Teenage Girls Can Change The World (Especially If They Learn How To Wrestle)
By Violet Bennett
Each girl was late. But they arrived, dragging their heels and rolling their eyes as if here was the last place on earth they wanted to be. However, the lesson they were arriving to was entirely optional. I wondered if they simply did not know how to, or had never wanted to, actively appear enthused by anything. Being openly excited when you’re a 15 year old girl is often, sadly, a social death wish. Nonetheless, they were here and ready to learn. We put our phones on silent, set out the mats, and started to stretch.
I’m a secondary school English teacher and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt living in Manchester. I’m now coming to the end of my time spent completing a programme run by an organisation called Teach First. Its mission is relatively simple on the surface: tackle the overwhelming issue of educational inequality in the UK. Their method is slightly more complex: take graduates who have performed exceptionally well at university, as well some high-performing career-changers, put them through a short, intensive training course and place them in some of the most deprived schools in the UK. There, they’ll be teaching nearly full-time while they complete at Post-Graduate Diploma in Education.
It’s hard. A typical route into teaching involves one year studying towards received Qualified Teacher Status, before securing a full-time job, perhaps a slightly more sensible and less insane option than the one I had chosen. I had all of it on my plate from day one. I’d finished university, broken up with my boyfriend and moved all my belongings up to Manchester in a small VW Polo with no aircon. My new house was without a scrap of furniture, in a neighbourhood where needles were a regular find on the pavement and break-ins were commonplace. It should’ve been miserable, lonely and terrifying. Instead, I was elated as I lay on my bedroom carpet, cracked a beer from the corner shop and considered what the next two years were going to look like.
Fast forward 9 months. I was exhausted; I continued to train jiu jitsu 5-6 evenings a week and lift twice a week before work, fitting it in around studying and teaching full-time. I competed nearly every month, nationally and internationally, with decent results. However, my mental health was in tatters and I longed for the days when I could show up to training without wishing I was already in bed. I’d regularly leave the mats to cry in the changing rooms from sheer exhaustion before heading back out for one more round. I’d embraced the mindset that success comes from struggle, and if I went to bed instead of sparring, it was against the ‘champion’s mindset’ I’d put on a dangerously high pedestal.
Nonetheless, I was proud of what I was doing. A lot of my students come from immensely disadvantaged situations and haven’t had the opportunities that I’d been privy to, growing up in a financially secure and loving home. My students were endlessly surprising, challenging and overall, amazing. Working with children wasn’t something I thought I’d love as much as I did (I’ve never wanted children of my own) but I adored it.
A conversation with a 15 year old I mentored pushed me to consider combining the previously separate worlds of work and jiu jitsu. It seemed slightly ridiculous that I was not sharing my deep love for and knowledge of a skill with these students, besides bringing medals back after weekends spent competing (their favourite was by far the Kleos medal. It led to a lengthy discussion of runes and Vikings.) I’d taught jiu jitsu before, at university. I was the first female president of the amazing University of York MMA Club, and had coached beginners for a year there. After two months of planning and carefully completing endless risk assessment forms, it was time. I was going to be teaching jiu jitsu for self defence to a group of teenage girls who were considered to need it more than the average teenage girl might. They had been selected by pastoral and teaching staff they were especially close to, but these were not girls that particularly liked school or the people that worked in them. However, they were and are fantastic, intelligent and tenacious individuals who I hope will go on to do great good in the world, for themselves and for others.
The sessions weren’t large. Over 60% of the girls suggested to me refused to attend, but 5-6 girls would arrive after school, some giggly, some sullen and all of them immensely nervous in their own ways. Some of them were talented sportswomen in their own right, some skipped P.E. more often than attending it. Occasionally, I’d take students who were sat in detention for an hour as well, often with surprisingly good results. Perhaps they enjoyed the training, perhaps they were happy to be anywhere but sat in a cramped room, reading a book. I wasn’t fussed as long as they got stuck in.
I’d spent a long while considering the ethics and practicalities of what I was doing. I was not and am not a self defence coach. If I attempted to berimbolo my way out of a street fight, I’d undoubtedly wind up in hospital, or worse. Jiu jitsu, for me, is about problem-solving and revelling in the beauty of an immensely complex and violent puzzle. I love the physicality of it, I love the cleverness of it and I especially love that it is very hard to be good at it. For me, like so many others, it was the whole package. It wasn’t, however, something I learned to necessarily defend myself. The techniques I learn to win competitions are not techniques that are necessarily comparable to those develops decades ago to subdue an assailant; this was something that required thought as I planned sessions for these girls. I watched as much old footage from self defence seminars, primarily offered by members of the Gracie lineage, as I could, and I also received support from my coach, Steve Campbell at Stealth BJJ, who teaches an excellent self-defence segment in his curriculum and has much of it filmed. I wanted to be honest and open with the girls with regards to how and when to use the techniques they were going to learn. They were always offered as a last-option in a scenario that they would do much better to avoid.
To my surprise, when we sat in a circle and discussed how to manage dangerous scenarios, the girls didn’t attempt to make jokes or downplay what we discussed. The atmosphere was heavy and serious, with female members of staff participating equally alongside their students. The girls recognised, with a clarity unusual for their age, the value of what was being shared with them. They asked questions, their previous reluctance to appear engaged long forgotten. I had information they wanted and knew they needed. We discussed how to verbally deescalate situations calmly, and how to establish clear boundaries. Then finally, we learned how to successfully protect ourselves and escape if those boundaries were crossed.
Each girl in the room underwent their own transformation as they learned the techniques. Some became quiet and focussed, some immensely loud and proud of their successes. Cheering, laps of honour and shouts of frustration were not uncommon. It was wholly different to any jiu jitsu class I have taught or attended, perhaps because these girls had not only not been exposed to this style of class, but because many had not had the opportunity to attend any sort of extra-curricular class ever before. Learning a new skill for the sake of learning it was new to most of them, and the sheer joy that comes from being a beginner in something filled the room.
Something I recognised, perhaps something that merits its own article, is the rapid transformation these girls underwent from not wanting to particularly touch one another, to wanting to physically dominate each other. They loved the physicality of the classes, and were often delighted and surprised by their own strength. Many girls their age are not encouraged to be physically strong whatsoever. They have an immense concern with appearing too muscular, or ‘manly’ and as a result, many of them had never done much exercise besides dance, which is very popular in the school. The girls loved the light positional sparring we did, and were thrilled by the opportunity to fight. I was reminded of a common misconception many women face in jiu jitsu that often comes from a place of misunderstanding rather than malice. Not every woman trains in jiu jitsu to protect themselves, although it’s a significant perk! . I like fighting. I liked fighting when I was younger, when I trained muay thai, MMA and still now, as I train jiu jitsu. These girls were proof that wrestling one another to the ground for the sake of it is good for the soul, especially the souls of teenage girls.
The Wednesday sessions quickly became the highlight of my week. The girls’ success with techniques always put a smile on my face, but what strengthened my resolve to teach these sorts of sessions again was the transformation in each individual girl. Some was more pronounced than others, and some girls stopped attending, but the ones that stayed changed. They carried themselves with a stillness that was not necessarily there before, made more eye contact, answered questions more fully. Most Wednesdays I was late for training, staying behind after sessions with one of the girls who had something to share that she had not felt able to before.
It’s this transformation that I did not fully understand before I started teaching the Wednesday sessions. Once you’re ‘in’ jiu jitsu, you forget what life was like before. You forget the fear of being a woman with no real knowledge of how to defend herself should she need to. You forget what brought you to jiu jitsu in the first place. You’re too busy being contorted, stretched and squished every night by men comically larger than yourself to remember the ‘before.’ Learning how to bridge and shrimp, control distance and defend a choke is undoubtedly powerful. Walking around with the belief that you could use that knowledge to save your own skin is even more powerful, especially for students who lead lives that might one day depend on that knowledge. I was extremely hesitant to teach self defence for the surely sensible fear of doing it badly and risking the precious lives of students in my care. However, with the right research, support and consistently open and honest teaching, I am glad I was able to share some of what I love with girls who maybe didn’t need to learn a berimbolo, but needed to know how to safely stand and run. Maybe one of them will eventually learn a berimbolo.