Wrestling is a sport that is constantly fighting for attention.
And the media plays a pivotal role in providing coverage of the sport.
That makes the relationship that coaches and wrestlers have with the media an important dynamic.
I worked in media relations for nearly 10 years as the communications manager at USA Wrestling. Prior to that, I was a sportswriter for newspapers for 17 years.
During my career, I’ve often encountered young athletes who say they aren’t good at doing interviews or that it makes them uncomfortable. My advice to them is to just approach it like you are having a conversation with one of your friends. Just be yourself. The media is eager to hear your story and this is your opportunity to tell it. They want to talk to you — embrace it and even have fun with it if you can.
They are looking for compelling and interesting stories that appeal to their readers.
Your relationship with the media can definitely be something that is mutually beneficial.
Don’t be afraid to share interesting or compelling stories about yourself that the media isn’t aware of. They love to tell those kinds of stories and it can help tell your story. It can help promote you and the sport of wrestling.
There certainly are challenges that athletes and coaches encounter. The media are often on deadline and many times they want an interview right after a match. That isn’t always easy, especially if you are out of breath or you are emotional after a tough bout.
I can see both sides of it, having worked as a journalist for newspapers and having worked in public relations with athletes and coaches.
At the Olympics and World Championships, a mixed zone is used where athletes and coaches walk out of the arena. They are on one side of a metal barrier and the media is on the other. The media can ask an athlete to stop for questions right after they compete.
My advice, especially after a tough match, is for the athletes and coaches to initially go through the mixed zone and then come back once they’ve had time to cool down in five or 10 minutes. That generally works well because the media isn’t kept waiting that long. If you ask them to give you a few minutes, they will accommodate your wishes.
If you have time, think about what you want to say before going to do an interview. If you’ve just finished a match, obviously they are going to ask specific questions about that.
In college, the NCAA will typically give athletes a 10-minute cooling-off period to compose themselves and catch their breath before talking to the media. At the NCAA tournament, ESPN and other media will grab athletes immediately after they finish a match. That is difficult when emotions are running high. It is something you have to be aware is coming after you finish a bout.
A great way to improve your interview skills is simply to check out video of some of the athletes who excel in that area. Watch their interviews after they win. And after they lose.
Feel free to talk to fellow athletes to gain their insight, perspective and advice on what to expect when dealing with the media.
Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Jordan Burroughs is the master at dealing with the media. He’s the best I’ve ever seen in wrestling. He’s friendly, engaging, enthusiastic and respectful. And he has a knack for joking around and making reporters laugh. He also will answer the tough questions and he is not afraid to speak his mind on issues in the sport. His popular Twitter account is something virtually everyone in the sport follows. He has insightful and interesting observations that you want to read. He is very candid, win or lose. Everybody knows facing questions after a tough loss is difficult, but on the rare occasions Burroughs has lost he has always faced the tough questions and been a consummate professional. Above all, he conducts himself well and he’s a total class act.
During the 2013 Olympic fight, Burroughs was doing interviews almost daily as wrestling successfully stayed on the Olympic Games program. He played a significant part in that by being accessible and talking about the value of wrestling. I know all of the interviews took a toll on him, but he did every interview he was asked to do and he was always engaging with the media. He helped keep wrestling in the Olympic Games.
2008 Olympic gold medalist and UFC champion Henry Cejudo is another athlete who is very adept at dealing with the media. He’s a personable, friendly person who develops a rapport with the person talking to him. He will call the interviewers by their first name, make eye contact with the reporters and make that personal connection. Cejudo is bright, articulate and insightful. He will make you laugh and then laugh with you. He understands the media and their role. After he won in Beijing, China in 2008, I kept telling him to smile when he went on NBC’s “Today Show.” He was still smiling during a recent ESPN interview before his Jan. 19 UFC title fight. As his coach, Terry Brands, said, “Henry has a million-dollar smile.” Cejudo also took time out of his busy schedule to be heavily involved in the Olympic fight in 2013.
Four-time world champion Adeline Gray is another athlete you can learn from. Gray is intelligent, well-spoken and friendly. She also showed me what kind of person she is when she came out and answered the tough questions after being upset at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She was candid and open about her performance. Gray earned a ton of respect from a lot of people that day. Two years later, she was able to step in front of a huge group of reporters again after winning her fourth world title in 2018. She’s a great ambassador for women’s wrestling and she also played a key role in the Olympic fight in 2013.
The coaches, especially at the college level, seem to face some of the toughest questions from the media. The biggest thing to me is to be accountable and fair. You’re not going to like every question that they ask. Again, developing relationships and a rapport with the media is important. They can provide positive exposure for your program and your athletes. But they are also going to tell it like it is – that’s their job.
For the most part though, stories written on wrestling are of a positive nature.
When a reporter asks a tough question, steer clear of saying “no comment.” But at the same time, you don’t have to answer every question.
Iowa’s Tom Brands and Wisconsin’s Chris Bono are two coaches who certainly tell it like it is and that’s refreshing to see. Ohio State’s Tom Ryan, Cornell’s Rob Koll and Northern Iowa’s Doug Schwab are among the best at working with the media. They are personable coaches who articulate their viewpoints well. Check out their interview videos as well. U.S. National Freestyle Coach Bill Zadick is another coach who proves excellent insight in his interviews.
I know plenty of reporters who ask tough questions, but they are professional about it. Those same reporters also do their share of features and stories that are good for the sport.
As an athlete or coach, maintaining a professional approach is important as well. Be truthful — lying or misleading a reporter to avoid answering a question can have a damaging impact on you down the road. A lot of it just boils down to using basic common sense. Remember that anything you say to the media may be fair game. Don’t assume that comments you think are off the record won’t be used in a news report.
Kill them with kindness. Simply being friendly, nice and polite can go a long way in building a relationship with the media.
Any athlete who has been a U.S. Olympian has heard it before. American athletes are expected to be accountable, win or lose. It is something the U.S. Olympic Committee preaches and it is something I strongly believe in. You should represent your country in a first-class manner. That philosophy obviously can apply to any tournament a wrestler competes in.
I had a prominent wrestler tell me one time that he was taught from a young age to give boring interviews and not give the media anything to write about. I strongly disagree with that. That does nothing to help the sport. You can be engaging and open with the media, but still be highly successful. Look at Jordan Burroughs and Henry Cejudo. They are two of the best, on and off the mat. They get it. And their interviews aren’t boring. And they are two of the nicest and most polite people in any sport. A little bit of kindness can go a long way.
The relationship between athletes/coaches and the media can be a tricky dynamic, but there definitely is a way to make it work. And it can be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.