Ten tips for engaging young women and girls in the martial arts

This article was written by contributor Kai Morgan, a martial arts blogger. Download her free guide to attracting and retaining more female students at http://www.budo-inochi.com/femalefriendlydojo/ or check out her blog at http://www.budo-inochi.com/blog/

Obviously there are many women of all ages who engage easily in martial arts training, and who either don’t experience the barriers listed below, or are well able to overcome them. The focus of this article is on engaging with girls and young women who may be harder to reach for various reasons.


I recently attended an Us Girls three-hour training session called “How to Engage Women and Girls in Sport”

The course was packed with evidence-based tips, other information and rich discussions, and was well worth attending. Although it was fascinating to meet and talk with people from all different spUs_Girls_Logoorts, my own interest was on how the material could apply to martial arts.

The focus of the course was very much on younger women, as the target group for Us Girls is aged 14-25 years. Us Girls is a nationwide (England and Wales) programme which aims to increase and sustain young women’s participation in sport and physical activity within some of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities.

Here are just a few of the interesting points I picked up on this course which could be relevant to dojos looking to engage with this group.


  1. Try to see your dojo through the eyes of a beginner

The workshop trainer cited sobering data about the low participation of English girls and young women in sports. (Very interestingly though, the same data shows that 74% of girls want to be more active).

That’s a very high number of young women and girls who simply aren’t used to exercise, and may well feel nervous or alienated at the prospect. And given the sometimes “scary” image of the martial arts, it’s likely that girls and young women may feel even more disinclined to try them out than other sports.

And as the trainer pointed out, all of us attending the workshop were there because we love and “get” sport. To us, all the little customs and routines of our own sport and/or club are perfectly reasonable and normal. But a young woman (or man for that matter) walking in for the first time may have all kinds of questions and worries:

  • What’s all that bowing about and how do you know when to do it?
  • Where do I get changed?
  • How do I tie my belt?
  • Is it ok to step onto the mat?

And that’s in addition to general anxieties such as:

  • Will I get hurt?
  • Will the other students be kind or scary?
  • Why do I have to leave my personal belongings there when I don’t yet trust you?

So try to put your own confidence and experience to one side, and really think about all the things you do and say, which might seem strange to new people. You’ll then be in a better position to empathise, and help new students feel at ease.

The workshop tutor told us a great story about how he actually joined a choir (with no musical experience whatsoever!), just to see what it felt like to be uncomfortable and out of his depth. He said that this helped a lot to increase his understanding of how his own new students might feel.

  1. Focus on the social side in your marketing

For younger women, taking part with friends and family members tends to be really important. Us Girls therefore recommends word of mouth, direct contact, social media, taster sessions and outreach work. They advise that just relying on posters and leaflets is unlikely to achieve much for this group.

Girls and younger women are also highly influenced by the opinion of their peers. So if you can target one or more very influential “alpha female” and get them attending and enjoying your dojo, it’s very likely that more girls will flock to follow her. (This works for boys and young men too!)

If you have access to going into schools, this leader can often be the more “edgy” girl (or boy). As the workshop tutor put it: this kind of student often causes problems for their school teachers, but for us they’re just the kind of student we want to reach!


  1. Understand the barriers faced by women from black and minority ethnic communities, and different cultural groups

Part of the workshop focused in on several specific groups who would be likely to need additional support to access sporting activities. The first such group was women and girls from black and minority ethnic communities, and different cultural groups.

Women from some groups will need to train in female-only environments, with a female coach. This may really cause you problems if you don’t have a female sensei or senior student; or if you have firm beliefs that martial arts training should not be segregated by gender.

Photo by Scott Feldstein CC

Because while I don’t think too many people would object to a female-only netball team or Zumba class, the martial arts are very different. There are very strong arguments both for and against offering women-only classes in the martial arts; and only you can decide what is right for your club.

If you do go down this route, you may also need to ensure that men can’t spectate. An easy way to achieve this can be to cover glass doors and windows, and put up signs.

There were several people at the workshop who practised martial arts. We noted that our loose, unisex training uniforms had a distinct appeal for many women from cultural groups which insist that women cover their form and/or skin.

If a girl or young woman wants to wear a hijab during training, you can buy special “Sports Hijabs”. Typically these are made of Lycra and don’t need pins. They are lightweight, breathable and moisture-resistant, and don’t move around during training So a woman or girl can just pull it on over her head and go.

The workshop also covered the importance of engaging with the women and girls’ families, to get their “buy-in”, and reassure them that you respect their cultural beliefs.

And finally, it’s good to be aware of faith calendars. Firstly, so that you can avoid gradings, seminars or other events clashing with a major festival or period of fasting (for example). Secondly because you may be able to link in with whatever the local community is doing to celebrate a key event, to promote your dojo.


  1. Understand the barriers faced by young mums

This group was chosen because young mums tend to be very busy and time-poor, so exercise is often pretty low down on their list of priorities. So we were given some helpful tips for engaging young mums.

Above all, it helps to make it easy and stress-free for young mums to join in – ideally this group likes to just turn up without having to worry about any special clothes or equipment. Think about how you might accommodate this. Are you ok for students to train for some time before buying a gi, if it increases their chance of committing to your martial art?

Do you have enough spare weapons for them to just turn up and use, if buying and transporting their own is problematic for harassed young mums?

Giving lots of practical detail about the session can also be really useful for this group, as they are often so stretched trying to plan lots of different things to fit together.

If you can help out with childcare in any way, it’ll be appreciated. If you don’t have the facilities to offer something like a crèche yourself, you could help by mobilising the mums to share childcare, or running activities where parents can train alongside their kids – either together in the same group, or in two separate groups.


  1. Understand the needs of women in challenging circumstances

Photo by The Consortium CC


This group might include young women not in education, employment or training; those living on a low income; or women at risk of getting involved in crime. Typically this group lack confidence, live on a low income, and are not involved in sport.

The overarching advice for engaging this group is that it can be very hard work and time-consuming to make that connection and win their trust. Above all, you need to accept upfront that it’s probably going to be hard work for you to get girls and young women from this group into your dojo, and expect them to engage and stay.

Often, their self-esteem will be so low, that coming into an environment where other people appear “better” than them will just put them right off. So if these are the women and girls you want to reach out to, you’re far more likely to succeed by running a separate class, which is made up of other young women in similar circumstances.

One way to break into this group is to try partnership working with agencies who already support them. You might even be able to find someone in that agency who the girls already trust, who is sporty or has experience of martial arts, who you can train up to a basic level to help you teach.

Personal qualities are always important in an instructor, but perhaps even more so for this group. It’s also helpful if you have a good understanding of the issues and barriers these women are facing – this may mean that you and/or your senior students need extra training or other learning opportunities.


  1. Get your marketing right

Younger women especially are more attracted by bold, bright colours; and by photos than other images. They also respond better to images of other people having fun, rather than more “serious” or competitive sporting images.

Images that show what’s involved in your martial art can also be very attractive to encourage young women to have a go. Most people who don’t train have no real clue what we do, and so it’s good if you can break down preconceptions in this way.

One of the best ways to get your messaging right is to ask the girls and young women themselves. You can run a number of ideas past them (images, wording, presentation) and take feedback on “what works” for them.

The 170-page Us Girls Simple guide to marketing your project is also fab. It’s a detailed guide on how to target the market segment which Sports England labels as “Leanne”.

Leanne is 23 and lives with her parents and her daughter, Carly, in a small terraced house. Leanne is studying beauty therapy part-time at college, and does the odd cleaning job when her mum can look after Carly.

Leanne doesn’t get much time to herself. Juggling Carly, college and her cleaning shifts is demanding, and childcare is a difficult expense. A couple of times a week though Leanne treats herself to a night out with the girls, at bingo or maybe in the local pub […]


  1. Get your venue right

A lot of women and girls have bad memories of school PE – or just general insecurities around sport and exercise – and don’t see themselves as necessarily welcome in the world of sport.

This is a tough one, as dojo buildings are not plentiful – and many of them are not that smart or attractive. But if you’re aiming to draw girls or young women into your existing dojo and class schedule, bear in mind that women tend to place a higher importance than men on training in a clean, attractive venue.

You also need to be aware of just how intimidating your dojo might feel to some girls and young women (even if it is actually the most friendly place on earth), especially if they are lacking on confidence, or see themselves as “not the sporty type”.

Your dojo can also be unattractive if it’s hard to get to, or some distance away from where students live. If you’re thinking of setting up a special class to engage girls or young women, Us Girls advises using a convenient, local venue which women are already used to using, such as the local college, faith venue or children’s centre.

Safety and accessibility are also really important. This includes arriving at, and leaving the dojo at the end of the session. For example, walking out to the parking area in the dark may feel unsafe for some women. You can help by ensuring good lighting, or making sure that no one has to walk out there alone if they don’t want to. At my dojo, several teenage male and female students rely on infrequent buses to get back to the housing estate where they live. We therefore run an informal rota, and take turns to drive them home at the end of the evening. (You should check your car insurance if you decide to do this).


  1. Be aware of issues around body image, and support girls and young women to develop a positive body image

One of the reasons girls and young women are less likely to exercise is because so many of them feel self-conscious and critical about their bodies. But in fact, engaging in sports can be a great way to overcome these insecurities. And martial arts is actually a fantastic arena to help with this.

We learned on the course that when an exercise class puts the emphasis on improving appearance (such as a focus on burning calories), this can actually make women feel even more self-conscious and insecure. A much more effective way to improve body image through exercise is to focus on what the body can do, rather than how it looks. Which is exactly what we do in the dojo!

Photo by Scott Feldstein CC

Another implication is that you should try to discourage women from exercising for appearance-related reasons. Because this is very likely to lead to frustration, disappointment and ultimately drop-out. I think this is worth mentioning, because many dojos trying to recruit women will mention losing weight and/or toning up in their marketing, as they know that women are very interested in these goals. However, to keep women truly engaged, you are better off focusing on fitness in general, or other goals around power and self-efficacy.

Use realistic images in your marketing. Images that show women training with perfect make-up and not a drop of sweat only exacerbate the fear that sweating is “unfeminine” and “unattractive”. Images of women with “perfect” bodies and skimpy clothes can make girls and young women feel intimidated, and that they don’t belong in the martial arts. NB here’s a collection of copyright-free pictures of “real” women practising martial arts, which you are very welcome to use on your website or leaflets.

One of the best ways to increase women’s body confidence is to increase their feelings of self-efficacy. This means helping them to feel competent and in control of their body. You can help with this by setting small, achievable goals, which may include attendance goals. Again, I actually don’t think there can be any better activity than martial arts for working in this way.

We noted above the benefits of our standardised training uniforms for women who don’t want to show their form for cultural reasons. But the gi can also be a welcome blessing for women who are self-conscious about the size or shape of their bodies.


  1. You don’t have to be a woman to coach girls and young women effectively

I think this is a really important point, as realistically most martial arts senseis are male, and might feel that they are at a disadvantage. The workshop emphasised that the most important thing about an instructor for girls and young women is their ability to coach well, lead and inspire. This is regardless of whether they are male or female. According to Us Girls, the qualities of a successful coach for young women and girls include: Inspiring and encouraging; Down to earth and “real”; Open and helpful; Ability to listen and be responsive; and committed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The trainer was male, and said that he had a female assistant coach, who in his view was a definite extra draw for the girls. But he also said he didn’t feel this would be essential, if it wasn’t possible.

One exception to this would be coaching girls and young women from cultural groups which prefer girls to be taught by women – this point is covered above.


  1. Be creative and have fun!

What I really loved about this course, and the pack of written resources that all participants received, was the colour, vibrancy and huge range of potential it all seemed to open up. The trainer had brought along a load of “good” posters and leaflets, to give us examples of “what works”. Looking around the Us Girls website: http://www.streetgames.org/our-work/us-girls brings up a load of brilliant case studies, ideas and resources for coaching sports in general.

So if you’re unsure how to engage girls and young women in your martial art, don’t hold back. The resources are out there; and more importantly this is a fantastic area where you can make a real difference with your art.


Look out for Part Two of this post, which looks in more depth at the qualities that help an instructor engage with girls and young women effectively . . .


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