Monday, December 5, 2011

Women-Only Training: Separating the boys from the girls

Coaching a new boxer

I have always enjoyed training with the guys.  Not because they necessarily train harder or are more intense or more technical, but because I don't give a shit about the gender of my training partners.  I like to work with people who have good attitudes, who are not dismissive, egotistical or negative.  I've had my share of asshole guys who hit on you while you are in the guard or who snipe at your dedication to training a 'male' sport.  However, the majority of my training experience has been very positive, which is probably why nearly eight years later, I am still training. 

Many MMA and BJJ gyms offer separate classes for women and I personally teach a women's striking class at my gym.  I am still undecided about whether or not I agree with separating the sexes, although from a business perspective, it definitely makes sense.

When we moved from Florida to Colorado, we had a hard time getting women in the gym.  Perhaps it was the rather nefarious bathroom or the broken windows or the bad neighborhood, but women were not interested in training at our space.  After a year at this abysmal location, we moved across town into a new space with a renovated bathroom, thinking that the women would come flocking to our gym.
Several months later, it was still me and 'my boys.'  Thus, we decided to start a women-only kickboxing class to try to entice women to join the gym.  Suddenly there were nearly ten new women in the gym, but they were still separated from the boys.  After a couple months, a girl contacted me who wanted to train but couldn't make it to the women's class.  She started coming to my 'regular' striking class, the first girl (beside me) to do so, and within a month several other girls followed suit.
Now all of the classes we offer, including conditioning and grappling, are split nearly 50/50 women and men.  I still teach the women-only class, although half of them show up the next night for the mixed striking class.  However, I still have at least ten women who come to the gym solely for the women's kickboxing.

The Pros and Cons of women-only classes:

High-five post training!
1.  Comfortable environment:  Some women do not want to be around guys who make a lot of noise or are smelly or aggressive.  The absence of machismo can be empowering for women to find their own strength. 
2.  Support from other women:  The class can build a community of women who train and provide positive encourage for new fighters. 
3.  Ideal training partners:  A women-only class offers the opportunity to train with partners your own approximate size and strength.  After rolling with guys that are much stronger, some women become used to fighting on their backs or never get the opportunity to dominate from the top.  Working with other women keeps you from becoming stagnant. 
4.  Competition preparedness:  Any woman training for a fight is better prepared to face her opponent by training with other women of the same size. 
5.  Technique:  Some techniques need to be adjusted to accommodate different size and strength.  My first attempts at the ooma-plata did not work because my instructor was 6'4 and understood the technique based on having long legs.  Another girl my height showed me a slight variation and suddenly I was able to implement the submission (my favorite submission!).  
6.  [Business] Increasing gym revenue:  Many women do not want to train with guys and will look for facilities that offer women-only classes.

Training with one of my boys at our first, dirty gym in CO
1.  Emphasis on gender separation:  Obviously, splitting classes by gender strengths the barrier between what is male and what is female.  This may be more of a cultural critique, but emphasizing the binaries in sports can be problematic.  Note that all other sports, though, are split.  Women compete in their own arena in golf, tennis, track, soccer, etc, but does that mean training should be separated?
2.  Decrease of training intensity:  Many female fighters prefer training with male partners because it usually places one at a disadvantage.  For grappling, training with someone who is stronger or heavier means you must be faster in the scramble.  In striking, sparring with guys means preparation for being hit very hard so your footwork must be quick.
3.  [Business] Division of clientele:  Many gym owners would not care about this, but for us, creating a women's class meant that our clients, which we consider our family, would be separated.  When you are looking to create team unity, it is important that members have some interaction in order to keep the tribe strong.

As a fighter, I don't think I would want to train in women-only classes as my sole form of training.  As a trainer, my thoughts are divided.  For my girls who are training for a fight, I want them working with as many people as possible, male or female.  However, for those ladies who come in the gym and just want to work on fitness, I think the women class can be a very positive experience.  Those classes are incredibly fun to teach and the girls work their asses off!  So the division makes sense depending, as always, on who you are and what you are trying to accomplish.

Question:  Does your gym separate the sexes?  Would you train in women-only or men-only classes?


slideyfoot said...

An interesting topic. Personally, my general perspective is that if women-only classes help to bring more women into BJJ, then that's great. Everything else is less important: the biggest thing is getting them to step onto the mats and try out the sport.

Still, my preference is to have mixed classes, as I don't like to emphasise separation between men and women where it isn't necessary (unlike, say, toilet facilities, where it makes perfect sense).

The place I train doesn't currently offer women's classes, but it only has two women regularly training at present (though a third has recently joined, so I'm hopeful she'll stick with with it).

The previous place I trained didn't have women's classes either, but has now built up a healthy number of women in class. I am convinced that is because there is a purple belt woman at the club, who now also teaches regularly.

Having a senior female student seems to be the most important factor in attracting more women: it demonstrates "yes, women can excel at this sport, it is not just for men."

I'll finish by linking to a series of articles Chrissy Linzy wrote on my site, about the women only classes she ran, here.

The Pugilista said...

I think a lot of women looking to get into martial arts of any kind want to enter a community rather than come into a gym as the only girl. I've had several occasions where two or three girls will come in together because they don't want to be 'by themselves.' I think you are right, Slidey, that having a female instructor or senior student definitely helps in creating an atmosphere where women can learn. It also helps when the environment of the gym is conducive to mixed training and not dismissive of female fighters.
I've trained at gyms where the guys constantly hit on me or made gross comments while I trained. As the striking coach at my gym, I don't put up with that shit. My husband, who is a pretty big guy with a high skill level, sets a great example by being respectful to all our clients and never making crude or sexists comments. If we do ever get someone who starts down that line, Mike shuts is down very quickly. It helps keep the place positive and creates a familial setting. You wouldn't want to hear a guy talking shit about your sister, so all the guys do their part to keep things respectful.

Meg Smitley said...

I find women-only classes problematic for the reasons that you outline, and have very mixed feelings about them too. I do think that they are great for getting women through the door and I started martial arts in a 'Women's Empowerment Class'; doubt I would have started if I didn't join this 6 week course with gal pals. Equally, training with as many training different kinds of partners as possible is beneficial to all concerned and segregation hampers that (and can reinforce negative attitudes about gender equality among women and men). I suppose if pressed I'd go for an ends justifies the means perspective as it is an effective means of getting women to participate and I'm very interested in women's empowerment through health and fitness.

ScarletGunn said...

hey, great blog! I train at a women's only Muay Thai school. I do believe that not only does it attract more women to the sport by offering a comfortable environment, it also complements women's natural appreciation and need for family and community. It's been an amazing experience for me-we've bonded like family. anyone who's been whiny or bitchy have just self selected out, and there's plenty of us in different sizes and skill levels to insure fresh training partners. I love it there.

ScarletGunn said...

oh, and PS. the girls that compete now are doing pretty good considering they for the most part are sparring and training with other other females. i've been in co ed classes that the guys take it easy on you, and that doesn't happen at all in this school. quite the opposite- since we are so close, we tend to hit harder and forgive faster, lol. anyway, just my 2 cents. :) and again, love this blog, it's awesome :)

The Pugilista said...

ScarletGunn- That is really cool! I want to start doing write-ups of women-only gyms, so shoot me an email if you think this is something your instructor may be interested in doing. It sounds like a wonderful environment!

It is funny; out of all the interviews I've done with current female fighters of all type, only two had any female training partners. Heather Bassett commented that it wasn't really an advantage to only spar against guys because all other female fighters she met had only male training partners. As these sports continue to grow, more fighters will have the opportunity to train with other women, as you have, but I am not sure if all female fighters at an amateur level have that luxury.

Thanks for checking out the blog! It is nice to know people are enjoying my random crap.

ScarletGunn said...

i will surely pass the info along to her! and your stuff isn't random, I totally enjoyed the piece on how to tie your hair back for training. it seems silly but it's practical info for women in combat sports, lol.

Erika said...

Hi! Just found your blog! I'm a little late to comment on this, but I can relate to this post a lot. First off, I work at a women's only personal training studio, so all of my clients are women and all of our classes are women..also, next month I'll be working at an MMA gym (and they do have separate women's only classes there, but overall it's got a very close-knit feel to it!). I personally wouldn't workout at a women's only studio, but I think it's great for our clients who feel intimidated in a normal gym and they all love the atmosphere/comfort level. I've heard mentioned a few times that they don't feel the need to dress a certain way or look a certain way since there are no guys there.
Working there helps me to empower more women to lift heavy and go hard and like you said, from a business point of view it's a great idea to get women in the door. I am excited to start at the MMA gym and have a wider client base though..