Thursday, January 26, 2012

Advice for whitebelt women on learning jiu jitsu (my "sweet spot" theory)

I saw a thread developing on Jiu Jitsu Forum today and had to add my $.02.

It started with this comment from a Renzo Gracie whitebelt with 3 stripes:

"Do women in you [sic] school drill and roll with men? or are they left to roll with only other women? I almost feel like they are in a special category and not held to the same high standards that men have to go through... I'm sure this isn't the case at most other schools just wondering if this is the case where you are at?"

Fellow lady blogger Kitsune responded very thoughtfully: 

"You can't expect a 110lb GUY to be competitive against a 240lb guy either (until the experience level is disparate enough that the small person has enough technique to kick the large person's ass). It's not about what is between your legs.

I really wish that everyone who thinks female BJJ artists are inferior could be strapped to a chair and forced to spend a morning watching a little 115lb female black belt own a gym full of big guys.

You may think we have it easy, but most of you cannot even begin to imagine what it is like to have every single person on the mat be towering over you, and have to work EVERY DAY against people who are twice your size. Not just the bruises and getting your ribs cracked, but the psychological burden of getting smeared all over the mat all the time. It is BRUTAL. The women who survive, who stick with it long enough to start getting subs on bigger men deserve mucho respect. We have to be GOOD, held to a much higher technical standard than the average, to make things work at all.

Some men whine, "I've been going to class for three weeks and I can't sub anybody." Well, howdja like to go to class four times a week for a YEAR and not sub anybody. When I hit the year and a half mark, I could still count my legitimate subs on the fingers of one hand (and have fingers left over). Imagine how hard it was to keep dragging ass into class. Now it's been almost three years, and I'm just starting to get to the point where I can reliably hold my own against an average size white belt, and the point where I can actually get some subs. I can't even begin to describe how much hard work that has taken, and how much chutzpa it has taken to not give up.

Once a female BJJ artist gets to about purplish-level, it starts to even out a bit, and believe me she had to just about kill herself to get that far. The white and blue belt journeys of a female BJJ artist are hard, hard, hard, HARD. Purple and up, my observation has been the women- pound for pound- are as good as any man their level, if not better.

On a practical note- assuming there *are* any other women to roll with, yes, a decent instructor carefully picks partners for the lower-belt women... other women, and skilled colored-belt men.

It is a well-known fact that you are most likely to be injured by a white belt. Many of them do not yet know how to work safely with their partners, many of them do not know how to moderate their game for a smaller or otherwise physically limited partner, and many of them are spazzy and tend to crank subs. Just having a person in top side control can crack a rib if they're a lot bigger and not being really careful; it's happened to me. If you are half the size of the other people in your gym, rolling with white belts is pure suicide until you have enough experience to be able to protect yourself.

My teacher went out of his way to pair me up almost exclusively with skilled colored-belt men for at least the first year and a half (there were usually no other women present). If I'd been rolling with a lot of big clueless white belt guys, I would have spent most of that year and a half on the bench with injuries (if I didn't give up altogether).

That method kept my injuries to a reasonable level, but it was no walk in the park. The fact that I was working almost exclusively with much more skilled higher belts meant that for a year and a half, I got owned by everyone. They were gentle about it and taught me a lot- but owned nonetheless. None of the techniques I tried worked, because the colored belts were always three steps ahead of me. I didn't know what it felt like to roll with someone my own level or lower, someone that I might be able to actually GET something on. That was hard in its own way. Now that I finally have enough experience and technical skill to actually start getting some stuff, I have a lot of ground to make up in that area. I had to try to develop a game much differently than most male BJJ artists go about developing their game. Now I'm trying to break myself of the hesitancy to try stuff (subs and sweeps, mostly) because I've been so conditioned to think, "No sense even trying that; this brown belt will defend it easily". Now I can work with some whites who maybe *can't* defend it that easily. It is a serious reality shift. I still have a "holy crap" moment every time I try a technique and it WORKS.

So yeah, good teachers will pair the women up together, or women with good colored belts, but it's not to make it "easy" on us or to keep the standards low. It's just to try to keep us out of the hospital in the first year, till we have enough experience to take care of ourselves better.

Another thing- many techniques have to be tweaked when you're trying to do them on somebody twice your weight, or somebody whose legs are twice as long as yours. It takes a lot of experience before you can start to be able to watch the demo, try it on a partner much larger, and be able to figure out for yourself how you need to alter the technique to make it work with the size disparities. Trying to do that at white belt or early blue belt level is very frustrating- you don't know how to adapt, so you just try the technique as demo'ed and fail, and feel like you "can't do this". It makes the process so much easier if the first time you learn a new technique, you get a chance to try it AS DEMO'ED on someone your own size (ie, another girl, if you've got one) and see how it's SUPPOSED to work. After that, it's easier to try it on different sized partners and figure out the alterations. It's a lot harder to have to figure out tweaks on your own for a technique you've never seen before.

Another comment from the original poster, 
"At my school none of the girls roll with any of the guys, and are given no exposure to them. If their technique is there then they should still be able to effectively roll against a 240lb man."

This prompted my response, which I would appreciate your feedback on.

1. I wonder if you know how poorly this reflects on your school. Are you sure "none" of them roll with "any" guys? and are given "no" exposure to them? Or are you taking a whitebelt only (or mainly whitebelt) class? Do you speak from the limited experience of a whitebelt who has been training, what, 6 months? a year? or have you asked upper belts at your academy? have you asked the women at your school?

2. "effectively roll" meaning what... not be tapped? achieve and maintain positional dominance? not get injured?

3. As a petite female, I have learned to protect myself by choosing training partners carefully. I usually won't roll with a brand new whitebelt until I get to know him a little bit (meaning he's not brand new any more and I get a feel for his personality, his maturity and control, etc.) I frequently roll with men who outweigh me by 50-80lbs and occasionally I'm lucky enough to roll with guys who are 120+lbs more than me (one a blue belt, one a black belt.) I have heard the following theory attributed to several people, but Hillary Williams repeated it to me first:

"Given approximately equal experience levels, size and strength will win.

For a smaller weaker man to defeat a larger stronger man, he will need a two year technique advantage. (Of course we're talking a substantial size difference, not 10-15 lbs.)

For a WOMAN to defeat a MAN, (note, size is less relevant because even same height/weight individuals will produce a muscle-mass disparity in the man's favor) she will need a four to six year technique advantage. "

I have not found the latter to be true consistently-- on occasion, even going balls to the wall (so to speak-- not them "taking it easy on me") I have submitted a male opponent who is 20-30 lbs heavier than me (or more) who is within 1 year of me in either direction, experience-wise. But the big jump in technique advantage required reflects the greater upper-body strength of 99% of men *and* I think the better training available for men, who almost always have at least a good number of remotely-similarly sized training partners (whereas most women are stuck almost always being the smaller/weaker of a pairing.)

The ladies in your academy may choose to drill with other women so that they can learn the techniques and not have to struggle against weight and length in addition to the unfamiliarity of the movement. They may choose to spar against other women out of fear, preference for better smells, desire to improve competition performance, or sheer ignorance that they'd be welcome to spar with the guys. Have you invited any ladies to roll?

I'll also add that I agree with everything Kitsune's said and wanted to elaborate just a bit more: Know what a sweet spot is in tennis? or racquetball? It's the place on your racquet face that "works" best. It's not on the edge, it's somewhere in the middle, and when you connect with the ball there, you know it. Or think about playing hide and seek as a kid with someone else telling you "warmer" and "colder" as you got closer and farther.

Trying things in jits, especially takedowns and sweeps, also involves a sweet spot. When you first learn a sweep, there's a range of places you can put your hands, legs, balance etc and if you picture it like a bullseye, when you're in the outer realm the technique won't work at all. The closer you get to doing it "right" (someone calling out "warmer!") the easier the technique is and the less you have to force it. As people learn sweeps, they can "fudge" a little bit and make up for having less than perfect technique with a little extra power, push, pull, whatever. They have a greater # of permutations of variations in grip, balance, positioning that will "almost" work. Men have, therefore, a larger "sweet spot" at the beginning of learning that technique. Women rarely have sufficient muscle to "force" a technique to work, therefore their sweet spot is much smaller. Sweeps simply won't work AT ALL until we get past "cool" and "warm" and very, very close to "hot." So if a guy drills a sweep 20 times with a partially resisting partner, maybe 4-8 of those reps will be in the "warmer" area, giving him 4-8 opportunities to figure out what works and be positively reinforced for being even "close." A girl with the same 20 attempts MIGHT get it ONCE in the warm-enough-to-work, much-smaller sweet spot. She has to drill it 100 times with the partially resisting partner to get the same 4-8 data points.


Your thoughts?


leslie said...

Ugh, that guy has had me furious all day. I've written and deleted several scathing comments. (Finally posted one because I just couldn't stand it any longer.)

Love yours and Kitsune's responses. Perfect. I wanted to add something to Kitsune's response about difficulty of getting techniques just right, and your "sweet spot" theory covered it nicely.

To your questions to him:
1. He sig suggests he trains at Renzo's academy. I've personally been invited up by Renzo to train at his academy any time I'd like, and not just with Kyra & the girls, and he has mentioned that there are 20 or so girls training.

I do know that Renzo's academy is heavily split up in classes. From the academy schedule, a Women's Class runs concurrently with the beginner's class on 2 nights. So I'd imagine the women take that class so they completely skip the spazzy white belt boys. And yes, he'd be in a white-belt only class.

2. So, since 240lb is TWICE MY SIZE, I agree, what does "effectively" mean in his mind? Against guys 2x my size, no matter their experience level, my goal is to not be injured. I never roll "not to get tapped" (that to me is the people who fetal-position hard an entire round and never do anything. Different than rolling "not to get injured"), but I do think I could probably manage to survive a tough round without tapping against a fellow blue or even purple if my only goal were to not tap. But that's dumb-jitsu.

Also, I had heard 3-year technique headstart was needed back when I started training. Now you've got Hillary saying "4-6." That makes me feel better, as even 3.5 years only gets me so far sometimes.

Lori (Vancouver/Richmond BC Martial Arts Instructor) said...

It is really irritating to hear ignorant attitudes toward women. Fortunately, not all think that way. There are men in the world who appreciate what it takes for a woman to keep up their motivation to practice submission grappling with larger men. I just try to be grateful that there are sensible, respectful guys out there to train with and keep things fun. Thanks for sharing! :)

Anonymous said...

He needs to worry about his own jiujitsu. Someone elses progress or lack thereof is nobodys business. Focus on your own training. I suggest he enter in the absolute division to feel what its like to have weight and pressure as factors agianst you. Something our sisters in bjj deal with on a daily basis.

Aparna said...

Like Leslie, I've kind of been fuming for awhile. I did leave my 2 cents on JJF, but I was holding back a LOT of irritation. Sometimes I wonder...would I have really stuck with BJJ if the guys rolled with me like I was another guy? I definitely feel like there are days when I was being hulk-smashed, but I still think they weren't going as hard with me as they would with another guy. Maybe they were, but I guess I'll never know.

Kintanon said...

Pretty sure I bitched this guy out on Reddit already, but in my personal opinion and based on my personal experience what holds women in BJJ back the MOST is lack of quality training partners.
As several of you have mentioned it is a STONE COLD BITCH to have to modify a technique on the fly to work against someone who is bigger than you are when you haven't had a chance to try it on someone your size yet. Even as a small guy I can almost always grab someone that is about the right size and work through a technique.

Additionally, the quantity and quality of people who are my size is just higher. I'm more likely to be able to find a higher level person of my own size to help me with my style and to work out how and where various techniques will fit into it.
It's far more difficult to do that when you're female and weigh 110lbs or something.

Anne said...

This guy is an idiot, and clearly does not train at Renzo's main academy, where some of the girls *only* train with guys.

That being said, being of Renzo lineage myself, I can attest to it being one of the more sexist affiliations out there.

leslie said...

@Anne: He trains at the affiliate in Connecticut, probably. (Turns out there's only 1, and the school photo shows only 2 girls. So.) That was my mistake, as his sig said "Renzo Gracie Academy" and not a more specific school name.

Your experience with Renzo's lineage is interesting, as I train under a Renzo BB and have not had similar experiences.

Georgette said...

@Anne and Leslie--Definitely in Connecticut. Originally, his profile on the forum said what town in CT-- I wanted to say something like New Brenham (I don't think it was West Haven but I could be wrong)... but as the discussion continued he deleted the town name. He did PM me to tell me I was being a complete jerk to him, along with other comments that were more polite and conversational. Oh well. I know if he sticks with jits, he'll get over these perspectives and develop some new ones. Would love to get input from the two girls at his school though! And the instructor! Who I am sure would not appreciate how his school is coming across on the intertubes.....

Dragonladybjj said...

It really does amaze me how many ignorant and egotistical males there are in this sport. I guess it was a real surprise to me because I haven't experienced this much at my gym. @Georgette and Leslie...a couple of your posts a few weeks back got me to thinking about women, men and BJJ. I think it's a shame that men think we are somehow looking for special treatment simply because we acknowledge the obvious size and muscle difference. I struggle everyday training at gym with 99.9% guys...there is only one other female who trains like once a week. I fully agree with the "sweet spot" theory. I don't think I've found it yet...but working on it.

Briana said...

I have to say that I loved Kitsune's response to him because that is exactly how I am feeling as a woman who is just starting out in jiujitsu. I am always the smallest (being 5'1 and around 90 lbs) and most of the time, the only girl. The closest thing to my weight is a guy who weighs 140lbs so every technique I struggle with (mostly sweeps). Every time I work with one of the guys who are arrogant they always look at me and say "I don't know what to do, I don't want to hurt her." It gets under my skin a lot because they don't say it like they are concerned for my actual safety. Regardless I always try my best and eat the mat often, but after reading this it doesn't make me feel like a failure at the sport.

Georgette said...

Briana, for SURE you are not alone. Keep on plugging... it WILL get better... in months.. and months... Welcome to the blog by the way! :)

Anonymous said...

This sweet spot theory is really helpful! I just began training BJJ in the last month and have found sweeping incredibly difficult. I am the only woman at my club and most of the men that are there are at least a blue belt or outweigh me by at least 30lbs, usually both. I think if I keep this theory in mind it will help me a lot and I will be much less frustrated having to rep things 5x more than the guys before I get it.

Unknown said...

I just started training BJJ full time very recently and am the only woman at the club. I have been getting really frustrated trying to get sweeps down and I had chalked it up to just not being very experienced. I really like this idea of a "sweet spot" and it makes a lot of sense that as a woman I have a much smaller sweet spot and can't just power through a sweep like the guys. I read this earlier today and went to training after with a whole new mind set about repping and we did sweeps today so it was perfect! I don't think I'll mind having to rep so much more than the guys to make it work with this theory behind me.

Georgette said...

I'm so glad! It is really hard being smaller. And I'll add-- since my long layoff has grown me by about 15 lbs of notmuscle-- that even now at 148 lbs where I approach the size of the smaller guys in my academy, that extra size isn't helping me at all with things like sweeps. So ladies who aren't teeny-tiny, don't feel like this post isn't about you too. Size disparity isn't just about actual weight but also limb length and proportion of muscle to everything else.

Tom said...

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Jackson said...

I know this is an older post and most of the comments are older. So, I don't know if anyone will see this. I was curious to hear your thoughts on how beginner males should conduct themselves when they are paired up with women. I am a new, male white belt who's only been training a couple months.

Its still uncomfortable for me to roll with most anyone I don't know, but much more so with a woman. I'm not sure whether to go easier, or if that will be seen as offensive. If I don't go easy enough will I be seen as a rude or poor training partner? There's also the culturally-engrained idea that putting my hands on a woman I don't know, in too familiar a way, is not a good idea. That brings some discomfort in itself.

Also, I realize most of these things are probably silly in the context of the training environment, and some are just internal to me. I also know what each person wants is individual. There are probably no universal rules. I just thought it would be interesting to hear some of you ladies address the situation from that perspective.

I would also say that, at leat in my very limited experience, if guys treat you differently its because they don't know how they should conduct themselves. At least that's true for me. I expect the majority of guys want to be a good training partner for everyone they work with.

Matthew said...

This is a good article and discussion, even though it is from years ago. I would like to share something my school does that I think helps women who are starting out in BJJ: we have a family class that includes kids and teens. There is also an adult only class on different nights that of course also includes women.

What is cool about the family class for women is that you aren't even close to the smallest person in class! If you are a 20 year old 120lb woman, you can definitely make progress on all techniques when paired with 13 year old boys and girls. The youths in turn can build experience both with larger/older grapplers, and smaller grapplers such as 10 year olds. The 10 year olds can practice new techniques on the 7 year olds etc. Needless to say everyone needs to treat their grappling partners with respect so that everyone stays healthy and happy.

The cool thing is that the youngest kids aren't keeping score; they are just having fun. There is no mental counting "legitimate subs" versus "gimme subs" since the younger kids don't care at all.

Background: I am a 195lb male blue belt through Pedro Sauer lineage. I came across this article when looking for ways to make new women more comfortable at our BJJ club. Also my two daughters do BJJ in the family class.

CL said...

My heart was absolutely SINGING after reading your and Kitsune's response. Heck yeah, you guys got it spot-on - seriously, I almost cried when Kitsune talked about rolling for a year and still being able to only submit the number of fingers she has on her hands. I want to run and yell through the mountains hallelujah. I've been at this for a year, admittedly recreationally as I'm more into the MMA, but I really do like BJJ, and go 3x a week. I think I have 5 real submissions. Ones where my partner didn't just acquienced to a submission.

I'm 125 pounds, 5"2 and have had my ribs crushed to the point of not being able to breathe for days just because my 250 pound partner decided that sitting on me was easier than doing a submission. Feck it. Sometimes I just want to give up, quit it all. Kitsune's right - it's not just the physical stress, it's the mental stress of being dragged, and literally smeared into the floor, trying to do a "hip escape" when when hip escape costs you everything you have because the person on top of you is twice your weight and more.

White belt guys want to pump you with every arm-bar and knee you accidentally in the ribs, and the big guys just sit on you. When there are women who join, I'm still the runt in the bunch, although admittedly the techniques do work on them (so there's hope!) since we're more evenly matched.

Basically I just want to say that this blog, and Kitsune's reply has made me realize that yeah, I better keep trying, but not to feel so frustrated with myself that I'm not sweeping and submitting at the speed of light - size DOES matter, and that's not reason to stop training, but it's a good to know that there's no point in comparing your progress to someone else - ESPECIALLY of a different size AND gender.

Dan said...

Much respect to the author of this post, I definately tip my cap.

Thanks for sharing. I am a 40 yo 5'8 160 lbs male, 4 month two stripe white belt, probably above average in upper body strength and slightly below average core and lower body strength.

I feel very good rolling against someone my size/strength or less but really have a hard time against bigger stronger partners. Thus, I think I can relate to some of what you so nicely described.

I saw Gracie Academy video describe what they call 'Boyd Belts'... in a nut shell, it says that for every 20lbs or 10 yr age difference between you and your partner, add one belt to them. Thus rolling with a white belt 60 lbs more than you, will feel like you are rolling with a brown belt.

Thanks for sharing. It was educational for me and inspiring.


Georgette said...

Thanks Dan! You make great points!