Capital Current reporter Irena Velez

I’ve been in that ring dozens of times. They call my name, they call the other girl’s name. We step on the mat. My opponent and I get in our stances. The referee blows the whistle and the match begins.

But there is so much more to combat sports than meets the eye.

It’s not bold to say that martial arts — or other combat sports, for that matter — are male-dominated. They have always been associated with masculinity. However, women’s participation has slowly been increasing.

When I first started doing martial arts, I was seven and a girl among a sea of boys. I grew up training with them. The girls who joined were a precious few. But I can confidently say that more and more women are getting into it, and this makes me happy for many reasons.

First, combat sports can be a source of protection for women at risk of facing sexual violence. Thirty per cent of all women 15 or older report experience sexual assault at least once in their lives, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. To prevent such incidents from happening, women need to learn how to physically defend themselves. 

There is a great variety of combat sports to choose from. There’s one for everyone. You feel uncomfortable getting too close to people? Try boxing. You want to get on the ground and learn some grappling? Do some jiu jitsu. The options are endless, and they all teach some level of self-defence.

Many women are apprehensive about their ability to protect themselves against an aggressor. It’s important for women to understand that they can do something, that they stand a chance against attack. Martial arts can give this confidence, as women develop the techniques and strength needed to resist an opponent. The skills are valuable, but the confidence that comes from just being capable of employing them is equally important. 

Combatting sexual violence, of course, requires ongoing, wide-ranging measures across society: education, social supports, legal reforms and much more. Self-defence is not a solution for everyone, but it can be an important part of a woman’s arsenal.

This personal empowerment will lead to less anxiety. Women shouldn’t be afraid when they leave the house. They should feel safe and able to deal with situations on their own. They should feel in control. Martial arts promise self-reliance for security, instead of reliance on others to feel safe all the time. 

I can attest to this empowerment, as a female who has trained in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Kung-Fu, MMA and wrestling. At tournaments, I noticed that I was more likely to do well in a match after reminding myself that my training has made me capable of succeeding. So much of it is in our heads. We need to realize that we can do anything we put our minds to.

We should not be afraid to get involved in a sport seen as “manly.” We should work to eliminate those stereotypes and show the world that a woman can do anything a man can do. When I first tell people that I do martial arts, they’re always extremely surprised and ask me if I’m joking. It doesn’t offend me. It’s OK to be different.

Martial arts will test you. Sometimes you have a long day and you just want to go home, lie on the couch and watch TV. The hard part is making it out to train on those days. But having a hobby that gets us off the couch and onto the mat, improving our physique and our mental wellness, is a wonderful thing.

Combat sports have been proven to increase self-esteem among practitioners. A 2001 study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who took a self-defence course “experienced a significant increase in more global aspects of personality, including perceptions of physical self-efficacy and assertiveness.” 

Self-efficacy refers to a woman’s belief in her capacity to defend herself and face challenges competently, bolstering well-being and feelings of accomplishment. A woman who practises a combat sport is likely to feel more adept in confronting threats. 

Combat sports are also an excellent, full-body workout. Martial arts are a form of aerobic training that help with weight loss and muscle growth. Training both the upper and lower body while improving endurance produces health benefits. 

Combat sports will improve your reflexes and increase your spatial awareness. Hand-eye co-ordination is employed to hit a target and self-discipline is mastered in order to train hard. Goal-setting is essential for personal commitment and motivation.

These skills don’t just stop being used outside the ring. Discipline and self-control can be transferred into eating habits, managing emotions and maintaining work-life balance. Strength can be used to lift heavy items and open tightly sealed jars. Goal-setting can be applied to academics. Hand-eye co-ordination is used in baseball, hockey and golf, too. Good reflexes are required when driving. There’s more to it all than you think.

Learning self-defence techniques isn’t just a physical workout, it’s a mental one too. Remembering skills and planning what you’ll do next in a fight is all in the brain. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have enough room in my head to remember all the moves I learn. Working our brains is a good thing, and women can take advantage of this excellent opportunity for it. 

Martial arts will test you. Sometimes you have a long day and you just want to go home, lie on the couch and watch TV. The hard part is making it out to train on those days. But having a hobby that gets us off the couch and onto the mat, improving our physique and our mental wellness, is a wonderful thing. 

Combat sports have also taught me the values of patience and hard work. You absolutely will not get your next belt without these. You also won’t win a competition without them. You work to earn your own reward, and this cannot be understated. A one-person team calls for all the work to be done by you on your own. This is how women can learn to trust in their own abilities and rely on themselves to accomplish anything they want in life. 

I have been in wrestling matches where I’ve been down four points and giving up, desperately checking the timer to see how little time I have to make up the difference. Dripping in sweat and starting to tell myself I can’t do it, something inside me found the courage to go for that double leg and secure the pin. No one else can do it for you. You learn to work for yourself.

Finally, every woman needs a good stress reliever. There is nothing more stress relieving than punching and kicking for an hour straight at a Muay Thai class. What more could a woman want? If you think taking a bath relieves stress, you’ve never tried a good kickboxing class. Just let all those built up emotions out on your training partner. They won’t mind.