Since 1994, the number of women who participate in high school wrestling has increased from 804 to 13,900 (according to National Federation of High School statistics). There are now 36 women’s collegiate wrestling programs. And recently, thanks to the hard work of organizations like USA Wrestling, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Wrestle Like A Girl, the National Wrestling Coaches Association and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, a proposal was submitted to the NCAA seeking Emerging Sports Status for women’s wrestling. Despite the growth of women’s wrestling at the youth, high school and collegiate level, there are still some wrestling coaches across the country who have yet to have the opportunity to coach women, or have women join their team or club. When that opportunity does come, however, current and former wrestlers have some advice for coaches.
The first thing they want coaches to know? Don’t take it easy on them.
“The girls want to be treated the same and held to the same standards as the boys,” says Jackie Berube-Black, a 1996 world silver medalist who is now a USA Weightlifting certified coach and owner and head strength and conditioning coach at Pinnacle Weightlifting and Sports Performance in Colorado Springs. “We don’t want the other kids to take it easy on us. We are there to wrestle and learn just like every other kid in the room. Let us earn our respect through hard work, determination, and dedication to the sport. That’s what makes us better on and off the mat.”
Emma Randall is the National Women’s Freestyle Assistant Coach for USA Wrestling. She, along with other Oregon USA and USA Wrestling leaders, helped create the Recruiting and Coaching Women resource, which states “once you get an athlete into the practice room, good coaches can not only teach them how to wrestle but also how to fall in love with the sport. Do you want to grow your team’s numbers?”
Randall reminds coaches that it’s important to focus less on gender, and more on coaching tactics used to motivate individuals, whether they are a boy or a girl.
“In coaching you meet all kinds of athletes,” says Randall. “You may have a male who struggles to control their emotions when pushed past a comfort zone in conditioning who cries while you have a female push through without batting an eye. You may have a male athlete who fills any silence immediately and a female who barely mutters a word.”
Instead of forcing girls to adjust to rules that are set up for boys, or do what the boys do because that’s the way things are done, Randall challenges coaches to learn how they can best support girls within a program. For many, coaching wrestling is the easy part. Dealing with gender differences, or understanding women’s health (puberty, menstrual cycles) is where a coach can struggle, says Randall.
“Where I think the struggle more so lies is in the comfort level of change — accepting women into our sport, accepting them into our room, and accepting them as your wrestler,” says Randall. “I encourage males to welcome change, not fear it; to be a positive role model to all athletes not just one gender, to challenge yourself to improve your emotional IQ with all athletes, to become educated on such topics as women’s health, and to think about what team rules will protect all athletes (practice clothing, mutual respect amongst athletes and staff, weight management guidelines, etc.).
When a girl joins a program, or is new to the sport, focus on teaching the fundamentals, says Berube-Black. Teach them the skills that will build a foundation for future success. That being said, it is important for coaches to keep in mind some differences between boys and girls.
“Recognize that girls mature at different rates and have some physiological differences to their male counterparts,” says Berube-Black. “Girls are usually a few years ahead in their maturity level. Make sure you are taking this into account when structuring your practices. Another big difference is strength and flexibility levels between both genders. Some wrestling moves are not as effective on girls because their flexibility is so much better. Help the girls develop their own individual style by finding things that work for each individual athlete.”
Jessica Medina is a two-time Team USA World Team member, a six-time national team member, and current Team California National Team Coach. In college, she wrestled for the University of Cumberlands. Medina, provided these tips for coaches coaching female wrestlers for the first-time:
1. Encourage girls to recruit a friend. Girls enjoy most activities with a friend rather than alone. This will help with retention.
2. Girls react differently, are built differently, and communicate differently. Talking to your athlete and positive encouragement will go a long way. The boys in the room will see your attitude and it will set the tone in the room.
3. Connect your athlete with other female coaches on campus. Small things like getting into the locker room can be an issue or in other cases they may feel more comfortable opening up to a female coach.
4. Practice attire can be tricky for some girls. If they are new to the sport they may not know what to expect and feel uncomfortable. Long tights, compression tops and practice singlets are some examples of appropriate training gear.
The reality is, coaching girls has more similarities than differences in youth sports, says Sam Snow, Coaching Director for U.S. Youth Soccer. His thoughts? Rule No. 1: On the mat treat them like wrestlers. Off the mat, treat them like ladies.
“In general, girls tend to be more coachable than boys,” says Snow. “The counter point is that they sometimes will take a criticism of the team as meant for them, whereas boys will tend to think that the coach is talking about one of the other guys, not him.”
Snow offered these additional tips for coaches:
1. You have to establish a relationship with them of trust. Girls will give their very best if they know the coach has their back.
2. You have to talk to them and you have to be honest. Girls don’t like not knowing where they stand. If they know that you have their best interest at heart they’ll accept the coach’s decisions.
3. You have to listen to them. You’ve got to let them get it out. The coach, to a degree, needs to be someone they can talk to, that cares about them as a young person and wants the best for them.
No matter one’s experience or background as a coach, the opportunity to take on new experiences, such as coaching girls/women wrestlers for the first time, should be something all coaches embrace, says Andrew Cook, head women’s wrestling coach at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. Cook is a Gold level certified coach with USA Wrestling and is in his 19th season coaching young men and women. Cook has traveled the world coaching and competing in wrestling. He often observes other top coaches, and says the ability of those coaches to evolve and change with changes in the sport, is what makes the best coaches great. When a coach finally gets the opportunity to coach a female wrestler, it should be viewed as another opportunity to make an impact on a young person’s life and become a better coach.
“There has been one constant I have noticed that the best of the best are ever-changing,” says Cook. “I truly feel if I’m constantly learning and evolving, I become the example my athletes need to be able to do the same. It opens up the ceiling for growth and gives my athletes a chance to teach me what they’re learning as well so we as a total group can grow together.”
The reality is, women’s wrestling is here to stay. And good wrestling coaches should be excited to get the opportunity to coach, teach, and also learn from any women who join a wrestling program. Use these tips as a guide, and to help all have the best experience possible, and create positive, lasting memories through wrestling.