Look around your BJJ class. One or more of your students could be a sexual assault survivor. About twenty percent of women, five percent of men, and nearly fifty percent of trans or non-binary folks are sexually assaulted at some point. In this article, I use “she” as a shorthand pronoun.
One of the main reasons I wanted to get a blue belt was so I could start a women’s class at my smallish school. I love BJJ and want more women to try it out. But then one of my new students burst into tears when she was put in high mount. She later confided that the position echoed an assault that happened years ago. Another new student had recently been attacked at knife point. Just venturing in to observe a class made her cry.
People are drawn to BJJ for all kinds of reasons. For some, their goal might be to not feel helpless in any future attack, or to regain trust in their body and its abilities. BJJ is about learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions. For survivors, the discomfort from BJJ can be more than just physical.
To help my students, I asked other local coaches for their suggestions. I also started reading about post-traumatic stress disorder.
One technique used to treat anxiety disorders is called exposure therapy. It exposes the patient to the source of their anxiety, but in a safe way. For an assault survivor, BJJ might be like exposure therapy on steroids. Her anxiety may increase when she first experiences something that brings up bad memories. “Fight, flight or freeze” will kick in. But with the help of supportive coaches and partners, as she continues to train and gains an understanding of BJJ, her anxiety should diminish.
How you can help as a coach:
- Assume at least one of your students is a survivor. Don’t wait to build in elements that could help them.
- If a student does say they are a survivor, encourage them to also see a mental health professional (if they are not already).
- Let students know that they can always pull you aside or send you a message about anything they’d like to discuss that might help improve their training.
- Tell students they can tap for any reason, including being triggered. If they don’t feel comfortable saying the reason, and their partner asks why, they can just say they felt claustrophobic.
- Tell new students and regularly remind others that the gym is a safe space. Let students know that if something triggers them, they can choose what they want to do: continue to roll, sit on the sidelines, or walk away for a bit and then come back.
- Let students know that they can always choose who they want to train with. As women, we are often taught to just do as we’re told, even if that means partnering with the last giant guy on the mat. That may not always be in our best interest. We can always say no if that person might trigger something, we aren’t ready for. We can say we want to sit the roll out, or that we just want to drill the technique we learned that day. We might ask to start in an advantageous position. We can ask our partners to take it down a notch.
- As a coach, feel free to break up bad matches before they even begin. We all know certain students have difficulty dialing it down. Have them switch partners or ask the two to drill.
- Consider providing inclusive “women’s” (including trans and non-binary) classes.
How you can help as a coach or partner:
- Give lots of encouragement.
- Understand that when the body is overwhelmed, it often manifests in tears. And that’s okay. That’s normal.
- Take your cues from your partner. Whatever choice they make about an emotional reaction is the right one. Don’t question it by saying, “Are you sure?” Treat it as something normal that could happen to all of us—because it could.
As for my students, I have watched them get stronger and more comfortable on the mats. I have watched them go from tears to smiles—sometimes on the same day.
April is a blue belt who is turning 61 in April. After doing both kajukenbo and kung fu, she has been training jiu-jitsu for over five years, A New York Times bestselling author of mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults, she loves travel, salty snacks, and scary movies.