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. 

LuchaFIT founder Katherine Shai visits the Beehive Brawl

Photo by david anderson of the richfield reaper

Photo by david anderson of the richfield reaper

The Beehive Brawl in Sevier County, Utah is on it's 20th year of providing amazing competition for youth wrestlers. This year, they had 950 young wrestlers in attendance. I was honored to be the Beehive Brawl's first clinician and international level athlete ever brought in for the competition. The kids were eager to learn and had amazing energy. See below for the entire article done on the event by the local Richfield newspaper. 

Sitting on one of the concourses of the Sevier Valley Center, a young woman holding a baby greeted people as they asked for her autograph and advice Friday and Saturday. 

Katherine Shai welcomed each one with a warm smile and a message, “lucha” — struggle, fight and wrestle.

Shai is a five-time national wrestling team member, and a three-time U.S. Open finalist. She’s also made two appearances at the U.S. World Team Trials as a finalist, and nabbed third place in the Olympic trials — twice. 

Wrestling Like a Girl with Women of Denver

Katherine Shai, l.a. jennings, sandra george, Photo by  sweet green photography

Katherine Shai, l.a. jennings, sandra george, Photo by sweet green photography

I was contacted by a local publication and business networking company, Women of Denver, who were interested in doing a feature on women's wrestling and my involvement as a local Denver resident. L.A. Jennings of the Train Fight Win gym was generous enough to host the Chatfield Wrestling team and coach Sandra George for the event. We held a clinic and talked about LuchaFIT and all it's wrestling learning resources, and learned about the Wrestle Like a Girl initiative. Then we got down to business and ran a fantastic practice! Scroll down to see the next generation of female warriors wrestling in the Denver Metro area!

Big thanks to Kyrstal Covington, CEO of Women of Denver, and to Stephanie Biermann of Sweet Green Photography for the amazing photos for this event!

The battle of the sexes as been going on for centuries. But the young women at Wrestle Like a Girl are building their defenses to win.

"I have learned that I can be something bigger, something better. As an athlete and as a (young) woman, it gives me confidence. It gives me strength," said Raquel Gray, a WLAG wrestler.

What else is a girl to gain from participating in a historically male sport? The answer: a lot.

"Combat sports are great for girls, as it helps with confidence and requires you to become very self aware. Wrestling offers knowledge of self-defense, fitness, nutrition, and body appearance," said Katherine Shai who is a board member of WLAG and founder of her own educational blog LuchaFIT...

Advocating for Yourself in Practices

When it comes to fully taking advantage of your training, there can be different scenarios. Sometimes we are new to sport and don't have the tools yet to know how to have our needs met. Sometimes we are the only girl on our wrestling team and may feel intimidated by an all male room. And other times we realize advocating for ourselves is a skill that can take a long time to master. Here are some great tips so you can start practicing now.

How do you advocate for yourself? 

If you have been falling behind in the practice room or you need extra help in certain areas of technique, then it is time to speak up for yourself and get support. Ask your coach when is the best time to work on extra technique, or to discuss your needs as an athlete. After practice may not always be the best time for every coach as that may entail too many interruptions from the other athletes. Be flexible with your schedule so that you can find a time that works for both coach, athlete and partner. 

Be sure to create an environment where personally and mentally you allow yourself space for learning. When you are too hard on yourself, it makes it harder to ask questions because it means we are not open to the answers. Most coaches want to know that their athletes are working on improving themselves, and will want to see effort from the athletes part.  

Know what you want to work on 

Make sure you know what part of your wrestling need the most focus, and stick to one area at a time. Review any notes that you have taken previously on your focus area. This will help narrow your questions to a few key points. Wrestling technique has a beginning, middle, and end. You should know which part of the technique you are working on. Is it the reaction a certain opponent gives to your favorite technique? Is it the approach? Is it the finish? You don't need to address the entirety of a position the first time, or even in one session. You will be more successful when your focus is narrowed.

Take detailed notes after a one-on-one session

Have your notebook nearby. Don't have one? Check out the blog on journaling and how to get started. Take notes while a coach is demonstrating technique on your partner, and once you've finished your one-on-one session. Go over the steps you have written down with your coach to make sure you have understood each part of the technique. Keep your partner near by so you can tweak your notes as you continue to drill. You may have new questions come up that your partner could help you address, or should be noted for the next time you can work with your coach. 

Practice on your own

Grab that partner again or find someone new who gives you a different reaction and drill, drill, drill! The only way to make something stick is to create muscle memory. This means you've practiced a movement enough that your body will react without having to think. Many basic and complicated wrestling movements are not first nature that our brains and bodies have naturally memorized. Have you ever heard that it takes 24 days for a habit to stick? The same principle occurs in wrestling technique! You must stick to the same technique over a long period of time in order for it to become habit, and in order for it to become really effective on the competition mat.

Review with the same coach again

After adequate time working on the technique on your own, note the areas that still need work. Review the new notes before a one-on-one session just like you did the first time. This second one-on-one session should be further narrowed down to the finer details that are still troubling you, or a second part of the technique that was not addressed the first time. Wrestling technique involves every part of your body. Sometimes corrections come in the simplest form like changing which hand is on top or the slight turning of your head.

These steps can help you take your wrestling to the next level. As you learn the skill of advocating for yourself, you also learn the best way to breakdown and get help with problem areas. The best wrestlers in the world know how to break down a skill to its smallest parts and have someone watch to make corrections. Do your part to learn these valuable skills.  

The Inside Trip Podcast: Kayla Miracle

photo by tony rotundo

photo by tony rotundo

The Inside Trip Podcast has another Women of the Mat interview this month! This podcast series is brought to you by LuchaFIT and Wrestle Like a Girl.

Kayla Miracle has been a busy woman these past few months! With a win at the Beat the Streets L.A. benefit event, the NWCA All-Star Classic, a gold at the Dave Schultz International, and a 5th place finish at the U23 World Championships, she has been on a high note! And she's not done! This weekend, Kayla will compete for Team USA as part of the Freestyle World Cup in Russia. Kayla talks to the Inside Trip guys about her journey up to this point and about an exciting senior year at Campbellsville University. 

Make sure to listen and follow The Inside Trip on social media! 


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