Do combat sports really measure up when it comes to women’s self-defence?

Christy Martin
Christy Martin Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Ilaria Federico
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“Developing self-defence skills means reclaiming autonomy, thus regaining control over one's environment. We are no longer at the mercy of someone,” according to psychotraumatology psychologist, Julie Francols. But are combat sports effective when it comes to fending off an unexpected attack?

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More and more women are venturing into the world of self-defence and combat sports, a trend strongly supported by recent data. A report from the French government highlights an 11% rise in martial arts licences and a 51% surge in combat sports licences among women between 2012 and 2017. Despite these fields being male-dominated in 2017, with martial arts and combat sports having a female participation of 32% and 31% respectively, by 2022, a notable shift was observed. According to the French National Institute of Youth and Popular Education, in France in that year, the majority of Martial Arts licences were owned by women, accounting for 62% compared to 38% for men.

In Lyon, France, the organisation Renouveau Boxe helps women who have been the victims of domestic violence, by offering boxing training.

A participant of the class, who didn’t wish to be named, added: "This training allows us to regain self-confidence and to see ourselves as people. What it shows us is that we're not alone in this situation. And actually, we're not ashamed. Because, very often we feel responsible for what’s happening and ashamed of it. But being with others who have lived through the same thing means we understand each other and speak the same language."

Samir Hamzaoui, an instructor and former high-level boxer, shared his inspiration: "I know what it is to take hits and to put myself in the shoes of someone who can't defend themselves. That's what led me to start this project."

Delving deeper, what spurs some women’s interest in combat sports?

Julie Francols, a Psychotraumatology Psychologist, shed some light on this. "Experiencing an assault makes you feel robbed of something. The assailant unjustly takes control over you. However, developing self-defence skills means reclaiming autonomy and the ability to defend oneself, thus regaining control over one's environment. We are no longer at the mercy of someone." She further observed, "You can see it in people from the time they start the training to when they finish; their bodies express the change: they now exist in the world differently."

How effective are these disciplines when it comes to preventing violence?

Christy Martin, a former boxing champion and survivor of domestic violence, weighed in on the issue. "Even though I was a boxing champion, I was physically and mentally abused by a man... He had threatened to kill me for 20 years, so I would push, but you only push so hard. It was not a match. Even though he was 20 years older, he was still stronger than me. So, physically, I was never going to be able to fight him and win. I mean, any time that he hit me, even if I pushed physically back, I just got hit harder. So, I was never going to win that physical altercation. And the truth is, I never won the emotional altercations, either.” On 23 November, 2010, Christy Marty was stabbed and shot by her husband. At the time, she was 42 years old and the welterweight champion credited with putting women’s boxing on the map.

Christy Martin was stabbed and shot by her ex husband in 2010.
Christy Martin was stabbed and shot by her ex husband in 2010.Christy Martin

Julie Francols told us it’s not simply a matter of knowing how to defend oneself: "When we are attacked, the first response, which is an automatic reflex by our autonomic nervous system, uses either attack, flight or freezing up. At that moment, the victim is paralysed".

“To implement these self-defence techniques, there needs to be a few brief seconds that allow the person to regain control of the situation. It requires a lot of training for self-defence techniques to become automatic. However, at first there will always be these automatic, involuntary responses."

Navigating trauma and expectations

Addressing a critical aspect of recovery, Julie Junquet, a consultant on issues of sexual and sexist violence and discrimination in sports, highlighted the challenges faced by survivors of violence: "I don't see self-defence as a solution in the fight against sexual violence, and I find there's even a message that can be guilt-inducing for these women who take classes, who tell themselves, 'now I know how to defend myself', if they face an assault in the future and unfortunately can't reproduce the techniques they've learned. I find that can be somewhat guilt-inducing."

Junquet also highlighted additional misconceptions about these training programs. "The societal messages are problematic. Don't dress like that, don't walk alone at night, learn to defend yourself; it's always problematic. No, we don't want to learn to defend ourselves; we just want not to be assaulted!"

"We know that placing oneself in conditions of struggle, combat, or potential assault can trigger flashbacks of the real assault, trigger revivals, and there, it can trigger in the brain certain mechanisms that are quite dangerous. Placing oneself in a situation of assault is not trivial."

Christy Martin cautioned against creating a false sense of invincibility: "You have to be careful with teaching self-defence, so that we don't put a false belief out there, thinking 'OK, I'm going to do this self-defence class, and then I'm always going to be able to fight off anybody that attacks me.' That is not the case."

So, how can this kind of training reach its fullest potential?

Christy Martin believes it's not merely about the physical aspect but the self-belief the training instills. "It's really not about the skills that you're learning; it's not about throwing a right hand, throwing a left hook. It's about the confidence that learning those skills gives you, and that confidence helps you be stronger to stand up for yourself."

Christy Martin
Christy MartinAP

She credits her boxing career for helping her survive the attack she was a victim of. "I think my boxing career gave me mental strength. Much more than it gave me physical strength. Mentally, it made me a fighter. And when I was laying on the floor after being shot and stabbed, I believed in me. I mentally thought 'with the help of God, I can get up and get out'."

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