"A 200-pound white belt man politely and innocently asks me to roll, and next thing I know my face is being smashed into the mat, my ribs slowly collapsing into themselves like a desperate, dying star."
Inhaling deeply, I curl my toes into the mat. The smell of leftover sweat from last night’s lesson still lingers in the air. Several of my training partners have already engaged in light drilling or slow rolls. Others are still making their way through friendly banter and greetings. This is the only time I feel truly content, relaxed, accepted and at home.
I step further out onto the mat and my body begins to slowly remind me of every neglected injury. Some from years ago. Several muscle stretches, taped digits and heart beats later I am able to again ignore those nagging pains, at least for the span of today’s class. I grab the nearest body, slap hands and bump fists, sealing an unspoken agreement of trust and respect to commence battle. Of course, taking an hour or two out of your day to grapple doesn't exactly compare to real battle, and likely no one is going to die. But why not dance on the line of that same adrenaline through simulation of battle and death with a worthy opponent, and eventually a tap?
Over nine years of training now, I can still remember the first time I felt like I was actually rolling. Exchanging and countering techniques with a controlled, dedicated, middle-aged man on his lunch break for a full three minutes until I hit what felt like a brick wall and was at a loss for answers to escape. I also remember being the only girl at practice and the only female at competitions. The majority of my training partners were men for years. If I did find a woman to train with they were far and few between. I understand that the reason some women are hesitant to try out BJJ is sometimes due to the personal space (or lack thereof), and the vastly outnumbered women in the art. That being said, I can honestly say I have felt nothing but respect, support, love and camaraderie from 99% of my training partners.
As a female in a male-dominant sport there are unique challenges to face, of course. Wardrobe malfunction, having to roll with grueling period cramps, ‘please don't make me roll with a girl’ facial expressions, etc. There are some hardships that never seem to get any easier. At 135 pounds, I know there are some opponents that I will never be able to submit, or even hang with regardless of how little training they may have. If allowed, it can occur quite often. A 200-pound white belt man politely and innocently asks me to roll, and next thing I know my face is being smashed into the mat, my ribs slowly collapsing into themselves like a desperate, dying star.
My advice to all the BJJ ladies out there is this: learn to enjoy these moments. In cases like those, my only objective is to keep myself in a defensive position and survive the roll. A reasonable response is to just decline the matchup. However, I urge you to live in that hell until you are comfortably uncomfortable. This situation is of course not limited to the female jiu jitsu experience. In fact, as females we are probably more times than not given more leeway. What I mean to say is smaller men get smashed just as often, but I feel there is less expectation for women to prove themselves in the same way.
photo by smithhammer photography
Although these partners may put us at risk of injury, I do not think they should always be avoided. From a self-defense point-of-view, these are our most useful rolls. We are far less likely to be attacked by a woman similar to our size than a larger male. The more often we are faced with realistic scenarios, the better prepared we can be.
Many of the female students in my class have expressed to me their frustrations regarding male training partners “using only muscle” to win in a match. I am not going to lie to you, there have been countless nights while walking to my car in the gym parking lot that I was consumed with anger and frustration. This mentality only limits us. It is important to acknowledge and accept the differences in size and strength with our training partners, but never should we use their attributes as a crutch for our losses. Although our training partners may not always be ideal, learn what you can.
Life isn't a fair fight. Look less at the excuses and more at the opportunities. Being the smaller/weaker person gives you more room to grow! Enjoy the bad moments. Isn't that already a big part of jiu jitsu?
In the struggle of any roll, woman or man, it is important to remember that each person is a specific gauge to your own game and every opponent is unique. Some project their personalities, some are passive and defensive fighters. Others are resilient and headstrong. Every opponent is unique, and everyone is at a different stage of the journey. With each moment spent drilling, sharpening your tools, adding to our skill set, there are relentless failures. Until one day, if only in one beautiful roll, all movements flow into one continuous motion. Every technique is accurately performed, every grip strategically placed.
Then onto the next challenge and the uphill climb begins again.