Although Jiu Jitsu is a sport that seems to be mainly practiced by males, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of women who also practice the sport. With that being said, I recently conducted an email interview with BJJ Brown belt and instructor of 50/50 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s women’s program, Jen Flannery. She was kind enough to take some time out of her busy competition schedule to give us some thoughts and her perspectives on women in our sport. Let us know what you think!

AV: How did you get started in BJJ? How did you first hear of it and what got you interested?

Jen: My first sight of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was at my new TKD academy while I was in college. I went to watch a belt test. Unbeknownst to me, the instructor was also a Blue Belt in BJJ and had added some of the more basic old school Gracie self-defense techniques to the curriculum for belt tests. You just had to demonstrate two techniques for each test against an unresisting opponent but as soon as I saw it, I asked the person sitting next to me what it was. I wanted to do it immediately (lol!) I took about two months of BJJ classes there but had to stop due to a knee injury. However, I had fallen in love and picked it up again at an actual BJJ academy about a year later.

AV: What are some reasons why you think women should start training?

Jen: There are soo many reasons that BJJ is good for women. It’s hard to narrow it down. (Haha) And I don’t want to speak for all women so I’ll list one of the reasons it was good for me. You see, although I’ve always been petite (5’2” and rarely over 120lbs since my 18th birthday-I wasn’t yet 120lbs then), but inside my head I was a giant. (lol!) I’ve always been an athlete and prided myself on outdoing the guys in pushups and sit-ups in ROTC in college. Everyone thought I was crazy for going way above the max for women (I did that because I wanted to be as good as the guys.) I believed that I could take on anyone. What BJJ showed me was that I couldn’t. It was a tough stone to swallow. You mean my sheer desire and athleticism won’t let me win? Being small at the beginning stages of Jiu-Jitsu is rough. It is NOT an easy path. I was forced to see right in front of me that there is literally nothing I can do to make myself as big, strong, fast, explosive, or in any way physically equal to a man. Many a tear has been shed over the last (almost) 8 years as I tried to come to grips with this fact.

Yes, it will always be harder for women. Even a small man, is, well, still a man. But as I progressed, I began to see that it is possible to GAIN the ability to best those who are bigger, stronger, and more athletic.

And the confidence and self-awareness that comes with this realization, is priceless. I don’t believe this can be found in quite the same way anywhere else in any other sport. For in no other combat sport, is it safe to train hard with people bigger and stronger. BJJ is unique in this. It is special. It is for everyone, because you are arming yourself with one of the most important things you can, self-defense.

Many women who don’t train BJJ think that they are tough, they do a little kick-boxing at the local gym or Krav Maga. Personally, I am terrified at their lack of appreciation and respect for the power and strength that is a man. BJJ women learn to respect this, accept it, and use it against them.

AV: What are some barriers that you think are presented to women who are hesitant in starting BJJ?

Jen: To be honest, I can’t fathom why everyone doesn’t love BJJ as much as I do, (lol!) The first moment I saw it I knew it was for me. I can’t imagine life without it.

But I’ll make a guess from talking to a lot of women and asking how/why they came to it.

Some of the hesitation is the need for closeness with strange men. If you walk into most BJJ schools, you are lucky to see a single woman on the mat so a new woman is invariably paired with a man. Deep down I think most women know that they are physically weaker than men and a deep-seated fear of our vulnerability keeps some of them away from a situation where they would have to face it constantly.

The best thing an academy can do is create a safe place for women to get to know BJJ. A women’s only class is a great start. Absent that, a women’s changing room is also helpful. Somewhere that is special to them that they can feel safe. Something that welcomes them and eases their path to the mat.
AV: You have a pretty successful Women’s BJJ program at 50/50, can you please briefly explain the growth of your class? How did it begin and what it’s become since you started?

Jen: I started our women’s only class as just a blue belt (not something I would normally recommend) in January 2009, with two girls with some experience who came to us from a local academy, and one new girl. Although most classes for the first 6 months ended up being private lessons for the new girl. It took a lot of patience on my part to keep showing up week after week with slow progress in our numbers. I know many instructors who started a program and gave up before it came to fruition. It started to pick up a bit after I received my purple belt in June 2009. It is definitely preferable to have a more seasoned instructor, unless you have no other options.
I convinced a few of the girlfriends/wives of the guys to train and that’s where our numbers first started to pick up. They liked it more than they thought they would! I kept the class relatively easy and basic but it has always been a real BJJ class, not some fake off-shoot self-defense wannabe class.

Over the years our numbers have ebbed and flowed, but we now stand at just over 20 ladies, maybe 10 of whom train regularly. It is not unusual to see 5-6 women (or more) in a single class anymore. We have one black belt, a brown belt (me), 2 purple belts, about 6 blue belts and the rest are white belts. The black belt and one of the purple belts (seasoned competitors) moved from different areas of California just to train with us!

AV: Jen, being an active competitor yourself, do you encourage your students to compete? And whether it be yes or no, could you please explain?

Jen: This is an interesting one. I can say that I hope all our students choose to compete. We definitely express our belief that the only true test of your skills is competition. If you can’t perform under pressure, why train at all? BJJ is a martial art and the whole reason martial arts came into existence was for self-preservation and protection. Competition is the closest thing we have available to test our skills and make sure they work. It hones your skills in a way that cannot be adequately mimicked in the training room, no matter how hard you try.

That said, most of our students do not elect to compete (at least not regularly). They each have their own reasons for doing Jiu-Jitsu, or they simply have a difficult life schedule that doesn’t allow them to train in a way that would prepare them for competition.

Of course, each individual must choose his/her own path. As long as each one is happy with their personal path through Jiu-Jitsu, it is not up to us to judge. Obviously, it is not possible to progress with your knowledge or through the ranks as quickly without competition, but if the student understands this and is okay with it, than who are we to say otherwise?

AV: Check out the 50/50 BJJ Women's Competition Team highlights below.
AV: For the viewers that aren’t aware of your competition history, how long have you been competing? What has been your favorite competition to participate in? And finally what are your plans for 2013?

Jen: I did my first competition just shy of my 6 month mark in Jiu-Jitsu, it was January 2006 and I barely knew enough to be terrified. (Haha!) I received my blue belt right after that and then I became terrified for real. I competed 2 or 3 times that Spring but I was only training twice per week because I had a full-time job working 10-12 hours a day and a part-time job two evenings a week and weekends (I was a broke recent grad). At the one year mark back then women had to move up to Advanced so I quit my part-time job and started to get serious about Jiu-jitsu (at least I thought I was, but I was still only training 3x per week, and had added in some lifting/running the other days). I changed teams at the end of that year as I wanted a more competitive training environment, started training 4-5 days a week and entered my first Pan Ams in 2007. I was an awful disgrace at that tournament, but luckily I made up for it by placing at the Worlds later that year.

My favorite competition to compete in, hmm…tough one. I think there are three actually. The 2009 Pan I won as a blue belt was the first big tournament I actually won. That was when I first realized I might one day be good at this sport. Although, I’m still hoping for that to come! The amazing thing about this sport is there is always more to learn, and the more you learn, the more you realize you still aren’t good enough. The number of levels is astounding and was completely unfathomable to me as a blue belt. At the 2009 Worlds, I was disappointed with a third place in my division but redeemed myself the next day by placing third in the open, having won three fights against all girls 30-50lbs larger. That was back when everyone could register for the open (now it’s limited to medalists), so it was a pretty big division. And lastly, the first time I won a division at purple belt was also the first time I had to compete without a coach. So that was a big confidence booster as well. This weekend I will compete for the first time at the Brasileiro, hopefully, I can add this to my favorite one day!

AV: A brief video below of some of Jen's older competition highlights!
AV: And just for the sake of consistency with other interviews, if there are any sponsors, etc. that you would like to mention or thank, please feel free!
Jen: I don’t have any outside sponsors, just my boyfriend Ryan Hall. Without him I would not have had many of the amazing opportunities to travel, train and compete that have helped me grow as a person, BJJ competitor, and martial artist. He was the first person to believe in me; and the one who never let me get down despite a number of serious injuries the last few years. I’m going in for my fifth surgery after the Worlds this year, and without his unending support, there is no way I could have continued on this path.

I also want to thank all the students and staff at 50/50 who have been so understanding and supportive of my absences this year as I’ve had to travel more for training and competitions since it’s so hard to find people my size. Some of my work falls through the cracks on travel, but everyone is great about being patient and letting me catch back up every time I get home.

My doctor, Dr. David Higgins at Maryland Sports Medicine is amazing and always gets me back to competition shape. He told me last time that no matter how many times I break, he can fix me back up! And my massage therapist, who I simply could not live without, Erica Skaggs, at Beltway Medical Massage in Northern Virginia. She is my body’s other savior.

AV: I would like to thank Jen for taking her time to do this interview, if your ever near this academy please check it out! I plan on doing so soon :)

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