Some thoughts on women, combat sports and training

Here’s another repost from 2010. Looking back over the last five years, there’s been a lot of change within the MMA world. Women are now competing in all the major promotions, and many more are getting involved in combat sports at amateur and recreational levels. Although finding good training partners is less of an issue for female fighters than it used to be, much of this is still relevant.Β 

People sometimes ask me whether I think it’s better for female MMA fighters to train with other women, or to train mostly with men. The argument is sometimes made – often by women who have predominantly male training partners – that training with men makes you stronger, and more able to dominate when competing against other women. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this, and I think having good male training partners is important, especially since the talent pool of top level female fighters is pretty limited and it can be difficult to find opportunities to train with other women of a high skill level. But at the same time, I think it can be misleading.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. A good, dedicated, woman who is training MMA at an otherwise all male club often surprises her male training partners with her strength and technique. Very soon, she finds herself being told things like “you’re really strong for a woman”, and eventually “you’ll kill anyone in your weight class”. Her coaches, impressed by a woman who is giving the guys a run for their money in training, convince her (and sometimes the wider MMA community) that she’s destined to be the next big thing in female MMA. “No woman’s going to be as strong as the guys you’re training with”.

Many of us have been in this situation at some time or another, and it’s seductive. The problem is, it’s also plain wrong.

Nearly every woman I’ve competed against in any combat sport has felt strong. I’ve gone through periods in my career of training mostly with men, and I don’t think that that, by itself, has made me any more prepared to deal with the strength of my opponents. Sometimes, it’s been a disadvantage – it’s easy to go into a fight, expecting my competitor to feel physically inferior to the guys I spar in the gym. Under the pressure of competition, when everyone’s adrenaline is high, that’s rarely the case.

In addition, a bigger stronger guy rarely goes all out and uses his full strength, power and explosiveness when sparring a woman, any more than he would when sparring someone several weight classes below him. This makes sense in a training context – to do otherwise would make it likely that the smaller person would get little from the sparring session, and put them at a high risk of injury. But when nobody you are sparring with is really gunning for you – you miss out on vital experience.

There comes a point, if you want to get to the top, when we each have to accept that we’re not that unique or special. Lots of women, with the right training and sufficient dedication, are capable of being strong. Many of us can be tougher than the guys in our gym might expect – that alone doesn’t make us the best in the world. When I managed a deadlift of 100kgs, I thought this made me strong. Turns out that most reasonably athletic women, with a few months of strength training can do this.

So if I can’t count on being freakishly strong, skilled, or dedicated “for a woman”, where does that leave me? In the same position as anyone who does this, or any other sport. I’m competing against a lot of women who are also strong, skilled and dedicated. I’m looking for those small improvements in performance, conditioning and psychology that will give me an edge over the competition. At this level there’s no margin for error – it’s going to be tough all the way.

Some of the toughest training sessions I’ve had have been against other women. Someone who’s my size and weight who’s really going after me and kicking my ass whenever I take my eye off the ball for even a second. Having the opportunity to train with great female MMA fighters as well as world class female athletes in other combat sports has improved my game immensely.

In this situation, there are no more excuses. No more thinking “oh well, he’s just bigger and stronger” when I get stuck in a bad position or botch a takedown. It brings me face to face with the reality that there are things I need to improve on, and that those improvements are there for the taking. I start to realise that even when working with bigger guys, some of my difficulties may be highlighted by the strength difference, but ultimately I can avoid much of that by making technical improvements.

The other group who really give me nightmares in the gym are the teenage guys. I sometimes joke that I’m sick of all the child prodigies around at the moment, but really they make great training partners. What they don’t have in fully grown “man strength” they make up for in speed, fearlessness and not giving an inch.

I know I need training partners like this to continually remind me of the level I should be aiming for. Over the last few years, with increasing publicity, more fights on the bigger shows and a deepening talent pool, the level of female MMA has shot up. It’s time to raise our expectations. Maybe we’re not as special as we once thought, but with the right attitude and training we can be better than we used to imagine.

10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on women, combat sports and training

  1. I think there’s also a danger of men holding back, even if they’re not consciously aware of doing it. Purely from a psychology point of view, if your training partners are the same gender, and in particular the same or similar weight, there’s less danger of holding back too much and it can help bring out the competitive edge more in both of you since you’ll likely have similar goals and ambitions when it comes to progressing in a division you’re both fighting in.

  2. Great post. I agree that it can be very misleading being one of the only women training MMA at any given gym. I have often been told “no woman is going to hit as hard as (man).” In all likelihood the woman I am training to fight is also only sparring men and they are telling her the same thing.

    I try to take everything the guys say with a grain of salt. I don’t necessarily think they are attempting to mislead me I just think they have such limited experience with female athletes to really know whether I am “unusually strong and quick, for a woman.”

    1. Absolutely – I think the comments are made with the best of intentions. And it’s great that your team mates think you’re something special – that’s what team mates do. We should just try not to take it too literally! πŸ™‚

      FWIW, the hardest I’ve ever been hit, in training or in a fight, has always been by another woman.

  3. I came here from Seymour’s FB link. I do BJJ, not MMA, but I can definitely see your point of view. There IS a huge difference between someone going full out against you and someone who’s trying to hold back. Of course, I understand that in theory rather than practice πŸ™‚

    Awesome article!

  4. A simply superb and astute analysis, Rosie, I love this piece and think I may be re-reading it over the coming days πŸ™‚ I hear you re. the teenage boys! Not quite filled out yet, but freakishly bendy and egoless so a real pain to roll with. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts; is all about balance and variety in training partners and not making excuses for yourself, right?

    Perhaps as women (may?) become more of a feature of more gyms their male training partners’ expectations of what women are capable of will be altered, i.e. it will become less surprising that women can be strong and capable, and they’ll be less likely to blow smoke up their female training partners’ butts, even though they do so with the best of intentions, as you say.

    1. Of course at world class level, women won’t be competitive with men, in much the same way that a decent heavyweight will beat a good lightweight. If, however, you’re saying that a world class woman won’t beat even a novice man at the same weight – then you’re just plain wrong πŸ™‚

  5. I just wanted to say that I deeply respect the attitude presented here. I’ve been training for about 4 or 5 years and I know exactly what you mean. The guys are like, “Whoa. You are really strong.” My coach has never bloated my ego with ideas that I’d take out anyone in my weight class just based on strength alone, but some of my training partners seem to think so. I haven’t competed yet, but when I do, I will not assume anything about my competitors. In fact, I have always suspected that competing with another female would be more challenging because the gender barriers would be lifted….the footing would be equal. I like that, but I have little experience with it. Keeping my hopes up for a chance to see what I’m made of.

    Thanks again.


  6. This was a really interesting article and an important one for me starting out and largely training with the guys (..all of whom comment on my strength – presumably because my technique is just not there yet).
    I totally disagree with your comments Rikki” No matter who a woman trains with, she will NEVER be as good as any man.”, maybe that’s because my definition of ‘good’ involves being technically brilliant (…and technique will slaughter strength any day..) If you’re talking about being as strong as men, then yeah course-not in question, but as ‘good as’, I’m with Rosie- you’re wrong

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