As the mother of a 13 year old girl that loves combat sports this is a question that is coming up lately, People are not directly asking me this, of course. They are asking more subtle questions. But what they really mean is: Is it dangerous for girls to play rough? Is it appropriate for girls to wrestle boys? Should girls play contact sports?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The average boy differs physically from the average girl. Boys are generally stronger and their strength is in different spots in the human body. But within those biological generalities lays quite a bit of variation. And my two teenage daughters represent the opposite ends of the female body spectrum. They couldn’t look more different. I have a tall, lanky, dark eyed, curly haired brunette, followed by a petite, curvy, blue eyed, straight haired blond. And yes, they have the same father.
From that vantage point, let’s put feminism and political correctness aside, and objectively look at the pros and cons of having daughters in combat sports, parent to parent.
Two Daughters, Two Experiences
A combat sport is a contact sport that involves fighting. My daughters have both been involved in martial arts. In most martial arts programs kids move up to adult groups at about age 14. That was about right physically for my oldest. When she moved up to the adult jiu jitsu group, she did not stay long. She did not love martial arts, or sports in general, and she really did not love the idea of practicing these wrestling type moves with grown men. My Vintage doll was mostly paired with women, but even then she was uncomfortable. She generally is antsy about close contact and personal space invasion. She has chosen Zumba instead.
My second daughter looks more mature at a younger age. She is a member of her kung fu “Elite Team”. My Sunshine doll practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitively. She loves all things martial arts. And she is good at it. She has moved up through the belts rapidly and has her eye on a black belt this year.
So, with that experience of girls in contact sports, I ask myself the question: Should girls play contact sports? What are the objections?
- Possibility of injury. Every sport has some possibility of injury. Contact sports are known for their head injury issues. But when we are talking about concussions, we are usually talking about football. As much as I love football, if my girls wanted to play, I would struggle with that idea, like any concerned mom. But very few girls desire to be hit and tackled, so that is not what I am concerned with here. My elite team daughter has had her share of minor injuries. Most days something is sore – toe, shoulder, neck, etc. She also enjoys knowing she pushed herself to the limit. But a good coach or leader is well versed in stretching and injury prevention, so make sure your chosen sport and coach have the background, experience, and brains to make playing as safe as possible.
- Close physical contact. Most combat sports require close physical contact. Jiu jitsu, in particular, is akin to wrestling. My daughter prefers to “roll” as they call it, with other girls. But the boys in the program far outnumber the girls, which seems typical. So most classes she is in close physical contact with boys near her own age. She has been at this for several years and is growing up with this set of boys. Basically, she and they are used to it. She is not a kid that requires personal space. She is my cuddliest one. But she does complains that boys drip too much sweat and that they stink. On the other hand, she rather enjoys taking them down or putting them into submission holds. So, bottom line, if she is comfortable, I am comfortable with the close contact. My guess is, when she moves to the adult group, these boys will move up, too, and it will not be as big a deal for her as it was for her older sister.
- Femininity. I am just going to shoot straight here. I looked around at the adult female competitors at my daughter’s BJJ competition. There were a few scary looking gals. I imagine they wanted to intimidate their competition. And I’ll bet they did. Honestly, I would not want my beautiful daughter who loves makeup and sequins to start dressing like she was from a Mad Max movie. But this is a question of where she gets her identity from – whether she is happy with who she is. I would know that about my daughter before she began a sport and discuss this as I saw changes in her. The decision should be made on an individual basis. You have to know your girl and look out for signs that she ties her identity to her sport.
- Making weight. This is unique to combat sports competitions. I mentioned that my kung fu princess is curvy. Weight is already becoming a bit of a frustration for her. For some sports competitions the competitors are divided by weight class. This is an effort to keep the fights fair. Weight classes move up in about 10 pound increments. The more you weigh, the bigger your competitor will be. I was more worried about it than she was. She used the weigh in as motivation to stay away from junk food. As a rule, I don’t put any emphasis on weight, only on eating well, even for myself. She is happy with herself. If I felt she was particularly vulnerable, we would avoid competitions. Martial arts are beneficial without the expense and time of those all-day events anyway.
If you can think of other objections, post them in the comments. I would be interested in thinking through other arguments. But now for the PROs of girls playing contact sports:
- Personal Discipline. At the heart of participating in martial arts, and many other sports, is the development of personal discipline. My kung fu princess has a tendency toward cutting corners and being a bit lazy. When it comes to martial arts, lack of personal discipline lands you on the floor, tapping out, or in some pain. It is a great tool for teaching self-government. Of course, this can be a benefit of any sport, but when there is more at stake than losing, it is a lesson felt physically as well as emotionally. Some kids need that.
- Safety. Now we come to the heart of why I encourage my daughter’s love of martial arts, particularly the combat with boys. If she is attacked, it will probably not be by girls her own size and age. I want her to be confident that she can fight back if attacked by a man. I saw how hard she can fight when competing against a boy much taller than she is. It was comforting to note that, even if she could not subdue a larger, stronger attacker, she would be a very discouraging target. And she is trained to fight and endure a long struggle. So many times women are frightened into freezing during an attack. It is a common human reaction to stress. Repeatedly training to counter an attack is one of the only ways to guarantee you will know what to do if you are grabbed.
The Case for Case by Case
Contact sports for girls have both pros and cons. The decision has to be one both parents and daughter are comfortable with. Some factors may point to playing combat sports, but avoiding competitions with weigh ins as the ideal solution. But being a teenage girl does not mean contact sports are out. As a matter of fact, it seems like an important part of parenting a girl is giving them some sort of training in self-defense. I see far more positive than negative for girls interested in playing contact sports. In fact, I have seen my daughter thrive physically, emotionally, and psychologically from the training, discipline, and confidence the great folks at John Wai Martial Arts have instilled in her. Happy sparring, young ladies!