Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Forrest Morgan Interview - women in martial arts.

Many of you will no doubt have already read the interview with Forrest Morgan over on Ikigai's blog. This was a real coup for Matt and he certainly didn't waste the opportunity to bring us an excellent interview that revealed the life and thoughts of Mr Morgan on a range of martial arts topics.

Matt was also gracious enough to offer to put some of his reader's questions to Mr Morgan and I was very delighted that he put the question that I submitted to him. Matt sensibly condensed my rather long-winded question to this:

Reader: Should female traditional artists be concerned about changing
techniques to fit their body and capabilities (it seems as if traditional arts
were developed and designed for men)?

Forrest Morgan's response:

FM: That is an excellent question, one that speaks to a warrior’s
tactical mindset. The answer is yes. Most traditional arts were indeed
developed by men, for men (and right-handed men, at that). That said, a few women warriors have developed their own martial arts. For instance, according to legend, Wing Chun Gung Fu was developed by a Buddhist nun with a woman’s body in mind.
Samurai women also developed certain arts to defend their households
(naginata-jutsu, for example). But the overwhelming majority of martial arts are designed for men fighting other men of approximately equal size. So yes, women need to assess the kinds of threats they are most likely to face, objectively appraise their own physical capabilities, and tailor their techniques and tactics accordingly. Instructors should help their female students do this. If they don’t, women should seek training elsewhere.
By the way, this answer also applies to men of small stature. But women face additional threats that most men do not.

As regular readers of this blog will know I have a bee in my bonnet about identifying and acknowledging the differences between men and women in martial arts training and so I was elated to get this very positive response from Forrest Morgan, it made me feel vindicated in what I have been trying to say. I have made references to male/female differences in several of my posts now, including: women's self-defence - is it just an illusion, Should women train differently to men in martial arts and Block or Flinch in Martial arts (the discussion takes place more in the comments section on this post)

The part of Mr Morgan's answer that particularly excites me is: "So yes, women need to assess the kinds of threats they are most likely to face, objectively appraise their own physical capabilities, and tailor their techniques and tactics accordingly. Instructors should help their female students do this."

Before I go any further I would just like to point out that I only think women should train differently to men in respect of the self-defence aspect of martial arts. If you train in a bugei art such as jujitsu then clearly the whole thing is about self-defence but if you train in a budo art such as karate-do then self-defence training is just one element of that art form. In which case, kihon, kata and kumite training does not need to differ between men and women.

In self-defence training, as Mr Morgan points out, instructors should help women to identify the ways in which they should train differently, help them to understand the strengths and weaknesses in their own bodies and to help them adapt techniques accordingly. This requires instructors to understand women - physically, mentally and emotionally. If a woman has a female instructor then she probably has an advantage. However most instructors are male and so they should make the effort to understand martial arts from a female perspective.

So what things should be taken into consideration?

Aggression. Women have less testosterone than men and so are not as naturally aggressive. When a man starts martial arts training he will bring his aggression with him and you may find you spend a lot of time training him to calm down and control it. When a woman starts training she may be timid, afraid of hurting and getting hurt. It will take time for her to gain confidence and build up her levels of aggression as she progresses. She may feel embarrassed or too self-conscious to show aggression but eventually embarrassment and fear will be overcome. Women need instructors to show a lot of patience with them during this phase. Do not expect women to cope well with reality based training until they have developed their confidence and 'toughened up' a little.

Physique. I am not talking about the obvious differences between men and women here but more skeletal and muscular differences. Men have thicker bones, including thicker ribs and a thicker layer of muscle covering them. This makes them more resistant to damage and pain when being struck or thrown. Men's generally thicker 'covering' enables them to absorb shock better than women's bodies and so they have a higher tolerance to striking. (I admit women have a higher percentage body fat but it is distributed in the wrong places to give any real protection). This means that men have a comparatively high tolerance to pain and shock right from the start of training. Women take time to gradually build up this tolerance through training. Instructors need to think about how they can help women to develop this tolerance.

Motivation. Men seem to be much more single-minded and clearer about the reasons why they want to learn a martial art. The main motivation for a man seems to be to learn to fight and to defend themselves, either for the purposes of sport or self-protection. This seems to be particularly true for younger men. Fitness and self-improvement may also be on the agenda but only seem to move up the list as he enters his maturer years. For most women learning martial arts is not about learning to fight. They will probably say that they are doing it for fitness and self-defence training but really fitness and social contact is probably nearer the mark for many women (even if they don't admit it). Women like the idea that they will be learning some self-defence - but often their actions speak louder than their words and their training does not progress in an effective or useful way.

How seriously a woman takes her self-defence training is probably proportional to how seriously she perceives the threat of violence against her to be. For the vast majority of women the risk of violence is very low, thus motivation to learn to defend ones-self in any meaningful way is also low. When this is coupled with low aggression levels, fear of getting hurt and feelings of self-consciousness it is not surprising that may women do not like the realities of effective self-defence training and often just go through the motions of practicing the techniques.

Motivation will be much higher in women who's perception of threat is higher. So women who have experienced violence first hand or know someone who has, live in an environment where violence is a regular occurrence or work in a job where there is a risk of confrontation with the public will be much more motivated to learn self-defence. This will show in the way they are prepared to train.

Everyone will know of an amazing female martial artist who is a high ranking dan grade, has won xyz competitions and can kick ass with the best of men. There are always exceptions to the rule. I am referring to the average woman in the average dojo. When it comes to learning a fighting art men have all the physical and mental advantages that allow them to hit the ground running when they first start training. Women generally have higher physical and mental barriers to overcome and may seem to be stuck in the starting blocks for quite a long time. They need patience, help, support, encouragement to gain confidence, endurance and tolerance - this takes time and only when this has been acquired can any meaningful, realistic self-defence training take place. This applies whether they are big, small, fat or thin - it is their femaleness that makes them different to men, not their size and strength.

Some women may never acquire the motivation to learn effective self-defence and may never get further than 'going through the motions'. However, this does not mean their martial arts training is a waste of time, it just means their focus is in a slightly different direction to the average mans. If you are involved in the budo arts then there is much to be gained apart from fighting skills. Health, fitness, flexibility, agility, confidence, tolerance, patience, respect, self-discipline.... the list is endless and all worthy objectives to achieve.

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Felicia said...

Excellent post, Sue! And you know, I had a feeling that question for Mr. Morgan was from you :-)

Sue C said...

Thanks Felicia. I have a feeling that I haven't finished with this subject yet, but I might give you all a break from it for a while!

Anonymous said...

I don’t know this Forrest Morgan guy but this is all pretty vague and a little too obvious to me. Any true and decent self-defense art or reality-based system is built (or should be built) on the assumption you’ll be facing a bigger and/or stronger opponent who’ll have the odds stacked in his favour (he surprises you, he has a weapon, he has experience…), this applies to both men and women. A skinny, short guy isn’t going to attack a tall, muscled fellow anymore than a chihuahua will ever attack a rotweiler, not unless he’s got some buddies with him or some kind of weapon to make for the difference in body-types. To me the problem is not the self-defense arts not being mindful of women’s needs (although I’ll admit in individual cases this may be a problem) but the sport or do-arts claiming to teach effective self-defense in addition to their other, loftier goals in order to make an extra buck. It’s the sport or do-arts that are made and meant to be used one-one-one, man vs man, unarmed and putting restrictions on techniques that may be used. A true warrior-art has no or little restrictions (except the requirements of the law, which was obviously not an issue in medieval times) and it uses principles and tactics, along with understanding of anatomy and kinematics to defeat an opponent. If the techniques were only effective against weaker or same-sized opponents the art would have died out long ago and most modern self-defense system like krav-maga are thoroughly tested on the street or even on the battlefield by professionals and civilians alike.

Ju-jutsu (JJ from now on) is an effective, efficient self-defense art born on the battlefield and constantly modified to fit the needs of the modern age, it is very versatile (perhaps more so than any other art) and its techniques and tactics are suitable for women without much modification. If a lock is properly applied it will work, regardless of size or strength (whether yours or his), that’s the beauty of locks. If a throw is done correctly it will work (again regardless of size or strength): if you break someone’s balance you only need a slight push or bump to put him down. In judo kuzushi or balance-taking is done by body-mechanics, in JJ this is usually accomplished by an off-balancing technique (for example the insertion of a thumb into the cavity at the bottom of his throat) or a strike while going in because we expect resistance and we do not want to get ourselves into a shoving match with a bigger or stronger opponent. Proper atemi will nearly always be effective: our counter-attack to punches usually consists of a finger-strike (nukite) to the throat or eyes followed by a kick to the groin. A child could do this and you bet it’s going to be effective. I can understand it might be difficult for a woman to generate enough striking force to effectively knock someone out (using standard punches and kicks) but in our system and in JJ in general strikes are usually used to set up other techniques and knock-out strikes are only applied when he’s in a vulnerable position: usually this means we’ve lowered his head with some kind of lock (meaning we don’t have to strike upwards, he can’t pull away and he can’t defend because of the pain) and we follow up with a knee or kick or we took him down or threw him to the ground followed by downward strikes into his face or groin. If strikes with the hands are still too difficult or not advisable kick him: he maybe a bodybuilder or tough as nails but I haven’t heard of people taking a stomp kick to the face and fighting on, if done to the temple this could actually kill him through brain hemorrhage. …

Anonymous said...

The single most fundamental principle in JJ is the ju-principle: do not oppose force with force (you’ll likely lose), yield and use superior leverage and positioning to bring him down (assisted by strikes, not in lieu of), using his momentum and force against him wherever possible. To me this sounds like very good news to a woman wanting to learn self-defense: you don’t need to be big and strong or rely on striking alone and we train defenses against every conceivable type of attack. The basic categories of attack in JJ are grabs (to the hands, arms, clothing and chokes using the hands), body-locks (bear hugs from the front, back and side, headlocks from front, back or side and takedowns), strikes & kicks, weapon-attacks (the fundamental weapons are stick, knife and gun) and ground-attacks (both against a standing opponent and against an opponent on the ground in various positions). I do think this pretty much covers all the possibilities and it caters to both men and women since it covers both striking (very likely if you’re male) or grappling (very likely if you’re female) and combinations of both (if he grabs you’re lapel you should count on a follow-up strike, if he encircles your head he’ll likely try to punch your lights out or take you to the ground and start striking from there).

Our basic premise is that defense need to be logical, effective, fairly instinctive and should be useable against bigger people. I really don’t see how we could possibly be any more female-friendly so to speak. Of course we’ll alter certain techniques to fit certain body-types: if you’re small it makes not sense to try to elbow his head, elbow his plexus, liver or floating-ribs instead. If you’re tall certain techniques (especially those requiring to get under his center of balance) will be difficult but JJ contains so many techniques and possible solutions there’s always a way to remedy the situation. That being said the great majority of the techniques work for both men and women, if they don’t work for you we’ll find a solution but if you’re not willing to put in the effort to learn and the will to use them effectively we can’t help you, nor can anybody else for that matter. Wing-chun is indeed a martial-art designed by a woman for women and it is highly effective but only if you train hard and are willing and able to use it when needed.

There is no magic-bullet in self-defense and certainly not in women’s self-defense: we can help you by teaching you effective techniques that use physics and exploit the body’s vulnerable spots (eyes, knees, groin, throat…) but you’ll have to work on it and train yourself both mentally and physically to keep your cool under stressful situations and act appropriately. Self-defense and fighting isn’t easy (nor is training for it) and you’ll have to develop a warrior-spirit which again requires dedication, trust in your teachers and willingness to endure pain, fatigue and frustration. If you want an instant solution get a gun or a knife but even then you’ll have to keep your eyes open and at least train at a firing-range a few times or practice actually pulling out the knife. Weapons are excellent ways to equalize the situation (for the higher belts we teach the basics of stick, knife and kobutan or palm stick) and very useful for women to use against men but they too require training to be effective although not as much as hand-to-hand combat. …

Anonymous said...

While I still have much to learn and am open to new information (including from female martial-artists like yourself) I do think I’m doing a decent job when teaching, on several occasions I’ve received compliments from women regarding my teaching-style and attention to detail and I usually spend more time correcting and supervising the women because I know it’s usually more difficult for them for the reasons you’ve stated. If they’re willing to learn I can teach them and if they have a problem with a certain technique then I’d be happy to assist. The only thing I have a problem with is people (men and women) making up excuses for their own lack of effort and/or attention and claiming techniques do not work because of differences in size, strength, height… while it’s clear they’re just doing it wrong. Men and women do seem to think differently about this: usually if a man doesn’t get it he’ll ask for clues and try again and again until he gets it right, women are far more likely to complain and seek the cause of the problem with their partner, the technique or their teacher instead of themselves. It takes time but eventually virtually anybody can master these techniques (with some minor modification if needed) whether male or female. Where there’s a will there’s a way.


Sue C said...


I'm not sure you truely got my point. I'm not trying to make excuses for why women don't always seem to effectively train I'm trying to explain some reasons why.

A point I must emphasise is that women are not like small men. A small man is still a man. He still has high levels of testosterone and therefore higher levels of natural aggression, he has proportionately higher muscle mass and thicker bones than an equivalent sized woman and he still thinks like a man and therefore needs to train like a man.

Size and strength is NOT the issue. Both small men and women can learn to use the techniques you have described effectively against a bigger opponent. I have no doubt that the techniques and strategies you have described can work equally well for men and women. It is the readyness to learn them where the difference lies.

A woman will not be ready to 'effectively' learn these techniques until she has trained her body and mind to accept the inevitable 'punishment' it will receive from this self-defence training. You will never train true aggression into a woman because that is related to testosterone so unless you are going to inject us all with anabolic steroids at the beginning of training we are not going to 'feel' the high levels of aggression that men can. What women can achieve though is 'spirit'. They can learn to train with spirit and assertion and this is what instructors should be aiming for. Women will also build up resilience and confidence by getting fitter and building up a little more muscle. I have increased the muscle bulk in my arms, shoulders and thighs quite considerabley simply by practising kihon with lots of effort and spirit. My confidence has improved by learning to breakfall properly. I have started to develop the right mindset for self-defence training through reading books and articles that tell me how I should approach training - these are the more spiritual, 'self-improvement' aspects of karate that are part of the Way that you clearly think are just 'loftier goals in order to make an extra buck'. It has taken me nearly 2 and a half years to get my mind and body into the proper condition so that I now feel ready to 'attack' my self-defence training with some real zeal. I am fortunate that people who train me have been patient and encouraging and I have realised that I need to take responsibility myself to learn as much as I can about the real meaning, history and culture of learning a martial art. Hence the reason for starting this blog. I am first and foremost a woman and secondly a martial artist - that will not change. All women need to learn to train within the confines of their femaleness. They cannot train as if they are men.

Perpetual Beginner said...

I have mixed feelings about Zara's comment and your reply. Zara does seem (as you note) to be ignoring the context from which most women will be approaching the martial arts. It doesn't much matter if a strike is effective from a small person to a big person, if the smaller person won't learn to throw it because she's been strongly conditioned to never even think about hurting someone else.

But I'm also very wary of painting quite as broadly as you seem to here. Perhaps it's because I'm a big, muscular woman, with extremely high pain tolerance and the ability to absorb a lot of damage. Or perhaps because there's at least one teenaged boy in our dojo who is timid, light-boned and easily hurt. A sensei should be aware of each of his students and what their particular issues are, and how to modify their teaching style and techniques so as to best suit that student.

Being aware of the problems that female students are particularly prone to and being on the lookout for them seems useful and appropriate to me. But a sensei should also be aware that some if not most of his female students will not have all of these issues, and that they may also crop up in his male students as well. After all, if my sensei had trained the guys one way and the girls another, he would have seriously misjudged my sturdiness and his daughter's aggressiveness, and probably chased that timid, light-boned straight out of the martial arts.

I guess the short form is: Being aware of gender differences is useful - but only if you keep firmly in mind that the variations within each group are larger than the differences between the two groups as a whole.

Sue C said...

Perpetual beginner,
Your view is very sensible and balanced and shows great clarity of thought. I agree that there is clearly overlap between womens and mens experience and an instructor needs to be aware of this also and to identify peoples needs as individuals.

I suspect how a person approaches their training depends on their life experiences before hand and their confidence in their bodies. I expect people who have a sporting or very physical background will have acquired the confidence,fitness and tolerance of discomfort already and will take to their training more readily.

I am currently reading a book called 'Women in the Martial Arts', edited by Carol A. Wiley. It is a collection of essays from about 23 different female martial artists. I haven't read all of them yet, but some of the writers refer to the problems of femaleness in their training and how it has affected their progress whereas others don't mention it at all, so it is cleary not a problem for all women. However, I do still think it is a problem for many women and exploring the reasons for it is useful and necessary.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience with me - it's dialogue like this that helps us all to learn, challenge our perceptions and grow in understanding.

Matt "Ikigai" said...

I think Zara's understanding of karatedo, and subsequently other arts, is a bit limited. The desire to espouse all of the great qualities of Jujutsu is understandable, but also indicative of someone who needs to experience the abilities of skilled practitioners in other arts. I know first hand how great jujutsu is due to my experience in danzan ryu and aikijujutsu, but I also know how devastating classical karate can be.

For example, all of the good qualities about jujutsu technique (atemi, kuzushi, practical application, etc) are all available to karateka as well if they have a knowledgeable instructor. Just like there are Jujutsu schools that are shallow and interested in 'making a quick buck'.

With extensive study comes the realization that many martial arts are more closely related than one might think, especially when they are done right and built upon similarly effective core principles.

Sue C said...

Matt, thanks for your support! I agree karate can be a much more complete martial art than some people realise, especially with a good instructor.

Welcome to Campus Services said...

A very interesting and thoughtful discussion here.

Although I agree in principle regarding the influence of testosterone on aggression levels, it is my experience that women are perfectly capable of being just as, if not more, aggressive than men. For one, I am guilty as charged when sparring on the mats!

I agree with Zara's comments up to a point. If you understand the principles, concepts and biomechanics of a technique then you should be able to adapt that technique to suit your stature. That said, there are any number of techniques that I would choose not to you, because they don't suit my build (I'm short and 'squat') or my personality (too fiddly).

I have been doing a lot of reading recently around teaching skills in the martial arts, and I wonder if some women's reluctance might centre around learning styles? Perhaps if instructors are better able to engage with female students in their preferred learning style, then we might begin to see changes in performance?

I suspect that I am not explaining this terribly well. I shall go away and think about this some more!


Sue C said...

Hi Avril, I think you explain yourself very well. My own perceptions of women in martial arts are probably rather limited since they are based on the direct observation of women I train with and my own feelings about it. Clearly from the comments I have received women occupy a much broader range on the aggression 'continuum' than I realised. A few months ago I joined jujitsu/kobudo club (just to do kobudo) and find the women doing jujitsu are a much 'tougher' type of women than the ones in my karate club. However, accepting that women demonstrate a range of aggression levels I still think that the 'average' woman needs longer than the average 'man' to develop the necessary confidence, focus and spirit to be able to train 'effectively' in useful self-defence. You hit the nail on the head when you say instructors should try and identify and engage with a womans preferred learning style. However I expect that is easier said than done!

Nice to talk to you again.

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Marital Arts classes have many important health benefits. The classes at Vision Martial Arts increase cardiovascular health while toning vital muscles and building coordination and body awareness. Women who participate in these classes can improve their flexibility and increase their exercise stamina.

Karate Classes for Kids

Unknown said...

Marital Arts classes have many important health benefits. The classes at Vision Martial Arts increase cardiovascular health while toning vital muscles and building coordination and body awareness. Women who participate in these classes can improve their flexibility and increase their exercise stamina.

Karate Classes for Kids


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