Photo of a woman wearing a purple BJJ uniform

The Importance Self-Advocacy in Jiu Jitsu

At the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym where I train we are often reminded about the importance of taking care of our training partner, but it’s equally important that we take care of ourselves.  I’d like to share some thoughts about when and why women need to advocate for themselves when training grappling sports such as Jiu Jitsu and Judo.

What is Self-Advocacy?

Self-Advocacy means communicating about our needs and speaking up when the choices and actions of others are affecting us in a way that is not in our best interest.

Self-advocacy is important for everyone, but it can be particularly difficult for women because women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome that causes them to doubt the validity of their own experience and put the needs and desires of others ahead of their own.  As a result, they may avoid speaking up if they are treated unfairly in a Jiu Jitsu class, and may doubt their own judgment if they are gaslighted when they do speak up.

When is Self-Advocacy Needed?

Here are some examples of situations that I’ve experienced or known others to experience in a Jiu Jitsu class which call for self-advocacy:

  • Being told to partner with someone we don’t feel safe with
  • Experiencing social pressure to spar with someone who we don’t trust to prioritize safety above winning
  • Always being with someone who isn’t a good match for our size or skill level simply because we are both of the same gender
  • Being overlooked for a belt promotion or position of leadership due to factors beyond our control such as our size or gender
  • Being pressured to participate in an activity that is unsafe or which pushes us past reasonable physical limitations to avoid being seen as weak or lazy
  • Being pressured to minimize physical pain or injury
  • Being treated as if we are less capable than we are due to our size or gender

Not all of these examples necessarily indicate gender bias.  Still, as I mentioned earlier, women may at times be more likely to avoid speaking up for themselves, perhaps due to imposter syndrome, or perhaps due to fear that “making waves” will result in unfair treatment.

How We Can Empower Each Other

What can we do to empower others to advocate for themselves?

Say no to anything that makes us feel unsafe.

As an adult who is ultimately responsible for my happiness as well as my medical bills, I exercise my right to opt out of participating in an activity that makes me feel unsafe.  Examples of times I’ve done this include:

  • Choosing to walk down the mat during group line drills instead of attempting a move I feel may be risky for me to attempt without first spending some time practicing alone.
  • Avoiding sparring with white belts who I fear might be dangerous.  I do this politely but without apology, saying something like, “No thanks, I’m going to wait until so-and-so is available,” or “I’ll let so-and-so go with you instead.”
  • Stepping off the mat to attend to my physical needs without asking for permission.

By visibly doing something different from the rest of the group when it’s what’s best for me, I not only take care of myself but can set an example for others by modeling self-advocacy.

Call people out when they treat us unfairly.

At times I’ve experienced unfair bias while sparring with a man who is “taking it easy” on me even though I may be more skilled at Jiu Jitsu than they are.

I realize that often this happens because they perceive that they have a size or strength advantage and haven’t yet learned how to spar with a smaller person in a way that’s mutually beneficial, so typically my approach is to communicate how I would prefer to be treated in a way that assumes good intentions on their part.  

Often a light-hearted comment during our roll will be enough to make them realize that what they are doing is condescending and not helpful, and at times a comment like this has led to a sincere, healthy conversation after class.

However, there have been times when I’ve stopped a roll to call someone out for biased or condescending behavior, such as giving me an obvious opportunity for a submission that I know they would never give to a man of my same size and skill level, or beginning to give me tips as I’m working to finish a submission.

In my experience, calling out inappropriate behavior at the moment it’s happening is more effective than asking someone later to recall an incident that they may remember differently than you do.

Give explicit verbal support to those who may need it.

Speaking up to communicate our needs can be difficult, but one thing that makes it a lot easier is knowing that we have the support of others, and especially those in positions of power and leadership.  

As one of the higher ranking women at my gym, I’ve begun proactively encouraging other people I train with to advocate for themselves.  For example, before an Open Mat or sparring session I might say to a newer woman, “Remember, you don’t have to roll with anyone you don’t want to.”  Of course she does not need my permission, but I want her to know that I have her back.


One of the core maxims of Judo is “mutual benefit and welfare,” and I believe that we would do well to live according to that tenet in Jiu Jitsu as well.  Yet it’s easy to forget “mutual benefit” means being proactive about taking care of and standing up for ourselves in addition to taking care of our training partners.  

By becoming intentional about what we agree to and speaking up to advocate for ourselves when needed, we help establish a positive gym culture that will benefit everyone in the long run.

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