Black belt under Darragh O Conaill
- Polaris -55kg Female Champion
- IBJJF European Champion (black belt, 2019)
- IBJJF Worlds Gold No-Gi medalist (black belt, 2018)
- Abu Dahbi World Pro silver medalist, 2018,
- IBJJF Rome Open Champion & European No-Gi Champion (quadruple gold, brown belt, 2018)
- ADCC European trial winner (2017)
- IBJJF Worlds Silver medalist (purple belt, 2017)
- 2x IBJJF Worlds No-Gi Champion (blue belt, 2015, purple belt 2016)
- 2x IBJJF European Champion (blue belt, 2015, purple belt 2016)
- 2x Polaris Superfight winner (2017, 2018)
Ffion is humble and a little shy, but full of positivity and joy telling us about her current training in Dublin, and sharing with us stories from her time doing ‘door work’ (being a bouncer) in Cardiff.
Both of her parents trained in Judo, needing to know self-defence for their work in Mental Health. As a result, they encouraged Ffion to do Judo, and she took it into her teens. However, she found it restrictive and never fitted in with the people, and quitting when she was 18, took up weight training. Following on from this, she heard about Ronda Rousey and, inspired, she began training in MMA.
On the advice of her coach, she started to train in Nogi, avoiding the Gi in an attempt to distance herself from Judo, and from the bitterness of ‘what if’s’ that came with it and memories of being bullied as a child. However, all the best Jiu-Jitsu players would mainly train in the Gi, so she followed their example, and quickly fell in love with it and decided to focus on BJJ.
‘MMA is exciting and there’s money there but I think it shows how much I love Jiu-Jitsu that I want to do that. I don’t mind being poor because I absolutely adore it.’
‘My journey through Jiu-Jitsu helped my confidence grow because I wanted to try these things that I wasn’t good at, whereas at school I just would give up. In BJJ I didn’t mind flailing around like a dead fish.’
To support herself in Cardiff, she became a Bouncer. ‘The hours are great but you will never sleep. I would work until 6 am, and then teach a class at 11, sleeping around it.’ She now trains full time in Dublin, ‘when I won UAE I won five grand which was amazing. It’s great that there are competitions that support athletes by giving prizes to women as well as men, and yes it’s not as much, but it’s something.’
Menstruating and Training:
Ffion has had the hormonal bar in her arm since she was 16, and having had it from such a young age, she was unaware of the effect it was having on her. When recently it was removed, she became leaner and had a lot more energy. There is a lot of research around at the moment looking at the impact of hormonal contraception on women’s health. It is a synthetic hormone which replaces your natural levels, so any underlying health issues are hidden and therefore not dealt with.* There is an interesting video between Dr Jen Esquer and Laurie Christine King, which refers to further reading on the topic. There is also the ‘Women Code’ book by Alisa Vitti, where the author cured her PCOS with what she calls ‘cycle syncing’; working with the highs and lows of different hormones and coordinating it with her diet and the types of thinking and activities throughout the monthly cycle.
*(Lara Briden, The Period Repair Manual).
How does your cycle affect your training?
I have always trained, since before my period. It was always disregarded because it was never an issue for anyone else, it was my issue. The excuse that I couldn’t train because I was on my period wasn’t an option. Now in Jiu-Jitsu, it’s different, but I still train through it, although I do feel exhausted around it.
Sometimes when I train it relieves my cramps. If I have a technical session it can help, but a hard sparring session can make it worse. That week I feel like I get injured more, apparently, you are more susceptible to injury a bit before and on your period, so I try to go a bit lighter. Stress actually brings on my period, so I have had it every time have competed. When I’m cutting weight it comes on too, I can gain up to two kilos.
What do you do when you are on your period and have to weight cut?
As a vegetarian, I normally keep my carbs really high. I try to cut them down the week before the competition, so there is not so much water retention, and I water load a little, which helps to keep it off. It’s like insurance, and then if I do need to sweat I can do that too. I haven’t noticed water retention on the flight over which seems to be an issue for some athletes.
How do you prepare for a competition?
I don’t change things massively, I like it to be consistent. I’ve been so excited about training recently, I’ve just been going 100% with everything. If I feel excited when I’m about to compete that’s the best. If I’m happy I perform best.
Do you feel pressure competing?
I try to see it as I’m going to fight a bunch of people, and they could beat me a billion times, but eventually, I will win. I don’t mind how many times I have to lose. With my training I feel really confident and am around such good people, all of us aiming for the same thing. I find it really inspiring, with a good coach and leader, and not too big a group that you get lost. We go to competitions as a squad and support each other.
It’s a really big release when you let go of the end result. I was always so competitive, even if I performed badly I would be happy if I won. But now even if I lose, I am happy if I feel like I performed well.
My biggest fear is getting burnt out. Now I can see what is long term and what is short term. Short term are the people who care too much about winning all the time. That could be me in many ways, and I’ve had to overcome it. Those people eventually quit because they can’t handle it and you lose training partners with that attitude. I’ve had to work on that personally and now I’m more relaxed and smiley. Admitting you have that problem is a big help.
Why are you a vegetarian?
I love animals. Health scared me off of going vegetarian, but I was never that into meat, I just ate it for protein. Then two years ago I watched 'Cowspiracy', and I held my dog and cried. Also for environmental reasons.
I notice that my digestion got better, but that could be because I had to eat more vegetables as a by-product. I love cheese, but I want to go Vegan. It’s hard because you have to relearn your whole diet. What the fuck do I eat!
How do you feel rolling with guys?
It depends, purple, brown or black belts should be able to tailor the roll really well for you. I don’t like rolling with blue or white because I don’t want to get hurt, and I don’t want to make them feel like shit.
At your level do you still worry about rolling with a white belt?
Absolutely. You can smash someone, but when it's a brown belt rolling with a white belt, you don’t want to act like an idiot you want to have a smooth roll, and then the sudden movements can be really painful. It’s like ‘I’m still small mate’. What I do get concerned with now is going to teach seminars in different gyms, they are like ‘oh your world champion, so I’m going to go absolutely 100% and if I win then I am brown belt female featherweight World Champion’ and I’m like, please don’t’ kill me. I’ve noticed a lot of the women black belts that are well known, they don’t really roll with the guys, just to keep safe, unless it’s their boyfriends.
When I feel like someone is going crazy, and I know I could maybe handle it, I still wouldn’t risk it because I could really get hurt. So I say, sorry I’ve got a comp and I’ve got to be careful, and they usually understand. Now I’m a higher grade I feel more confident saying no. Why should I say yes? I train every day, this is my career. If I get hurt in this roll I can’t train.
How do you deal with someone much heavier?
Always have a strategy. Ideally, I don’t want to pull guard, elevating is too hard on someone bigger, so stay standing and try to get to their back. If they are a lot bigger they often find it harder to take me down because they have to be fast, and I can preempt it. Sometimes it’s harder to control a smaller person's back, you pass the guard and it’s almost worse!
What do you think about the fact that women don’t get paid as much as men/not at all in comps?
Torn. I don’t know how I feel about it completely. It always comes back to my argument that I train every day, and I’m at the gym nearly the most out of anyone, training just as hard as any man. Does that mean I deserve less when I fight people at such a high level?
Apparently, there is a system for how they work out prize money for competitions, and the money does go up. What I’d like to see first of all is the separation in the brown and black belt divisions for women, because I think it will fill up more brown belt women. Right now with black and brown combined, people are put off.
It’s going to take years to change the cultural conditioning that women don’t fight. Guys think that girls aren’t as into it, but that’s only because they’ve been told they’re not meant to be, which is really frustrating. We’ve been told that girls don’t get dirty, you can’t be masculine. I was always so embarrassed by my arms because they were muscly.
I think guys attitudes are changing towards what is ‘sexy’. I think guys think that it is attractive. It’s more that the girls worry that it isn’t. Society dictates what is attractive or not. It is changing, it is getting better. Attractiveness is a lot to do with confidence.
Guys seem to try a lot of sports when growing up, whereas girls tend not to. Girls aren’t encouraged to play team sports the way the boys are, or as a way to use excess energy.
Interestingly, a recent study into exercise done by teenage girls shows that they are often put off because of their breasts, finding sport uncomfortable because their boobs hurt. The company Revele has been working to help with this problem, and have developed the 'Revelia' for breast protection. You can learn more about it here.
How do we change that?
I think that Jiu-Jitsu is great for women. There are so many feminine girls in Jiu-Jitsu and that appeals to people. When I was training in Judo, I didn’t see anyone feminine. I liked girly things, but I also liked wrestling around on the floor and chucking people. I played rugby as a child on the boy's team because there wasn’t a girls team, but I had to leave once I hit puberty because the boys were getting huge and I wasn’t allowed to play in the games. They were nice about it but I felt so rejected.
What is your next step?
Worlds 2019. Everything about that. Mainly focusing on the Gi. That’s my goal to win. Every comp I do in the lead up is just practice for that. They are just test runs, so I can feel it out, learn about the level change as the sport progresses. The brown belt world champions of the year before last, won and medalled at black belt worlds, and the same happened the year before. The new up and comers are coming through, and there is a level change. The lower belts are getting tougher and coming up through the division. Amal is a brown and annihilated the black belt world champion at super feather in World pro. Black and Brown are interchangeable. It’s amazing to see the level get better and better in the women’s divisions.
Guys tend not to follow women’s Jiu-Jitsu.
It’s annoying when guys like a fighter because she’s hot, even if she’s been beaten by other fighters. I understand when guys aren’t interested in women’s Jiu-Jitsu, they want to watch what inspires them.
But think of Crossfit. What Crossfit has done really well is give equal coverage for men and women and thereby promoted them equally. With the women, their apparent ‘masculinity’ gives shock value. It is so amazing to watch, such a contradiction, and women do shine more - like with Ronda Rousey; this beautiful woman is smashing people and subbing them so quickly, and that got so much coverage. I think if BJJ had had equal coverage for both genders from the beginning, there wouldn’t be such a problem, but now there is a problem, and now we have to deal with it. There are definitely way more men in Crossfit, but you don’t hear about that.
In the UK the top BJJ athletes are women; Sam Cook and Vanessa English both medalled at Worlds, but you don’t hear about it. It’s the women who are pioneering for the UK in BJJ. I only saw it because of Sam’s Instagram. It’s the same with the rest of the world; we need guys to talk about it as well as girls. Guys don’t like to be labelled as ‘feminists’. Sorry if the word ‘fem’ offends you, the man in ‘mankind’ doesn’t offend me.
What is your experience of equality between men and women inside and outside of BJJ?
So much better inside the Jiu-Jitsu community. I get frustrated with guys in Jiu-Jitsu, but then I take a step out, and I realise how much worse it is and it always shocks me. I got it a lot when I was a bouncer. The shock of me working on the door, people wouldn’t show me their ID because they couldn’t believe I was working, even with my badge, they would try to give it to the guy in a shirt having a fag next to me.
Most guys who I bounced with trained too and they knew me, but there was this guy came to lend a hand for the night when we were understaffed. I was asking this customer to leave - and they are pretty calm with women, and so that helps to diffuse the situation - but then the new guy, who was big and intimidating, comes up and tries to move me out the way. The drunk guy then takes the bouncer down, and I jump on his back and put him to sleep, and then the bouncer punched him!
I would never do takedowns, it’s too dangerous. You can do enough by just grabbing their arms or a body lock. So much safer and effective.
Do you think it is important to know self-defence as a woman?
It’s amazing how little most people know about self-defence. People are like babies, it’s easy to control someone who doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes the white belts can be difficult to deal with and be huge, but they still know what they are trying to do. Someone who has no idea will try to strike you. Working as a bouncer gave me so much confidence in terms of my Jiu-Jitsu, and it’s like training your fight and flight.
It's worrying.. the self-defence courses you see advertised because sometimes they aren’t actually real. You can’t learn self-defence on a week's course, it’s a lie. It’s to do with learning about body mechanics, which takes so much time to learn.
What are some important self-defence techniques that you can use from Jiu-Jitsu?
Breaking grips and running away. Guillotine is good, anything you see a lot in MMA. BJJ is great for self-defence, but it makes me sad to think that that is why someone would do it. I wouldn’t want anyone to do anything out of fear.