athletes · martial arts

Grooming, Coaching, and Toxic Relationships: Some (Guest) Conversations

In the last few years, there have been some high profile sexual assault and abuse cases in American sports. Larry Nassar, former US Gymnastics team doctor, was convicted earlier this year of sexually abusing many girls and young women in his role as a physician for the team. The Lopez brothers, Steven and Jean, a three-time Olympic medalist and US Olympic coach, respectively, are accused of sexually abusing and assaulting several girls and young women. While the former is still under investigation, the latter has been permanently banned from Olympic activities as a result of findings by SafeSport. USA Swimming has also had several people speak out about what has been called a “culture of sexual abuse.”

Sexual abuse is obviously a feminist issue. It’s actually something I write about in my day job as a feminist philosopher. But given that philosophy is my professional training, not journalism, I’m going to leave discussion of the details of individual cases to people who report such things for a living.

Instead, I want to do something a bit different, and think about the background conditions and relationships that make abusive situations possible. To help me do that, I’m going to have several conversations with people who have had a variety of experiences with taekwondo coaching and competition. That’s not because I think it’s more important than other cases, but it’s my sport, and I feel much better positioned to talk about it. But just so you know, I’m not going to ask anyone to weigh in on particular cases, individuals or allegations. It’s just that in order to get a better understanding of the stakes and context of some of these cases, I think it’s important to understand the nature of the relationships in question.

So just keep an eye out for an occasional series with me and guest views. I’m going to talk to people about their gendered experiences in sports, as well as their views about power and mentorship, and how it works in these kinds of contexts.  A coach, after all, will get you to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. They’ll get you to push through a hard training session when you’re tired or don’t feel like working out. And over time, you’ll do a lot of things that might feel counterintuitive because you trust them to know what’s best for you – sometimes more than you trust yourself. Make that happen in the context of a sport whose traditional roots value discipline and deference to authority, and it seems as though the potential for abuse is high.

Also, I think that a lot of people who haven’t been competitive athletes can easily underestimate the power that someone highly positioned in the sport can have over you – especially when you’re still young and trying to find your place. So hopefully one thing that we’ll get out of these conversations are some useful ideas about how to understand power and relationships better, so we can work to make ourselves better and improve the situation of future generations of athletes.

athletes · injury · martial arts

Pennington vs Nunes vs Protecting Athletes (Guest Post)

At UFC 224 on Saturday, bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes defended her title yet again, this time against Raquel Pennington, whose biggest claim to fame was probably a decisive victory over her former Ultimate Fighter coach Miesha Tate in 2016. Pennington was clearly the underdog going into Saturday’s fight, and, while she remained in the game until her TKO in the fifth round, Nunes was obviously dominant.

two women wearing sports bras and shorts in a mixed martial arts match. The woman on the right is throwing a punch with her left hand at the woman on the right, who is facing her.
Nunes (left) throws a punch at Pennington (right) during Saturday’s UFC 224.

The controversy here came when, after taking some extremely effective knees during the fourth round, probably breaking her nose, Pennington told her corner that she wanted to be done. Instead of throwing in the towel, her corner told her to push through and throw everything she had at the match. While she stayed active through the beginning of the round, some strikes midway through reopened her bloodied nose. After she went to her knees, the referee stopped the match, giving the TKO victory to Nunes.

The MMA world is extremely divided over the corner’s decision to put Pennington back in the cage. Nunes, Pennington’s opponent, but also her friend, spoke out against the decision, saying that her coach had failed her. On the other hand, Miesha Tate (who has fought both of them) defended the corner, saying that it had allowed Pennington to lose with dignity. Pennington’s fiancee Tecia Torres, said more recently that both of them agreed with the corner’s choice as well. I admit that I, personally, feel some force from both sides of the debate. As a former athlete, I can appreciate being pushed not to quit, even when I might want to. But as a current coach, I don’t think I would be able to send an athlete back out if they really wanted to quit and were at risk of being seriously injured. Now, I don’t coach at nearly these levels, so that makes a difference. But in my experience, an athlete who doesn’t want to fight any more is at serious risk of being hurt or knocked out.

#Forever I am extremely proud of my lady. You are a warrior babe. Fought every second you possibly could. You continue to amaze me daily. You motivate me to work hard and one day too receive the same opportunity to fight for a UFC championship. We are the 1%ers. Very few will ever know what we go thru as fighters and an even smaller percentage will ever earn the chance to fight on such a big stage and for a world title. #RideOrDie #AlwaysProud PS: Both us and our coaches agree with the decision made to go into the 5th round. We know Raquel more than anyone else and know if we let her give up on herself going into the last round she would have always regretted it. She fought with heart and grit until the end. PSS: Exactly one year ago today you asked me to marry you, I can't freaking wait to wife you! 💍 @raquel_pennington

A post shared by Tecia Torres (@teciatorres) on

One thing I haven’t seen talked about that much, though, are the gender dynamics of what happened. Now, it is not at all unusual for fighters to be injured in the course of a match, and for decisions to be made about whether or not they can continue. Nor would it be the first time in which a fighter or coach has wanted a fight to be stopped midway through in order to concede. And I genuinely appreciate how well the UFC handles having a women’s division, without excessively sexualizing or patronizing the athletes, and with women headliners being a typical occurrence. But I think that bloodied and bruised women affect us more than bloodied and bruised men. I also think we are much more likely to automatically frame injured women as victims. So I wonder how much that gender dynamic and the idea that we need to protect women (even from other women) shapes the discussion of whether Pennington’s corner should have stopped the fight.

Noticing that the discussion might be gendered doesn’t really tell us what should have been done, though. Maybe as a sport, MMA needs to do a better job of protecting athletes, even from themselves. There are plenty of long time veteran fighters still active in competition who might be at risk of serious brain damage from knockouts. Maybe if we notice that our protective inclinations kick in more when we see women with bloodied faces, we should wonder why we don’t feel more protective of men in similar conditions.

It should be obvious at this point that I’m very much in favour of women competing in traditionally masculine sports, like combat sports. But maybe one side effect of that could be to question some of the taken-for-granted aspects of masculinity associated with these sports, and whether they’re really good for anyone. Persevering is good, but likely not when it causes major bodily harm. Do we want to treat going out on your shield (so to speak) as virtuous?

Readers, what do you think?

Guest Post

Competing with Kids (Guest Post)

Despite the fact that the Finnish coach who knits during competition is basically my soul brother, I am not a laid back and relaxed trainer. I love my athletes and try to make sure I know them well – what they are like, what the need most from me, and what keeps them enjoying themselves and feeling supported and cared about.

Since I’ve done taekwondo for the vast majority of my life, I know the impact that good coaches can have. The coaches I have been closest to, (even ones I haven’t seen in almost 30 years), are still people I hold in my heart.

So a lot of my athletes – mostly kids, but some teenagers and adults too – feel like family to me. And even though I don’t have kids of my own, I very much enjoy being “dojang mom” or “second mom” or “extra mom” to a lot of them. (Three cheers for alloparenting?)

Every spring, our sister school about two hours away, holds a tournament. It’s a small and not very intense affair, so we try to encourage as many of our students as possible to go and give it a try.

This time, I promised them that if at least 15 people signed up, I’d compete as well. Now, I haven’t fought in a long time, even though I still train quite a bit. Regardless, it wouldn’t have been especially convenient (or good for my mental focus) to be concerned about fighting while I’m also trying to coach my athletes, which usually keeps me busy most of the day.

a woman and boy, both in taekwondo uniforms, side by side in a front stance executing a hand technique
Pairs poomsae

So instead, I thought I would do something special for both me, and one of my students, who is just transitioning to black belt competition. We signed up together to do the pairs poomsae competition (poomsae are taekwondo forms, like kata in karate).

I didn’t expect how much more motivating it would be for me to compete representing both myself and one of my kids. In particular, Ben, who I competed with, is sometimes mistaken for my actual child. I think this is in part because he assists with many of the classes I teach, in part because of how we interact with each other, and probably also that we’re in a fairly white community and one of his parents is also of Chinese descent.

Two people in taekwondo uniforms do sidekicks at the same time.
Matching sidekicks!

So on Saturday, we joined a mother-daughter pair and a grandfather-grandson pair, to compete in the pairs division. Apparently it is just the right thing to pair up with your kid or grandkid! And I had more fun, and was more excited and motivated than I had been for a public event in quite a long time. It felt great. So here’s to competing with your kid, whoever they might be, and in whatever sense they are your kid.

Plus, we took gold!

A woman and a slightly shorter boy, both smiling, in taekwondo uniforms with black belts and gold medals around their necks. Other people's shoulders are visible in the picture.
Podium shot. Bets on how long before he outgrows me?
Guest Post

Finding my Inner Femme with Circus (Guest Post)

As far as I can recall, I’ve always been a tomboy. I don’t think I really had much of a princess phase, except for Princess Leia and Wonder Woman. I was also a short Asian-Canadian teenager in the 90’s, where pale skin and waiflike looks were in. So I’ve never really thought of myself as one of the pretty girls, which is fine (ok, so my teenage Ani DiFranco soundtrack is also coming out here). It means I don’t worry much about my clothes, hair, or eyebrows, and the only makeup I own is probably expired (does makeup expire?). Cool, less effort.

When it comes to sport, it also means that most of what I do hasn’t asked too much of my appearance. Sport taekwondo has me covered up in a loose white uniform and padded up with protective gear. And rock climbing, well, I don’t know how good anyone looks in a climbing harness, much less when you’ve been living out of your car camping out at the crags.

Still, I’ve always loved Cirque du Soleil, and the awesome athleticism of aerialists. I took the odd drop-in class in things like aerial yoga and hoop, but most of the places I found that offer those kinds of things are places primarily for pole, burlesque, and other types of sexy fitness. Which I certainly have no problem with in their own right, but they are really really not for me. I did wushu for a few years in school, and loved the acrobatics and aesthetic – but even if there was a school I could find to train at, I don’t know if these 38 year old tendons would take it well any more.

But here’s the good news. A circus school, just 10 minutes from home, opened in December, offering classes on aerial apparatus for all ages. I talked a friend into doing a drop in introductory class with me, and was hooked. The instructor at The Rising is an aerialist and former gymnast, and doesn’t seem to care if I’m a scruffy dog-hair-covered tomboy who probably couldn’t do a sexy hip thrust if my life depended on it. In fact, my general willingness to hang upside down like a monkey from things has turned out to be an asset after all. It also turns out that many many years of a sport where I get kicked by people has helped to desensitize my legs so they don’t get bruises from the apparatus.

doing an arabesque pose on a static trapeze

But most of all, what I’ve found interesting is that it’s helped me find a little sense of femininity through strength. A lot of really pretty poses are things that require non-trivial arm and core strength to do gracefully. And while I’ve always found muscles attractive on other women (I know, I know), this is one of the first times that I’ve started to approve of the way they look on me too, and of the cool tricks they can let me do.

hanging sideways from a strands of silk

Obviously I’ve only just started, and who knows where I’m going to run up against the limits of my gendered comfort zone. But so far I’m loving doing something that I’ve always admired, and finding that these muscles let me do pretty things after all.

fitness · gender policing · Guest Post · martial arts

The MMA Fighter and the Troll (Guest Post)

Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.

Anna McCauley Dempster, a young blonde athletic-looking woman, throwing a knee with an elbow guarding her face across her body.
Anna McCauley Dempster

Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.

On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).  But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.

One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.

But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.

Still. In the meantime, while we figure out the deeper issues behind gender and sport, you can tide yourselves over by watching Anna McCauley Dempster beat up a troll.

fitness

Fixed it! (Guest Post)

So I spend lots of time around people who work in the fitness industry. My partner runs his own kickboxing program that he has worked really hard to make an inclusive place for people who might not feel comfortable at other gyms. And I teach taekwondo several days a week, mostly to kids, where I can only hope that some of the positive stuff we say to them about being strong and kind and not putting down other people sinks in.

And I’m not oblivious to all the fitspiration that’s out there which I’m happy to see is being more academically studied and shown to be quite counterproductive. So when a friend of mine who works at the same gym as my partner posted this picture (with annoyance) on social media, I was pretty annoyed too.

A sandwich board on the sidewalk: the top part says "Suck it up" then an "OR", and on the bottom part, someone has partially erased the words "Suck it in"
Someone was not impressed by this message.

And ok, sure, maybe there are some people out there who are motivated to exercise by some generalized feeling of shame for their bodies, but I feel pretty strongly that we can do better than telling people that if they don’t have fit-looking bodies they should hide them. Or exercise until they change them. Or should feel obligated to change the way they look at all.

So… that meant that upon seeing the sign reinstated on Monday afternoon, someone *ahem* decided it might need a little light fixing.

A sandwich board on the sidewalk. The top part says "Suck it up" then an "Or" and the bottom part where it says "Suck it in" is covered up by a piece of paper taped to the sign saying "You might not achieve your goals, but don't be ashamed of your body."
Fixed it!

Your body does not exist to please other people. You are under no obligation to diet-and-exercise it into whatever shape the cultural norm dictates. Your body should not be an enemy to be tamed. Exercise should not be punishment. And don’t let any sandwich board or Internet meme tell you otherwise.

Peace.

fitness · Guest Post

Exercising at the APA (Guest Post)

Audrey: Conferences are tricky to navigate for those of us who are used to moving our bodies on a regular basis. Lots of people get up and stand, but sometimes that’s just not enough. The Pacific APA (American Philosophical Association) Conference was held in Seattle in mid-April, and I was lucky enough to be able to get funds for staying at the conference hotel, which I often don’t do, since I’ve tended to opt for cheaper off-site accommodation. But one of the benefits for staying on or very near the venue is an increased ability to engage in non-conference socializing with other conference-goers. This time, my dear friend Rebecca Kukla (my co-author on the Lingerie Fighting League post) and I were able to plan a few hours to meet up at the hotel gym and do a little bit of training. We did a little bit of boxing, calling combos for each other, and I got to get some kicking in, since my main sport is taekwondo. It was nice having her non-academic partner there as well, who partook of the boxing, and helpfully held kicking targets for me also.

I’m in a pretty privileged academic position these days, and my ability to skip sessions and exercise surely reflects that, but it was definitely a fantastic time for setting the tone of the rest of my day. Not only did I get to do something I love that isn’t philosophy, but hitting stuff is pretty great stress relief too, that helps with talk-related nerves. Plus, you get to pose like a superhero afterwards!

17880487_10154368546741669_6975797265254326400_o
Audrey (left) and Rebecca (right) posing like superheroes at the hotel gym.

Rebecca: Philosophy has a happy number of Amazingly Badass Women who are not only brilliant and charismatic and righteous but also awe-inspiring, highly trained athletes. Their existence makes me so happy – it reminds me that being a legitimate scholar doesn’t mean I have to ignore or denigrate embodied pleasures and pursuits. When I get to train with one of these Amazingly Badass Women at a philosophy conference, I feel like my life is in perfect balance. I’ve escaped conferences to go running with Tracy Isaac, to lift weights with Serene Khader and with Julia Bursten, and to box with Cassie Herbert. But it has been a specific bucket-list goal of mine for a long time now to get to punch and hit things with the formidable Audrey Yap. I’ve wanted to do this for so long, but I have to say, feeling the power of her incredibly precise, strong kicks and punches in person intensified my awe. Not only was this training session one of the highlights of the APA, but it made me once again so proud that the discipline is home to these women.

(And we had a blast even though the inevitable older philosophy dude had to walk by and chuckle, “Har har I wouldn’t want to be hit by one of those!” No, sir, you really would not, nor would you ever have bothered making explicit that you didn’t want to be hit by a man’s fist or foot!)