Saturday, August 22, 2009

What is the ideal gender balance for a martial arts class?

Ideally, I would like a fifty-fifty male/female split in my class.

Most adult martial arts classes are male-dominated, kind of the mirror image of yoga, dance and aerobics classes. I think that this reflects cultural norms and pre-conceptions, rather than anything fundamental.

Oral tradition has it that the techniques of our school of jiu-jitsu were formalized by a group of Chinese buddhist nuns living in Japan in the 16th century, a group that no doubt would have needed effective self-defence! Consequently, our art is well-suited to women, although men can learn it too.

Melanie demonstrating the Nurse's Grip Gooseneck

Generally speaking, having girls and women in the class benefits the blokes. They bring grace, rhythm and a lower center of gravity. Usually not as strong, and often smaller, women and girls need to work hard on their technique from the outset. Their presence also helps diffuse the macho vibe that you tend to get in all male groups.

Conversely, girls and women benefit from having males in the class. If they are ever attacked, chances are that it will be by a male, and they need to feel and practice with the generally stronger and larger sex to achieve self-defence proficiency, and confidence in their own abilities.

A further argument for a mixed class is the same one for co-education in general: That we live in a mixed-sex society and that spending time together is good for our social development.

* * *

My own class has tended to follow the usual pattern of more males than females, although my senior student is female, and acts as a role model for other women who join the class. Lately we have had an influx of women, so hopefully we can keep 'em.

When I was working my way up through the student ranks I was part of a core group of 2 gals and 2 guys (Melanie, pictured above, was one of the gals) who trained together for about 5 years, and I found the mix beneficial.

What's the gender-balance like at your school? What would you like it to be? What are the factors that influence the balance?


Ice said...

Most clubs I train in have about 10-25% women. It's just normal in the grappling arts.

Having women in the class is pretty cool and yeah it helps diffuse macho vibes. Normally I don't end up in schools with lots of macho vibes. Here in Seattle there is a plethora of grappling schools and a lot of students practice in one club or another and sometimes migrate from one or the other depending on class schedule, work, commute, goals, etc...

So almost everyone in the grappling community knows someone who was you trained with. But yeah, there's about about 10-25% females practicing the sport. Some places it's closer to 50/50, and I've been to competitions and there are many women competing in the sport.

Women in general are much faster and more flexible than men. They have relatively higher core strength and so they do execute amazing newaza (ground) techniques. In competition, women tend to submit their opponent more often than men do, from the tournaments that I have observed.

Anonymous said...

This is a great analysis of the girl’s abilities, advantages and the motivation for the martial arts. I appreciate the way you explain the factors that influence the balance in the class. I also appreciate your preference of the mixed class, because it’s my preference too.

Chris | Martial Development said...

In my ideal class, 100% of the people attending want to be there, and they want it more than everyone who is not attending.

Sex discrimination can only make that percentage go down, I would think.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Chris

Thanks for raising those points.

I agree that it's better to have a class of people who want to be there than any other factor. Bu I've got that covered: The nature of my class is that people who don't want to be there drop off pretty quickly, so in your sense it's already close to ideal.

Beyond that?

Variety in students enriches the practice. We need different bodies to work with: Differences in size, strength, speed, and flexibility help us to learn to make our techniques more effective against a range of opponents. Going further: Different personalities, a spread of experience, different ages, and yes, having both sexes contribute to the mix.

I won't discriminate to try to get "the perfect class" -- because like you I reckon that these other factors trail after individual motivation -- but I'm happy to have some variety.

Sue C said...

Hi Dan,
I belong to two different martial arts clubs. In my karate club the male/female ratio is about 60:40 (in the senior class anyway). However the majority of the women are related to at least one of the males (either spouse, mother or sister). I think family oriented clubs like this attract and keep women better than clubs that aren't so family orientated.

My other club is a combined jujitsu/kobudo club. The male/female ratio here is about 80:20. I've only recently joined this club to do kobudo and I'm clearly the only woman to have joined in a long time - the other two women are well into their dan grades!

There is something about the grappling arts that is less appealing to women. I'm not sure if it's the art itself or the atmosphere in the club - In my experience (and my husband's - he spent 6 years in a different jujitsu club) grappling arts seem to attract, shall we say, a more macho kind of man than karate clubs do - not sure why this is but it might be why women aren't so keen on these clubs.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue

"[G]rappling arts seem to attract, shall we say, a more macho kind of man than karate clubs"

I think that this may be partly a local culture kind of thing. In the university-based clubs that I have been most heavily involved in we have historically tend to get a majority of science / maths / engineering types -- nerdy or practical-minded, depending on your point-of-view! -- but not inherently macho. In part this is probably due to the personalities and styles of our instructors.

Conversely, my impression is that a lot of the women who take up martial arts gravitate to harder styles ors like kick-boxing or karate ;-) or the somewhat ubiquitous taekwondo, and I am curious to find out if this is true and, if so, why.

Certainly the grappling arts require potential students to overcome any aversion to close body-contact, and perhaps this is part of the reason, but surely any martial art which offers self-defence practice against grabs and holds will run into this issue at some stage.

fenix said...

Hi Dan,
I'm Melanie's sister, and it's great to see her photo on your blog :-). Unlike Melanie, I've only been involved in Martial Arts for about 18 months.

In my Karate school, about half the people are women, across all the grades. At the same school, I attend PFS classes, which involves all fighting ranges and includes a fair bit of (no-gi) grappling. We are a small group (9 regulars) and I'm the only woman. Occasionally, a girl looks in, stays a couple of classes and leaves. And it's not because the guys, it's just the nature of the training, I think.

I also do BJJ. I'm the only female in most classes. A couple of girls turn up occasionally, one because her boyfriend is there. In the time I've been there (nearly a year), two other girls came for a few classes then quit. Again, I think it's the nature of the activity, the 'in your face' nature of grappling that's the issue. Certainly it's not a function of the guys' behaviour, who are all excellent training partners. The odd newbie who comes and spazzes either settles fast or leaves. It's a group with outstanding vibes. Everyone is there to learn, and there is very little ego floating about. No real issues with male machoism either. Both our teachers strike the right balance of encouragement (for me as a woman who is lighter and less strong than most of the men) yet not making a big deal of male vs female. So I am just part of a team, and if judged at all, judged purely by my ability and actions.

I would like to see some more women because it's such an outstanding way to learn to defend yourself, gain confidence and get awfully fit. I personally don't care if I grapple with men or women. From a self defence point of view, grappling with men is better preparation. For women who start grappling it would be good to have more women in the class, to ease them into it.

In a lot of cases, the issue for women is more that grappling is hard, sweaty work, often making you sore and bruised. It messes your hair, you can't have fancy nails and the man in your life won't understand/condone that you roll around with sweaty men. But then again, there are guys who wouldn't grapple for most of the same reasons!

I agree with all your points on why a good mix makes for better classes and I'm glad to hear you encourage it in your classes.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Christiane

Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

You can find more photos of Melanie in action (and a few of Tony) here.

Narda said...

Nice to hear a bit on the topic from a teacher's point of view. By default, our 'class' is the perfect ratio...50:50. Male teacher, female student. LOL! Class of one.

The kobudo observation above 'seems' to be abour right in that I get a sense that women are a lot less attracted to weapons arts.

-harlan (a female)