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female athletes judokas posing together

Girls’ Judo Isn’t Real Judo? Coaching Female Athletes

I admit the title is a bit misleading. I also acknowledge this topic may be hard to swallow for some people, but there is no difference in gender, nor should there be, in Judo. Coaching female athletes / judokas is also hard, however, the topic of gender coaching disparity, especially in Judo, is something any coach needs to understand in order to help all of his athletes to be successful on and off the mat.

We don’t just coach skills that are only applicable to the sport. What we teach and how we teach it is usually carried outside of the sport by the athletes.

Judo is a rough sport, a beautiful sport, and a Martial Art. Yet Judo is male-dominated, and in sports such as Judo women run the risk of being seen as outsiders. They become the outliers in a statistical analysis of the sport.

I’ve been in some Judo clubs and wrestling clubs where women are seen sort of like invaders to a land that has been long colonized by guys. Other times, I have been to many Judo clubs where there is no difference amongst genders in training. The only discernible difference is that the female locker rooms are usually cleaner.

But modernity, evolution of the sport and society in general has brought to Judo the changes to give us the tools to help female Judokas to the best of our abilities. As a coach we MUST help each and every one of our athletes make the best of their abilities and reach as far  as they can or that they are willing to sacrifice for.

That said, if you are a coach and you want to better yourself, or if you happened to have female athletes training under you, especially in individual sports, then this article is for you.

female judoka athlete being coached one on one Introduction: We Are Shaped by Our Own Bias Experiences

As a coach I rely on my own relationship with my past coaches in order to grasp what good coaching is for me in particular. That is fine to a certain extent, since it is a natural progression of thinking. However, what happens if all your coaches have been male?

I started sports at age six and have been competing since I was 12. I began with Tae Kwon Do as my main sport, competing in international elite tournaments. I also trained with the university swimming team, ran and biked on the weekends, attended summer and training camps, and was a Boy Scout. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I discovered wrestling and Judo.

But in all my years of training, I have never had a female coach. Not one. I’ve had female doctors, doping chaperones, nutritionists, sports psychologists, etc. But I have never been coached by a woman. Thus my own experiences were biased.

My experiences were so biased that during physical therapy and post-surgery recovery I subconsciously picked the male physiologist because they could have “more experience” or they were “strong enough” to manipulate my 205-lb body (at the time).

My reaction is normal. When questioned, a group of elite female athletes also picked the male pr

ofessional, citing more experience or knowledge, but that is because we are only exposed to male professionals in sports.

I understood coaching from only one perspective. The paradox of meeting a female judoka’s needs with the tools I was given by my coaches was limited at best. It was something difficult to accept, but none the less I carried on and decided to remedy this situation.

When I was a young judoka there were very few women in the classes, so my bias sort of passed unnoticed until I became a coach. When I first started coaching I realized I lacked the tools to properly coach women in order to give them the same benefit and help  as I can to my male students.

I decided to look at my own past for any examples that could help me, as well as reading on successful coaching techniques. But before we talk about the coaching solutions let’s first understand the issues that female judokas face.

Now don’t give me the speech that this doesn’t happen in your Judo school. Don’t tell me all of this is an illusion and gender equality is all rainbows and puppies  and that I’m just making this up.

If you are a coach, keep reading. You may learn something that will help you in coaching not just female Judokas, but all athletes in general. What do you have to lose?

Understanding Female (Gender) Disparity in Judo and Sports

Female Judokas/athletes, are often treated softer in their own gym/club

When I began coaching Judo there were already some women enrolled in the class. After a quick introduction by my Senpai, I partnered students randomly to practice Judo matches, randori, to see where each one of them stood. As the randori began I saw how the guys eased on their practice wh

en they were paired with female judokas, as to not injure the “weaker” students.

You see, even though all of my coaches have been males, I’ve had plenty of coaches whose daughters trained alongside myself, and never, not once, did any of my coaches allow me to treat them as if they were weaker, inferior, or technically deficient. I was told that if I was to go easy on them for being women, I might as well tell them they should not practice.

It was a matter of respect. I accepted them as my equal in practice gave them my best, just as their opponent would do in a competition. Even if I had 60 lbs over them I would not overpower them with strength, but I didn’t ease off. I threw them and I moved just as I would with any opponent. We both developed better Judo that way!

Over time it didn’t matter who I was paired with since all of my partners, male or female, had grown technically and provided better and more of a  challenge in randori.

Going back to the example of seeing my male students “going easy” on the women,  I stopped my class and explained to them that there should not be any instances where female students should be treated differently. “It’s a matter of respect,” I told them. Respect them as training partners and as judokas.”

So let’s make sure we help all of your students develop better Judo.

female judoka athlete being coached by male instructor

Equal attention to all students

One of the research (cited in the reference section) points out that often the female athlete feels the coach spends more time and gives more attention to the male athletes. Maybe the male team brings more money to the program. Maybe they get more recognition. But this should not be a reason for a coach to not  care equally to develop all of his athletes.

My experience has been that most of my coaches give the attention to who needs it the most. Sometimes they corrected my technique and trusted me to apply it in the drills and practice as they switched their attention to other students.

Some coaches may have more of  a laid back attitude with female athletes. Correcting or minimizing the mistakes of female athletes with this type of attitude makes the athletes feel their mistakes or their need to improve is not the coach’s priority. The female athletes can feel devalued as an athlete by this lack of correction, discipline, or care to improve in their sport.

Allowing Female Judoka (Gender) Segregation During Training

On more than one occasion I have walked into Judo  and BJJ schools only to find that the students are segregated by gender. There are YouTube videos out there of  head coaches teaching this method. All of the women go to one side or a corner of the dojo while the guys, often a larger number, spread throughout the gym.

On top of that, the male judokas who want to train with women are publicly shamed, perpetuating the myth that anyone who chooses to train with female judokas or athletes are, in a way, perverts.

Other times the coach splits the training into two. One side with the women and men lighter than 150 lbs, and the other side with the rest of the men. This split is done even if there are women heavier than 150 lbs who would benefit more from training with guys their weight.

Gender cross training is a great way for Judokas to practice technique in many different ways. Male Judokas need to rely more on technique and speed, and female judokas are able to apply a greater force and commitment to their throws. Training together improves everyone’s technique and brings the team closer together.

Allowing for sexualized comments

No one can make comments on someone’s appearance in my class. Period.

You wear thick glasses, your gi is a little ripped, or you joined Judo to lose some weight—it doesn’t matter the reason. There are no negative comments.

This is not up for discussion. Everyone must respect each other in order for cohesion and positive growth of all athletes.

There will also not be any sexualized comments since it makes athletes feel uncomfortable or unsafe and this applies to BOTH genders. Neither the female Judokas nor the males can make these sort of comments.

Gender Disparity Outside of Sports

Your athletes already come with pressure from outside of their sport. They don’t need to have any more pressure added during their training. Family, friends, beauty magazines and the media will add enough pressure as it is on your athletes in general.

This is especially true in Judo where athleticism, and musculature are of great benefit and importance for the improvement and development of the Judoka.

One may even dare to say that improving athleticism and muscle percentage is necessary for Judo, but this is something your female judokas may feel is negative against their own self-esteem, based on feminine beauty standards.

Female Judokas/Athletes are often reminded how unfeminine they may seem

There are examples in the research literature of interviewed athletes who are tagged in social media by friends or family who negatively comment on their athletic look. Yet in other instances they may comment negatively, not just on their looks, but also on their femininity.

These comments question not just the beauty of the judoka but also bring into question their gender.

Female athletes may face issues shopping for proper-fitting clothing, due to their athletic build, which may add to the pressure any athlete faces in a day to day basis.

As a coach, the need to develop a good rapport with all athletes is very important.  This good coach-athlete relationship will create an atmosphere that allows for the discussion of all issues the athlete may be facing in order to lessen the pressure and anxiety that comes with this sport, or any sport in general.

female athlete judoka recieving correction on judo technique Ways that the Female Judoka Copes with These Issues

Female Judokas create a different persona inside or outside of training

Some Judokas may act overly feminine outside of practice to fit in more with society. From the way they dress or how they act they overcompensate  to be seen or treated as one of their peers.

The case can also be that they create a more “masculine” persona inside of training in order to fit in more with the larger gender group.

Or maybe  they create both personalities to have – one outside of Judo and one on the mat.

Female Judokas hinder their training to decrease muscle development or overly athletic look

Judo is a sport where submaximal and maximal strength is very important in the development of any athlete. Physical fitness is also very important in order to grow as a Judoka and to develop better Judo.

However, the research has shown that some female athletes stay away from lifting heavy weights in order to minimize maximal muscle growth and lessen the athletic body development that is necessary, especially in higher-level competitions.

All of this is done in order to remain as feminine as they can.

Reassure your athletes with positive comments that the physical change that may come with competitive Judo is a healthy change. An athlete who is self-confident and positive about their sport will be able to reach their goals and grow as an athlete and person at the same time.

warning sign for eating disorder and body dismorphia Why should the Coach Care? The Dangers of not Correcting such Issues

The main issues that can affect female Judokas can lead to many years of struggle for the athlete and can detrimentally affect the coach-athlete trust and relationship in the long run. That is why the coach needs to address the issues promptly so the athlete avoids falling into any of these issues, or in its defect of already having some of these issues, refer the athlete to a physician or sport psychologist.

Body Image Distortion

As previously stated under the coping mechanisms of the female judoka, they can be at risk of developing a negative body-image.

In a sport in which competitions are divided into weight classes this body dysmorphia is a danger for the well-being of the female judoka, both mentally and physically, as they try to find a balance between the pressure to succeed in the sport, and the pressure to be positively seen and accepted by others.

Eating Disorders

This is a pervasive and large issue in sports today. These disorders do not discriminate against gender, age, or ethnicity. These disorders do not care if you are a good coach or a bad one. For this reason alone make sure your athletes know the dangers of making weight, teach proper nutrition and teach them to compete in their natural weight class.

There is an increase of eating disorders for athletes that compete in sports with weight classes, and even a higher percentage when these athletes have a negative physical perception of themselves.

A large number of Judoka report losing weight rapidly  pre- competition in order to participate in lower weight classes and achieve a physical advantage over their opponent. Something highly disputed and denied by sport research on dehydrated and tired athletes pre-competition.

How do  I know this? I had eating disorders, and my friends had them, and my training partners had them. We also managed to hide this from all of our coaches and training staff.

I ping-ponged from anorexia nervosa induced by excessive exercise and dieting, to binge eating disorder annihilating everything on sight when no one was there to see me. I also cut 5 to 10 kg pre competition in water weight in order to compete in a lighter category than my normal weight.

At 10% body fat the 10 kg of water was a real danger to my health.

Eating disorders are hard to diagnose as they are often easily hidden from the coach or support system of the athlete. The coach needs to understand the need to develop a personal relationship with his athletes to better understand and intervene when necessary for the well-being of the judokas. Do your athletes a favor and teach them the dangers of rapid weight loss pre competition on their bodies and mental well-being.

Great care should be taken in order to make sure the female judoka, and all judokas in general, develop a positive self-image, as well as healthy eating habits and properly planned weight goals in order to avoid the development of any eating disorders.

Dropping out of the Sport

There is also a higher rate of drop out from the sports where the athlete doesn’t receive proper support and care.

Another factor affecting dropout rate is the personal connection the athlete develops with their own coach. If you want your students to grow in number and have a greater athletic pool to coach, then this is something you need to keep in mind.

In Summary

Segregation of gender during Judo training as well as a lack of personal attention to the female judokas by the coach can lead to many issues with the female judokas. The female judoka needs to be in an environment that pushes, and invigorates them to train and develop just as well as their males counterparts.

The gender segregation can also come from the outside life of the female athlete and a positive discourse and reassurance needs to be undertaken in order to guarantee a healthy positive self-esteem and self-image of the female judokas that can be carried outside of the gym as well.

This will ensure the female judoka does not need to lead a double life as an athlete and as a woman, avoiding the pitfalls of under performance by increasing muscular development and athleticism, evading eating disorders, and most importantly so they do not drop out of the sport altogether.

And now let’s go to part II, coaching solutions!

 

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