What kind of coach is best at engaging 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 aren’t vulnerable or hard to reach. 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”, and it was well worth attending. You can read a write-up of the course here (with a focus on the martial arts):  Ten tips for engaging young women and girls in the martial arts.


Us_Girls_LogoUs Girls is a programme which aims to increase and sustain young women’s (aged 14-25) participation in sport and physical activity within some of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities.


The course was aimed at coaches, and one of the themes we looked at was how to ensure the right type and quality of coaching, to engage this group and keep them engaged. It was really interesting to discuss this topic with coaches from all different sports, but my main focus was on takeways for the martial arts.

So what are the all-important qualities that would help an instructor succeed in engaging girls and young women in the martial arts . . . ?

Personal qualities – according to Street Games


Us Girls advises that your personal qualities are often more important than the qualifications a coach holds. In fact, Street Games (the umbrella organisation to which Us Girls belong) has produced a helpful summary of the knowledge, experience and personal attributes they believe to be essential for working effectively with young women and girls.


In case you can’t see the small print in the graphic above, the selected qualities are:

Knowledge and experience

karate girl photo
Photo by Greg L. photos
  • Passionate about sport and physical activity
  • Understand barriers to participation
  • Understand health awareness and the importance of a healthy lifestyle
  • Working in a community sports setting
  • Developing and delivering to women and girls
  • Working with local women’s / girls’ groups


  • Verbal communication both 1:1 and with groups
  • Planning and organisation
  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Relationship building
  • Self-reflection and evaluation
  • Adaptability

Personal Attributes

  • Positive role model
  • Empathetic and understanding
  • Able to engage and motivate
  • Approachable and friendly
  • Reliable and trustworthy


Personal qualities – according to Us Girls


As well as endorsing the list above, Us Girls has produced its own list of traits which it believes are important for coaching girls and young women:

  • Inspiring and encouraging
  • Capacity to be a role model
  • Knowledgeable and easy to understand
  • Down to earth and “real”
  • Open and helpful
  • Motivational and supportive
  • Relaxed, friendly and approachable
  • Ability to listen and be responsive
  • Experienced, suitably qualified
  • Skilled at the activity they are delivering
  • Non-judgemental
  • Mindful
  • Committed
  • Sociable



Gender of the coach


Some will argue that one gender is preferable to another for coaching women. It’s often said that women actually prefer and relate better to male coaches. There’s some research showing that male and female athletes prefer a male coach to a female coach (Frey, Czech, Kent & Johnson, 2006); but this has been criticised for not taking into account the low numbers of female sports coaches.

karate class photo
Photo by The Consortium

Indeed, the Women’s Sports Foundation has produced an excellent analysis of the reasons why people often believe that women prefer male coaches – but that this perception is often incorrect[1]. They argue that it’s a lot to do with historical discrimination against women, and social “myths and misconceptions” which still persist today. They also make a persuasive case for fighting against these prejudices, to take sport into the 21st century.

Others will argue that women are better able to coach girls and young women, particularly those who are vulnerable and/or have been through difficult personal experiences, due to their ability to nurture and be more sensitive and responsive. Indeed, one insidious trend you sometimes see in the martial arts is for female instructors to be automatically relegated to teaching female students and/or children, as if this is their natural domain.

However, the Us Girls position is clear. Whether the coach is male or female is not actually that important, compared with the crucial importance of having the right personal characteristics.

One obvious exception to this of course, is where the girls or young women belong to cultural groups which insist that they are taught by women.


Continuing professional development (CPD)


Us Girls comes at this from two angles. Firstly, it’s really important that coaches / instructors keep their own skills and knowledge up to date, and constantly in development.

As well as continuing to move through your own ranking system, and gaining any formal coaching qualifications as needed, it’s good for those teaching girls and young women to keep up with the emerging knowledge and best practice in this area. For example, I personally found this course itself very helpful, even though it was about sports in general and not focused on the martial arts.

Engaging girls and women in sport is very much of a hot topic at the moment, and new research and resources are appearing all the time. The Us Girls website functions as a hub for some of this information: http://www.streetgames.org/our-work/us-girls

The second aspect of CPD for Us Girls is the importance of developing girls and young women themselves as leaders, coaches or volunteers.

Us Girls sits under an umbrella organisation called Street Games; and Street Games offers a range of coaching to develop leaders at all levels: http://www.streetgames.org/what-we-do-changing-lives/streetgames-training-academy




Finally, I often think people’s own stories can enable the most powerful learning. So here are some inspiring quotes from female martial artists (all ages) writing about their instructors:

Chief Master and his brother, our Grand Master […] taught me much more than performing Kuk Sool techniques […] By example and by sharing their experiences, they provided lessons that would last a lifetime […] My masters’ attitude towards life, especially Kuk Sa Nim’s, opened [many] doors.

  • Choon-Ok Jade Harmon. (2011). The Iron Butterfly; Memoir of a Martial Arts Master. Pelican. p.100

Raphi emailed: “I was wondering when the sparring bug would bite you […] I am not worried about your offense although it needs more work,” she said. “I see fire in you.” […] She said she’d been waiting for me. And spoke of fire in a way that made me rise from my chair and stand before the mirror.

  • Leah Hager Cohen. (2005). Without Apology; Girls, Women and the Desire to Fight. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p63

He had a gift for perceiving an individual’s physical strengths and weaknesses and channeling them into very effective techniques […] Although I had seen self-defense practiced at other schools, it had always seemed artificial, even ineffective […] He blew apart that approach to self-defense.

  • BK Loren (2001). The Way of the River; Adventures and Meditations of a Woman Martial Artist. The Lyons Press. pp.66-7

I desperately looked for an Aikido school because of my disappointment in training  with self-defense teachers who had hardly any experience teaching women with disabilities […] But my disappointment became even bigger […] Some said I was really crazy […Then…] I received a phone call from Erik Louw, Sensei […] His first words were, “Hi, I am Erik, I have never taught people with disabilities before […] but I would love to teach you!” […] I immediately grew very fond of this small and warmhearted guy […] Erik Sensei is a wonderful teacher who never uses the words, “This is not possible for you”.

  • Lydia Zidjel, “Martial Arts out of a wheelchair: a possibility or not?” In Women in the Martial Arts edited by Carol Wiley. North Atlantic Books. 1992, p.26-3

Nam Singh was beautiful to watch. Incredibly graceful. He went about his general day-to-day with such beauty and grace. I wanted to be like him. I wanted my life to be like that. I’ve always been a little high-strung and rush-around-and-get-it-done. He got it done, but it was in a very easy, continuous, T’ai Chi type way […] It was another world that Nam Singh showed me.

  • Janet Seaforth, Taking Responsibility for ourselves. In Sharp Spear Crystal Mirror; Martial Arts in Women’s Lives by Stephanies T Hoppe. Park Street Press. 1998, p.8



[1] http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/home/advocate/foundation-positions/equity-issues/do_female_athletes_prefer_male_coaches

5 thoughts on “What kind of coach is best at engaging women and girls in the martial arts?

  1. I think passion is the key — when I am teaching something I am passionate about I have a much greater response than when I’m speaking or teaching about something I care less about. Great article and good find on this info! Tang Soo!!!

    1. I completely agree about the importance in having passion for the art. It’s always great to see students have an energetic response to what they’re being taught, and it helps foster their passion for training as well. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Totally agree with you Chad – it’s all about energy, personal connections and relationships in the end . . .Glad you like the article 🙂

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