Some thoughts on women, combat sports and training

Here’s another repost from 2010. Looking back over the last twelve 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, and the level of competition at elite levels much higher, some of this is still relevant. 

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 gave me nightmares in the gym are the teenage boys. I sometimes joked that I was sick of all the child prodigies, but really they made 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.


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