21 things I’ve learned in 21 years as a head wrestling coach: Part 1
Posted by theMatBoss on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 9:05 PM UTC


The list of 21 things I’ve learned could be 51 or 101. I have learned so much over the years about coaching and working with people that it easily could consume an entire book (which I am working on). Below are 11 of the 21 most impactful concepts, ideas, and practices I have learned in my 23-year coaching career, the last 21 being as a head high school coach.

1. Actions speak louder than words

My dad would say this to me often. In the context of coaching, it means your actions will make more of an impact than what you say. If you want your team disciplined, you have to be the first to demonstrate discipline. Your actions have to reflect your words. Young men and women respond well to visual models. If you talk too often without a concrete backing, eventually your team will not listen. I want my wrestlers to be at every practice on time and ready. Therefore, I am at every practice on time and prepared. It is a simple philosophy that has paid significant dividends over the years.

2. Rapport is a better motivator than yelling

I learned this from some of my high school and college coaches. Later the idea was cemented by a fellow coach and teacher I had the opportunity to talk at length about coaching, athletes, and teaching. Your team “will run through brick walls for you” (her comment) if you develop a relationship with them and show them that you care about them. Building rapport is not a difficult task but does require conscious effort. Sometimes we “live” in our agendas and practice plans, and we neglect to talk to our athletes about their life, school, and family. By the time they are juniors and seniors, I usually know much about their hobbies, interests, family, and goals. It takes time for you and them to open up about matters, not about wrestling. Each of us has our “story” and background unique to us. The more you learn about each of them, the more you will be able to push them later on.

3. Lead from the front

Set the example for your team. Be the first to get “in the fight.” Like actions speak louder than words, your team will come to expect from what you consistently demonstrate to them. If you routinely model what you want from your athletes, your team will fall in line. Setting the examples entails doing first what you want from others and then helping them do the same.

4. Focus on developing people first

This concept has changed my belief and love for coaching. For too long, early in my career, I focused on winning. More accurately, not losing. Admittedly, I probably dislike losing more than I like winning. As a competitor, the exhilaration from winning fades more rapidly than the feelings you have when you lose. Losing kind of haunts you and leaves you with the dialogue of “what if, why didn’t I, or I should have.” Once I changed my belief or focus, it became much easier to try to make “Jimmy” better than winning or losing a wrestling match. I can control making Jimmy or Sally better. I cannot always control the outcome of a wrestling match. More interesting though, once I changed my goal of coaching from winning to developing young men and women, it became much more fun, and ironically we won more. Go figure.

5. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is negativity

You can practically change the perspective of any situation (wrestling or non-wrestling) with having an enthusiastic attitude. Your view of every situation is dependent on your perspective. I make it a point on Saturday morning practices to be upbeat, play some loud music, and be a little “hyped.” I know if I went into it with negativity, the practice would not be effective. Your team will feed off of the attitude you have, good and bad.

6. Mental toughness is more important in skill

Don’t get me wrong. Athletic ability and talent are good traits to be successful. However, when working with athletes with varying abilities and skills, mental toughness will take an athlete to a higher level than an athlete who is more gifted without the mindset of determination, grit, and perseverance. Each day, incorporate lessons to learn mental toughness- challenges, activities, or literature.

7. You can teach people to be tough

I believe there are varying degrees of toughness. With that, you can take a person to a higher degree with training. Each of your athletes comes from different backgrounds and different degrees of toughness. Some have become hardened and calloused at a young age from adversity or struggle. Others may not have had to deal with challenging situations. Regardless, with training, you can affect their toughness. Consistently putting them in situations that are difficult for them will grow their “toughness muscle.” I have seen kids come into our room with little toughness and resiliency, leave badasses. There is a mind-body effect on training toughness. As they become physically tough, they become mentally tough, and they want to challenge themselves more and more.

8. Teaching positions are more important than technique

Granted, if they do not know a double leg takedown, teaching them how to scramble out of a bad shot is pointless. As they learn the prerequisite technique, showing them where to be at certain times becomes more important than the technique. Teaching positions create a “feel” in their body that something is not right and needs to be adjusted. Newer wrestlers do not have that “feel.” Therefore, you have to teach it to them. If wrestler A does this, then wrestlers B does this. Drilling and repeating positioning in practice lead to chain wrestling and the ability to scramble and counter-attack. One drill we do regularly is closing our eyes on our feet, and in a tie-up, a wrestler shoots on their legs. With repeated practice, the wrestlers will “feel” when their opponent lowers their level and attacks.

9. Kids are kids

They do not see life the same as adults. How many times have you heard, “The kids don’t care about it as much as the coach?” They do care, but some kids are more committed than others. Others play multiple sports or are in various activities. Kids haven’t experienced life as a coach has. They can’t relate to “regret, hindsight, and consequences” like adults. Their experience is limited. Some kids will not get your message until long after they leave your program. It can be personally frustrating trying to get your athletes to devote the time needed to be a successful wrestler. You still push and focus on making them better, but you keep it in your mind that they are kids and have a lot of “growing up to do.”

10. Accountability is the secret to achievement

I wished I learned this earlier in my career. To be honest, it probably wasn’t until ten years into coaching that I learned the significance of accountability when coaching an athletic program. My “epiphany” spawned out of anger. I assigned my team of nearly 40 wrestlers to take a paper home and get signed by their parents. The following day when only four of forty returned the signed paper, I was livid. Immediately, without any thought, I told them to get against the “short” wall to do Strittmatters (an exercise involving a knee run, bear crawl, and a sprint). We did one for each person who did not turn in the paper and a few more to emphasize my disgust. The next day everyone returned their paper. Since then, I have learned not to make idle threats. If I say it, I need to do it. The athletes quickly understand the meaning of accountability. I incorporate some form of accountability practice into almost every drill, conditioning activity, assignment, or off-season workout. I believe the level of our program changed when we become more accountable.

11. Teach to the top 1/3

I stole this from Coach John Fritz. Coach Fritz is an NCAA champion and former head wrestling coach at Penn State. For many years, we went to his Keystone Wrestling Camp. While listening to a meeting with his counselors and instructors, I overhead him tell them that during camp, “Teach to the top 1/3.” Some fifteen years later, his words still stick in my mind each season when teaching technique. Teaching to your highest performing athletes raises the level of all your athletes. You can always go back and review and revisit techniques later if needed or work with some individuals to catch them up.