Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK, but the number of women who take part and compete are still in the minority. Seymour Yang investigates what motivates this small but growing band of jiu-jitsu sisters.

There is no doubt that Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a male dominated sport. In the 2009 European Championships just 84 women took to the mat, compared to 1,164 men. It is a stark statistic. But in academies up and down the country there are women, or sometimes just the one woman, who take their training every bit as seriously as the guys. What experiences did these women have of competing? And how can BJJ attract more females?

One of the common problems faced by female BJJers is the lack of other women to compete against. In the early days - which to be honest was only a few years ago, the few women who did compete often had to enter the mens brackets just to get a fight. Even today, many women turn up and see the same faces at each tournament. Caoimhe McGill is one of only a handful of British competitors, male or female, to have won at the Mundials. Currently a purple belt at Revolution Team in Belfast, she remembers difficult times on the competition circuit:
"When I first competed, at the Gracie Invitational in 2005, I had just become a blue belt the week before. With all the weight categories together there were 2 of us [women]. "
“I have fought up 2 weight categories in male competitions just to get a fight as there is often not many light weight boys either.”

But the scene is changing. Caoimhe notes that in recent comps there were very large blue and white belt categories with full numbers at all weights. A sign, maybe, that more women are coming into the sport.

One of the new wave of female BJJ fighters is Camilla Hansen, a blue belt under Eddie Kone (EKBJJ). Camilla first attended a BJJ class out of curiosity : “In my first class I got schooled by a bunch of people, took it as a challenge and kept coming back.” She has since added gold in the open weight female blue belt division of the 2009 Winter leg of the Bristol Open to her medals from SENI (gold) and ADCC trials (silver) last year.

Despite being one of the fastest growing sports in the UK, the lack of women who train and compete still persists. One reason could be BJJ’s close association with MMA and all the macho hoopla that surrounds that sport. But the notion that women are put off from the combat side of things is probably not quite as true as some may think. The success of British women in Olympic judo and taekwondo proves that women do love to fight.
Camilla Hansen has another theory, she thinks: “Maybe 1 out of 50 guys who try BJJ out actually stick with it for 2 years or more. I believe the same statistics apply to girls. However as a lot fewer girls actually try out BJJ (or martial arts in general) the number of girls who train is very small.”

The problem therefore is getting the women into the classes in the first place. But BJJ academies are trying to redress the balance. Many now offer a women only classes and self defence workshops. One well known program from the USA is Rorion Gracie’s ‘Women Empowered’ program, formerly known as RAPESAFE.

Caoimhe McGill said this about self defence programs: “I think any alive martial art would be good as a self defence. But they would have to train it as we do and spar to ensure what you have learnt works. I've seen some self defence classes taught very badly and leave the women more vulnerable as they think they can defend themselves but are none the wiser.”

So how do women find training with the guys day-in, day-out?
Dominique Vitry is a blue belt under Roger Gracie. She’s a regular on the competition circuit having won medals at SENI, Bristol Open and the Kent Open. I asked her how she approaches sparring sessions against guys: “I tend to play it by ear as to how I’m going to react…the main issue is how technical the person is; if they’re good, it makes no difference if they’re a man or woman (though I’ll mind where I put my knees).”

Most of the women agreed that there were actually very few differences between the genders in terms of how they fight. On the whole, women opponents were considered more flexible than the men, which results in a slightly altered game plan.

But they did come across some guys who had a problem with the female being the better fighter. Caoimhe recalls an incident at the Irish Open a few years back: “They had a new rule that a competitor couldn't talk to their corner. I was beating this guy by loads of points and he was getting very frustrated by it. I had my head low and was nearly passing his guard when he started laughing, talking to his corner in a foreign language in what came across as dirty talk. He was disqualified which is what he wanted as he didn't want to have to tell people he was beaten by a girl.”

Of course most people hate to get tapped out, regardless of gender, it’s the nature of the sport. Camilla offers her thoughts: “I have had everything happen within the range of some guys using all their strength to “get back” at me and prove something – to others who just think its great - to one or two who have simply not resisted and let me tap them again and again. Luckily most guys just accept it and continue.”
“It shouldn’t be a big deal. Everybody gets tapped.”

No article about women and BJJ would be complete without some mention of Kyra Gracie. Granddaughter of Robson Gracie, Kyra is a multiple World Champion and a popular poster girl pin-up for the boys.
Caoimhe McGill actually fought Kyra at the 2007 ADCC. She thinks it is good to have a famous name that everyone knows: “I am glad that I have had the opportunity to compete against her and would love to again. But I also think that it would be better if the famous female fighter was friendlier and more encouraging to other females in the sport” says Caoimhe.

On the subject of friendliness, the women fighters I spoke to found that tournaments were a great opportunity to make friends and all enjoyed a camaraderie, probably as a result of the female competitors being in a minority. Dominique says she loves the family atmosphere at tournaments: “we all have a laugh and are like one big team.”

It is often commented that women’s football is as skilful and often more free-flowing compared to the men’s game. In many respects, women’s BJJ could be seen in the same way. In a world where high value is placed on being an absolute champion or MMA superstar, sometimes just as much can be enjoyed by watching and learning from the lighter, faster and the more technical. In this respect, female BJJ fighters are a force to be reckoned with. Welcome then, to the Jiu-Jitsu Sisterhood.

Article (c) 2009 Seymour Yang
Photo credits (top to bottom): Keith Mills/ADCC Japan, Caoimhe McGill website, James Oluoch-Olunya/combat-bjj.com, jordanjiujitsu.com,

Full interviews:
Caoimhe McGill
Camilla Hansen
Dominique Vitry



13 comments:

cj said...

Nice article,

Stumpy said...

Great article MK :) I'd love to see more women doing martial arts, especially BJJ.

Anonymous said...

I can remember when I had only been training for 6 months, and I taped out my first guy (I was the only woman in the class); he became so angry that he had been tapped out by a woman that a few minutes later he grabbed my hand and wrenched my fingers back, almost fracturing my fingers. No one saw it, and the no one took it seriously, I was just making a fuss.

A year later, I was training no gi. A new guy started, very big and heavy and he wanted to spar with everyone in turn. He was beating everyone in just a few minutes. It was my turn - he was 3 times my size. I laughed, and jokingly said "go easy on me, I'm only light". He picked me up, and body slammed me. He only need to drop me, but no, he used all his strength and slammed me into the mat. I cracked a rib. The instructor said "these things happen".

So, I never trained in BJJ again.
Shame.

Meerkat said...

I'm quite shocked and rather disturbed by the experiences of that last comment. My sympathy for your misfortune. If you do want to do BJJ again, I suggest trying a different club.

XOXrachyXOX said...

interesting article, I have never had any bad experiances training bjj as a female but I also think it makes a differance where you train, some people need to realise that regardless if whether your a girl or a guy rolling in class shouldn't be full out thats what competitions are for other wise countless injuries would ruin training,sometimes people can forget that and maybe grind your face or hold a choke even after you tapped but it happens i guess. The post by anonymous makes me angry though the coach should have made sure that kind of stuff didnt happen, what a** holes!!!

Anonymous said...

I feel very bad hearing about anon. I have been doing bjj for about 8 months now and I am loving it! I am the only girl in my class of very large men and im only super feather. But have never had anything but good experiences bit bashed and bruised but always smiling! The guys at my club are great and don't mind too much if I tap them tho it does give them that extra little bit of drive being beaten by a girl. Any girls considering taking it up don't be put off by the lack of other girls please! It is the most fantastic sport and definately worth giving it a shot at least :D!! Cant wait to do my first comp this month at the British Open :D!

caitlin said...

how would some one start getting into classes. im currently in the army stationed in south korea. its kinda hard for me to get into ne kinds of martial arts cuz my schedule. how often would one need to train to get up to standards to be in a competition

Meerkatsu said...

@ Caitlin - I have a friend who trained in South Korea for several years I'm sure he can recommend a good BJJ club. Email me your details (seymour_yang@hotmail.com) and I will try to get some info for you.
As to you precise question, if you find an academy with a morning/noon/evening timetable - as seems to be happening more often, then you have more choice as to when you train. Alternatively, private lessons with group lessons are good.
As to the how often/much to train in order to be good, there is no answer as it is allrelative. One lesson and you will be better than the person who has never trained, ten years and you will still suck against your Master who has trained 30 years etc.
In the end, it's a lifelong obsession and one that brings more rewards than not.

Elyse said...

Hey Seymour, do you mind if I post links to all your lady interviews on gringabjj.com?

-E

Georgette said...

Nice piece Seymour!

Meerkatsu said...

Be my guest Elyse.

Thanks Georgette.

slideyfoot said...

Re-reading your blog from the start, I was wondering at which point you made the transition from being a fairly small blog, to a very well known site on every BJJer's RSS feed. I reckon it might have started here, which is still an awesome article. :)

Also when I started to be a regular reader, IIRC, as the posts after this look familiar. Other bloggers beginning to pop up in comments after this too (though that might just indicate that BJJ blogging got increasingly popular from late 2008 onwards).

Meerkatsu said...

Don't know about when exactly things kicked off but this article was a pivotal moment when I got the bug for writing BJJ-related feature interviews.