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Girls Who Fight: Virtual self-defense brings confidence to girls and women across the GTA

April 28

Going beyond buzzwords and “empty empowerment,” these classes create a space for girls to build strength and character.

It takes confidence to walk into a gym as a 14-year-old girl and start grappling with somebody’s dad. It takes the same to launch a business on your own at 23. Gemma Sheehan, the founder of Toronto-based Girls Who Fight, a mobile (now virtual) martial arts startup that offers MMA training for girls and self-defense classes for women in the GTA, believes she developed the sureness to do both from her love of martial arts.

“I feel like I have more confidence than a lot of women I know, and a belief that I can accomplish things, and I got that from martial arts,” says the 26-year-old former MMA pro.

Currently restricted due to Covid-19, Sheehan, who usually rotates in-person training at three gyms in the GTA, is teaching via video stream. She’s been running her girls’ classes via Zoom since August 2020, first for free and only resuming payment in November 2020, and has put her women’s self-defense courses on hold till in-person can resume.

It’s not an easy time to teach a physical sport, but she’s not deterred from her primary goal: to help girls and women build self-confidence through MMA training.

“There are a lot of programs out there that use all the buzzwords like women’s empowerment and go girl, you can do it, but it’s kind of empty empowerment,” she says. “They are sending the nice messages but there’s no plan how to build confidence and build character.”

Confidence isn’t a buzzword, she says, but is something developed through doing things.

In 2017, and after nearly a decade of training and competition, Sheehan hung up her pro gloves and decided to teach girls-only MMA classes. She wanted to give girls a chance to learn self-defense skills and develop greater self-confidence, and she wanted to do it exclusively for girls so they would feel entirely comfortable exploring their abilities. Co-ed classes, especially for girls, can bring “weird dynamics” that some girls and young women might find inhibiting or intimidating.

It also made business sense. When she looked around at the market, she saw a total absence of girls-only training.

She tested her theory — and her business model — by offering a few weeklong MMA summer camps just for girls between the ages of 8 and 16. Her instinct proved true. After the camps, parents and kids wanted more. They loved how diverse and dynamic the training was compared to other sports. “The girls learn to punch and kick and then get on the floor and start grappling or learn how to take someone down. It’s really fun and engaging.”

They also liked how Sheehan was able to fill a gap in their parenting. “A lot of parents told me that the loved the street safety stuff because a lot of kids don’t want to hear from them or write it off as ‘paranoid mom’.”

Sheehan doesn’t teach fear. She teaches street safety, environmental awareness and self-defense skills. She doesn’t want girls and young women to feel scared. She wants them to feel confident. In addition to teaching grappling and kickboxing moves –she talks to the girls about how to walk safely alone, how to assess their environment, how to deal with stress and how to confidently engage in the world-at-large. The class is a safe environment to be vulnerable, strong – and even goofy.

In 2018, she expanded her offerings to provide a range of MMA ongoing training courses for girls from ages 5 to 16. Shortly after that, she started offering eight-week self-defense courses for women. The business is mobile – i.e., she doesn’t have a physical space but rents from three gyms in Markham, Scarborough and in the Yonge Davisville neighbourhood of Toronto.

By not investing in a physical space herself – a familiar business model employed by yoga teachers, too, for example – she’s been able to grow and expand her offerings according to interest and without the burden of rent or utilities hanging over her head. It’s also one that has leant itself to flexibility, a very real advantage in a pandemic. When indoor offerings are limited and there aren’t restrictions on outdoor activities, it’s also possible to pivot online or seek out greenspaces.

Teaching women and girls how to protect themselves against harassment, abuse or violence isn’t a new idea and neither is it one without political significance. In the early 20th century, English suffragettes drew on Brazilian jiu-jitsu (dubbed “suffrajitsu”) to defend themselves against violent opposition to their aims. In the 1970s, self-defense classes for women took on mainstream appeal. The classes, however, weren’t without controversy. Some couldn’t decide whether they represented an empowering strike against violence or tacit acceptance of the ubiquity of such violence in society.

While it’s foolish to argue it’s the sole solution to harm, there is evidence to suggest self-defense training has concrete benefits for girls and women. Data suggests that girls and women who take assertiveness or self-defense training are less accepting of gender stereotypes and score higher on independence, self-confidence and stress resistance. There’s also some evidence to suggest that sexual assault resistance training that includes an aspect of self-defense training reduces a young woman’s risk of sexual assault by nearly half.

Self-defense training can also be therapeutic for survivors of abuse, helping ease symptoms of PTSD and decreasing feelings of self-blame.

Her self-defense course for women, which runs for eight weeks, focuses mainly on how to physically react to certain situations. The self-defense courses are more step-by-step, scenario by scenario, ‘how do you escape this move?’” Sheehan says that most of the women that take them do so after an incident of some kind. “Some women will pull me aside after class and tell me why they came and usually it’s because something happened to them or someone they know.”

Statistics suggest women and girls experience harassment and abuse in public and online to a troubling degree. A 2018 survey on public safety in Canada revealed that one in three women in Canada reported experiencing sexual harassment or unwanted physical contact, while one in five dealt with harassment online. Youth is a factor that can amplify the risk of such unwanted attentions.

That may be why safety is a component part of Sheehan’s girls’ classes, too, which she sees as part of building out girls and living up to the main reason she started the business in the first place: to help girls and young women “develop confidence, courage and character” in the defense of their bodily integrity.

Sheehan says that the girls that come to train with her are “regular girls,” but that many come because they’ve experienced bullying at school.  “A lot of people go to martial arts because they want to learn how to speak up and defend themselves.”

Others come because they’re shy and want to develop greater confidence outside of the home. “Oftentimes, parents find me and say, ‘hey, my daughter is really shy. Can you help her be more assertive? When she’s at home, she’s vibrant and assertive but at school she’s shy and acts like a little mouse’.”

All the girls are taught a mix of kickboxing (which focuses on fighting from a standing position), and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (ground fighting) and they get schooled on their safety outside of the home and the classes. Sheehan teaches girls about the fundamentals of street safety, walking them through self-defense concepts like how to create an opportunity for escape.

The girls also get a bit of wrestling, too.

“It’s very powerful for girls to know how to take someone down to the ground.”

Her post-Covid plans include finally finding a branded permanent base for the business in the GTA and upping her classes to twice a week. But she has no regrets about her “lean startup model” approach to building out her niche.  

“It was a great way to start right away and start making money.”

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