8 min read

Be a woman who wrestles

I was on a 2-month North America speaking tour. We were in Boulder in Colorado, and I was the only female speaker. During Q&A, a young woman asked me,

How do you overcome biases against women in business?

My response was that it’s not something I think about. I wasn’t saying I push it aside or grit my teeth against it. What I was saying is that it’s a non-issue for me.

Like, I don’t watch TV. I don’t drink soda. I lift iron with the big guys at the back of the gym. It’s not a big deal, it’s just how I operate.

I can tell my answer disappointed her, but it was all I had. I was a fish and she wanted to know how I felt about the water.

What the hell is water?

Yesterday, during wrestling training, a 60kg guy and I were practicing double leg lift takedowns.

Being 55kg and female, whenever I am able to lift him, my coach praised me. But when my male sparring partner lifts me, it’s a matter of fact that he should be able to. Duh, you’re a guy. You are heavier and should be stronger.

When I score against him, it’s because I am competent. When I don’t, it’s an awareness that women are naturally weaker, not a judgment on my ability. Regardless of the outcome, I win.

Going back to biases against women, my decision to be a competitive wrestler is a deliberate one. It encapsulates how I think about men, women, and work. In fact, how I deal with this issue is central to how I operate. I have internalized it to the point that I thought I considered it a non-issue. I now recognize that it’s not.

I believe everyone — men and women — has biases against women. We get paid less. We can pursue a career if we want, but only after taking care of the children. Oh, and be confident, but not too aggressive or strong. That’s unwomanly. But I also believe those biases are rooted in societal programming. They are not products of conscious deliberation. In fact, more than ever, people are striving to overcome those biases.

I believe the key is to take advantage of it. Shouting for equality because everyone “deserves” it does not work. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m talking about what works and what doesn’t. Merely demanding for equality doesn’t work for the poor. It doesn’t work for minorities. And it’s also not working for women.

What I believe works is to go beyond not playing victim. There’s tremendous opportunity in purposefully taking advantage of society’s subconscious, even apologetic, sexism. This post talks about how, using my experience as a competitive wrestler to illustrate.

To the young woman in Boulder who asked me how I overcome prejudice against women, I hope you find this post a more helpful answer.

1: The decision to wrestle is one made from courage, which is what women need to exercise more of

“Exert leverage by making firm decisions, especially those that are counter-intuitive, unprecedented or courageous.”

“Everyone can achieve something significant. The key is not effort, but finding the right thing to achieve.”

Richard Koch in the 80/20 Manager

When women are told we are underpaid, our tendency is to think not good enough. Therefore, we should work harder. Be better. But we’re underpaid, not because we’re inferior, but because we don’t negotiate.

What is negotiation? It’s asking for more than you expect to get. It’s not accepting the first offer. It’s the willingness to walk away from a deal not commensurate to your value. These require courage, not hard work.

Negotiating is also an unconventional, unwomanly thing to do. And thus, an exercise on courage. Wrestling is the same.

The good news is, you’re more likely to win at wrestling. Because so few women wrestle, when you become one who does, the odds are rigged in your favor.

To me, wrestling is an exercise on choosing to play a different game. A game where courage is more important than how many hours you work.

Contrast this to a convenient aspiration for young, female athletes such as to become an elite volleyball player. It’s an easy decision, usually made by default, because of how popular it is. And because it’s so popular, it’s also intensely competitive. Regardless of how hard you train, because the supply of people like you is so high, the chances that you are going to make it to elite levels of competition are very slim. Besides, volleyball favors the tall, whereas wrestling is agnostic to body type and genetics. You wrestle people in your own weight class and get to choose a style that reflects your unique combination of personality and strengths.

If you’re going to work hard anyway, why not play a game where victory is likelier? And if you think this is an ignoble thing to do, it is exactly the problem. A restaurant owner and Travis Kalanick (CEO of Uber) are probably equally stressed out, but guess who’s creating more value and reaping the greater reward.

I believe in hard work, but I also believe that there’s no need to be an idiot about it.

2: Learning to practice different, not better

“Excellence in competitive swimming is achieved through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity…” (e.g. daily practice for 4 hours, instead of 2)

“Athletes move up to the top ranks through qualitative jumps: noticeable changes in their techniques, discipline, and attitude, accomplished usually through a change in settings (e.g., joining a new team with a new coach, new friends, etc.) who work at a higher level.”

Daniel F. Chambliss in The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers

People 100x richer than us are not working 100x more hours than us. It’s just not possible. As stated in #1, they are playing a different game completely. As an extension, they are practicing differently and doing different things — making qualitative jumps — from the rest of us.

What it means to practice differently has never been more apparent to me than in wrestling.

A few days before my first competition I got frustrated to the point of tears. I couldn’t score against my coach. Sure, he’s a man, 65 pounds heavier than me, been wrestling for 25 years. But the competition is only three days away and I still can’t execute one damned double leg takedown on him. I get so tired but it feels like all we’re doing is stand around and push each other. I was getting mad and thought he should let me score.

I found myself “pretend-attacking.” I put on a show of attacking — doing a single leg or a double leg every 30 seconds or so — but I withdrew them automatically. Because I knew they wouldn’t work. It’s like negotiating yourself down because you never really believed you are worth the price. I prioritized protecting my ego and not letting him score over winning.

As an aside, that’s when I finally understood what Dan Gable was saying in this video:

You didn’t want to beat him. You just didn’t want to lose. You’ll never win that way.

I was afraid I was forming a habit of pretend-attacking. Why was he not letting me train with women my size? Bad coach! Shouldn’t he be letting me score, so successful attacks become part of my muscle memory? I don’t want to get into the habit of losing! And so on.

Well, I won.

My first gold (freestyle wrestling)

During the competition, I fought against a female opponent the same weight as me, and she felt so light! My coach turned out to be right — practicing against heavier men works.

The point here is this, I train for 2 hours everyday. Sure, I am more consistent than the casual wrestler. But in terms of hours worked, I was miles away from my opponent. She has been training and competing for 5+ years. If I wanted to beat a 5-year veteran in a matter of two months, I can’t just do what she does, but more or better. I had to do something different.

So the qualitative leap I made was to train not with other women, but with heavier men.

And it was a choice. It may look like a non-choice, as there are very few women wrestlers in my gym.

But I had a choice. You always have a choice: to do nothing. To not get in the arena in the first place. And it’s a reasonable one too — because people don’t do this. It’s not normal. It’s ridiculous to expect it of you. And it’s very frustrating.

(If you choose to wrestle, you’ll likely have the same experience. I can’t say the same for other combat sports like Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There are too many women, it’s too easy to train easy.)

It also works. I won, didn’t I?

If there is ever a life hack, it’s changing your environment and choosing to be the dumbest, weakest person in the room. Training with people who will almost force you to perform, not only at a higher level, but at a completely different one.

It levelled me up indirectly in different ways as well. Before I started wrestling, my one-rep max in the deadlift was 200lbs. I couldn’t do one pull up. I haven’t lifted heavy in 6 months, but one day I sauntered to the bar and lifted 150lbs for 5 with no warm up. I also casually did 5 pull ups. Without training!

3: The question is, will you have the courage to do what most people are not willing to?

If you train this way, differently, winning is almost inevitable.

I had a relevant experience in high school, where I was a nationally competitive mathlete. I had always been officially the best in my batch. But when I started competing internationally, I suddenly became the dumbest person in the room. On top of 12-hour lectures, I had to spend nights learning lessons veterans two years younger than me learned in grade school (A year’s worth of Trigonometry in two weeks to be exact). It was tough, but I found that back in my school, I consistently achieved Best in Math without any effort at all. I achieved this not by making incremental, quantitative improvements against my schoolmates, but by becoming part of a completely different league.

Again, victory is almost inevitable. The question is, will your own psychology let you?

In a few months, I will be competing in the Philippine National Games, during the training of which I will no doubt feel like a loser.

The most dominating feeling since I started wrestling is of nothing happening. This is an inevitable consequence of having no one to spar with but men. Of putting yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to train with people you have no business training with. My coach tells me to not get frustrated at least 3x everyday.

It can be frustrating, and my biggest obstacle is not my opponent, my talent, or anything outside my control. My biggest obstacle is my own psychology.

Because the reality is… Most people don’t do this. I don’t have to do this. It’s reasonable to stop doing it.

But winning isn’t normal. What we have to ask ourselves is, will we choose to do it? Will we have the courage to?

Courage is the ultimate virtue, and being courageous is a choice.

To me, the decision to wrestle, and to continue to wrestle, has always been about courage.

It’s the ultimate expression of my philosophy on dealing with biases against women and life: Do not work more hours, be more feminine, do what everyone else is doing, but better, within a set of rules set up for you to fail.

Instead, find the right thing to achieve. Have the courage to choose to play a different game, a game most women are not willing to even consider. Victory will be easier and likelier, and you will become stronger. That’s what happens when you become a woman who wrestles.

Chiara Cokieng is from Manila, Philippines. She trains under coach Juan Alberto Balde, former president of the Wrestling Association of the Philippines at Safehouse MMA Gym, the country’s first homegrown fight academy.

This post first appeared in Wrestling Stories: Celebrating wrestling through stories. It was also featured in the New York Observer: How Do I Overcome Bias Against Women? I wrestle.