I’m on many martial arts threads and forums and along with common questions like “how to get the funk out of my gi?” and “how to prepare for your first tournament,” “how to train with a female partner” also tops the list.
There are quite a few people out there that would say “just like anyone else”.
But is that really true?
I can’t say that I treat any one partner exactly the same as I treat another. There are several variables that make a training experience enjoyable, and each of us are, in one way or another, partially responsible for the enjoyment and rewards that are gained through our martial art community.
I think the reason this question comes up so often is that most people are good people. Most people in the martial arts are men. Most men don’t want to be “that guy” or be accused of being “that guy”. Most men also don’t want to do any harm, especially if they’ve explicitly been taught their entire life not to hurt women.
To best help my male martial arts friends, here are 3 ways to help make your female partners feel comfortable so that you can feel more comfortable too.
#1 – Communication
No matter who you’re working with, training in cold, icy silence can be a bit awkward. It’s not to say that you should be jabbering on, but check-ins are important when you’re working with someone with different abilities and sizes. Check-ins should be initiated by the senior person in the pairing, if there is one. For many joining classes for the first time, they may be timid in communicating their needs, as often times there is the assumption that if the first-timer is feeling uncomfortable that perhaps this is just the way things are at that training centre. Simple questions like, “Am I putting too much pressure?” or “Is this working right?” can provide enough insight into how your partner is feeling or enjoying working with you, while at the same time indicate elements of improvements in your performance as a senior person.
If you’re reading this as a beginner, you also have a responsibility and right to communicate your needs. The majority, if not all, of those attending martial arts classes do so with self-defense in mind. If you are practicing at a martial arts school and feel like you’re getting hurt while working with an uncontrolled partner, then you’re not practicing or learning self-defense. . . You’re getting hurt. In most instances, when a partner is muscling through technique and overpowering you, they’re often unaware of it. Simply mentioning to your partner, “I think you might be using too much strength there,” may be all that’s needed for you to have an enjoyable and safe class.
No matter the circumstances, whenever two parties are in communication, they have equal responsibilities as the transmitter and the receiver. However, when you are either stronger, bigger, or more senior, a greater responsibility may fall on you. Why? Because organically, you’re more capable of unconsciously hurting others and you’re more likely to get in a dominant position where communication will be difficult for a smaller or weaker partner.
#2 – Don’t worry. We know sometimes body parts will be “grazed.”
Nowhere are breasts more feared than when a man is grappling with a woman for the first time.
Don’t worry guys, its’ pretty easy to tell the difference between someone trying to grope you and someone accidentally jabbing you in the boob on their way to an arm bar. Truly, the difference is HUGE!
Most martial arts are male dominated. Often times when there is a boob graze, it is because that’s where a partner (no matter the gender), may tend to place their hand during a technique. As a woman, I know I’ve accidentally touched my fellow female partner’s breast because I’m used to putting my hand in that position when working with male partners, with whom I work with the majority of the time.
Martial arts, particularly grappling, are close contact; very close contact. Every body part may accidentally be grazed, punched, grabbed, etc. It’s the nature of the sport and most of those entering it have that understanding. Returning to the point of communication, if it does happen, a simple and genuine, “My bad!” is enough to show concern for the well-being of your partner and express your feelings of dread for it happening.
#3 – Be Conscious of Size/Strength Difference.
Whether you’re bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker, female or male or anything in between, being conscious of your size is important when working with your partner, but it is also important for understanding what strategies will work best for you.
If you are 250 lbs, you need to be aware that putting all your weight on someone who is half your size is likely to cause your partner injury or at the very least a level of discomfort that is not conducive to an enjoyable training experience. At the same time, if you’re 90 lbs, you need to realize that trying to use strength against bigger opponents won’t be an optimal strategy, and may also result in you injuring yourself and your partner.
Body awareness is pivotal for understanding your own capabilities. But having that body awareness also lends itself to greater overall awareness, like in regards to mat space and body language of your partners.
As Sun Tzu says:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As some of you may have commented in your internal dialogue, these aren’t guidelines just for working with females, but for any partner, of any size and ability. More than anything, if you always practice with respect, empathy and awareness, you’ll contribute to a welcoming and fun community that will be enjoyable for everyone of any size and capability.