Females in Combat Sports: TALK BACK

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:

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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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Never go backwards unless you’re luring them into the corner.
— Lin MacMillan

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.

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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.

MMA fighter Lin Macmillan talks about her experience in combat sports, food, training and other interesting observations.

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.

Don't treat me equally; treat me fairly.

By Coach EL

I was on my way to a downtown gym to attend a Level One boxing coach course with the National Canadian Coaches Program (NCCP) and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would be received in such an environment. I mean, let’s be real. It’s not very common to find a fully veiled Muslim woman in a co-ed boxing coach course.

I walked into the gym, and as expected, I got the odd stares and curious looks as if to say, “what’s she doing here?” It was almost amusing to see some of their facial expressions. We sat down, introduced ourselves, and the course began.

As the course proceeded, we were put into groups and each assigned a portion of the material from the course text to present; I was given the section on the code of ethics. I found it interesting and also quite ironic that the one to speak about ethics was the Muslim woman who looked different from everyone else. Stereotypically, I’m supposed to be the oppressed one, the one with the backward mentality dressing the way I do, covering from head to toe - including my face - and there I was, expected to present in front of a predominantly male audience about the sport code of ethics. When I looked at the pages and skimmed over the material, one of the points stood out to me. It read:

 

Respect - ensure that everyone is treated equally, regardless of athletic potential, race, sex, language, religion, or age.

 

I paused for a second. The use of the word ‘equally’ didn’t seem to sit well with me. It implied that people be treated the same, but is that what we really want? It is true that men and women are created equally in the eyes of Allah. Allah tells us:

«And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer - those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed» (Surah an-Nisa 4:124).

 

He also tells us:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so - for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. (Surah al-Ahzab 33:35)

 

We are equal in our pursuit of knowledge and education; in our servitude to Allah and our rights that we have over one another. My issue of contention, however, was with the physical aspect. We are equal in many things, but as far as physiology is concerned, we are not equal at all. Biologically, we each serve a purpose and we have different roles. We were created differently for a reason and to be treated the same would be an injustice.

We see the recognition of these differences in competitive sports where athletes are usually categorized by gender and weight. Very seldom will you find men and women competing against each other and this categorization happens for a reason. Generally, male skeletal structures are larger and thicker than that of a female. Research and scientific studies have shown that joints and bone density differ between the genders and this leads to differences in their mechanical functions. Similarly, muscle size and type will be apparent between the male and the female. A man’s wrist, for example, will be bigger and thicker. His punch will generally be stronger and will cause more impact. For this reason, we don’t see men and women compete against each other and if they were to do so, it would be dangerous and unjust.

Now, translate this into the world of boxing, a traditionally male dominated sport. It wasn’t until the 1990s where women really started coming to the forefront. Even then, women weren’t matched up against men. Boxing bouts are very gender specific and make careful considerations for a competitor’s weight, height and reach.

I don’t doubt that there are women out there who have the skill set to outdo a fellow male athlete. Sure, there are women that can beat men and vice versa. It’s not uncommon to see athletes use the opposite gender as training partners. However, no matter how much she can match up to a man, the fact remains that she is still a woman and she should be treated and respected as such. Her skills and abilities should be acknowledged but the differences in physiology should also be recognized. If a man and a woman were to start sparring with one another, his punches could potentially knock her out and cause a concussion. She needs to be given what she’s able to handle. And if anyone is ever in doubt, simply ask her. She would know better than anyone else how hard of a punch she’s able to handle.

With science aside and from a very personal perspective, I don’t expect to be treated equally, but rather I expect to be treated fairly. This implies that I am treated according to my individual needs and circumstances. I am Muslim and since my conversion to Islam, I started wearing hijaab and  stopped shaking hands with non mahram men. This is just the way I’ve chosen to practice my Islam. I don’t usually train with my hijaab on and when I do take it off, I make sure I’m in an all female environment.  It can’t be assumed that I’ll be shaking hands with men and hugging everyone after a great workout session. That’s just not me. So, in an environment like this NCCP course where everyone else was not Muslim, I wanted them to understand that while I understood the intent behind this ethics code of equal treatment, I had a different perspective and I wanted to shed light on this. I’m 4’9” and I don’t want to walk into a sparring session and go up against someone twice my size. Add to that, I definitely don’t want to be going up against a guy, oh my!

I shared my sentiments with the other coaches taking the course. It seemed to have resonated with many of them and as I concluded, I watched a few of them nodding their heads in agreement. I also appreciate that the facilitator found my point intriguing and thought-provoking enough to want to speak about it in future courses.  So, don’t treat me equally; treat me fairly - like the lady I am.