Wrestling has been called “man’s oldest and greatest sport” and it continues to be passed down from generation to generation. Fathers are coaching their sons and daughters at all levels of wrestling.
At the NCAA Division I level, Tom Ryan led Ohio State to its first national championship in wrestling this past season. His son Jake, a state runner-up, is a member of the Buckeye wrestling team and redshirted this past season.
“I feel really blessed that Jake enjoys the sport,” said Ryan, who wrestled collegiately at the University of Iowa for legendary coach and wrestler Dan Gable. “Dealing with the human ego is something I think is challenging for dads. We get caught up in self-pride and that is unhealthy. The father-son relationship is too important to be challenged by the sport.”
Tom Borrelli of Central Michigan coached his sons Jason and Bob at the collegiate level. Jason is now the head wrestling coach at Stanford.
Borrelli said that when his sons were in high school he didn’t get to see them compete as much as he would have liked because of his coaching duties at CMU, so being able to coach them in college was special, as is sharing a profession with his son.
“The nice thing about them coming to Central Michigan and me coaching them in college was that I was able to see them and be around them,” said Borrelli, who was named National Coach of the Year by the NWCA and WIN Magazine in 1998. “That’s the other thing about Jason coaching … I get to see him a good bit. We’re at a lot of the same tournaments and functions.”
Jeff Karam is the head wrestling coach at one of the nation’s premier high school wrestling programs, Bethlehem Catholic (Pennsylvania), and has two sons on the team, twins Luke and Cole. This year Luke became his father’s first Class 3A state champion at Bethlehem Catholic.
“It’s highly likely that your son will be involved in the sport you are coaching,” said Karam, who wrestled collegiately at Lock Haven. “My sons grew up basically in the wrestling room and were introduced to the sport at a very young age.”
It’s natural for sons and daughters coached by their fathers to feel added pressure to succeed.
“It’s a given that most people will already expect your son to be good since their father is a coach,” said Karam. “Added pressure will only cause tension and possibly some animosity.”
Ryan witnessed his son dealing with outside pressure.
“When Jake was younger he felt a lot of pressure as the son of the Ohio State coach,” said Ryan. “I reminded him that I could feel the same pressures, that people would expect my son to be great.”
Borrelli admits that it was a “little bit of a struggle” not to be harder on his son Jason, a captain and two-time NCAA qualifier, than he was on other wrestlers on his team.
“Fortunately for me we had some older kids on our team kind of stick up for Jason a little bit,” said Borrelli. “Whenever that happened I knew I crossed the line a little bit.”
Karam said treating everyone on the team the same is important.
“I think you really need to make an emphasis to treat your son like anyone else on the team,” said Karam. “Sometimes I feel they really don’t get the attention I should give them because I really don’t want anyone to think I’m pointing them out.”
For some father coaches, it may be difficult to trust another coach working with their son or daughter. Ryan, who has been voted National Coach of the Year three times by InterMat, said his son had “great high school coaches,” but they were not responsible for what he accomplishes or does not accomplish on the mat.
“I always reminded him that he is a piece of the whole, that he will always be his best coach and his success or lack of lies on his shoulders,” said Ryan.
Below are five tips for coaching a son or daughter in wrestling.
1. Separate coaching wrestling from being a father
“Don’t take the wrestling home with you,” said Borrelli. “When you’re away from wrestling, unless your son is asking questions, don’t take it home with you. To me that’s probably the most important thing. You separate being a being coach from being a dad.”
Added Karam, “I try to emphasize to keep the wrestling talk in the wrestling room and not bring it home. It’s very hard to do, I must admit.”
2. Focus on effort
“We are commanded by God to work on earth, to give our best in all that we do,” said Ryan. “There is a process and required standard of work necessary to reach one’s full potential. That’s the focus.”
3. Let them know you are proud of them regardless of the outcome on the wrestling mat
“Early on I made it clear that I am proud of him because of the man he is, not the wrestler he is,” said Ryan. “I let him know that my self-worth isn’t wrapped up in his wrestling and that he will excel or not because of his passion and not my passion.”
4. Communicate with them openly and use modeling as a teaching tool
“He has seen me put the priority of the team first, even if it’s not in his best interest,” said Ryan. “My choices impact the trust he has in me as a dad and leader. I’m aware of this.”
5. Always remember that desire is the driving force in all successful men and women
“Desire is internal,” said Ryan. “A dad or coach cannot make that choice for their son or any athlete.”