Breaking Boundaries: Coach Maryam

We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to wrestling's unsung heroes around the world. Coach Maryam was introduced to us through our friend, Hooman Tavakolian of Tavak Partners, a sport diplomacy company. Hooman was kind enough to make the introduce us to Coach Maryam to get to know her better and spread her story. 

What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Tehran. I am the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My father was a wrestler. My mother was a teacher. We come from a working class family. I was raised around the wrestling mat and [my father’s] involvement. Because of this, I always wanted be involved, but on the coaching level.

What introduced you to wrestling, and who ended up teaching you?

I was introduced to the sport by my dad. I used to watch him wrestle, practice and compete. My father taught me the sport. Also, let it be known that wrestling is very popular in Iran, and is part of the culture. We are all raised in the environment and are aware of the sport as it's the national sport.

What inspired you to coach?

I was inspired to be a coach because of my interest in the sport. My dream and many of the girls’ dreams in Iran is to have wrestling for women in Iran. When Mr. Khadem created wrestling for females, I jumped on it quickly, got involved, and wanted to give back. I was lucky to have learned the basics from my dad. I was just waiting for the opportunity to jump in.

Who have been your biggest supporters in your wrestling journey?

My biggest supporters has been my mother. She always supported me and believes in equal rights for women. She always pushed me to chase this dream. My dad wasn't really too big on the idea, but now he is better since it is now available for women in Iran. Also Mr. Tavakolian (Hooman Tavakolian, Tavak Partners) has been supporting all of us and Iran wrestling, for males and females.

Has teaching and coaching others in wrestling helped your technique and understanding of the sport?

Coaching others has helped me drastically in learning and improving my technique. I also watch a lot of technique videos online from YouTube, and try to learn from great wrestlers. I am a big fan of Helen Maroulis, she is so good.

How has wrestling affected you personally?

Wrestling has helped me become stronger and get my character stronger. I also was introduced to a whole new world. It brought me to a new environment; sometimes good, and sometimes bad. I used to be a sensitive person, but wrestling has helped me become a stronger person and individual. Wrestling has helped me get thicker skin and taught me how to deal with various people.

What keeps you motivated throughout hardships in wrestling?

I get my positive energy from my students. They motivate me to continue when things don't go smoothly. As you know, it's a new sport for us, so there are many growing pains. But, I love when I see my students are so dedicated. They keep showing up for practice, even when they don't have gear, shoes, or appropriate training opportunities.

Have you competed? If so, how often?

I have competed locally in my town, and in my state. In my state I took first place. This was in the early stages of when women’s wrestling was created. I was very good in the Wu Shu style‒ I made it to nationals and the league championships. I also was very active in Kung Fu and Futsal (indoor soccer). Overall, I loved contact sports and competing. I refuse to lose.

Would you recommend this sport for everyone, or do you think it requires a special type of person to fully appreciate the sport?

I recommend this sport only to those who are dedicated. The sport is for those who have goals, big goals. I recommend wrestling to girls who are driven and don't accept loss. Girls that when they are told NO, they  challenge it and ask why, or say yes I can. Done for success, I mean. Also for those who need to be built, I  recommend wrestling to them. I recommend for them to try it, to help them overcome issues and challenges.

What do you think of the advances made for women’s wrestling in Iran (all styles)? 

I believe it's great. I believe it's moving forward thanks to the hard work of Iran Federation. But, there are growing pains. I am confident there is a bright future for Iran. Iranian women are full with national pride. They train hard and want to be the best.

It is reported that there is a critical need for more female wrestling coaches. What do you think is the best solution?

Yes, we need better coaches. Currently men are not allowed to coach us. We need more training by greats like Kori Icho from Japan. I also believe we need joint training camps. This brings us experience and interaction. We are being coached with limited knowledge. We have a coach for our national team from Ukraine. But we need more great technical coaches for local gyms to help us so we can learn and teach our students the correct techniques.

What is the typical background of the women you coach?

Most females who are in this area come from families who's fathers and brothers wrestled. All come from working, blue collar families. Most wrestlers are 18-25 years old. There are older wrestlers, but they are not allowed to compete on the national level. We hope age restrictions will change so older women can one day compete on the national level. Iran is planning to start a cadet and junior national team as well as the sport grows in the next few years.

How is belt wrestling tied to the success of bringing Classical wrestling to Iranian women?

Belt wrestling has helped on the macro level, but I believe it has also hurt wrestlers in learning. As you know, it is hard to change one’s style. Belt wrestling has its own ways and techniques. Unfortunately many have brought their belt wrestling style to classic wrestling.

What has been a major pushback for female wrestlers in your country?

Lack of support from sponsors and help with growing sport. We need more funding, and I also think getting rid of the age restrictions will help. There are many many interested females who are above 23 and who can be great.

What do you think the impact will have on muslim women throughout the world?

This is great progress for all muslim women. Many girls around the world also shared the same dream of wrestling. This has now created an opportunity for all to participate and help empower themselves. It is also great that they have their own specific clothing, so they are not bothered by cultural and religious restrictions on gear. I am very happy for the future of the sport and the opportunity for ALL females, not only muslim ones. Together we are united and can grow the sport.

In closing I would like to thank the Iran Wrestling Federation and Dr. Rasoul Khadem for all their support and in helping make this dream a reality for the many girls in Iran, and now around the world. We still have a long way to go, but I am certain and I feel confident that with your help we can build awareness and support. Thank you for your interest in us and thank you for writing this article to build awareness. We are all sisters on and off the mat.


Iran’s New Feminism: Combat Sports

 Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

By Elizabeth Dosado

Seeing her for the first time, I was a bit taken back. She wore a hijab, long sleeves, and pants underneath her gi. The cultural differences between us were obvious — I was only wearing a t-shirt under my gi and my hair was left uncovered. Even though I had trained at this dojo a hundred times, this was the first time I had ever worked out with an athlete who covered themselves. I was soon put at ease when we shared laughs as we worked on our judo. She was a fierce competitor, and didn’t back down from me at all. I could tell she really loved practicing judo. I left the dojo that day thinking about issues bigger than myself. We may be different, but the love we feel in sport unifies us. I was impassioned at how sports can truly bring people together. I asked myself, “could it bring the world together?” For so long, we have viewed the Muslim culture as drastically different from our own world. But as opportunities for women in combat sports are on the rise, we can see a new beginning and a new feminism for Muslim women.

Shift now to another setting — a mat room and my other love, wrestling. In all of the time I have spent in a mat room, I have never seen a Muslim girl in the mix. This has always made me feel discouraged, wishing that everyone would feel open and welcome to combat sports and wrestling. With all of this burning in my mind, I set about to do some research.

Women’s wrestling in Iran

Iran has been a leading example for women’s combat sports in the Middle East. Just like the girl I met in judo, there are many women from the Middle East hoping to invest their interests in combat sports. These women are passionate and determined to have a chance to represent their country in the classical styles of wrestling.

Women’s wrestling in Iran officially began in March of 2015 with the formation of the country’s first women’s belt wrestling: a style of wrestling where the athletes wear a gi, similar to judo, and use the belt around the waist to knock each other over and score points. A team trial was held in June of 2015, and the winners of each weight class went on to represent her country at the 2015 Asian Belt Wrestling Championships. The Iranian women had much success and were overjoyed by the opportunity to wrestle. They felt honored to partake in such a noble sport. In 2017, women’s belt wrestling was formally recognized as an associated style of United World Wrestling. This development paved the way towards classical wrestling for the women of Iran.

However in the classical form of wrestling, it has been more difficult to have a uniform approved by United World Wrestling. Due to the more revealing nature of a wrestling singlet versus the already conservative form of a robe-like gi, it has been complicated to find a good alternative. Even still, a uniform was approved despite those complications. It was presented at the Las Vegas Worlds in 2015, and was debated for the following year before approval. This was an important milestone for the Middle Eastern women’s wrestling community. The uniform is now official, and Muslim women are now able to train for and compete in classical wrestling.

Limitations and pushback

In Iran, wrestling is not just a sport— it’s a way of life. Men are celebrated for their acts of kindness as well as their triumphs on the mat. A wrestler is more than a man of technique and strength, a wrestler is one of honor.

There are specific cultural and religious customs in which Iranian women must adhere. Living in a predominantly patriarchal society, progressions for women are hard fought. There are very few women in government or in leadership positions as a whole. A big push has been to allow women in stadiums, and to cheer in person rather than at home on the television. Women are currently banned from athletic stadiums as it’s believed it is too vulgar for them to watch, and the attire worn by the athletes deemed inappropriate. This ties specifically to wrestling, since it is a sport that has a special place in all Iranians’ hearts. After all, it is Iran’s national sport. The ban makes Iranian women unable to participate in giving their encouragement for their country in sports. The pain of not being present in such crucial moments to cheer on Iran can be crushing for women, especially for a sport as prevalent as wrestling.

In addition, the severity of strictness and adhesion to conservative Iranian values will vary from family to family. Depending on how conservative a family is, they may not allow their daughters to wrestle. This gives the women no true choice, relying on their family’s decision. With wrestling being such an empowering sport, women will be able to develop the confidence to push for further progression, and to become more invested in a deeply rooted and respected sport for their country. If refused on such an opportunity, women will miss out on something truly special.   

 Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Uniforms and coaching support

With women’s belt wrestling, it was fairly simple to modify the uniform in order to adhere to the cultural and religious beliefs of Islam. The uniform already consists of a gi, which covers the curves of the body. Long compression pants, a hijab (hair cover), and fitted long-sleeve shirts were added so the women could compete comfortably and not compromise their personal values.

However in the classical form of wrestling, it has been more difficult to have a uniform approved by United World Wrestling. Due to the more revealing nature of a wrestling singlet versus the already conservative form of a robe-like gi, it has been complicated to find a good alternative. Even still, a uniform was approved despite those complications. It was presented at the Las Vegas Worlds in 2015, and was debated for the following year before approval. This was an important milestone for the Middle Eastern women’s wrestling community. The uniform is now official, and Muslim women are now able to train for and compete in classical wrestling.

Despite the triumph with uniforms, another troubling complication is the question of coaches: there is a short supply of female coaches. The male coaches have not been able to compensate for this problem. The men are not able to do more than demonstrate on an adolescent boy, and then leave as the women practice the move. The men are not able to correct their female athletes, since they cannot touch them. It is essential that an all-female staff is sent over from other countries to help the female wrestlers in Iran.  According to a United World Wrestling article written in 2017, 2,000 Iranian women are practicing wrestling, with 100 actively competing. The Iranian wrestling community hopes that more female support will be sent over to accommodate the growing numbers.

How the world is affected

Due to the efforts in Iran, it is projected that the world will see more women with in United World Wrestling. The sport will gain more female competitors, referees, and coaches. This will help women’s wrestling as a whole, and establish more female presence where there is generally very little. As with all beginnings, there is always many hurdles to overcome. The benefits to overcoming these challenges will be exponential.

Bringing the world together through wrestling is effective because in wrestling, everyone is of equal value. It doesn’t matter what your class, sex, race, nationality, or sexual orientation is; all matches start 0-0. Wrestling does not care if you are a woman or a man. It is about what lies within you, and if you are willing to push to your limits. It is an experience that is never forgotten, and changes the athlete for the better. Wrestling has changed my whole world for the better, and I hope everyone has the opportunity to understand the same feeling.

The progressions made in Iran will be essential for women worldwide. It is imperative that support is given to further grow the sport for Muslim women. It is with great hope women’s wrestling will continue to be a success. With everyone in the world chipping in to bring wrestling to all women, we can grow the sport as a whole. Support can be given through spreading the news on social media, finding a way to donate to the cause, or simply just by watching women compete. May this be a true embodiment of the wonders that everyone can accomplish when we all come together in sport.


Elizabeth Dosado is from Ruther Glen, Virginia. She is 16, and going into her junior year in high school. She has been practicing judo for three years, and is currently a blue belt. She just completed her third wrestling season. Elizabeth teaches beginner wrestlers in local high schools in an effort to grow the sport for girls in her area.

Elizabeth was fourth in the region during the school season, and made it to Virginia State as the only girl in the 4A division. She is a three time VAWA Girls Folkstyle champion, a two time VAWA Girls Freestyle champion, and has competed nationally representing the Virginia National Team. If she isn't working out or doing combat sports, Elizabeth can be found fiddling with a guitar, singing to herself, or trying her hand at writing. She has done multiple mission trips through her church, and participates in the Army JROTC through her school. 

 

Toska Adams: The Journey is Never Over, Giving Back to the Sport of Wrestling

Wrestling provides so many avenues for giving back. Have you considered officiating after your competitive career is done?It's important for women and girls to know there are other opportunities for them to stay in the sport of wrestling even if its not coaching or competing. Many women started in the sport through roles which supported the tournament organization. Becoming a head pairing master was a coveted role and one held by women ( and men) at the local, national and international level. This person was responsible for hand writing the brackets, recording the wins/loses, determined who would wrestling who in consolations, wrote out the bouts and sent them to the mats as needed. This was before we had technology like TrackWrestling to run our tournaments. The idea of women being on the mat was a different story entirely... for competitors and for referees. Toska Adams has been changing that mind set at the same time many of us have been pioneering women competing. Today, it is not as rare to see a female referee. This is thanks to hard work and pushing boundaries by women who wanted the roles as referees. Now Toska has the opportunity to show other young women finishing their career competing the possibility of raising hands of our sports future greats. 

How Toska became a referee 

My son began wrestling in Middle School. When we began freestyle season, we would travel around the state to different tournaments. Since he was a schoolboy heavyweight, we would often drive 2-3 hours for him to only wrestle 1 or 2 times. Some of my friends invited me to get involved with running the tournaments. I tried pairing for one year, but that was not for me. The next year I decided to start refereeing. That was over 20 years ago.

Why other's should referee 

Anyone male or female can become a referee. Contact referees in your state and find out what tournaments they are going to and ask if you can go along. If you are not sure who to contact, please email me, and I will get the information for you. Women now have the same opportunities as men to officiate wrestling due to the speed in which women’s wrestling is growing.

When I found out I was selected as USA Wrestling Women of the year at Fargo was great. When I was elected by my fellow officials to the USWOA board. Its amazing to meet again wrestlers who have grown up and tell me that they have family pictures with me raising their hand. During the past two years, countless people including coaches, parents and wrestlers have come up to me and tell me how much they missed me officiating and they are all glad I returned. Wrestling is about the people!

How has it impacted your life?

When I became a FILA (now UWW) official, I had the opportunity to travel overseas a number of times. One of my favorite tournaments I traveled to several times was the all women’s tournament in Sweden. I have also traveled all over the United States to tournaments. Because I am a teacher, during the summer I have been able to combine sightseeing with my travels to tournaments. My favorite memory is the year I traveled to the women’s college duals in Iowa. The first day of the tournament was my birthday, and the girls sang happy birthday to me while they were warming up.

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Do not let ANYONE tell you that you cannot officiate wrestling. There are still people that believe women should not be part of wrestling. They are wrong! I have always worked very hard and learned as much as I can to continue to improve and be a better official. I found that to be equal, I had to be better.


Toska Adams has been officiating freestyle, greco and folkstyle for over 20 years. She has traveled to Kiev, Sweden, and Poland to officiate for Team USA. She currently holds the position as treasurer for Kentucky USA Wrestling. She was awarded Women’s Developmental Person of the Year and USA Wrestling Woman of the year in 2014.

To get in contact with Toska to learn about your opportunities to become a wrestling referee, email her at toska.adams@jefferson.kyschools.us. 

Monique Cabrera: Encouraging New Athletes to the Wrestling Room

Male or female, how do you encourage a new wrestler when they step on the mat for the first time?

For the past decade, I have been coaching boys and girls high school wrestling. It has been easier enrolling girls to wrestle than boys because I myself am a woman, and wrestled for the high school where I am currently coaching. Feedback has been vital in order to encourage boys and girls to wrestle for the first time. It helps me understand how I can best support their goals and keep them coming back to the mat. Typically, I ask a new athlete why they want to join the sport. There are various reasons to why a young teen wants to join wrestling: from getting into shape, to being more confident, and my favorite to be a part of a family. Over the last five years I have reiterated to high school athletes that wrestling isn't just a team, but a family and a culture to help shape and support becoming a better individual all around.

Instilling values in a new wrestler

Wrestling isn’t just a sport but a lifestyle. How you approach wrestling is how you will most likely approach the rest of your life. I believe student athletes get value from others' experiences who they can relate to. With the support of past captains and alumni, I encourage many to visit the team and share how wrestling has influenced their everyday lives. They preach the importance of staying committed to yourself to get a task done, just like staying committed to finishing a wrestling season. Discipline is needed beyond high school when you decide to go to college, into the military, or to the workforce. Finally the values we have created speaks to supporting, inspiring and lifting each other up on and off the mat through sportsmanship and trust. Our student-athletes continuously do community service and volunteering their time and knowledge to younger kids who choose to participate in wrestling. They are involved in their local community centers and help put on bully boot camp seminars which are free in the Los Angeles area.

Monique's coaching values 

Over the course of my wrestling and coaching career, I have had amazing coaches. Thomas Griffith, Ray Castellanos (current boys coach at the South El Monte H.S.), Lee Allen, Donnie Stephens (Cumberlands), and Terry Steiner. These coaches have supported not only wrestling, but girls wrestling. I have been face to face with quite a few coaches who have told me “I don’t get paid to coach girls,” or “girls do not belong on the mat unless their keeping stats." This is why the coaches I've named have been stand outs for women's wrestling and great influences for me. I needed both the good, the bad, and the ugly coaches in order to develop my style and to have a better understanding of how to develop a girls league in Southern California, but still support boys wrestling at the same time. Wrestling is a win-lose when sport in a match. However, when it comes to promoting, developing, and growing a sport like wrestling, it must be a win-win for both the boys and girls wrestling programs. We have been able to do this successfully at South El Monte High School.

How coaches should encourage new kids to try the sport

The biggest success I have had was having my captains and returners talk to friends and peers to join them at Open Mats during the off season to try the sport to learn at their own pace and to see if they ultimately like it. At the same time We have partnered with BTSLA to run a youth wrestling program where we have our returners and captains volunteer coach and work with the 6th-8th graders that will be joining South El Monte High School soon. This creates a community and team culture so they are accepted and welcomed as incoming freshmen.

What goes around comes around

I am honored to give back to my community and the high school that I came from. When I wrestled for South El Monte High School (2002-2005) I was the only girl until my junior year. Myself and Teri Milkoff were the only two girls who placed at girls regionals and state while being part of an all boys team. In 2014, thanks to the support from my high school coach Ray Castellanos, I was given the platform to create an official girls team. This allowed me to become the first head coach for girls wrestling in the San Gabriel Valley and Southern California Region. I have been lucky to have the support system from my colleagues when I invite, instruct, and coach both the boys and girls on the team. The influence you have on your athletes, male or female, will affect how they decide to give back to this sport. 


 photo by dana barsuhn

photo by dana barsuhn

Monique Cabrera wrestled in California and was a state placer. When she wrestled for Menlo College, she was varsity captain and a 2x WCWA All-American. She placed 7th and 8th at the Senior US Open in 2007 and 2008. She is currently on her 4th season as the head girls coach at South El Monte High School where she also heads the local Beat the Streets LA youth program. 

 

 

Emma Randall: The Problem with Specializing in Sport too Early

Why early specialization is happening

There is a lot of pressure for young athletes to be successful. Being successful on the playing field has education, career, and social implications. The better the athlete, the greater the scholarship amount to play a collegiate sport, the greater chance of continuing on a professional level. The better the result, the more recognition the athlete or the parent receive from those around them. The notion that sport is fun, which instills healthy active lifestyles and teaches life skills has been put on the back burner. The idea that multi-sport athletes produce whole athletes with better overall skills, is second to specialization. It is believed that single-sport sport specific skills produces the highest quality. Here's the danger with this mentality: it feeds the mindset that if specializing at 18 is good, then specializing at 13 is better. And if this is the case, then we should begin specializing our children in one sport at 8 to get an earlier start ahead of peers.

What are the consequences 

The overemphasis on being successful has been detrimental to sports. The need to be successful, as well as specialization, has lead to overtraining in which athletes are investing entirely too many hours for their age. The ten thousand hour rule (Malcom Gladwell's rule which insists investing 10,000 hours in anything makes you a master in that area) only reinforces this idea: “If I am going to be successful, I have to fully invest myself to the task with deliberate practice for at least ten years. The later I start my ten years, the later I achieve my goal.” The repeated motions of sport or even the amount of time in sport can lead to severe or career ending injuries at a younger age. The amount of pressure in the form of expectations of success from self, parents, coaches, and even social media can lead to anxiety, fear of failure, and even burnout. When we over identify in one role in life, such as the role of an wrestler, we limit our sources of joy, confidence, and support. If were to loose our identity as a wrestler because of injury, not making the team, or losing a state title, we start to wonder am I really a wrestler? If I am not, then who am I? Where do I fit into this world? What talents or skills do I have that I can be confident in? Who can I turn to for support? This is dangerous for anyone, let alone a young athlete when their mental health is at stake.

How to combat the problem

It starts with education to the stakeholders involved. Parents rarely choose to do something they know will hurt their children. Coaches rarely make choices that would set their athlete back. Providing coaches and parents with the pros and cons of specialization allows them to make an educated choice on how to act, instead of following today's social norms of youth sport. Believing early specialization means more success is a dangerous narrative.  As a parent, encourage your athlete to be diverse. Just because she wants participate in one sport, doesn’t mean you can’t encourage her to build hobbies and social activities around other positive areas of her life. If your athlete pushes back, make it a family event which provides a well needed break from sport. As a coach, encourage your athletes to try other sports and hobbies and provide down time if it’s a year round program. Value the whole person and not only the athlete's success on the mat or playing field. Shake up practices with warm-ups that include different sports and skills that are unusual for your sport. Utilize cross-over training sessions with other teams in which your team jumps into volleyball or basketball while the next week they jump to learn your sport's skills. If you see an athlete continually exhausted or injured, encourage them to take a mental and physical break. It's easy to believe that by allowing a week or two away from sport, they will easily walk away. In reality, the athlete will come back more motivated and healthy to do a sport they love.


Emma Randall is the head girls development director for Beat the Streets NY and was a member of Team USA’s coaching staff since 2012. She was a coach for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and has been coach of numerous world teams at all age levels.

Emma earned her B.A. and M.S. in Sports Psychology from Lock Haven University where she competed for the team and wrestled on the senior circuit. In 2016, Randall earned her USA Wrestling Gold level coaching certification. She is one of 68 coaches to hold that certification and the only woman. Through her own business, Evolve Leadership and Performance Training, she is dedicated to the growth and development of females and coaches in sports.