The sport of wrestling is unique in many ways. It’s an individual sport with a team component.
But in sports like football, baseball, softball and basketball, there are many circumstances where a backup may get into the game. In football, a backup can contribute on special teams, or get in some snaps to give the starter a breather. In baseball a relief pitcher may come in and throw a few innings and maybe even get a chance to bat. A softball player could be a pinch runner or a late-game defensive replacement. In basketball, a coach could use numerous players off the bench at any time during the course of a game. A coach has to manage the confidence and motivation of a backup, but can help by getting non-starters into games. In wrestling there are season-long JV tournaments at the high school level that give non-starters a chance to compete. There are open tournaments at the collegiate level, but once that lineup is set and the dual meet season arrives backups don’t often see a lot of mat time, unless they are an injury replacement or fill-in if the starter is sick or needs a break.
Many high school wrestling standouts go from competing in front of large and passionate hometown crowds — and winning 40 to 60 matches a year, to maybe competing in 10-20 matches in sparsely attended preseason open tournaments before being relegated to the role of a practice partner for the rest of the season.
The fact that backups, especially at the collegiate wrestling level, will see so little competitive action during a season is probably one of the most difficult aspects of being a college wrestler, says Troy Nickerson, head coach the University of Northern Colorado and a national champion at Cornell under head coach Rob Koll. And it’s just as difficult for coaches who need to manage and motivate starters and backups in different ways.
“In most team sports, each individual will get a least a little bit of playing time,” says Nickerson. However, in wrestling, where there are 30+ wrestlers on a team and only 10 get to compete, things become much more challenging. I have seen many three and four-time state champions who never break the starting lineup of their college program.”
For these student-athletes who are now non-starters, communication is key, says Nickerson. Being able to talk through the situation with these student-athletes tends to be the make it or break it for such individuals.
“The worst thing that can happen is this student-athlete walks away from the sport with a bad experience,” says Nickerson. “This truly breaks me as a coach and when it happens, I feel like I have failed in doing my job. The best thing is to look for the positives out of the situation. In most cases, our student-athletes get four to five years to compete competitively. Some will go on to the next level and get a few more years out of the sport. But for most, after their collegiate careers, wrestling will be over.
That’s why coaches have to sell, promote and instill the experience as a whole. Every wrestler dreams of being a national champion or All-American. But the coach has to emphasize that this experience is part of the process and part of the greater goal of accomplishing success off the mat, getting a college education and preparing for life, a career and for many, a family.
“What is truly important is the degree in which they will be receiving upon graduation,” says Nickerson. “This is what they will spend the next 40-50 years of their lives working on, so in reality, these student-athletes’ degrees are 10 times more important than their collegiate wrestling careers. One of my biggest joys out of coaching is to be able to help these kids get jobs that they lead to successful careers later in life.”
But what do coaches do then, when they have to keep former state champions, high school All-Americans and highly-touted recruits as they say in other sports on the bench? How about the less heralded wrestler who may never get a chance to be more than a backup? For those who love wrestling, they just want to be on the team and making an impact. For others, it’s a major psychological shift going from standout to backup.
“If I had athletes on my team that I knew were very unlikely to see competitive action, I would reinforce with them the reasons they were on the team to begin with,” says David Jacobson, Senior Marketing Communications and Content Manager for the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a national non-profit organization with the mission to transform the culture of youth sports so that youth athletes can have a positive, character-building experience. Jacobson has coached baseball, softball and basketball — sports where backups can get playing time — but still struggle with the fact they are not part of the starting lineup.
Whether coaching at the high school or collegiate level, the message is the same. Jacobson would tell them: “I see potential in you as a person and being on this team will help you reach that potential, through life lessons about discipline and commitment, even without promise of the reward you want,” adds Jacobson. He would continue saying: “You may find yourself in those situations as a family member, employee or in your community, and the experience with our team will prepare you for that later life experience. Also, our team needs your spirit, your skill in practice to help your teammates prepare for competition, your mental and emotional support, and your ability to spot strengths and weaknesses in teammates and their opponents so that we can capitalize on those. You may find that even without mat time, that all your efforts in these ways provide you great rewards.”
At the University of Virginia, one of the pillars of the program is “servanthood” … says head coach Steve Garland.
“We try to instill the important life lesson that ‘it is not all about you,'” says Garland.
For example, when a student-athlete gets beat out for a spot it is really hard for that young man and Garland knows that.
“It can be tough to come in everyday and work after that point,” says Garland. “But what we try to instill in our guys is the mentality that, if I’m not going to be the guy, I’m going to keep trying to do my best day in and day out, because that is the way I should live my life anyway, and in doing so I’m going to build up and help my teammate at the same time. My focus is to make him the best he can be as well.”
But sometimes it’s easier said than done.
“This is really hard and doesn’t click in every case, but it is our goal to keep driving this way of thinking home,” says Garland.
Ohio State super sophomore Kyle Snyder has always been an elite wrestler, going undefeated in high school, becoming an All-American and NCAA runner-up his freshmen year (and helping the Buckeyes win the NCAA Division I team title in the process) and closing out the banner year by winning the 97-kilo title at the 2015 World Championships, becoming the youngest World champion in American/USA Wrestling history. And Snyder admits, there comes a time for any competitor when winning really starts to matter. As you evolve as a wrestler, says Snyder, the importance of winning and becoming a champion continues to grow.
But there is a downside to that. “This thought process is the enemy of motivation and can often times stunt the growth of an athlete,” says Snyder. “The way you keep backups and even the most elite wrestlers in the world motivated is through creating a culture that values improvement and development instead of winning and accolades.”
Everybody wants to win. Nobody has ever stepped on the mat in practice or in competition and wanted to get beat up for seven minutes, says Snyder. The difference is valuing the winning can often times cause fear and anxiety for a wrestler. While valuing the development can allow all wrestlers, no matter what level they are at, to be excited about practice and motivated to become the best possible wrestler they can be.
“If all you want is to become a better wrestler then the fear of not winning a match or making the starting lineup is gone,” says Snyder. “Coaches can make their whole team motivated by preaching this message.”
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