Boxing, like many martial arts, was once said to be a man’s thing. Today, however, there has been a shift with more and more women being seen at the training rooms, so as an enthusiast myself, I was keen to find out the reasons behind such changes.
I remember vividly my beginnings and the first motivations that led me to the training room at the martial arts academy: I had increasingly seen girls training in Thai boxing or muay Thai on social media, and I could imagine myself doing it.
I needed something new that wasn’t just a peaceful yoga session or simply training at the gym; I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, to pour out my emotions in sport, but also feel stronger. Indeed, that’s what I became, but as it turned out, it wasn’t just physical strength I gained, but mental strength, which I wouldn’t have expected at all.
Although I have only been training for a year or so, I am able to point to the big changes that have taken place in my self-perception and self-esteem. As women, from an early age we are subjected to various role models that we try to live up to, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others and we are in a race that cannot be won. This is a road to nowhere, but the vast majority of us have to come to these conclusions ourselves.
I was undoubtedly helped by sport, specifically, Muay Thai, which made me realise that the only person I should compare myself to is myself. It is not just the physical aspects, that’s secondary, after each training session, I saw that I could do more, my fitness was better, but what I enjoyed the most was discovering the strength within me.
I am short and petite, so I didn’t have high expectations of myself. Just like some of the people around me, who were surprised that I practised martial arts and used to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions. I quickly found my feet in the sport, so these were not an obstacle for me, although I know that these criticisms could effectively prevent others from pursuing their chosen sport, even recreationally.
Muay Thai is a very sociable sport – it familiarises us with our own and others’ physicality – after all, it is based on physical contact, and there is no room for uncertainty or secrecy. We must know what we want, our movements must be quick and sure, and they must be surprising to our opponent.
I particularly recommend classes that don’t classify by gender, and I found professional trainers and an extremely open and accepting place to train; the atmosphere is addictive, because there is no room for divisions and prejudices.
On more than one occasion, I have trained with women who are taller or older than me, with more experience. I have trained with men, and I believe that it’s because of this that I was able to take so much from the sport so quickly.
I have become more open to people who are not at all from my bubble, many times I had to break through and get out of my mental or physical comfort zone.
I remember a few times when I happened to be the only girl in a group where everyone was already familiar with Muay Thai. Did I feel uncomfortable? At first, yes, and I was once again faced with that vision of being weaker, feeling the familiar imposter syndrome: “They probably think I can’t do anything.”
Subsequent training sessions effectively rid me of this feeling. Exercising with different people, at different levels and of different ages or physiques is ultimately what teaches us the most.
What’s more, it effectively takes away our complexes. At workouts, girls exercise in shorts and leggings. Sports bras and T-shirts. Each of us is different, and this clearly shows that sport is for everyone. That each of us can be just as good at it, and that these differences are what make us unique.
I know that I am not alone in my feelings and experiences. I share similar experiences with other female martial arts practitioners, regardless of their level. So, is there something in particular that drives women into combat sports? It turns out that these are often quite spontaneous decisions, preceded by a little encouragement from a friend or an extended observation of martial arts practitioners and a desire to test themselves in a new sport.
Basia Cieślak is a 21-year old student who went through the same journey: “At the beginning I couldn’t convince myself to hit someone. I didn’t like being punched in the face. But the truth is that martial arts have always been appealing and impressive to me. They made me feel a bit like a superhero.”
Claudia Klimala, 39-year old business owner and therapist told me: “I was looking for a sport other than tennis, which I have been doing for a long time. My husband practises Jiu Jitsu and persuaded me to try out Muay Thai. At first I didn’t know what to do, but after just a few training sessions I felt more confident, started to understand it and liked it.”
Kasia Lenartowicz, a 32-year old manager says: “I started training when a long-term relationship was falling apart. At that time, it gave me a space to vent my emotions. Training became such an important part of my life that I completely gave up drinking alcohol, so that I always felt in shape during my workouts. This also saved me from the self-destructive moves that often accompanied me when drinking alcohol. Through this, I have also completely changed the people I surround myself with”.
Kasia’s story is especially interesting, as with discovering a new hobby, her life completely changed in just a couple of months: “My history with martial arts is quite interesting, because after more than a year of training in my club, I was offered by the owners to help them with ’embracing’ it, so for more than four years I have been working as a manager there.
“Now I take care of camps, the coaches’ and receptionists’ schedules, all the ‘paperwork’ so that the club can function smoothly. What’s more, I’ve been in a relationship with one of the coaches from there for five years. My story is a super advertisement for training,” she laughs. “If you are looking for a change and want to meet the love of your life, you need to start boxing!”
25-year old Pola Rogala, who is a 14-time Polish Kickboxing Champion and a World silver and bronze medallist, started kickboxing because of her father, who is also a coach, and wanted to temper her rebellious teen character.
She confesses that her introduction to the sport was not easy: “Everyone was saying that I don’t fit. It’s hardly motivating, but I knew what I wanted from the first time I stepped into the ring. I faced my opponent head-on, although at the time I was my own biggest opponent. I stood with the other fighter, felt my pulse, that adrenaline and felt that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
She started at the age of 17, but her career was progressing fast. Now, she sees herself not only as a professional fighter, but also as a coach, who gives personal training, and leads groups of beginners and people who are continuing their journey with Muay Thai.
Although she did not plan her career in this way for a long time, she quickly fell in love with this way of passing on her passion to others. At the club where she works, everyone in the group is equal. Women train with men, although this does not mean that everyone has the same approach to martial arts.
“The women are fierce, systematic, they have such a willingness to fight. You can see a lot of energy and emotions in them. This is a big advantage for them. Contrary to appearances, men are much calmer, they switch off their emotions, they are in control. What’s cool about it all is that these differences motivate each other even more,” Pola says.
Emotions are also clearly emphasised by Klaudia, who, as a therapist, sees great potential in combat sports and often recommends working with one’s own body in her work: “Aggression also has a positive side. In this therapeutic approach, it allows us to better manage our emotions and get rid of those oppressive, tormenting feelings.”
Kasia takes a different angle and points out that even if we are said to be equal, we still need to prove it: “Sometimes I see that as women we still have to prove to some men that we are not weak and that we too can be trained equally. As girls we can be just as good and effective on the mat as the guys.”
What do martial arts have to offer women? What can we get out of them? The most positive effect of practising Muay Thai, or any other sport for that matter, is not only the physical development, but more importantly, an increase in self-confidence, awareness of our own body, and a sense of strength that we often did not feel before.
“I’ve definitely become more confident – and I’m not talking about confronting others, but about the way I think about myself. I know that I am strong and that I seriously can take a lot and whatever happens, I can always handle it. It’s also nice to be aware that I can fight. I’d never want to test that on the street, but it definitely makes a difference to my overall wellbeing when running alone in the evening, for example,” Kasia tell us.
“It’s also important that when you start doing combat sports you clearly get the fact that resolving any conflicts through violence is not a solution to a problem. What I mean is that you often get the opinion that people who do combat sports are violent and ‘want to prove themselves’. I know a lot of people from this background, both professionals and amateurs, and this is total nonsense.”
Zosia Wiącek, a 20-year old student and multiple Polish Jui Jitsu Champion is also concerned about the aspect of violence: “I don’t think martial arts should be seen as an option for self-defence. In a risky situation, the first thing you do is shout and run away. You don’t immediately try to come into physical contact with your attacker. Nevertheless, I know that by increasing our confidence, we will be able to react better and faster instead of panicking.”
For Basia, different types of combat sports had a big impact on her mentality. “I’m petite, and that has given me a lot in terms of feeling safe. I know that in an extreme situation I will know how to deal with a man on the street. I am stronger, more confident. I finally realised that the most important thing for a woman is not her figure, but her inner strength and how she can find herself in an environment, especially a male-dominated one.
“I became tough and understood that it’s not about having a certain body type or weight, but about coping and becoming a stronger version of myself. I just feel happy with who I am. I have no resistance to going out alone in the evening or responding to a man’s accusation.”
Katarzyna Grunt-Mejer , a 40 year-old lecturer with a PhD in Psychology told me: “With the physical changes, I felt much stronger and resilient. This also has a direct impact on what I can do with other physical activities. I also feel that my attitude towards people who train in combat sports has changed. I had some preconceptions, and these people turned out to be diverse, extremely smart and valuable. They have also given me some insight into other worlds, which from a psychologist’s point of view is very meaningful.”
Zosia says the sport helped during adolescence: “While starting practising Jui Jitsu, I was 16 years old. This is the age of adolescence, and I was very insecure at that time. I was quite withdrawn, even afraid of people. Being with people older than me, different people, talking and sharing experiences with them, opened me up a lot.”
She also underlines a very important role of the trainer: “The coach from my teenage years and the one I’m training with now has made me believe in myself. They made me believe in my abilities and changed my mindset on many aspects.”
Pola agrees: “You can already see the change in the girls after the first few training sessions. Their thinking changes incredibly and that’s what really keeps me going in this coaching role. I can see that I am helping people and doing something really good for them.”
Pola also underlines a different aspect of her experiences: “First of all, I learned humility. The mat and the ring can verify everything. It’s also the desire to improve yourself day by day. To not just be a better fighter, but a better person. Combat sports shape character and help you set goals. It motivates you to get out of bed every day and fight, not just during the training, but simply to fight for yourself in life.”
She recognises it as a transformation and names a range of changes that women can notice. “It’s very common for women to point out that they have more muscle, but what’s more important is that their attitude towards food is changing, they are releasing their feminine strength and becoming more feminine in general. From quiet and secretive girls, they become talkative and confident, more open. It’s great to see these transformations.”
What’s the women’s perspective on their rising appearance in the martial arts? Although they are highlighting different aspects, they seem to be happy about it or even see it as a part of a bigger social change.
“I feel much more comfortable with the fact that there are more girls. It feels like I have sisters on the training mat. I have someone to talk to and practise with, having a level playing field, says Basia.
While appreciating the presence of women in the sport, Zosia points out the numbers are still small compared to the men. “I think there could still be more of us, especially at competitions. We as women are often limited to recreational training at the beginning. In order to compete at the beginning levels, we don’t have to be able to do everything, that’s what it’s all about.”
On the other hand, Katarzyna and Klaudia both agree on a social-related angle: “I’m sure this is one of the symptoms of social change. Beauty canons are changing, it’s fitness and strength that is the new sexy. Women are proud of this and want to transcend gender stereotypes. What’s more, I see this especially in the young women I see most often in training,” says Katarzyna.
Klaudia points out that it may be a result that women increasingly having the courage to try, to reach for more, to speak up in a male environment and to fight for greater representation, including sports.
As a coach and as a professional, Pola adds: “I am extremely happy that there are more and more girls in combat sports, because it is a very good sign in our society that women want to fight and self-improve. What’s more, since I was a child my mum used to tell me ‘strength is a woman and a woman is strength’, and I’m sticking to that.”
Featured image courtesy of Kasia Lenartowicz