By Lin MacMillan
Any female who's ever tried taking an interest in combat sports, whether it be with the dream of competing, or just to get into better shape, will be familiar with this scenario:
You walk into a dungeon-sized gym and your senses are assaulted by the smell of sweat and fear, amplified by the fact that there's zero air circulation, and no windows. Sweaty adrenaline- fueled men beat heavy bags hard enough to rattle the chains that hold the bags right up to the ceiling. There’s the dull thud of bodies hitting the ground and the sharp snap of focus mitts meeting gloves at just the right speed and accuracy to cause enough brain damage to ruin someone's life - it’s like you’ve walked into David Flincher’s Fight Club.
It's one of two feelings: excitement, or overwhelming nervousness. Perhaps, it’s a combination of both.
Chances are you just wanted to try it all out, find a fun way to get in shape, but this environment seems a little much.
So, you take a deep breath, step onto the mats and take your place. Hands wrapped, gloves up, ready to persevere. You’re next to five guys who have at least a half foot on you - or more if you're as short as I am - and are a minimum 40 pounds heavier than you. If you're lucky, there's one small-ish male, who's still large by comparison, likely skilled enough to bust your skull or break your arm, and there’s a distinct possibility that he’ll exhibit poor self-restraint.
Sound familiar yet? Allow me to illustrate further...
The instructor or "kru" leading the class pays just enough attention to make sure your skill is at least slowly escalating to progress, but not enough to notice that your training partner is marinating in testosterone and hitting back far too hard or just not taking you seriously enough to give you any resistance at all.
Nonetheless, you told yourself you had a goal and that you're going to stick to it, even if it means acting as your own silent cheerleader just to make it through the class without wanting to slink off to the almost always empty girls’ change room to hide.
I'm certain it does, because I hopped around from gym to gym in the Greater Toronto Area for almost five years now, and have been very fortunate to find one that I now call home. I have teammates who treat me with patience, kindness, and respect. I have a coach I can always talk to.
But, I had to mine a lot of coal to find the diamond of a home that is King Jiu-Jitsu.
When I first started out, it was at a dirty dungeon-y little warehouse gym in North York. The scenario I described to you earlier was indeed initially too scary for me, so I paid a boxing coach about $160 to $200 weekly (yes, weekly) for private lessons until I was comfortable enough with the basic skill sets to participate in classes. I was initially so nervous to mix with these groups that I actually felt I would throw up.
Weeks turned into months, and my skill-set escalated quickly. My 7-year background in power-lifting and bodybuilding made it easy to dedicate myself to accomplishing new fitness goals. Months turned into years, and I was spending at least 3 hours a day at the gym - kettlebell circuits in the morning and boxing or basic MMA classes in the evening. Having trained there long enough, I earned a key to the gym and supplemented my daily workouts with late-night bag work. I even ended up teaching kettlebell classes, and eventually was teaching my own military style circuit training...and I loved it!
You can imagine my confusion when my repeated requests and inquiries about competing were swept aside or blatantly ignored. After months of being polite and patient, I verbally blindsided my "coach." I asked him point blank why he refused to take action on my request to compete. He hadn't expected me to call him out on the matter, and was even disturbed that I had taken the initiative to do so. My "coach" told me I was being impatient, that fighting would ruin my face - and why would I want to do that? "Don't you trust me?" he'd say, when I tried to disagree.
It turns out that a few other male coaches felt the same way, despite the time and dedication I was putting in. I was even able to hold down men much larger than myself in wrestling class. My 5 - 6 day a week training schedule, 5 - 10 km roadwork, and almost daily strength training didn’t matter. I tried one gym and then another, trying to figure out where I could fit in.
It didn’t matter how many times I asked, or how patient I was. I was brushed aside as coaches busied themselves preparing male fighters for upcoming bouts. Coaches missed one-on-one sessions with me, or failed to show up to teach their classes.
No male instructor, coach, or kru ever took me seriously, until I took an aggressive stance against them. If they tried to touch my butt, or use training as an excuse to be inappropriately touchy and close to me, I would verbally and physically lash out. That behaviour, I assure you, came to a grinding halt.
Instructors and coaches would try to "break" new students, to test perseverance and deliberately drive away some individuals. One coach even to this day, though I left that gym over 6 months ago, still sends me messages:
"You should stop fighting before you die in the ring/cage.
You are not at the skill level to be fighting,"
This is a message I received just weeks ago.
It wasn't until I stopped being polite and patient that anybody took me seriously. When an instructor would miss one-on-one sessions for no good reason, I stopped relying on the safety and comfortable monotony of expensive personal sessions. I sharpened my skill set by working with other prospective competitors within the martial arts community of Toronto. I branched out and my horizons stretched into the distance. I had yearned to grow and expand, instead of repeatedly running into the ugly roadblock of closed-minded misogyny so hard, it made my head ache.
Through hard work and a lot of back-talk, my male training partners in striking and grappling came to see me as an equally valuable training partner; I was smaller and less physically strong by comparison, but I was also faster and equally aggressive. I was a different sort of fight to prepare for.
Each and every one of my male training partners taught me invaluable lessons in intricate footwork and blocking, energy efficient pacing, as well as attitude and timing. And scientifically speaking, some of these skill sets are simple and are taught from a male perspective, which taught me early on that being physically cautious can simply be counter-productive. My male training partners, without ever knowing it, taught me, or perhaps even pushed me to not be afraid...and I'm forever grateful.
I have met a few other females trying to make it in combat sports along the way, but those gems are far and few between. I cherish these women, even the ones I don’t know. They are full of encouragement, words of wisdom, hugs, and support from afar. We are always ready to watch one another’s competitions on social media or tv, no matter how many time zones apart we happen to be. We don’t have to discuss our previous hardships of trying to make it in a male-dominated sport in order to understand one another. You know why? Each one of us as a female has made that journey.
Each one of your female training partners and your revered female athletes has walked that twisted path. Let's stand together and continue to straighten that path until it becomes a road for our future generations of female fighters.
The moral of this story:
As a female in combat sports, more often than not, you will be training with men until we encourage our fellow females to not be afraid and take chances, and tell them just how worth it the end result of the journey is. Don't be discouraged when some men are intimidated by your willpower or skill and lash out at you.
While MMA, boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, jitsu, and most other combat sports are absolutely male-dominated at this point, women bring a completely different dynamic to the table that is invaluable to any group that wants to make progress socially, economically, and psychologically. Be patient and remind your male counterparts of exactly that.
Speak up, don't take no for an answer - unless it's conducive to your health or your safety is a concern. Talk back, and as any good striker knows, lower your half guard but never your standards. Never go backwards unless you're luring them into the corner.
Lin MacMillan has been training in a mixture of six different martial arts that involve striking, ground grappling, and weapons training over the past five years. She currently trains at King Jiu-Jitsu in Toronto, Ontario, with an athletic base that stemmed from power lifting and body building. Though Lin doesn't have much spare time between working in the field of security and soon to be Canadian Military as a fitness instructor, she enjoys seeking out fine cuisine or creating her own, hiking, and photography.