Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Jiu-Jitsu, Self Defense, Size Differences & Training

“BJJ favors the stubborn.”  This is a quote shared with me by one of my professors.  As a woman, I believe you have to really want it. Want it bad enough to sleep on ice packs, walk in intimidated, be the only girl on the mat, see a chiropractor, sometimes several times per week, pay a good deal of money in gis, out-of-pocket expenses for injuries incurred on the mat, seminars, class fees, competition fees (shoud you choose to compete), travel expenses to/from competitions, and arnica cream J  You have to want it.  What is “it”?  The refining of character that Jiu-Jitsu will bring you. That is the invisible reward.  The color change of the belt, throughout the journey, is secondary.

Its not a sport for the woman who isn’t willing to do all of the above.  It’s a sport of indomitable will, unparalled determination, fearlessness, and tenacity. It will weed women out who don’t exhibit those characteristics, or who think they have them.

Just as my training partner, Andrew Winge, will lend his voice to how it weeds out the male ego, it will filter out the woman who isn’t able to endure pain, and want more of it.  All for the discipline of internal refinement.

Being the only woman on the mat offers positive rewards in the sense of training for self-defense.  As Andrew points out later, its unlikely a woman will be at the hand of another female attacker.  I leave the “Why?” of men being the dominant predator statistic, to the men, to question amongst themselves…and to rectify it.  All I have control over is the safety of myself, and that is something I train for.

Almine training at "Ralph Gracie BJJ"
I’m a firm believer that even if a woman takes a day long self-defense course that diligent practice of learned principles must be done.  

There’s controversy amongst the women’s BJJ community if day-long “Intro. To Women’s Self-Defense” classes are more harm than help.  This seems unlikely, however, a solid point is raised:  it can give a woman false hope that she’s safe, unless those principles are applied regularly in training.  If a woman is able to take what she learned in a self-defense intro. class, and diligently work those moves on men of Andrew’s belt ranking and size, I believe her confidence in the techniques may be warranted.
Almine in 50/50 with Cody Briggs, "World Class Martial Arts," PA.

I worked with a boxing instructor who also taught concealed weapons classes. He was 6’8.” He used to be a police officer in Las Vegas, and was my first “CrossFit” coach mentor, as well.  He reiterated, over and over, in his classes, and one-on-one work with me, that if someone takes a gun safety course, and never takes the gun out of her purse to shoot it regularly, do target practice, practice loading the gun, safely and quickly, that statistically, she’s at risk for injuring herself more than an intruder or attacker.  This makes sense to me.
Almine working on boxing with Coach Tom Benge, ex Las Vegas police officer, "CrossFit" coach, Strongman coach, "Strong First" coach, certified concealed weapons instructor, award-winning marksman

There’s arguments back and forth about the efficacy of one day women’s self-defense courses.  I see both sides of the issue.  But, I do believe in diligent practice with men of Andrew’s size.  The bigger the better (but yes, prepare yourself for a few chiropractic adjustments along the way!).  There’s also something to be said for work with men, who are smaller in stature, but quick and fast.  Andrew is my “big guy” training partner.  My other “Ralph Gracie BJJ” training brother is Javier, who is as light and fast as lightening.  These two gentlemen are my gauges for speed, strength and accuracy.  I practice the same moves on both men.  I experiment, and see what moves might be successful on men of Andrew’s size, and try to figure out the leverage and angles, as to why it worked.  That’s important, gals.  The “why” a move works helps you understand the bio-mechanics of leverage and angles, which is our greatest weapon against larger individuals.  It’s the premise of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  Other moves may be more successful against a man of Javier’s experience and speed.  Its trial and error, which can be frustrating at times.  Like anything worthwhile, it will take dedication and practice. I don’t believe a one day seminar will cut it.

I think one day seminars are the “sample platter” of a variety of disciplines:  BJJ, Krav Maga, boxing, etc.  They offer a glimpse into self-empowerment for women.  I believe this is a good thing.  It may “wet their appetite” to practice what they learned more.  If this is the case, it fulfilled its purpose.  If women learn a variety of techniques, and choose not to practice them, they may believe they have an arsenal of effective moves that prove ineffective in a terrifying situation.

Rolling with big men like Andrew is intimidating.  That’s part of the point.  Practicing the ability to control your emotions and breathing when you’re being smothered and feel panicked is just as important as the actual technique of escaping itself.

Because I’ve practiced being scared for a long time, with climbing, I believe that helps me on the mat.  I practice “circular breathing” when I’m on the mat, which is something I’ve diligently worked with while climbing for 13 yrs.  When I’m scared climbing (which is often), I make absolutely certain that my mouth is closed, and that I’m breathing through my nostrils only.  This slows your thinking down, which is imperative that high off the ground.  If you can’t think straight, you make mistakes.  Mistakes can cost you your life, or the life of your climbing partner.  You must calm your breathing, or the results can be deadly.

Almine trad-climbing at "Smith Rock," Terrebonne, OR.

Andrew is one of the most respectful training partners I’ve had the privilege of working with.  He’s aware of his size, and ability, and matches accordingly to those he rolls with.  Even though he’s a long time friend, am I still scared when I roll with him?  Absolutely.  It’s nothing personal.  It has to do with the fact that a large, strong man is on top of me, with the aim of smothering (or submitting) me.  This often shoots waves of panic through me.  It’s a normal response. I’ve been taught my whole life that’s a situation I should avoid at all costs.  Like being high off the ground.  That’s why I do it.  You must train for fear.  That way when fearful situations present themselves throughout your life you stare them back in the face with confidence.  I don’t believe this is something that can be taught in one day.  Engaging with fear must be diligently practiced. It’s uncomfortable.  It will teach you to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.  That is the point.

Often, when rolling with Andrew or Javier, my aim isn’t even to submit them, or escape.  It’s to control my breathing.  That’s step one.  Then I will be calm enough to think of what to do next, and I will do it better, than if I was in fear.

I’ll let Andrew share his wisdom of years of Jiu-Jitsu, and his thoughts on the benefits of rolling with women.  I’m grateful we’re at the same gym.  I do believe my Jiu-Jitsu will serve me even better, training with men like them, in a self-defense situation.  At the end of the day, that’s when it will matter most…

After a great day of training at "Ralph Gracie BJJ," Bend, OR.

Andrew's Thoughts:

­I’d like start with a “thank you” to Josei Heishi and Almine Barton for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this blog. I am genuinely flattered to be in such great company.

As for me, I’m a 44-year-old BJJ Brown Belt under Paul Moresi at Ralph Gracie Jiujitsu in Bend, Oregon.  I’m a practicing Emergency Medicine physician which means I spend the majority of my time trying to pull critically ill (often due to their own poor decisions) patients back from the proverbial edge. Mixed in with them is large volume of patients with relatively minor issues like ankle sprains, colds, and the occasional “My dog ate my pain pills, can I get some more?” requests.  My “office” is a loud, chaotic, and often violent place.

You can find Dr. Winge's book, "The Program-Person Evolution: A Scientific Approach To Rapid Body Recomposition" on "Amazon"https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Winge-MD/e/B00G5X4MUK

I started my BJJ journey over 11 years ago when my best friend from medical school, a psychiatrist, choked me out (with very little effort I might add) while we were grappling at a local gym. He had started BJJ the year before. I, however, was 60lbs heavier, former state record holder in powerlifting, and decently athletic dude. I was sure I could take him. Besides, in the history of medicine no scrawny psychiatrist had ever choked out an ER doctor as far as I knew. 

Well, the joke was on me. I got wrecked. After that I was hooked. I joined Marra Senki BJJ in San Antonio, TX and never looked back. Through my residency training, two deployments to Iraq as an Air Force doc, three cross-country moves, multiple injuries, and surgeries I’ve stuck with BJJ. I’m not a fast-burner, not an active competitor any more, my black belt is a LONG way away, but I’m not a quitter. BJJ has given far more than I could ever give back and I will continue to train until the day I drop dead (probably in the ER).


After leaving the Air Force I moved to Bend, Oregon and was fortunate enough to train with Roy Dean at his academy. That’s where Almine and I met. We became fast friends and, now that we are back at the same gym, regular training partners.  One of the issues we found ourselves discussion on more than one occasion was the male-female training dynamic. What may have surprised her is the value I placed on the often-overlooked benefits that male BJJ practitioners can reap by training with women as well as some of the advice I had for females starting out in BJJ. I’ll do my best to summarize those below.

Why men should train with women:

I learned the collar choke from a female purple belt when I was a brand new 245lb white belt. She taught it to me by trapping me in a closed guard and rendering me unconscious in the first thirty seconds of our roll.  Did all that muscle help me? Did the fact that I could squat 650lbs and bench press over 400lbs make one bit of difference? Nope. Not a bit. My carotid arteries are the same size as everyone else’s.

Size...Its All A Matter Of Perspective :-)

Most people would agree that, all else being equal, being big and strong is an advantage in a grappling or MMA match. I would agree. But it is my belief that being a larger and stronger guy has in many ways been an impediment to the development of my jiu-jitsu. Strength has always been there for me, like an extra gear or reserve that I could tap into if I got myself into a bad position or was caught in a submission. The problem is, at least when you are rolling with less skilled opponent, the temptation to use that strength first instead of relying on proper technique is quite strong. When you have a 50lb weight advantage explosively bench-pressing a white or blue belt off you works most of the time.  It’s taken many years of training to realize, however, that going there first and not taking the time to work on getting an underhook, making space, or off-balancing my opponent may work in the moment, but ultimately sabotages my development as a BJJ practitioner.

When I train with women my size and strength advantage is magnified manifold. It’s blatantly obvious to both of us and, for me, serves as the perfect reminder that I need to put that part of my game away and focus entirely on what will make me better: proper technique. That doesn’t mean I go easy on them. I serve up a “Kimura-salad” for Almine whenever we roll (sorry couldn’t resist!), but I do my best to use good technique and if she defends appropriately I move on to the next move in the chain.

We have a saying at Ralph Gracie Bend: “Take care of your training partner” and I take it seriously. By just smashing my opponent or relying on raw strength to force a move or escape I’m not helping myself and I’m certainly not helping my training partner. I believe strongly that every rolling session in the gym should leave both participants with something positive. If that means getting tapped out by a female training partner who executes a perfect collar choke that I fail to defend using proper technique then so be it. After I recover, she get’s a “high-five” and I go on to my next training partner having learned something valuable and so does she.
My advice to men: Check your ego and your strength advantage. Try to roll at least once a class with a female opponent and use that opportunity to do what you are there for in the first place which is get better at jiu-jitsu. You don’t have to lie there like a wet noodle because you’re afraid you’ll hurt them.  Women who train BJJ are already far tougher than average. They aren’t delicate little flowers you have to protect. Push them and challenge them, but do it with skill and technique, not with brute strength. 

Advice for women when training with men:

One thing my female training partners have stated repeatedly over the years is that walking into a new BJJ gym can be an intimidating experience, especially if you are a beginner. I completely understand that feeling. If you’re lucky there will be a number of other women to train with, but odds are there will be just a few. You may even be the only one. I would encourage women that are new to BJJ to not let this discourage you.
What follows is some of the advice that I think can help make this a more positive experience. I know this won’t apply to all women or even most. A woman training for Pan-Ams will likely have different training objectives than a woman who trains for self-defense purposes or for general fitness.

1.               Train with purple belts and above as much as possible. Though it’s definitely not perfect, BJJ is a pretty good douche-bag filter. A guy that has made it to purple belt and beyond has likely learned how to check his ego and focus on using good technique. They also may have a better feel for the strength differential that exists between men and women and be able to dial that back. There are no guarantees, but you are less likely to have a higher belt “spaz out” on you and end up injuring you during a roll than a nineteen-year-old college wrestler white-belt who fancies himself a future UFC fighter.

2.               Roll with a wide range of body types. This advice applies equally to men. One of the best ways to develop a well-rounded arsenal of techniques is to spar with training partners with a wide range of body types, especially those that are much larger than you. You might be fortunate enough to have a skilled 250lb female to roll with but the odds are you won’t. Let’s face it; there are more 250+lb males in BJJ than there are females. Don’t shy away from them.

Dr. Andrew Winge, M.D. in Roy Dean's "Pure Rolling" DVD series

One thing Almine reminds me of on a regular basis is that “If a move works on you, then it’s going to work on just about anyone”. Given our size/strength differential, I think there’s a lot of truth to this. I think she will also be the first to agree that training with a really quick, skilled lightweight male has equal benefit and helps develop a different set of techniques better suited to that kind of opponent. 

1.                Be assertive. You have just as much right to be there as the boys. Ask questions. If you want to just work on specific moves or situations with your training partners then say so. If you find that some of the guys you train with aren’t open to this and just want to go 100% every time then don’t roll with them. You’re there to get better and you can’t do that if you are injured. Be open to constructive feedback and seek out training partners of both genders that help you improve and that are mature enough to receive feedback from you as well.

Learn some self-defense. It’s a sad fact that in this country 1 in 6 woman will be the victim of sexual violence[1]. In some other countries that rate is even

[1] National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998)
Andrew Teaching A Women's Self-Defense Course At "Ralph Gracie BJJ"

1.               higher. It’s shocking, disgusting, and it makes me angry. The perpetrators in nearly all cases of sexual assault are overwhelmingly male. Violent assaults by patients are a workplace hazard in my profession and female nurses and doctors are often the victims. Learning the self-defense aspect of BJJ and being comfortable applying those techniques against a resisting male opponent could save your life.

 Don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior.  In the vast majority of cases, BJJ practitioners are a friendly, welcoming bunch. As I stated, BJJ is a pretty good douche-bag filter. That being said, there are men out there that, for whatever reason, never learned to interact respectfully with women.  Those issues can be magnified on the mat. Don’t tolerate inappropriate comments, groping, or anything else from a male training partner that makes you uncomfortable. Call them out immediately. Make sure your professor is aware. If it doesn’t stop immediately then I’d recommend finding another gym. You should never have to tolerate that sort of behavior.


Andrew Winge ~ @personalevolutiondoc
Almine Barton ~ @alminebarton
Ralph Gracie BJJ ~ @ralphgraciebend