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Forrest Morgan Interview - women in martial arts.

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:07pm
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 ChunGungFu 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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