Following Your Path in the Male Dominated Sport, Muay Thai
“Should I just go back to teaching non-contact women’s kickboxing classes?”
I was not very tough when I was a young girl. I wore pink ballerina outfits and played with My Little Ponies.
I was not a leader. I was not popular. I was not a bully or even a kid that got in fights. I didn’t even rough house with my brothers. I collected stuffed animals and stamps and covered my eyes when the Wicked Witch and her winged monkeys harassed Dorothy and her friends.
I did play some sports, but never excelled at them.
My varsity basketball coach took me off the bench so I could foul when the team needed it. I never had any fouls to my name and the stronger, more aggressive players couldn’t afford any more fouls. It usually took him yelling at me to make me foul someone.
If you told the teenage me that a normal evening at work would involve teaching several big, tough guys how to effectively punch and kick each other, and that they would listen to me with respect and follow my directions, I would have laughed in your face and gone back to reading Silvia Plath and writing bad poetry.
But today that is my life. I am a female Muay Thai coach and although I have been teaching Muay Thai for over ten years now, it still surprises me every day that I teach fighting for a living.
When I was asked to write a guest blog for Muay Thai Guy, I knew I wanted to write something about being a female coach. And as a part of my usual writing process I sat with the idea, letting it roll around in my mind for a few days. During this time, I saw something on Facebook that instantly caught my attention. Jenypher Lanthier posted a short status update that read,
“I did not choose to get into a male dominated industry, I chose to follow my passion. Simple.”
“This,” I thought “I need to write about this.” About what it feels like to be a female coach, about how it’s hard to be a girl in predominantly male sport and profession. But that is not the reason we do it.
Female gym owners and head coaches are rare in the US and abroad.
Jenypher of York Muay Thai in Ontario is one of the only other female Muay Thai head coaches in North America that I know of. As far as a female Muay Thai gym owner and head coach in North America, Kru Natalie of Chok Sabai in NYC is the only one I know of—although there might be one or two others.
I met Jenypher in Los Angeles when she fought for and won the Californian IKKC championship in 2005. Jenypher is a small girl, fighting in the flyweight division of under 118 pounds. She was pro at the time I started my amateur career in 2002.
Her skills made an impression on me and I was also taken aback by how approachable she was. She didn’t need to present some tough girl persona to the world. She was just herself: feminine, badass, cheerful and full of life.
We connected right away and were always friendly with each other.
The next time I saw Jenypher was in 2006 after my TKO victory against Trish Collard in Victorville, California. Here’s a picture of us. Notice that Jenypher looks adorable and girly and I’m trying to look all badass.
In 2006 I had already started apprenticing as a teacher for my coach Chris Reilly. I owe a lot of my confidence as a female instructor to this man who vouched for my competence as an instructor in his gym and defended me against other people’s comments regarding my ability as a female teaching fighting.
“She’s had more fights than you, bro,” Chris would tell them. Or, “Listen to her she knows what she’s talking about.”
But at the time, I still asked myself, “Do I really?”
Confidence is not something that came easy to me. I earned my confidence as a fighter in the ring through multiple battles with myself and my opponents. But it’s something I struggled with throughout my twenties and even early thirties.
I became certified for personal training in 2005, thinking it would help with my credibility as an instructor. But still people came to me primarily to learn Muay Thai and I woke up most days and thought, “Do I really have any business teaching them?”
I realized that Muay Thai was my passion, but it still took me a long while to really own my power as a coach.
In my early coaching days, students would ask me to help train them to fight and I’d oblige because I knew how important it was to them, but I wasn’t really sure I was the person to get them there. I deferred to my male coaches and co-workers to be the leader they needed.
I had only seen one female coach working the corner of her fighter before. It was Kathy Long, a legendary kickboxer in the 80’s and 90’s who was cornering her girlfriend against my student and teammate Kate McGray in a smoker fight in 2007. But I had never seen a female coach cornering her male fighter.
I continued to teach classes and train clients as my only means of income throughout my amateur and pro career. At this point, I knew I could fight and although I knew I could command a class of upwards of thirty students and keep them engaged I still did not think of myself as a “fight coach.”
Even when I opened my own gym in 2011 I was hesitant to really own my identity as a fight coach.
Is this what I really wanted?
Could I do this profession the justice it deserved?
Should I just go back to teaching non-contact women’s kickboxing classes?
I realize that men also second guess themselves when it comes to their ability, but for women there is the added pressure of society assuming they know very little about such a male dominated industry. I know the world is changing and women are allowed to choose any path in life they want, but others are judgmental and skeptical of women who walk a path less traveled by fellow females.
We are talking about Muay Thai: a combat sport where women were not allowed in any ring in Thailand, and if they even touched the canvas it was considered bad luck. There are still rings women are not allowed into in Thailand, but they built separate rings that women can fight in.
My coach told me that it was considered bad luck to touch a male fighter’s Mong Kong, the ceremonial headdress they wear before fights and he had to buy a separate one for me, a pink one. Females are also not supposed to touch a man’s Buddha (amulet) around his neck, something many Thais wear. Yet even with all the sexist superstitions and social barriers for entry into the sport, I loved—and still love—Muay Thai. So I pursued it relentlessly and without resentment.
After I opened up my own gym I experienced more sexism and comments that my coach had probably shielded me from.
“Who’s the head coach here,” many prospective male clients would ask after they walked in, assuming I was a front desk girl.
“I am,” I would say as I shook their hand. “Welcome.”
I’d watch as embarrassment and a little shock would spread over their face. I’d give them some information and they’d leave. Every man who came in or called with a similar question rarely signed up at my gym.
And I think that is partly why we have such a great community and positive energy at my gym. There is no macho bullshit or ego. We have a zero tolerance for bullies. At my gym, we just love Muay Thai and everyone who trains with me has no problem learning how to fight from women.
We have several male instructors, all fighters who trained under me. Dustin Shaw, my partner, is one, along with Anthony Ristow and Jason Hammons who all teach part time.
However, women teach the majority of our Muay Thai classes, as I am the head coach and my other full time coach is Kate McGray, also a pro fighter and personal trainer. Kate teaches the majority of the morning classes. When Kate started training with me she was shy and reserved. Kate is the classic introvert, quiet, a good listener, thoughtful, intelligent.
I watched over the years as training Muay Thai started to change her into a more confident, expressive person. Kate and I are very different, but, like me, she wasn’t sure about teaching at first. I saw her ability and potential and encouraged her to try. She started working for me teaching small group women’s classes part time in 2008, then when I opened up my gym in 2011 she eventually made the jump to a full time instructor and personal trainer.
Now when I’m in my working in my office and hear Kate projecting her voice loudly to a large group of students, “Don’t stop! Turn your hips over! Power! Power!” I smile and think to myself how incredible Muay Thai is. Sport and passion have the ability to shape lives.
Our open minded students treat Kate and I with respect, but I know that world still has some catching up to do. I’ve had men refuse to shake my hand in my own business because it was “against their religion.” I’ve had men walk in and ask for the owner of the business because they had something to “run by him” and when I asked, “HIM?” They responded, “Well, yeah, it has to be a guy that owns this place.” Sexism was still alive and well in 2011.
One of the reasons Muay Thai is a male dominated sport is that fighting is a very male way of dealing with problems. Duels to settle arguments, barroom brawls, fighting for women, country and honor, these traditions are as old as time.
You have an issue with me? Great! Let’s punch each other in the face! May the best man win and then we can hug it out and be cool with each other after.
I love this. It’s so simple and the answer is often very decisive. There is a winner and a loser. Done. Problem solved.
I realize that in my adult career pursuits I possess more stereotypically “male” personality traits than most women.
My fighting style was always aggressive with a lot of forward pressure and heavy hands and that tends to be how I approach my life. I tend to talk first in business situations and enjoy leading a meeting. I never liked being managed and always felt driven to create a working situation where I was my own boss. I am rarely satisfied with my accomplishments and constantly looking for the next challenge. I like being in control of my life. I like winning and I like being the boss.
I think as a teenager I would have allowed these traits to flourish more had I had a mentor or a parent who told me it was okay to feel and act this way. But I was raised by a single hippie mom who was against violence of any kind and saw no benefit in competition.
The girly grunge bands of the 90’s told me it was okay to be angry and to yell about it. But it wasn’t until I found Muay Thai that someone told me it was okay to want to hit something and do it.
Muay Thai has taught me that aggression and anger are perfectly acceptable forms of expression. They are not just male traits, they’re human traits and it’s much healthier to deal with them with a physical release than holding them in and then releasing everything in a fit of road rage at some douche who cut you off in traffic.
It feels so amazing to hit things. The first time I hit Thai pads, I thought to myself, THIS! This is exactly what I have been missing! Muay Thai completed me.
In 2012, a year after I opened my own gym, I was at the TBA tournament in Des Moines, Iowa and I saw Jenypher Lanthier again. I don’t think I had seen her in six years. I knew she had retired from fighting a few years back, had opened up a Muay Thai school and had some solid up and coming fighters.
At this time, I was retired but was struggling with fully accepting my role as a fight coach. I watched Jenypher hold pads for her fighter in the carpeted warm up room of the Holiday Inn. She wore her long hair in pigtails and at five-foot-two her tall, six-foot male fighter towered over her petite frame. She sported a pair of thick Twins Thai pads and her fighter was ripping kicks to her arms.
She paused for a second to tuck in her Buddha amulet and I smiled when I saw it, thinking, I wonder if she doesn’t let men touch it because it’s bad luck.
Seeing Jenypher in her element, oozing confidence gave me a glimmer of hope. I started thinking that if training and fighting Muay Thai had helped me conquer my personal fears and raise my confidence, perhaps it could continue to offer me personal growth and increased confidence through sharing my passion and coaching others—if I let it.
I decided to let it. After seeing Jenypher own it in Iowa, taking the wins and losses of her team with equal grace and pride, I went home to my gym and began to act “as if.” Acting as if is a self-help tactic where you act like you wish to be until you believe it yourself.
I knew I had the skills to be a good coach, I had been teaching for years already.
I knew I possessed solid technique, communication, leadership and people skills.
I just lacked the inner confidence to put it all together.
The knowledge that it could be executed well by another female even smaller than me fueled my ambition. Just like how in 1954 Roger Bannister broke the under 4-minute-mile running record, which had never been done. Then shortly after many other runners broke 4 minutes. If you see it, you can believe it and then you can achieve it too.
There are many easier things I could try to accomplish with my drive and ambition than be a gym owner and fight coach. It’s hard enough as a man to do both those things; they are not easy, nor financially rewarding. Then, as a woman I must also deal with criticism, sexism and judgement for my choice to be in a male dominated industry.
A couple years ago a photo popped up on my Facebook feed. It was a funny Muay Thai meme that said, “Pad work is like oral sex – You have to give it to get it.” Now I agree, that’s funny. I’m all for jokes and dirty ones are fine with me. What I had a problem with was the graphic that was chosen: a picture of a female coach—Jenypher Lanither— holding pads for her male student. The meme was shared 126 times.
Jenypher and I had a short conversation about it after I aired my distaste for the image. It’s hard enough being a female coach, memes like this don’t help. She requested the image be taken down and the person who had shared it graciously did, understanding her position. We chatted a bit about how it’s a struggle to know when to put up with a joke because you are so used to being, “one of the guys” to when something goes too far.
In my opinion, that one—what could be seen as innocent graphic—crossed the line because the quote wouldn’t be there if it was an image of a guy holding pads for a guy, or even a guy holding pads for a girl.
Pause for a second and imagine either scenario…. Now do you see what I mean?
These sort of situations and comments happen frequently to females in a male dominated profession. However, like Jenypher said recently, I didn’t choose to get into a male dominated industry—why would I purposely subject myself to dealing with bullshit like that—I chose to follow my passion.
And in a way, Muay Thai chose me. I love Muay Thai. It’s what drives me. It’s what gives me purpose and makes me want to give to the world. It’s what saved me from slowly killing myself with drugs and alcohol when I was lost and felt hopeless. It’s my reason for being. I didn’t have a choice. Muay Thai is in my heart and I believe in following my heart.
And as a coach I have come to the conclusion that it would be selfish of me not to share and pass on what I have learned through fighting Muay Thai over the years.
So today, I openly and confidently share it with anyone, male or female, who wants to learn from me. I’m not trying to be a pioneer and I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just following my passion. Jenypher and I just happen to be two of the first women to do it in this specific way.