Breaking Boards, Breaking the Cycle — Instructors Work to Keep Girls in Martial Arts Longer, Citing Physical and Mental Benefits

By Diane Majeske | Photos by Tobi Hollander

Eleven-year-old Melanie Kwierant moves to the center of the studio, a little reluctant to show off her black belt karate skills. But as she begins, her pre-teen shyness fades away.

She kicks. Punches. Maneuvers a graceful turn. She’s calm and confident. When finished, she’s slightly out of breath. She bows to the small crowd that has gathered and sits down.

 Her mother Christine, also the holder of a black belt degree, pats her knee. Melanie leans in. “That’s fun,” she whispers.

Martial arts is fun — it’s good for you, mentally and physically, and more importantly, it’s an activity for everyone. That refrain echoes throughout Ann Arbor, from instructors and devotees alike, no matter what form of the art they teach or practice.

 But the fact remains: Men still outnumber women in adult martial art classes and competitions, and, as one might expect, moving down the line in age, boys still outnumber girls.

 The situation is improving, but it could get better, instructors agree. Why? Those reasons are as complex as today’s society, and as individual as the girls who enter today’s modern dojos.

Mixed Messages?
“We do see a lot of girls in our classes, but not as many as you might think,” said Lynda Gronlund, owner of PKSA Karate school, and a 3rd degree black belt in the traditional Korean art of Tang Soo Do. She added:

We have a supportive atmosphere here, but we get kids pretty young. We have a program called Kids Power and we go into the schools, ages 6 through 12, and that’s our most popular draw, so I don’t think there’s much prejudice, you know, boys against girls, at that age. Now, I do notice when the girls get older — like, in middle school — there’s more of a struggle with self-esteem. But it seems like everything gets harder at that age.

At that point, she said, many girls find themselves besieged by societal messages that confuse them.

It isn’t everyone, of course. But, for many girls, it does affect their martial arts. They stop trying as hard. They stop being as enthusiastic, and some of them stop altogether. I think there are very subtle messages in society to girls when they get into middle school. They stop being less ‘generic child’ and more ‘girl child’ and they start to step into societal roles as girls and eventually women. Peer pressure becomes huge.

She added: “You have to be thin, you have to be feminine, and you have to be pretty — maybe it’s not even on a conscious level. And maybe this [martial arts] isn’t something that fits into that feminine role.” Of course, girls don’t necessarily specify why they’ve decided to stop taking classes, she said. But as an instructor, she’s learned to observe.

Boys and men have grown up roughhousing and physically being active, whereas girls are often less prone, or others would say ‘discouraged’ from that — I don’t know which it is. I do know that women or girls who spar, it’s harder for them at first. They’re not used to the physical proximity and they’re not used to being hit. We pad up, and you’re not in physical danger, but it’s rough. You’re getting thrown around a little bit. And girls aren’t used to that if they haven’t been in martial arts before. So, it’s strange and it can be a little scary at first.

Not only are they nervous about getting hurt, they’re nervous about injuring someone else. “Women and girls tend to be more afraid of hurting another person,” Gronlund said. “It tends to be more upsetting to them.”

Conversely, over time, she’s seen the classes build up confidence and bolster self- image in her female students. “Part of martial arts is about self-discipline, about pushing yourself when things get difficult,” she said. “And I think these girls are able to push themselves when things get difficult — when anything gets difficult in their lives. That is a super valuable lesson.” She hopes more girls get to learn it.

 “Our classes, we’re holding our own, our numbers are pretty steady,” Gronlund said in terms of female enrollment. “At a red belt level, we have 30 to 40 percent girls. But it’s so awesome for building their confidence, I really wish we could get more.”

“Part of martial arts is about self-discipline, about pushing yourself when things get difficult.”

— Lynda Gronlund, PKSA Karate

Staying Strong, Changing Your Life
Stephanie Schaldenbrand, a youth instructor with Quest Martial Arts, agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Schaldenbrand is a 3rd degree black belt in ninjutsu — and she didn’t even begin studying the art until her 40th birthday, as a gift to herself. She’s seen the changes that martial arts has made in her, and she is sure it can change the lives of any girl — of any person — who studies it.

There are so many positive things, so many intangibles…but the most obvious thing is the self-confidence. For example, I still run as part of my cross training, and at six in the morning, in the winter, it’s dark. My awareness level in my environment now is so much higher. I feel much more confident now going for that run. My intuition level is so much higher. And because my confidence is so high, I can talk to anyone or interact with anyone. I know myself now, mentally and physically. I know what ticks me off; I know what it’s like to be adrenalized. This art…I know it builds so much confidence and awareness and compassion.

She knows, too, how much time and energy and passion she put into learning ninjutsu, an ancient Japanese martial art. That’s why she is disappointed, but not terribly surprised, if girls drop out of classes as they get older.

“You know, when we ask the girls why they leave, there isn’t always a solid reason. When they come here, for the younger girls, the parent will say they want to build confidence and body awareness, and it works.” Adding, “It’s very cool, it’s actually amazing. It’s amazing that this art has survived — that it’s even still around for us to teach,” said Schaldenbrand, who recently went to Japan to learn even more about it.

But when the girls leave, they’re getting into middle school, and there are just so many options for them. Maybe it doesn’t seem quite as cool to be doing martial arts. Or maybe it’s motivation. It takes a lot of motivation and dedication to do this. The sheer number of other offerings is overwhelming — from academic society to robotics, it’s just amazing.

The classes at Quest do tend to skew male, she said, although she notes that the girls who stay end up staying longer. She credits that, in part, to the strong female staff presence at the school, who provide strong role models. Schaldenbrand feels the dedication and passion displayed at the school is contagious.

“We do our best,” she said. “We showcase our skills to show them where they’re going, show them their path.” And many times, she said, it works. “You’ll see their excitement. It’s written all over their faces.”

That enthusiasm translates into self-confidence with a solid grounding in basic self-defense, something every girl — and women — should have, Quest instructors believe.

The school feels strongly about that, so much so that owners Keith and Donna Copeland periodically offer free self-defense classes for women, Schaldenbrand said. “Every woman needs to be able to stand up for herself in a healthy and productive manner, whether that’s using the proper verbiage, whether that’s creating that increased awareness around you, or physically creating a safe space. We want that for every woman.”

Asserting Yourself in Any Situation
So does Heidi Sproull. That’s why this psychotherapist and martial artist has been teaching self-defense classes to girls ages 12 and up since 1990, teaching mental preparedness and verbal skills along with techniques she’s learned in Japanese jui jutzu and judo.

“I began studying martial arts in my 20s and I’ve been involved in the self-defense movement since that time,” said Sproull, who has a black belt in Japanese jujitsu and a brown belt in judo.  “Young girls tend to be very enthusiastic about martial arts, but I find that around middle school age or teenage years, a couple of things happen. There becomes more of a focus toward team sports or competitive sports, centered in school.”

Also, she said, there comes a point, usually around puberty, when heterosexual girls become concerned about how they appear to boys. They begin to worry about their appearance — and how others perceive them, she said.

They start to think, ‘Does [practicing martial arts] make me appear unfeminine?’ Or, ‘Does it make me not cute?’ So at that point, they stop taking the classes. And that’s unfortunate. Because adolescence is a time when empowerment and psychological strength could certainly be a benefit.

Sproull learned about martial arts after college, when an attack in her Chicago neighborhood made her feel personally unsafe. After taking a self-defense course, she became enamored with martial arts, studied, and soon became an instructor, teaching throughout Illinois and across the U.S. After she settled in Michigan, she realized she could incorporate that martial arts knowledge into self-defense courses that would help younger girls feel as empowered as she did.

In her all-girl classes, which are often attended by mother-daughter pairs, she talks frankly with her students, helping them set personal boundaries and decide what is acceptable to them in terms of touching, flirting, and casual contact. She talks about date rape and saying ‘no.’ She role-plays situations that might prove uncomfortable

— in college dorms or even at bus stops — and helps the girls form responses with which they feel comfortable.

Then, with her college-age daughter as her assistant, she teaches martial arts moves designed to inspire personal confidence in her students, as well as help them get out of choke-holds, arm locks, and even pony-tail grabs.

Her daughter, Anika Sproull, 21, a senior at Kalamazoo College, is an enthusiastic, able assistant. Anika studied both karate and judo until middle school, and has been working with her mother in the self-defense classes since ninth grade. Like many girls, she left martial arts in middle school, opting for school sports instead.

Anika, however, has every intention of returning.

When I’m practicing martial arts, I feel strong — I feel empowered, fit, and super happy. I miss it. I don’t even know everything I get out of it. It’s like a fire; it lights me up. It’s so physical — you’re so intense and aware. You’re aware of how your body is matching up to someone else’s — it’s like a strategy within your muscle and your muscle memory. I’ve missed it ever since I’ve stopped.

In the meantime, the self-defense classes keep her moves sharp.

I think a lot of the messages my mom and I give in this class are really important. They address more than just the physical self- defense. Those are derived from martial arts, and they’re good, but there’s more — to be able to defend yourself, you need to believe you’re worth fighting for. Self-esteem and self-worth are very important.

Heidi Sproull couldn’t agree more:

When I do a class, I feel like people love it; they feel that sense of power inside themselves, and that’s an incredible thing to witness. The current rates of sexual assault in our culture are still staggering. One out of every three women in their lifetime will experience a sexual assaultive attack. I see these classes as an opportunity to empower ourselves. Self-defense isn’t about stopping an assault. It’s about feeling empowered in your daily life — it’s how you assert yourself in any given situation. And that all extends from knowing that you count, and that you matter.

“Young girls tend to be very enthusiastic about martial arts, but I find that around middle school age or teenage years, a couple of things happen. There becomes more of a focus toward team sports or competitive sports, centered in school.”
— Heidi Sproull, psychotherapist and leader of self-defense classes for women and girls

Discovering Power, Maintaining Balance
Studying martial arts is indeed a wonderful way to become strong and healthy, said Wasentha Young, long-time owner of the Peaceful Dragon School of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. (Young, a highly respected woman martial artist in this region, has been a practitioner of the ancient Chinese art since 1968.) But it offers so much more.

T’ai chi is a centuries-old Chinese martial art that emphasizes the cultivation and integration of body and mind. It involves a series of slow, meditative body movements and is often characterized as “meditation in motion.”

But t’ai chi also has a martial, or self-defense, side, Young said, and she is well-versed in its moves. In fact, growing up in New York, she was introduced to t’ai chi as a fighting art, not one for health or relaxation.

The alignment of body and mind in t’ai chi, Young said, allows you to strengthen your intuition — an extremely powerful force.

Over the years, I began to see that intuition is our first built-in self-defense mechanism. It’s real, and it lets us feel our own vulnerability, and there is an absolute strength in that. Your intuition tells you what to watch out for, in an instant, and I think that is even more powerful than being able to overcome your opponent. 

Young, a master in her art, knows well when to fight, and when to stand down.

T’ai chi isn’t based on being strong or fast. There is a martial application, yes, but I’ve learned that defending oneself doesn’t mean having to fight. You train your intuition, and you can feel the energy of another person and know when something is out of flow. Sometimes, you can just step out of the way.

In fact, Young said, her training in t’ai chi has always been there for her, no matter what situation she has come up against in life.

No matter what’s been happening in my life, there was always some part of my training that I could pull out of my toolbox, and it would help me in some way. Whether it was dealing with people on different levels, coping with stress, developing healthy boundaries, if I was in danger or potential danger, I’ve been able to go through life’s experiences gracefully, grounded by my t’ai chi training.

She knows that girls today have different challenges, although she notes that everyone still needs the same fundamental physical, mental and emotional support system. But today’s young people also might find another benefit to martial arts training, Young said.

This is a new age, of course. But one of the things I see happening to young people is they are so socially disconnected because of the use of artificial intelligence. Martial arts will help them develop a better sense of being human, and the potential friendships and challenges that come out of that.

Technology has its place, Young believes, and it is definitely an asset to society. But martial arts brings a balance of humanity to the mix. “I think that martial arts helps establish that healthy sense of boundaries, those personal connections.”

“Your intuition tells you what to watch out for, in an instant, and I think that is even more powerful than being able to overcome your opponent.”

— Wasentha Young, Peaceful Dragon School

Ready to Start, Ready to Succeed
Across town, Melanie Kwierant is getting ready for class at PKSA Karate. A few friends have joined her. They’re warming up, stretching, kicking, giggling.

Ten-year-old Karlee Hooker is a red belt, there with her dad, Kwame. She’s somewhat new to the school, and has been practicing martial arts for two years.

“My dad put me in it,” she admitted.

And I didn’t much like doing it. I went to another school in another town and it wasn’t much fun. But here, they make it fun to do stuff. I like the basic actions and forms. I used to hate sparring, but the more you do it, the more you like it.

As for girls taking — or quitting — martial arts classes, Karlee has her own thoughts: “You know, we hear phrases from long ago, that men are tough and women are weak, and that’s not true. And we can prove that’s wrong — we can be stronger than they are, because we have courage, too.”

Her father chimes in. “I want her to be able to defend herself, not to submit,” said Kwame. “I think these classes are great for socializing, for building self-confidence, and just for the beauty of the art form. For my son, and for her, too. It’s just something to take away for when daddy’s not around to protect her.”

Karlee doesn’t know how long she’ll practice karate — but she likes it right now, more than she ever has, she knows that. And she’d recommend it to any other girl who’s considering it.

“I’d tell them, if you come here, they’re not going to beat you up. It’s so fun. It’s not that intense. You’re not going to feel like you’re in prison or anything. You’re going to succeed in something that will help you in life.”


Editor's Note: In the print edition of this article, we mistakenly referred to Wasentha Young's title as "grandmaster." In actuality, the title she holds is "master." In the style of martial arts Wasentha practices, a "master" does not become a "grandmaster" unless their teacher — who is the grandmaster — dies. (Even under those circumstances, many other factors are taken into consideration when deciding who in the lineage gets the title.) We have made this correction in the digital version of the article.

Posted on April 29, 2016 .