Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Fame baseball player, helped pioneer the use of film study in Major League Baseball. Gwynn, who passed away in 2014, took a portable video cassette player on the road, a practice that began in the early 1980s. He went on to collect 3,141 career hits in his career and earn eight batting titles.
While technology has evolved greatly since Gwynn’s early MLB playing career, the use of film study has become increasingly widespread in virtually every sport, including wrestling. “Just the knowledge gained from watching film is huge,” said George Mason head wrestling coach Joe Russell. “It’s plentiful. The information is out there. You don’t have to look hard to find it.”
At Stanford University, like many wrestling programs across the country, every match is filmed. The matches are uploaded online and wrestlers can view their matches on their own or with a coach. Film study, while encouraged, is not mandatory at Stanford. Coach Jason Borrelli leaves it up to each individual athlete.
“We leave a lot of that up to our athletes, kind of ask them and have that discussion,” said Borrelli, who competed collegiately at Central Michigan University for his father Tom Borrelli. “We share our beliefs on the power of it and how we think it can be good. Some of our athletes prefer not to watch a lot of film. Others really, really engage in that process.”
Borrelli believes studying opponents on film can help wrestlers alleviate anxiety in competition.
“I think there is something to be said for having seen someone on film,” said Borrelli. “When you walk out there you may not have as much anxiety. It’s not as unfamiliar. You walk out onto the mat. You’ve seen the guy on tape before. You’re familiar with his tendencies. So there’s not as much of the unknown. I think that can be very powerful.”
Film study can also help wrestlers understand an opponent’s strengths, according to Borrelli.
“It helps you be aware of his very best positions,” said Borrelli. “If you watch enough matches of an opponent, I think you can find out maybe his one or two best positions. That can help you either just be aware when you’re in them, or avoid them altogether. I think that’s huge.”
This past season Mark Matzek led Ellswoth (Wis.) High School to a team state championship and coached his first individual state champion. According to Matzek, film study played an integral part in his wrestler finishing on top of the podium.
His wrestler suffered losses to two wrestlers in his state tournament bracket earlier in the season. After studying film of those opponents, the Ellsworth wrestler was able to avenge the losses at the most critical time.
“My wrestler is very coachable and could wrestle to a plan,” said Matzek. “We had a plan against the first kid. Then we had a plan against the kid in the finals. Both those kids had beaten us earlier. We knew their strengths. We knew their weaknesses. We had a plan going into the match. He executed that plan perfectly. It was kind of a perfect storm in regards to film study.”
Matzek was a two-time NCAA Division III national champion and three-time All-American at Augsburg College. In 2008 he became Augsburg’s head wrestling coach. Matzek led the Auggie wrestling program for six seasons before leaving the position to return to his hometown of Ellsworth to teach mathematics and coach high school wrestling.
“For me, one of the reasons I went from college to high school is so I could have a little bit more work-life balance,” said Matzek. “I’m not staying at my office at the high school until 9 p.m. watching film. In college you can watch it during the day. Kids have classes at different times. It’s one of those things where I believe a lot of top coaches have to use film study.”
One of the primary benefits of film study, according to Matzek, is being able to make individualized adjustments.
“When you can sit down with a kid and watch film with him individually, whether it be before practice, part of practice or after practice, you can have an individual drilling session that just addresses a weakness that the wrestler needs to improve on if he wants to accomplish his goals.”
R.J. Boudro wrestled in the Big Ten Conference at both Michigan and Michigan State. At Michigan, Boudro studied match film on VHS videos with his coaches. When he transferred to Michigan State, film study became more difficult because there were fewer coaches on staff to help.
“You need some help working with film study,” said Boudro, a two-time NCAA Division I qualifier for the Spartans.
Boudro took over as head wrestling coach at Lowell (Mich.) High School in Michigan in 2014. This past season the program claimed a third straight state championship and finished the season ranked in the InterMat Fab 50 national team rankings.
In addition to being the head wrestling coach at Lowell, Boudro serves as a guidance counselor at the school. He often times brings wrestlers into his office for film study. He sees film study at the high school level being more challenging than at the college level.
“If I was a college coach and that was my job, I could get a lot more out of it,” said Boudro, who was named Coach of the Year in Michigan’s Division 2. “The fact that I’m a high school coach, it’s different. There’s only so much you can do. There’s only so much time in the day. Everyone has a 9-5 [job] and then everyone coaches. Then you have competitions that take up a lot of your time.”
Boudro believes higher level wrestlers at the high school level get more out of film study than first or second-year wrestlers.
“For a lot of kids that are just starting out wrestling, it’s really hard for them to understand position and what they’re doing wrong.”
Borrelli has found that his more credentialed recruits often times get less out of film study than his mid-tier recruits.
“I think you see a lot of gains with that mid-tier athlete who studies a lot of film, watches the technique, really breaks down what he’s doing wrong and is able to see it,” said Borrelli. “I think you see more jumps with those guys in terms of overall competitiveness than you do with the upper echelon kids.”
Clackamas Community College head wrestling coach Josh Rhoden uses film study in different ways depending on the time of season.
“Early on, film study is used more for technique and tactics when we’re trying to implement the system that we like to use and working on hand fighting,” said Rhoden. “Being a junior college, it’s like an ever-revolving door of working on hand fighting and bottom. Later in the season it’s more looking at scouting guys and trying to find tendencies and picking up on things that we could use as we progress through the season.”
Rhoden says interest in film study varies greatly on his team.
“There are some kids that can’t get enough,” said Rhoden. “They’ll watch their matches in the office over and over. They’ll watch Flo to pick up whatever they can, or technique videos. Then there are some guys who just despise watching film. You’ve got to try to watch some guys in advance for them. Maybe they don’t prefer to watch themselves, but we try to still incorporate it into helping them grow as an athlete.”
Russell sees the same thing.
“Everybody is a little bit different so you kind of have to read into that,” said Russell. “You have some guys that will overthink, so if you’re giving them too much about their opponents or getting them too consumed with it, they’ll get distracted one way. You’ve got other guys that crave it and love it. It helps them believe when they’re out there competing.”
Film study in wrestling has evolved tremendously over the past decade due to technology advances and accessibility.
“It’s amazing how times have changed from when I wrestled,” said Russell, who will be entering his sixth season as George Mason’s head wrestling coach. “It was a lot harder to get film. Now you can look up anything. It’s amazing. I was watching the final Olympic qualifier in Turkey live on my computer at work. That’s what I was doing last week. It’s amazing what guys can get.”
Added Rhoden, “It’s so much more widely available than when I was in college. You would have to try to find video tapes. Now it’s a click away if you want to watch some kids before a National Duals matchup or a dual meet, you can do some pretty easy research.”
Boudro will sometimes have his wrestlers watch accomplished wrestlers on film as a means of comparison.
“Zain Retherford is a kid that I like to use for some of our guys,” said Boudro. “I’ll do a lot of comparison and have them watch their video side-by-side.”
Borrelli says his wrestlers use film study in a variety of different ways.
“Some guys like to scout their opponents,” said Borrelli. “They want to sit down and just watch their opponents specifically. Other guys want to watch their own mistakes. It’s a good mix. We’ll even have them scout themselves. Like, how would you beat yourself if you were wrestling you? Watch it and give us a rundown of what you would be trying to do to beat yourself. That has been helpful in the past with certain guys. We’ve tried a lot of different strategies. It varies by athlete.”
So are there they any drawbacks to film study?
“The drawback that I noticed is some guys will watch so much they tend to be reactive instead of aggressive,” said Borrelli. “Sometimes it will take you from an aggressive mindset to a defensive mindset.”
Coaches use film study in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage.
“The margin for error the further you go up in wrestling gets less and less, so you want to take advantage of anything you can that can give you that little extra,” said Russell. “So in that sense I think film study is essential.”
Rhoden echoes a similar sentiment.
“For me, I would say I have to use film study just because I want to try to gain any competitive edge that I can,” said Rhoden. “I see film study as way to be able to do that.”
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