Defeating Impostor Syndrome as Female Coaches

L.A. Jennings and athlete, photo by bordertown

L.A. Jennings and athlete, photo by bordertown

Wrestling has a problem: women aren't coming back to coach. And when they do, they face an uphill battle because they fail to internalize their own accomplishments. This is called Imposter Syndrome, a term coined in 1978 by a clinical psychologist. It has become a buzzword in recent years, and couldn't be more relevant to the sport of women's wrestling. 

What is imposter syndrome exactly? It is the feeling that you don't belong, don't deserve to get that promotion, or be the coach to that athlete in the corner. It is common amongst 70% of the population, but more common among minority groups. It is extremely prevalent in athletes, as the constant drive for perfection causes fraudulent thoughts. There is always something more to achieve, higher to gain, a way to work harder. When it feels like the work is never done, it is easy to become dissatisfied and dismissive of accomplishments. This, on top of being a female in a male dominated sport, is the perfect storm for imposter syndrome. 

How it relates to wrestling

In the wrestling world, and in other male dominated sports, we have certain expectations about who is in the athlete's corner. Most of the time, we see men in the corner operating as the coach. This causes females to feel they need to prove themselves. First as athletes, then as coaches. We start believing that we can't possibly be as accomplished as those around us (successful males wrestlers and coaches). It feels easier not to try, and to leave the possibility of success to others instead. We fail to imagine how deeply flawed others actually are. We paint of picture of what a wrestling coach should look like, and then we say... "that's not me." We know ourselves from the inside, but we only know others from the outside which is filtered information. When it is difficult to internalize your own accomplishments, the prevalent emotion is the fear of being exposed as a "fraud." 

These feelings can paralyze women with wrestling experience and intimidate them from coming back into a coaching position. Not only did they have to battle to have the opportunity to wrestle (possibly as the only female on an all-male team team), but coaching becomes yet another battle full of the same anticipations of skill.

You don't have enough experience 

As women we often downplay our experience. Research shows women are more likely to internalize failure and criticism than their male counterparts. When the opportunities for females don't look the same as male wrestlers or coaches have had, it can feel like accomplishments were out of luck and not hard work. That the achievement had nothing to do with talent. Could this be the reason some women do not return to their sport to coach?


L.A. Jennings is a professor, competitive fighter, gym owner, coach, and author. She has had extensive experience in the world of expectations and dealing with her own fraudulent feelings. The reactions from the combat community were often dismissive or reluctant of her accomplishments. As a coach, Jennings was often asked to leave the competition preparation areas. It was assumed that she was a girlfriend of a competitor and not a coach. Those reactions created an internal self doubt that perpetuated a dialogue about not belonging: 

"My feelings are based on other's reactions, and then I start second guessing myself. We have this power and authority (as females) to be there, yet we still feel nervous being in the corner."

-L.A. Jennings, Owner, Train. Fight. Win. MMA Gym


The idea of our mistakes revealing something negative about our abilities is often the root of the problem. Those with perfectionist tendencies fall victim to imposter syndrome more easily. When we have certain expectations of what makes a "perfect" coach, we tend to nit-pick and compare ourselves to our internalized expectations, or feel like we aren't the right person for the job. Jacque Davis, girls Program Director for Beat the Streets New York and National Team Head Coach, has often had feelings of comparison while making sure she is properly preparing her athletes: "I feel paralyzed about making a mistake and it effecting them. 

Did I hand fight with them too much, did I not try and make them laugh enough, did they need to get a better sweat?"

-Jacque Davis, Head Coach BTSNY, Junior World Team Coach, College All-American


How do we defeat it?

When noticing feelings of intimidation or when questioning capabilities, look at the athletes who trust you and your judgement. L.A. Jennings reminds herself about her athlete's reasons they want her in the corner, "I look at my fighter who trusts me and i know they wouldn't put their time and energy into training with me if they didn't think I was appropriate for cornering them. They trust me and they are here for a reason."

Self doubt is internalized. Look at the external factors that exist, because they often help distinguish what you are perpetuating internally and how others actually see you as a professional. It takes a leap of faith to recognize that others feel just as anxious as you do. Hold yourself accountable when you find the inner voice saying you don't belong. Hold others accountable when they hide behind what they may deem as modesty. Their lack of self-recognition is a form of imposter syndrome. When you "air your dirty laundry" of mistakes and lessons for others, you empower yourself to empower others. Confront and call out the things that may isolate others from doing what they are actually passionate about. When we command authority of our internal language, we can see the shift in our world and how we perceive ourselves.