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Women in judo: A chat with Emma Reid & Kelly Petersen-Pollard

15 Aug 2022 • 3 min read


In a post-lockdown world, we’re lucky enough to see live sport back thriving with audiences in abundance – bearing witness to some of the most pioneering talent of our time.

As our stadiums begin to fill again, we caught up with British Judoka Kelly Petersen-Pollard and Emma Reid to discuss their experiences in Judo and how they’ve found fighting their way through a primarily male-dominated sport.

In our off-the-mat chat with Emma and Kelly, ranked 15th and 10th in the world respectively, we explore their greatest wins, wellbeing tips, and hopes for the future.

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What is Judo?

Created by Jigoro Kano in 1882 and introduced as an Olympic sport for Tokyo's 1964 Games, Judo is a combat sport derived from Jiu Jitsu and translates to “the gentle way”.

Whilst not necessarily 'gentle' at a glance, Judo players (also known as Judoka) are encouraged not to intentionally hurt their opponents, but rather use their weight and force against them in order to win.

Scoring by throwing their opponent on their back, holding them down or by forcing a submission via a strangle or arm-lock.

With over 47,000 registered Judoka in the UK in 2019-20, it’s exciting to see Judo climbing the ranks as a sport in the UK.1

Plus, the British Judo Association (BJA) are currently offering 90 days of free membership to anyone who wants to get involved if you check out the link below.

How inclusive is Judo?

Women were once banned from Judo for their apparent “fragile” nature,though today you’ll find Judo making huge strides towards inclusivity, as one of only a handful of competitive sports with mixed-gender opponents.

It’s also one of the most accessible martial arts for visually impaired people, with over 100 Judo clubs in the UK welcoming blind and partially-sighted members.3

We ask Emma and Kelly about their experiences as women in Judo:

“I think at club level, maybe in England, there are more men on the mat,” says Kelly. And it’s true - only 24% of registered BJA Judoka are women.4

“But as a whole, Judo’s not really divided like that. It’s not harder if you’re female or male - it’s pretty much the same for everyone.”

Both Emma and Kelly have had validating experiences at the British Judo Association: “we’re male, female and visually impaired [categories], all in here at the same time. So, it’s really open to everyone,” Kelly explains, generating an almost family-like camaraderie within the team.

It’s not just about the athletes: mixed-gender contests could help bring in recognition from less inclusive crowds, too. 

Hopefully, times are changing - especially in light of the Lionesses’ monumental Euros win - but the phrase, “I don’t watch women’s sports,” is one we’ve heard a thousand times over.

It’s the reason that, according to UNESCO, outside of major sporting events women make up 40% of all athletes yet receive 4% of the coverage.5 Here, maybe Judo can be the exception.

“We fight on the same days, and we’ll be on separate mats [next to each other],” Emma says. “So people aren’t forced to watch it but it’s harder to differentiate between male and female Judo.

It’s the same rules, same times: there are no disadvantages or advantages for boys vs girls.”

Young women in sport: reaching out

No matter how inclusive Judo is within its community, female participation won’t increase until young women see themselves as future Judoka. 

43% of teenage girls say they considered themselves sporty in primary school, though stated they didn’t any longer and by 17 years old, 64% of girls have quit sports altogether.6

This research - published by Women in Sport in 2022 - cited being judged by others as their main worry, with just under half explaining they were too busy with schoolwork to carry on doing sports.

This is presumably the same schoolwork as their male counterparts, 54% of which called themselves “very active”.7

Is it that these young people have the same amount of free time, but that girls aren’t made to feel like sport is a viable path for them?

Expanding the Judo community could help instil confidence in these girls from a young age. 

Exposure to more diverse sporting events could inspire some younger people,” Emma suggests.

“If they don’t know what sport to go into, they might watch Judo and be like, ‘wow, I want to do that’ – well, hopefully. I think some girls might be a bit nervous coming in, thinking they are going to have to fight boys, so having an all-girls camp may help.

We sometimes do masterclasses, where we go to clubs and try and inspire those younger people to stay in [Judo].”

Social media: the new key?

With an average starting age of 6-7, most young athletes begin thanks to family involvement. 

While this helps create a tight-knit community, it might be daunting to those outside who want to learn. 

Social media might be the key for a new generation of Judoka. Emma and Kelly explain their role as ambassadors, both on the tatami (the Judo mat) and their social media timelines. “There are quite a few of us trying to post more on Instagram and social media, and we’re starting to get younger girls messaging us, which shows it’s slowly inspiring them,” says Kelly.

Separating ‘mat’ and ‘off-mat’ identities can be difficult for young women in Judo, especially when there are other expectations in the mix. 

Kavoura et al (2015) found that even older Judo players - who were more likely to state they were comfortable in their athletic identities - were still found to exaggerate their femininity as a method of “apologetic behaviour” for taking part in sport.8

But our athletes hope that sharing their lives online can help repaint athletes as the fully-rounded people they are.

As impressive as their sporting achievements are, they’ve managed to maintain the other parts that make them them.

Both Emma and Kelly have earned a degree while training - Emma in Events Management and Kelly in Exercise & Health - and make sure to share snippets of their everyday life. 

“Through our social media you see both sides. You’ll see me, hair like this, sweaty and fighting on the mat, and then you’ll also see us dressing all ‘girly’”, says Kelly. “I think [young women] worry that they might start to look all muscly,”

Emma adds. “But when you’re happy in your skin and posting it on Instagram then other people are like, ‘Oh, she’s happy like that’”.

Find your happy weight 

If you’re new to Judo, you might not know that athletes compete within weight categories. With 82% of Judoka admitting to rapid weight loss to meet their weigh-in, it’s crucial to be fully informed on safe ways to meet your body’s goals.9

“Give yourself enough time,” Emma warns. “We’ve got to “make weight” every so often, so giving yourself enough time to make it well rather than rushing and using bad techniques is really important.”

 It’s said that “yo-yo weight loss” can actually increase your body fat levels and diminish muscle over time. So, it’s in Judokas’ best interests for their safety and their body goals to develop a healthy relationship with the numbers on the scale.10

Despite the focus on “making weight”, weight category sports might even make for a more even playing field than others.

“That’s one good thing,” says Emma. “I’m in one of the heaviest weight categories, whereas Amy Platten, another girl in the under 48s, is tiny and petite. But we still do the same sport and the same thing, so it’s really open to everyone.”

Everyone’s body has a unique “happy weight”, and that might not match the limited scope of athletes we’ve seen in previous years. But, greater representation in sports like Judo can help lean into a more inclusive picture, celebrating physical strength in whatever body it comes in. 

Emma & Kelly’s top 5 wellbeing tips

With that, who better to hear about healthy habits than Emma and Kelly? They share their top  5 wellbeing tips:

“It’s all about balance,” says Kelly. “For example, eating well, but if you do fancy something a little bit ‘unhealthy’ then that’s alright! Just have one of those things and you’ll be fine.”

  1. “If you restrict yourself, you go crazy.

While a balanced diet is crucial to your health, being an athlete doesn’t have to mean lean, green, and protein 24/7. Food is fuel! 

We asked Emma and Kelly what they’d choose if they could only eat one food for the rest of their lives:

“Potatoes!” Emma says. Then… “the smart answer would be a balanced one. My answer is lasagne.”

Narrowing down life’s toughest choices can be hard (we’re with you on this, Kelly):
“My meal would be carvery. Roast dinner. Wait, if I could only have one thing? Chocolate, has to be. Coffee! Right, we’ve got a whole list now…”

  1. She also champions “the little 1 percents” - the mantras we’ve heard before that truly add up. “Sleep and rest are as important.” 

“I sometimes get tempted to squeeze in seeing a friend or going to do something, when really I should be relaxing because that’s part of being a full-time athlete,” adds Emma.

  1. Next is hydration:

“I constantly have a bottle with me,” Emma says. “Especially when it’s hot and you’re on a session you’ve got to make sure you stay hydrated.

There’s the extra stuff like hydration tablets, because you forget how much other stuff comes out with the sweat!” 

  1. Eating well - and that includes the balance Kelly talked about.

Emma agrees: “All that leads to a much happier person - healthier and happier!” 

  1. We wrap up number 5 with an impromptu chorus from our athletes: “Enjoy the ride!

“You get bogged down sometimes in making weight or being away from home,” says Emma. “Sometimes you’ve got to be like, “I’m by a pool in Spain, just enjoy it!”

How can I start doing Judo near me?


What kit will I need?


Could you do Judo?

It’s been so valuable to talk to Emma and Kelly and we wish them the best of luck for their next endeavours!

We’re really encouraged by the inclusive steps Judo is taking and our British team’s outstanding attitude to stepping up as “every day” ambassadors. 

Don’t forget: you can find Judo classes near you using the British Judo Club Finder

Or, maybe Emma and Kelly have inspired you to start your fitness journey elsewhere. 

We’re pretty keen to try our hand at Judo, though, after all we’ve learned. What’s more, the BJA is offering a free 90-day membership for anyone interested in starting out. 

Try your hand without paying a penny - who knows where it could go?

How to set and achieve fitness goals

Getting fit or fitter can sometimes feel like an insurmountable goal. Discover how to set and achieve your fitness goals here 

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 2 August 2022


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