Ask any dedicated coach, and chances are, they relish the chance to develop and build the average athlete, just as much as they do the chance to lead the star athlete. While the star athlete may bring wins, program recognition, and put a team and/or coach in the spotlight, the long-term success of any athletics program –wrestling included — hinges on the ability of coaches to develop the average athlete.Because there are a lot more average athletes than there are star athletes.
“As a staff, we work very hard to make every student-athlete feel valued,” says Matt Azevedo, head coach of the Drexel University wrestling program, a Division I program from Pennsylvania that competes in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association. “I believe it’s vital to our program’s success if every student-athlete feels that they are contributing to the team’s overall progress, we will reach our goals at a much faster rate.”
The best coaches focus on teaching every athlete, not just the star
Greg Bach, Senior Director, Communications and Content for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), America’s leading advocate for positive youth sports and training for administrators, coaches and parents, says anytime someone volunteers to coach sports they have a responsibility to help every athlete learn the sport and the skills required to play it, not just pile all their attention on the athletically gifted kids.
“The fact of the matter is that the majority of the kids won’t earn a college scholarship, and even fewer will play that sport at the professional level, but through a coach’s passion for teaching, encouraging and motivating, a love of the sport can be instilled that enables these kids to play the sport recreationally and enjoy it for the rest of their lives,” says Bach.
Glen Mulcahy operates Paradigm Sports, whose mission is to help parents, youth sports coaches, and executive members understand the issues in youth sports and what can be done to fix them. Mulcahy is also a Hockey Canada NCCP instructor and coaching mentor for BC Hockey who has certified over 2000 coaches in the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association since 2009. Every athlete, regardless of their sport, goes through different stages of development throughout their athletic career, says Mulcahy, who has over 20 years of experience coaching men, women, boys and girls in various sports, and has two kids who have gone through the youth sports system since 2000.
All athletes develop at different stages
“Just because a player shows promise at 12 years old, where he or she may be an early bloomer, does not mean he or she will still be at the top as he or she grows and develops,” says Mulcahy. “It has been my experience, working with numerous sports organization and in various sports, that even over the course of one season, athletes can catch up to each other, as they all progress at different rates.”
Coaches may find themselves stuck, trying to balance the continuing development of an advanced wrestler, while working to develop a less-talented or experienced wrestler. When that happens, follow wrestling’s Long Term Athlete Development Model, says Mulcahy.
Mulcahy says it’s important for coaches to recognize what athletes are in the top third, middle third, and lower third of their age group. Then, teach/coach them based on where they fit, and in relation to the long-term athletic development model guidelines for their sport.
In other words, don’t coddle/cater to the star athlete, or give up on the kid who is behind. Good coaches work hard to teach/train/educate all team members, and build confidence, and work towards success.
“Lesser skilled or smaller athletes build confidence with players of like skill, and don’t become frustrated by trying to play catchup to their other teammates who may at a different level of physical maturity,” says Mulcahy.
Four simple ways to recognize athletes
Coaches can always find a way to compliment a player in during practices and games, regardless of the skill level of that individual, says Bach. That makes them feel important, and keeps them involved, and keeps the passion for the sport going. Bach said coaches should, with all athlete, regardless of skill level:
1. Recognize kids for great hustle, regardless if they were successful or not.
2. Applaud a child’s great display of sportsmanship.
3. Acknowledge a child who has shown improvement in an area of the sport that perhaps all his teammates have had a handle on for a while.
4. Recognize backups during practices and scrimmages for making the starters work hard, which translates into improved performance on match day and is the essence of being part of a team.
At the Division I college level, there is rarely an average athlete/wrestler in the room. In other words, most Division I wrestlers — and college wrestlers at any level — have likely experienced success at some point in their career. But now that they are not a starter, that can be even more of a challenge for a coach seeking ways to keep backups motivate, engaged and working hard.
Five ways to keep average athletes motivated
So how does Azevedo do that? He provides these five tips that coaches at all levels — and in all sports — can implement:
1. Hold individual meetings with every student-athlete: Azevedo will have three of these individual meetings with every student-athlete during the school year. This gives him and staff a chance to get to know the student-athlete on a more personal level. “We talk about goals on and off the mat,” says Azevedo. “We also talk about how they add value and help the team succeed. Through these conversations, we learn where the student-athlete sees them themselves and how we can help the student-athlete find a valuable roll on the team.”
2. Hold individualized workouts throughout the season: At Drexel, Azevedo focuses on individualized workouts that fit each student-athlete at different times throughout the season. “Every chance we get to have one-on-one interaction with our student-athletes, we are able to strengthen the athlete/coach relationship,” he said. “I believe it’s essential that every student-athlete knows that the coaches care about their development as a wrestler and their improvement is crucial to the team’s improvement.”
3. Recognize the hardest workers, not just those who win the most: “We take every opportunity we get to shine a light on the guys who are working the hardest, doing extra, and being unselfish for the betterment of the team,” says Azevedo. “We do this in front of the team and it’s another way for individuals to feel valued. Ultimately, everyone wants to hear they’re doing good job. The student-athletes want their coaches to see and acknowledge their successes.”
4. Recognize off-the-mat accomplishments: At Drexel, Azevedo and staff make it a point to recognize wrestlers in areas of academics, community service, and volunteering/giving back. Ultimately, the goal is to shift the value away from wrestling only and towards life success.
5. Assign non-starters duties during home and away competitions: These jobs aren’t the most glamorous, but are imperative to adding value to the fan experience and staying connected, says Azevedo. These jobs can consist of: Running the video camera, announcing, running score clock, assisting in event management, moving mats, and being a warm-up partner. “We explain the importance and value of these jobs and make it clear that doing your best is just as important as doing your best as a wrestler. The goal is to “teach underclassmen what the expectations are and how to be successful in our team culture,” says Azevedo.
Every athlete deserves the best from a coach, says Azevedo. Not just the star.
“If we expect their best every day, they should get our best every day,” says Azevedo. “If every individual improves athletically, academically and socially, then our team improves in every area as well. Our wrestlers are the life blood of our program. They will be a part of our program for life. The relationship starts during the recruiting process, it grows and strengthens during their time on the team, and flourishes through the alumni years. The thing to remember is every student-athlete will become an alumnus one day. Your alums have a positive experience they will become the greatest advocates of your program.”