Jiu Jitsu... Not Just For The Boys Anymore

Published on by Nico Ball

Photos by Nico Ball

 Female role models in the sport are few and far between. Generally, we look up to male coaches and training partners to provide motivation to continue our journey. Recently there has been a growth in all female BJJ classes/open mats and seminars geared for girls but this is a phenomenon reserved mainly for big cities. I got a chance to bask in the awesomeness of Dominyka Obelenyte (black), Erin Herle (brown), and Vedha Toscano (purple), 3 badass females who all brought home double medals at the 2016 IBJJF New York BJJ Pro competition on November 19th. After watching them compete on Saturday, hanging out with them at an all female open mats on Sunday, and training with them on Monday, I was convinced that they are some of the hardest working females in the sport so I had to share their opinions on training and competing in the gentle art.

Fight The Fear
To train or not to train, that is the question. For ladies, it can be a tough decision to don a gi and get sweaty. Whether we want to admit it or not, jiu-jitsu is a male dominated sport, and sometimes the thought of rolling around with a bunch of guys can be intimidating. After all, not everyone is a fighter.

“There’s only a portion of people that compete for the most part it's just people that are enjoying their time, looking for ways to get in shape, or looking for ways to destress. Competition is not a huge priority”

Erin Herle, a brown belt under Marcelo Garcia, has a lot of competition experience, but she also recognizes that not everyone is trying to make a living by competing in the gentle art. Self-defense, she affirms, is a huge component when it comes to getting more women involved in the sport.

“Women need to be assertive,” says 5x World Champion Dominyka Obelenyte in respect to getting down and dirty and training with guys. It can definitely be frustrating, especially when guys think they need to treat women a certain way on the mats she admits, but men need to learn to roll with all different types of people just as much as women need to learn to be more outgoing and confident in regard to their own training.

Let's face it, although the number of females in jiu-jitsu is growing, it’s still a male dominated sport. New York has a huge BJJ following, a large number of which are women, but it’s not as common to find the same female-friendly environment in smaller towns and cities. Obelenyte has been a vocal proponent of equal rights and pay for women and she strongly believes that more women need to step up and “show the world that we exist”.

Only 21 years old, Obelenyte is constantly seeking out solutions to make the sport a more approachable environment whether it's hosting all girls open mats, running female classes, or threatening to bring down the patriarchy with the meager amount of IBJJF prize money awarded to females in the sport. More women need to become an active force in the sport by signing up for more competitions or taking the initiative to start training. Even going out to support female athletes at tournaments can make all of the difference.

Find The Time
Deciding to compete can be a challenging, especially if you consider the rest of the responsibilities of adult life. Both Obelenyte and Vedha Toscano, a purple belt under her father, Fabio Clemente, are currently studying at college and Erin Herle used to manage a full-time school and training schedule while also flying around the country to cover different events for Gracie Mag. It's not easy, but these three young ladies are living proof that it can be done!

According to Vedha, creating priorities and understanding your limits is essential. “Everyone’s different. Maybe for me training once a day and then doing conditioning is better than doing two, kill myself trainings. I’ll do one hard training and one conditioning.”

The worst thing you can do before a tournament is psych yourself out mentally. Setting clear goals with training, studying, and working will help assuage any excess anxiety. Part of competing is learning how to master your mind. That includes minimizing anxiety, maximizing your ability to absorb new techniques, and remaining humble when you begin to reap the fruits of your labor.

“Understand that you have limits or else everything suffers, your work, suffers your school suffers, everything.“

Herle stressed that time management is just as important as proper technique. Knowing that not everyone has to do 2-3 training sessions a day in order to be good is also important. Just because you only train 2-3 a week, doesn’t mean that you can’t compete.

One of the best ways to prepare for competition even when time is limited is to drill before or after class. Twenty minutes of reviewing positions can go a long way and since you can drill without drowning in sweat, you don't even have to wash your hair afterward.

Obelenyte had a particularly hard struggle when traveling to compete while still in high school. “What I hated the most was winning IBJJF Worlds and then going back to school. Like are you kidding me? But no one cares they want their homework.”

Whether you win or not it’s important to remember… no one cares! This holds especially true to the lower belts. It’s not uncommon to find tournaments populated with multitudes of distraught white belts crying over lost medals or over pretentious blue belts demanding sponsorship deals and super fights.

The lower belts are meant for gaining competition experience and using it to fuel their progress and learning back at the gym. There is no need to take on every local tournament and training session like it’s finals at Abu Dhabi with a cash prize on the line.

Forget The Weight
If your mind doesn’t get to you, the scale usually will. Trying to find the right weight class to compete at can be a nightmare the first couple of times. Most people try to gain a strength advantage by slimming down to compete against smaller people as opposed to falling naturally somewhere in the middle of a weight class. It’s one thing to cut weight for big competitions like Worlds or Europeans, but if you're fighting at a local competition, it’s probably best to fight at your natural weight.

“You’re so used to training at your weight, if you cut down you’ll be weaker,” warns Vedha.

Cutting weight is an intricate science that has been manipulated by athletes for years, but most professional athletes have the help of a coach or a nutritionist to guide them in the process.

Try It Out
“The stupidest thing you can do is doubt yourself.” Dominyka Obelenyte

Maybe you won’t be a World champion. Maybe you’ll never master take down or feel comfortable executing arm bars. Maybe you’ll never enjoy the adrenaline rush of stepping onto the mats at a major competition and having your hand raised.

That’s ok. Jiu-jitsu isn’t about winning. It’s about gaining a better understanding of yourself and your surroundings so that you can escape armbar set-ups or avoid that creep that’s been eyeing you at the club. It’s about building bonds and relationships with people, learning to let go, and most importantly having fun.

The stupidest thing you can do is doubt yourself, talk yourself out of training, or forgo the experience of learning a martial art and gaining new friends.