Okay, so we’ve established that adults who start learning jiu jitsu are often emotionally vulnerable simply because they’re learning this brand new language for their body. Add their personal insecurities or their observations of the things around them, and BAM.
For me, it was more about my weight than my gender at the beginning, and it came to a head at the first and only competition I attended.
I felt ashamed and humiliated […] at the time I felt like I won a gold medal for being a fat chick.
The thing was – I didn’t get a gold medal for being a fat chick. I got a gold medal because I was a solo entry in my bracket. The humiliation existed in my head – not a single member of my team, nor anyone around me, knew that I felt that way. It came from me. But did that mean my emotions were invalid? ABSOLUTELY NOT. That was some complicated shit I had to work through, and I came through it and benefited from having dealt with it.
Why bring this up? Not to invalidate anything people have gone through or to give ammunition to people who think that gender issues don’t exist in our sport. They absolutely do exist. Women sometimes benefit from those issues and they sometimes don’t, and everything in between. But I bring it up to say that it’s possible that your teammates are totally unaware of what’s going on, and that those feelings of isolation are POSSIBLY not due to reasons you think. The White Belt Struggles are not relegated to one single minority group – they are shared by all. Some groups absolutely have extra struggles to deal with – struggles which may come externally, internally, or both.
When I talk to women who are thinking of trying out jiu jitsu, I usually tell them that in their first class they may feel incredibly uncomfortable, but that the source of the discomfort may be from themselves rather than the guys at the gym. Wrapping your legs around an unknown man is NOT something that most women do on a daily basis, and it absolutely may make them feel uncomfortable. BUT, if they do, they should still give it a second time to see if it was external or internal. The feelings are still valid, but it is often helpful (and scary) knowing that you might be the source of them.
Jiu jitsu is hard, but worth it. Talking about how it’s hard is helpful. You don’t feel so alone – you understand someone dealt with the same internal struggle you did – you feel validated. I repeat my offer to host the story of YOUR personal struggle on the mats. Hopefully it will help someone else deal with their own issues and help them persevere.
Awesome post! I cracked up at the white belt soundtrack…! I’m going to have to share that one. 🙂
I do agree that a lot – even most – of my struggles are because I’m new and I suck. Some gender related qualms are because I’m small and weak… as well as female. I’m always trying to figure out what my frustration is really about.
There is a guy who refuses, point blank, to roll or partner with me. I can’t figure out if that’s because of my gender… or because I’m a shitty partner. Since I can’t figure it out, I’ve stopped trying.
Anyway… great points and great post!
Hehehe I’d never seen something like that done. Inspiration struck!
Yeah – there are times when I wonder – is it because I’m a woman? Because I don’t speak Korean? Because I’m a foreigner? Meh – can’t parse it out.
“Jiu jitsu is HARD, and not just because it’s a difficult skill to learn, but because it can bring up a lot of internal crap that’s brewing inside you.”
This right here says it all. Jiu Jitsu is like shaking the snow globe of your character. It’s a crazy emotional experience.
The snow globe analogy is simply brilliant.
You are amazing. I love your snow globe comment.
That neatly sums up my first 18 months of training.
Thanks for the link and the shout out. This was outstanding. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t gone through the emotional gamut on the mat, whether they can admit that to themselves or not.
Yeah, I just think some struggle more with the emotional side of it – especially when there are big sensitive points or things you feel you really stick out because of. The first time you’re a visible minority can be very jarring. But yes, I do think women have unique emotional struggles that men don’t have to deal with – like having to put away the fear of a man overpowering you.
Brilliant brilliant brilliant
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I wanted to add something funny that happened after you wrote this.
After class one of the guys came up to me – he’s one of the biggest guys in class, former wrestler, definitely over 200lbs, maybe a full 100lbs more than me. He and I rolled together a lot in no-gi, but rarely match up in BJJ (more people to choose from?) – I don’t mind rolling with him because he’s incredibly gentle and a great teacher.
Anyway, he comes up to me and says: Why do you never roll with me anymore? Is it because I’m fat?
And I just goggled at him. Wait, what?! Why don’t you roll with me anymore? Is it because I’m not a challenge?
Classic – we both were taking our own insecurities and thinking the other person was thinking such-and-such about us. He thought I thought he was too big to partner with. I thought he didn’t want to play with me because I’m too easy for him to crush.
Eye opening all around. And we’re planning on partnering up next class. 🙂
Bahahaha that’s really hilarious. I’m glad you guys talked to each other! That’s a great story.
I really liked this article. I WISH I had found it 3 years ago when I first started training BJJ as the ONLY girl at my doing it. I’m still the only girl there, but I’ve come a long way and have made friends with the guys who now respect me. I used to think it was b/c I was a girl and a 113lb one at that. But, I just kept showing up early, staying late and pushing myself to get better and earned their respect. I talked to some of my guy partners about this before b/c one of them is also a coach at the gym. He made a good point that sometimes its the GUY feeling weird about rolling with a girl, not b/c she’s a girl or new or small, but because lets face it… BJJ gets down and dirty in some pretty awkward situations and rolling with a newbie who is also a girl makes them feel weird too! I was kinda relieved to hear that b/c for awhile I was like – okay, I know I suck, but geez dudes, give me a chance! Looking back, to have known that they were somewhat like ummmm, I have to put my hand where on her?! You know there’s a boob there, right? It’s pretty funny for me to think about that b/c it NEVER occurred to me until my friend brought it up. He’s thinking oh crap what if she has a boyfriend, or I offend her b/c she doesn’t know my hand is supposed to be there, or what if I have to tap out somewhere awkward… ha ha, good times!
Yeah – it’s weird because it’s so easy to view the world through your particular lens. I think that the stories of women struggling help other women who are struggling, but there are definitely aspects of that struggle that ALL white belts or new students at an academy share.
I also agree that it can take guys a little time to readjust to rolling with women. One of the things I will tell new guys – don’t worry about it. I think empathy for new people is good and important. Within my subgroup, even more so! ^_^
Just come back from training… Been going a whole seven weeks and I can relate to every single one of the soundtracks :/ . Logically I don’t expect to have a snowballs chance in hell of knowing what I’m doing but oh I want to so much.
I have the added joy of a previous rape and an abusive ex. For some reason rolling on Wednesday sparked some vicious memories and I had to pull out. The guy I was rolling with and my coach were both worried I’d been hurt. I’d had to tell my coach about my past during some self defence stuff he was teaching so he twigged pretty quickly.
At training tonight, I made myself ask the guy I’d rolled with on Wednesday ,to roll with me tonight. Get back on the horse that threw you and all that .. Almost happened again and I realised I close my eyes when I’m trying to work out how to get out of some holds. Kept my eyes open and didn’t freak out.
I feel dumber than bricks on the mats but I will keep going because that is the only way I will ever get better and I really, really want to.
Interesting. I find that when I close my eyes it helps me relax and focus on what’s right in front of me rather than panic by what’s in front of my eyes. I can understand, though, that if you’ve been in a bad situation like that and closed your eyes, wishing it away, that closing your eyes in class could create a potential panic attack! Wow. Thank you so much for sharing!!!
What does “twigged” mean?
Oops, sorry, it must be an English’ism’ . Twigged means suddenly worked out. Eg a light bulb moment. I know from watching the guys roll they shut their eyes when they’re working their way out of tricky holds… So I’d imagine it’s like that for most people.
It probably puts me in a ‘bad’ place for the same reason it puts others in a ‘good’ place, it removes you from the actual situation you are in. I’m pretty sure none of the guys I train with would intentionally hurt me in a non BJJ way, but I know the coach would never tolerate it..so if I shut my eyes I take that away and then it’s just me being pinned down by a guy who is a lot stronger and heavier than I am.
[…] Got to play with one of my buds from no-gi and judo. This is the guy who came up to me after class a few weeks ago and said “why don’t you roll with me anymore, is it because I’m fat?” and I’m like, “no, I thought you didn’t want to roll with me because I’m crap!” Perfect evidence of what JiuJiu talked about – we bring our own insecurities to the mat. […]
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[…] just reminded me so much of what I wrote before – that we view the world through the lens of our own insecurities, and jiu jitsu shakes the snowglobe of our emotions. It also reminded me of how powerful being […]