The Reality of Women’s Only BJJ Classes
First, let me start off with: 1) I’m female brown belt, 2) I teach a women’s only BJJ class, and 3) I have a minor in Women’s studies and am all for female empowerment (especially on the mat). I have been teaching a women’s only class for over a year and a half in the same academy, as well as previously at a former academy.
Over the last five years of teaching both female specific and all levels/co-ed classes, I’ve realized a few things about women’s only BJJ classes:
Female specific classes are the perfect way to introduce women to BJJ. Since BJJ is a high contact sport and can be quite intimidating, having a female only class helps women feel more comfortable with starting training. If there had been a women’s only class when I started, I would have 100% taken the opportunity. Being thrown into a class with 99% dudes and 1% female fighter (which I was not), made it very difficult to start training. In fact, I started and quit training at least three times before I committed to it.
However, the more comfortable I got, the less I felt the need to train with another female. I got used to training with the guys and eventually learned (by trial and error and a lot of dumb injuries) which dudes were good to train with and who was not. I find that this is the case with many females. They started training because there was a female specific class that made training less intimidating. Once they began to feel more comfortable, they transitioned into the co-ed fundamentals class because they wanted more mat time. When they train in the co-ed class, they gravitate towards each other, as there are more than a few of them in the same class. So essentially, while it is not a female specific class, they have female specific partners, which is equally just as good… but starts to defeat the purpose of having a women’s only class if it’s only used to funnel more students into the beginner or advanced classes.
In academies where female specific classes are not a priority, they are often scheduled during inopportune times and only once per week. Meaning, it’s pretty much the last choice time slot for classes. Whether it is 5:30 pm on a Friday when some people would want to be enjoying an end of the week after work drink (or stuck in rush hour traffic), or at 10:00 am on a Saturday or Sunday morning, not a lot of females want to or can make it in time for that class. Thus, it affects the amount of women that actually attend the class and from a numbers standpoint, it would appear that it’s not as popular/important as say, a co-ed class at 6:30 pm on Monday through Thursday. This makes it difficult to get more women who want to train, but cannot make it during those times and who don’t have the confidence to jump into a class with mostly dudes. The lack of consistency with only one class per week does not help either, especially from an instructor standpoint.
Then comes the time when the attendance starts to fizzle out. While a women’s program may start off strong because it provides new women with a chance to get on the mat, it often loses momentum for a few reasons like the ones stated in the above paragraphs. Not all females who train want to be competitors, but rather, they train because it’s a fun and challenging way to get in/stay in shape. Many are mothers of kids who train or wives/girlfriends of the guys that train and can only train during certain times of the day/week – which happen to be during the co-ed classes. Also, depending on the curriculum of the women’s class (i.e. if it’s catered specifically to new students), some may get bored and prefer to train in the other classes.
If you look at the most successful women’s program/teams, they have a few things in common: 1) a black belt and/or female competitive champion or both, 2) a higher membership rate than the average small town academy, and 3) priority of having a female specific program. Two academies stand out to me when I think of a great female specific program – Gracie Humaita with Leticia Ribeiro and Atos with Angelica Galvao. Both women are black belt world champions at large academies. This makes it very attractive to women who not only want to start BJJ, but those who want to be female competitors. Some female competitors even switch academies to train with a strong women’s team.
With that being said, in order to have a successful women’s program, first and foremost, it needs to be a priority. Not just an extra class that’s on the schedule just because you want to add another class to make your academy look good or to get more students into the regular classes. The instructor should be a woman and the upper belts of the academy should also help set a good example and attend the class too. While I am all for female specific classes, it is a lot more difficult to maintain than any other class. I wish that this weren’t the case, as I wish there had been more women to train with when I started. There are so many benefits to female specific classes, but if it cannot reach it’s full potential, it becomes pointless to have around and a waste of time for those who dedicate their time and energy trying to build something that is not appreciated. So if you want a women’s program at your academy or if you enjoy your mat time without dudes around, SHOW UP, be present, and be consistent.