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Gone Girls: Why Girls Quit Martial Arts, and How We Can Keep Them Training

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A young girl joins your dojo. Many young girls, actually. They work hard, are diligent, learn kata faster, apply themselves harder. They embody everything you want in a student – earnest study, curiosity, discipline. They're a pleasure to teach, and a joy to behold as they grow more capable and confident.

And then, they hit their teens, and one by one, they start to lose their confidence, and they disappear. And to your despair, maybe a couple of them will make it to black belt, but you know, and I know, that 95% of them won't.

karate girls

What is happening to girls in karate? And why aren't women staying longer? We know that a dojo thrives when it has a good balance of male and female energy and input. From a financial point of view, a dojo does better when half the population wants to be there. Hopefully you are an instructor, or dojo member, or a parent who wants to see more girls lasting past their teens, and more beginner women sticking it out.

I write this as a karate instructor (and a mom, and a wife) who is so tired of seeing female students give up when they have so much to offer to karate, and conversely, when karate has so many benefits for them. We know the many benefits of martial arts, I need not list them here, but there are definite benefits to the dojo, and the world, to having more girls become black belts, and more women becoming instructors.

Why do girls and women quit sports and martial arts?

While there are some things that have nothing to do with the dojo environment itself, they still affect female participation in martial arts. Below, a general list of the reasons girls and women avoid or quit sports in general:

  • Puberty – the onset of periods, changes in body size and shape, and the accompanying changes in confidence and comfort can be demotivating. In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports.

  • And for older women – training while pregnant, giving birth and taking time off for that, and then not feeling like they are welcome back on the mat, as well as going through menopause, and all its attendant physical and hormonal changes.

  • Feeling unwelcome: perceiving that sport is only for talented and sporty girls, or for a certain body type and athleticism. Media, and particularly social media, exacerbates this.

  • Availability and awareness of sports – The Women in Sport Institute says that for most girls, school sport is their only frame of reference – only 49% of girls aged 11-16 say they enjoy PE. And we all know how PE can cause a loathing of sport that extends well into adulthood. (I took forever to discover my love of running.)

  • Sport is for boys – the same study found that 80% of girls feel they do not belong in sport.

  • Time poverty – with too much homework, extra-curricular demands, dramatically increased screen time, and the strong desire to spend time with friends, there is little time for sport. When combined with a lack of access, it is a double-whammy to participation.

  • Limited access due to family income, cultural norms, uniform or equipment demands, as well as availability and proximity of facilities (both school, public and private)

  • Perception that sport is only about winning and losing, and not for play or community – only talented players are valuable. After all, no one watches the Olympics to see who came fourth.

  • Lack of equity – sports media focuses on male players, and facilities for girls are often limited or non-existent. There is a clear perception that female athletes aren't as valuable or important. According to reports, the minimum salary for an National Women's Soccer League player during the 2023 season was registered at just $36,400. While the league has the highest average pay compared to other women’s soccer leagues in the world, the figures are just miles apart from the MLS players. Notably, players in Major League Soccer net an average of $438,000 per annum. It’s almost 7x what their female counterparts earn each season.

And specifically, martial arts:

  • Competitive martial arts can place too much emphasis on weight categories, leading to disordered eating and mental health pressures.

  • Feeling unwelcome in the boys' club, especially when the dojo is majority male.

  • Lack of visible female role models. Not just in the dojo, but at the highest levels. The WKF board, at time of writing, has three female members to the 18 men.

  • Even on Youtube, the biggest martial arts channels are dominated by men (Master Wong, Wonderboy, Kuro Obi, Jack Mace, Jesse Enkamp, Sensei Seth, Karate Waku, Mat K, the list goes on)

  • Emphasising only the self-defence aspect, with the spectre of “learn to fight or you'll be a rape victim!” hanging over their training. Girls and women are made to feel like they're not allowed to join for the sake of fun and self-improvement, and if they don't do a martial art, they're to blame if something happens to them (which is utter garbage.)

  • The perception that it is too tomboyish or 'butch' to like karate – that this is a male-dominated space. Only men can be Sensei, and black belts are for boys. Only boys get to fight – it's 'unladylike'. (But if we don't fight, we're victims, so we can't win.)

  • And likewise, even the do-gi is designed around men. In karate especially, there only one or two suits designed for women, and they are incredibly expensive. Girls and boys are built differently – I hate that I have to wear a suit designed for a male body. (One day, I'll get round to starting my own do-gi company.)

How we can change it:

There are some things that are obviously beyond the dojo's scope, but there is a great deal an instructor can do to make their dojo more welcoming and inclusive. By making your dojo a wonderful place for girls and women to be, they will choose to value their training when challenges come their way. (And by the way, some of these tips will hopefully also help keep male students engaged as well!)

  • Show that martial arts can be for all bodies, and all practitioners – it was not made by giants, even if it seems that way. Kata doesn't care how strong or big you are, after all. Have weights of all sizes, not just monster ones for big, strong, manly men.

  • Let girls and women choose their training partners, rather than always being lumped with each other. Also, give them the option to say no to a training partner that makes them feel unsafe.

  • Let the dojo be a place of great memories and friendship, not of high pressure, humiliation and isolation. A dojo should be a safe haven, where lifelong friendships are made, mentors are found and a community is built.

  • If you are a male instructor, set the example. If you speak respectfully and warmly of and to your female students, hold them to the same standard as male students, and do not allow sexist behaviour, there will be an incredible ripple effect right down to the littlest student. And perhaps this is the most important work – being an ally to women and girls. After all, as Sensei Funakoshi said: karate begins and ends with courtesy. You are helping raise a generation of better men.

  • Emphasize moments of pride, not winning. Giving someone a feeling of pride and ownership leads to confidence and personal investment in their continued growth. Examples of these moments include gradings, being trusted to teach a younger student, demonstrating for sensei, or being given visible responsibilities that emphasise the trust Sensei has placed in them – folding hakama after class, being responsible for keeping the shomen clean, doing the register, taking warm-ups.)

  • I left Aikido because of a class bully – does your dojo have a bully? Stamp it out fast.

  • Girls are much more likely to be committed if a parent is involved. Try get the family involved! Offering family discounts and free try-outs for families is a great way to start.

  • Have women in leadership positions. Not just as instructors, but as referees, officials, coaches, and on the board, not just carrying the oranges and first aid kit. If you know a female instructor, invite her to teach at your next seminar (and not just self-defence, but whatever knowledge she specialises in.)

  • For traditional dojos, we can remove the obsession with performance and winning – not everyone is born to medal, but everyone is born to train.

  • Think about the language used in a dojo – stop saying 'you punch like a girl', using femininity as a punchline, and generally creepy, sexual language. It is death by a thousand cuts for female students. (As an example, I was once on all fours straightening tatami at a gashuku, and a male instructor walked past and said “I like to see a woman on her knees”. I was 19. It was not the first or last time.)

  • Better education on improved physical comfort, like investing in a high quality sports bra, or wearing cycling shorts during menstruation. If you're not comfortable with those conversations, that's okay! Recruit someone who is – one of your female black belts, a dojo mom, your mom!

why girls quit martial arts
Even this nerd has stuck it out for more than 18 years

I do think that things are changing for the better – we have seen changes in gender pay gaps in sport, and more athletes speaking up for change. The rise of Caitlin Clark gives me hope. I have definitely seen more female instructors get the opportunities they deserve. I am lucky enough that my federation here in South Africa is run by a husband and wife, and there are plenty of women in leadership, which sets a great example. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I hope to do the same for the girls and women who follow me. And it is my hope that you, whatever your style, gender, rank, or location, want to be part of this change, and to ensure that all of our styles benefit from having more female members.

This article was originally published in Bugeisha Magazine in 2021. It has been updated since, notably that the WKF board has since added two more women.

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Great article! I hardly ever stop to think about it, but I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that I am a female instructor and a role model to girls in karate. I have many female students and the number climbing. It's great that we as female instructors can demonstrate to young girls and young women that they indeed have a place in karate and that they can become leaders. This article is very inspiring and motivating to me personally! 💖

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