Women reaching high level belts in BJJ

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

If only Maya had known, that comment was exactly what female Jiu Jitsu Practitioners do and often need to hear again and again to reaffirm that they are on the right path.

I am often very frustrated with Jiu Jitsu as a sport. Although it is physically demanding, my frustrations lie with the mental toll it can take on you. In BJJ you have your highs and your lows, as with any sport, however, when you have a low and you’re not performing or tired, you may just have a heavy sweaty body lying on your chest squishing every last oomph of air from your lungs – This is so often the point where frustrations peak and women in BJJ leave.

There is however, more to this glorious but daunting sport, speak to any girl who has been involved for a while and they’ll tell you it’s about friendships and bonds. Something about working through those lows as a team and rolling partner solidifies friendships like nothing else.

BJJ has been a personal journey for most practitioners, most are very honest in saying how it changed or even saved their lives. It is this essence that I tried to capture in talking specifically to local female practitioners about what they love and why they stuck with BJJ.


Noelle Adams, a Purple Belt at Novagen in Durban had this to say:

Getting my purple belt felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. I am not a BJJ natural. Although I had a 2 year break from the sport it took me 6 years of regular mat time to get to where I am now. I suppose I could say I got to where I am now because of setting a personal goal and sticking to it. Plus, I’ve never experienced a workout like the one Jiu-Jitsu provides. 

On what would cause you to quit:

I don’t see myself quitting now. There will probably be some hiatuses but I will always be back to the sport while I am able, and can find a club where I am welcome and I like the instruction style. This said, it is definitely a question of “sticking it out” at times. 

BJJ can be a frustrating sport for anyone – not just women. There are long stretches where you feel like you aren’t making progress, and I’ve seen literally dozens and dozens of people (men and women) quit at this plateau stage, when it’s no longer as fun as it once was. I’m going to generalise here and say here that for women it’s worse. In SA 99% of the time you’re only rolling against much bigger, stronger guys so it can feel – if you’re not technically strong right from the outset – progress is really slow. There might also be the issue of feeling excluded as a woman at a guys’ club, like you’re always the outsider treated differently.

Advancing in BJJ can also be a very lonely path for a woman to follow (in SA) because there are so few women who’ve practiced it until now. It’s disheartening to continually ask friends and other women to join in and they’re resistant to the idea of grappling because of its physical intimacy. All of these can be very strong incentives to quit. Ultimately though I think the further you get into the sport, the less you’re bugged by these. You develop an understanding that your feelings will continually be changing towards what you do and what you’re capable of on the mat, so you’re less likely to throw in the towel.


Jessica Hill – Will/Machado/Hebert Purple Belt

I stuck it out because I fell in love with rolling. I loved how the small person can beat the big person using techniques with no real strength requirements. BJJ also changed from being just learning a martial art and became more a journey where I learned about myself. 

On what would cause you to quit:

Nothing would cause me to quit. I love jits too much for that, my love for BJJ has also been a shared love for it because of my classmates. Family and work commitments are probably the greatest contributors. As with all people who do jits it’s also a case of people getting frustrated as they don’t advance as quickly as they’d like. The general consensus from what I’ve experienced along with other women in BJJ is that it is tough, it’s by no means an easy sport to do, but with perseverance, those techniques you learn to overcome a bigger stronger opponent begin to work and you start to see the results.


Sometimes you don’t see results like you’d imagine you would have and this is something I hear most days on the mat, is that they had imagined they would be better by now or that they feel stuck or that this is all too much, but one thing I always say to the girls who I’ve trained with, is that the things you learn today, you will use in a years’ time and it will be an “ah-ha” moment when the pieces of the puzzle come together. Mental maps are created while training, like a river forming, a beaten track if you would of BJJ knowledge, and the more you practice the more you improve. It takes time for your brain to hard-wire every move in Jiu Jitsu, eventually the bulk of your cognitive brain is no longer required for the movements, and can then be used just for high-level decision making as needed. You have to train your brain as much as your body, it is herein that the frustration lies with newbies. Nothing else can fix the problems on the mat or the way you feel about them other than to roll, so just roll and take life (and Jiu Jitsu) by the lapels and kick ass. – by Kerry-Anne Mathieson