Martial arts training can be an exciting and rewarding journey, offering numerous benefits such as physical fitness, mental resilience, and self-defense skills. However, as students engage in close physical contact during practice, the significance of consent, respectful interactions, and safety cannot be overstated. Most of us can point to people at a martial arts gym who made us feel unwelcome, unsafe, and anxious. But what does consent look like when you're practicing self-defense?
Understanding Consent in Martial Arts
I can remember the first time I felt fear while training in self-defense. I was working on a ground choke position and I realized that I was absolutely terrified. I felt my partner let go. I was a little bit embarrassed and tried to joke, "Could you see the fear in my eyes?" and he answered back very seriously, "Yes." I have felt that fear a number of times since, but it has always been with a partner that I trust to stop immediately, give me a hug or step back away from my person, and respect what I need in that moment.
Consent is a crucial concept in any martial arts environment. It involves the agreement and understanding between two individuals to engage in a particular activity, ensuring that both parties are comfortable and willing to participate.
And here is something that's important to note:
Consent in martial arts isn't just something for people of different genders, but for people of all genders. Working with someone of the same gender still requires consent, communication, and respecting your limits and the limits of your partner.
Here are a few ways to practice consent in martial arts:
a. Communicate with your partner: Before starting a new technique or drill, discuss your boundaries and preferences with your training partner. This will help ensure that both parties are comfortable and understand each other's limits.
b. Check in regularly: As you progress through your training, check in with your partner to make sure they are still comfortable with the intensity and nature of the activity.
c. Know your limits: Recognize when you need to stop or take a break, and communicate that to your partner. It's important to prioritize your safety and well-being, as well as that of your training partner. I've found that my training partners are more than happy to work with me and go at my pace. I've also found that I learn more and get more out of class when my fight/flight/freeze response isn't activated.
Working with People of Different Genders
The martial arts world is diverse, and it's essential to treat everyone with respect and equality. Here are some considerations for training with individuals of different genders (and coaches, I'm looking at you here with this section):
a. Use inclusive language: Avoid making assumptions about a person's gender based on their appearance or the sound of their voice. Use gender-neutral language, or ask for their pronouns.
This, this, this, this, this. THIS. You have rolled with a trans person before. You have practiced self-defense with a non-binary person. You just didn't know it. Ask people their pronouns and you'll make them feel welcome immediately. When you misgender a person (not if), don't make it a huge deal: if you say the wrong gender and realize it, correct yourself and keep moving forward. Don't trip over sorries and apologies: it brings unwanted attention and can often embarrass people.
b. Respect physical boundaries: Be conscious of personal space and touch, as these can vary depending on the individual's gender identity and background. Obtain consent before engaging in physical contact and adjust your technique accordingly. Now, this is understandably hard when you're practicing something like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but keep in mind that a physical boundary might be that a person can't work on chokes. There are plenty of other techniques that can be learned and taught where you avoid touching a person's neck. People often say though that chokes are an important part of a martial art like BJJ and people should know what they're getting themselves into. I would argue that if you start out respecting someone's physical boundaries, they may be more willing to one day work up to something as uncomfortable as chokes instead of just walking out your door.
c. Foster a supportive environment: Encourage a culture of respect and inclusivity by actively listening, offering support, and challenging gender stereotypes. Make it okay to call each other out, even when it's uncomfortable. We've had to reprimand people in both public and person for stereotyping others. Know that if you don't call those people out, other people in your gym will notice.
Why Not Just Push Through?
I know this about myself and many women that I train with have said the same thing: I just want to push through so that 1) I don't look weak, 2) I don't cry at the gym, or 3) I don't let my training partner down by making them slow down and they don't learn what we're learning.
Mental well-being is just as important as physical safety. When we push through, it often means that we're ignoring our own boundaries, triggers, and pain points to try and make someone else more comfortable. And our bodies always keep the score. I've often had women tell me that they pushed through because they didn't want to look weak only to have their bodies break down a few hours later.
Pushing through often means harming yourself and not remembering what you were taught. Please know that it's always more important for you to go slow and to stay safe and remember, than to push yourself, harm your mental or emotional health, and completely forget the lesson.
I'll say it again:
Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical safety.
What Can I Do To Be A Better Training Partner?
Thank you for asking! There are a bunch of things you can do that will help you make your gym a better and more inclusive space:
- Being aware of your own biases and working to overcome them. (Did you know you can test that? Check it out: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html)
- Actively seeking consent and respecting your partner's boundaries.
- Encouraging open communication and supporting your training partners.
- Continuously educating yourself on topics related to consent, gender sensitivity, and mental health.
Consent, respect, and safety are critical aspects of martial arts training. By fostering open communication, respecting boundaries, and prioritizing well-being, we can create a positive and inclusive environment for individuals of all genders to learn and grow.
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