Girls Who Fight: Virtual self-defense brings confidence to girls and women across the GTA

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It takes confidence to walk into a gym as a 14-year-old girl and start grappling with somebody’s dad. It takes the same to launch a business on your own at 23. Gemma Sheehan, the founder of Toronto-based Girls Who Fight, a mobile (now virtual) martial arts startup that offers MMA training for girls and self-defense classes for women in the GTA, believes she developed the sureness to do both from her love of martial arts.

“I feel like I have more confidence than a lot of women I know, and a belief that I can accomplish things, and I got that from martial arts,” says the 26-year-old former MMA pro.

Currently restricted due to Covid-19, Sheehan, who usually rotates in-person training at three gyms in the GTA, is teaching via video stream. She’s been running her girls’ classes via Zoom since August 2020, first for free and only resuming payment in November 2020, and has put her women’s self-defense courses on hold till in-person can resume.

It’s not an easy time to teach a physical sport, but she’s not deterred from her primary goal: to help girls and women build self-confidence through MMA training.

Confidence isn’t a buzzword, she says, but is something developed through doing things.

In 2017, and after nearly a decade of training and competition, Sheehan hung up her pro gloves and decided to teach girls-only MMA classes. She wanted to give girls a chance to learn self-defense skills and develop greater self-confidence, and she wanted to do it exclusively for girls so they would feel entirely comfortable exploring their abilities. Co-ed classes, especially for girls, can bring “weird dynamics” that some girls and young women might find inhibiting or intimidating.

It also made business sense. When she looked around at the market, she saw a total absence of girls-only training.

She tested her theory — and her business model — by offering a few weeklong MMA summer camps just for girls between the ages of 8 and 16. Her instinct proved true. After the camps, parents and kids wanted more. They loved how diverse and dynamic the training was compared to other sports. “The girls learn to punch and kick and then get on the floor and start grappling or learn how to take someone down. It’s really fun and engaging.”

They also liked how Sheehan was able to fill a gap in their parenting. “A lot of parents told me that the loved the street safety stuff because a lot of kids don’t want to hear from them or write it off as ‘paranoid mom’.”