Helen's recent interview with Jiu Jitsu Style magazine for those that missed it or are too skint to buy it. Enjoy!
Q. Despite the considerable achievement of being the first woman in the UK to reach the rank of black belt, you don't tend to blow your own trumpet. With that in mind, what do you think of the kind of aggressive, self-promotion marketing style encouraged by BJJ academy owners like Lloyd Irvin, which seems to be getting increasingly popular in the US (judging by the response of various black belts on The Underground forum)?
Helen: I don't know much of it to be honest, I don't waste time on the internet but I guess it depends on your motivation for teaching Jiu Jitsu, are you wanting to make a business out of teaching Jiu Jitsu and want to get as many people training with you as possible? Nothing wrong with that by the way, it seems almost that making a living from BJJ is considered dirty but as with anything in life, you have to pay a decent price for a decent service.
But it also seems sometimes that success is measured by how many guys you have per class, you have a lot of students so you must be good, right?
Me personally, I don't need to make money from Jiu Jitsu so I don't teach to make a profit I just like having a small academy and teach Jiu Jitsu to the guys that want to learn.
Each to their own really, just do what you think is right.
Q. Do you believe there is any difference in the optimum way for women to learn jiu jitsu compared to men, or is gender irrelevant? Or indeed is jiu jitsu so individual that it isn't possible to generalise in that way?
Helen: No, not really, everyone learns the same way. The real roadblock for women especially in a predominantly male dominated art is the size difference. I train in the absolute division everyday.
It doesn't really matter what your gender is if you weigh 100lbs and have to train with people much bigger who just want to try and smash you. It's dangerous whether you are male or female but there are not that many 100lb males around so the problem seems to be with the female.
Some guys are great to roll with but others are just dangerous, they don't seem to care about making training beneficial for everyone as long as they can go all out to try and smash me. They are the ones that count wins and losses in sparring.
Optimum way to learn Jiu Jitsu? Have a great coach, have great training partners and put in a lot of hours.
By the way, Emily Kwok's new DVD set "Dealing With Bigger And Stronger Opponents" is awesome I picked up a ton of great material from it, check it out.
Q. People often point to BJJ as being particularly good for women's self defence, particularly an understanding of the guard. Do you feel that is a valid perspective, or is self-defence more about awareness, confidence and the like rather than a specific set of techniques?
Helen: Yes, it is definitely a valid perspective but before you even get to the self-defence side of things, which are the techniques and strategies designed to keep you safe, you have the self-protection mode, regardless of gender.
The self-protection stage is the awareness and confidence that you mention, trying to avoid you being in a situation when you need to rely on the self-defence; a little awareness goes a long way.
The other thing is that it is assumed that women only get attacked by men and will need to fight from guard; women will attack other women in today's society so you need to be able to fight from anywhere.
Q. In your 2009 KombatClinic interview, you said that you felt the attitude towards women training in BJJ was "a little behind" in the UK by comparison to countries like the USA. Do you feel that is still the case, and if so, what do you think can be done to improve the situation?
Helen's husband, Darren, intervenes. "Yes, we are still behind in this country where women are concerned. There are way more women training in the USA so maybe it is easier for women to train together rather than the UK but Helen is the only female black belt in this country and none of the female BJJ community outside of Combat Base have even attempted to come and train with her. Many no-gi players, Judo players and MMA fighters have, just not any gi players; maybe it is a team loyalty thing but then again the same people have done seminars with others that have visited our shores that weren't from the same team.
Maybe it is not the fault of the girls themselves, maybe they would like to train with her but are governed by the politics of their particular group.
One example and I don't want to put anyone on the spot so I won't mention names but there was one girl in particular, a good coloured belt, actually stood next to Helen at a seminar when the seminar host told us to partner up to roll. Helen turned to look at the girl but she turned away and went to the far end of the mat to train with a guy that she had travelled up with who was way bigger than her and avoided Helen completely.
Q. Talking politics then, what of the new IBJJF rule changes and introduction of the Gracie Barra model?
Helen: Whatever, if people don't like it then they won't do it but people aren't going to stop competing just because of a rule change. Judo has rules changes constantly and seems to be as popular as ever. People adapt their game to get around the rules anyway so in a strange sort of way changing rules could actually make people improve their games by taking them out of the comfort zone and make them focus on something else. It's just turning a perceived negative into a positive.
As for the Gracie Barra model, it doesn't concern me what other groups do but if you have to wear a club gi then wear a club gi. If you don't want to, then leave and go somewhere else. If that's the worse thing that happens to you in your Jiu Jitsu journey that you have to wear a club gi, then you got off lightly.
I didn't particularly like all the bowing and tradition when I trained Judo but had to do it just to train and compete, just one of those things. Stop moaning and do it or move on.
Q. How much importance is put on competition in the Combat Base group?
Helen: Competition is very important; I have competed in everything I have seriously trained in, it's part of the fun. I don't want to just work on theory, I want to know what works for me and what doesn't.
I always advise people to compete, especially the women as there are more opportunities now than ever before. I wish it had been like this when we first started.
We have had people represent Combat Base at all levels right from the local interclub up to the Mundials and everything in-between.
It is vital to try the techniques and strategies under pressure when you have to beat the person in front of you whilst dealing with the little voice in your head telling you that you can't do it and you will lose and be embarrassed in front of everyone etc.
As I tell all our guys that compete, no one will think any less of you if you give 100% and don't win, anyone who has ever competed at anything gives respect to the competitor not the outcome.
I have heard the silliness of people assuming that higher grades don't compete because they are scared of losing in front of their students and the students all leaving because they will think the instructor is no good, Darren has lost a bunch of times in front of our students and they all keep coming back. It's the 'Man In The Arena' attitude.
We don't enforce that people compete to get promoted yet I have actually promoted over 100 people to various belts and there has only been 3 of them that have not competed and 2 of those are older students that have long term injuries.
Q. What do you think of the current female competition scene, particularly the top competitors like Gabi Garcia?
Helen: I think Gabi's Jiu Jitsu is under-rated, I have heard people saying she has only won everything because she is way bigger than everyone else that she faces but that's ridiculous. Is it always the biggest guy that wins?
Yes, she has size but she knows what to do with it too and from what I have seen and heard she has dropped a lot of weight and trains so hard.
Other female competitors I really enjoy watching on the world scene other than the obvious are Leticia Ribeiro, Melissa Haueter and Emily Kwok. All 3 ladies are just awesome plus I am friends with Melissa and Emily so it's nice to see people you care about excelling.
Q. Did you see the recent ADCC in Nottingham? What did you think in general and of the women specifically?
Helen: Was really good and a better atmosphere than Barcelona 2009 I thought. I was gutted to find out that 2 female competitors had dropped out of the lighter weight group and the places had already had been offered to 2 other UK women. Would have loved a shot at that.
The UK girls were unlucky in the first round draw so probably didn't get to show what they were capable of especially Yas Wilson who had been on a good run.
I would have liked to see more weight groups for the women at ADCC as there was some real weight and size differences. Surely there must be enough women to do at least another weight group.
I have heard guys at competitions complaining about having to fight in a weight class higher than they are used to, you ought to try being a woman. A couple of my friends in Leicester even compete against men just to get more competition experience even though they always have a weight and strength disadvantage.
Really enjoyed the lighter men's divisions too, had many of my favourites in and guys I had trained with previously. Cobrinha was a little unlucky but I'm a big fan of Rafa Mendes so wasn't too distraught, great to see Robson Moura compete again and Jeff Glover's antics were quite amusing. Glover taught me a choke though that I tapped my husband with so he is one of my favourites right now.
Calasans impressed me as always but once again I think Marcelo stole the show other than Toquinho who was probably the most popular guy in the building by the time he left, don't know about 'little tree trunk' though, he's more like a bear.
Q. Did you have much of a competitive career?
Helen: Not as much as I would have liked, there wasn't really any BJJ comps when I started. Would have loved to compete more but always a lack of opponents so I just had to fight whomever in whatever and try to apply BJJ to the situation. Other than Jiu Jitsu I tried a few other different formats too and did an MMA match against a tough girl who eventually became my main female training partner.
Injury put paid to my competition career after fighting an open weight Judo match in the Yorkshire and Humberside Judo Championships, I was 100lbs and she was 220lbs, pretty stupid in retrospect but I just wanted to fight.
I still keep thinking about getting back in there, like I said I'd have loved a shot at ADCC.
Q. You're considering competing again?
Helen: Yeah, I keep thinking about it, I would have to travel to get matches and don't know if I can justify all the time and expense just to get a match; tried to combine a family holiday and doing the Mundials last year but after a bit of a mix up wasn't able to.
Considered doing the Euros this time but there was only 1 other female light feather so again a lot of expense for 1 match considering for the same money I can fly to LA, stay with our coach for a week, get some sun, surf and train with other black belt women.
Q. Do you think there is anything in particular an academy and/or instructor can do in order to attract more women to their classes?
Helen: I guess the only thing you can do is have women only classes taught by a woman, I know it takes a lot to be the only woman training in a room full of men. We only have a few women train in regular class so I just partner them.
I have just started a women only class so we'll see how it goes.
Q. You mentioned in an interview you did about five years ago that you stopped belt whipping at Combat Base HQ after one of the students wrote a piece on hazing. I'd be interested in hearing more about the specifics.
Helen: One of our brown belts, Rob Lawlor, wrote a piece on hazing for his Uni group as I remember and it made a lot of sense so we stopped doing it at our gym although most of the other affiliates continued to do it.
We have had it creep in a little again recently but only for willing participants. This was the major point that Rob was making, if people were being made to join in the 'ceremony' against their will it was hazing. If you consent, great but if you don't want to take part you don't have to.
No big deal either way.
Q. Future plans?
Helen: Just keep doing what we are doing. Combat Base has just had it's 10th anniversary, we are selectively growing our group, we have quite a few academies in our group, have some great people and have around 350 members so I guess we are doing something right.
Can I just publicly say thanks to Lee and Gareth at Tatami Fightwear for my personal sponsorship and for supporting Combat Base in general. They are really trying to help expand women's BJJ in this country from their women's fight wear range to their sponsorship of our ladies programmes and sponsoring goods for the charity fund raising that is done regularly, it's really appreciated and I feel honoured to be part of such a prestigious team of sponsored athletes. I wish them all the success they deserve.