Jeff Buxton is one of wrestling’s all-time great coaches. He served as Blair Academy’s head wrestling coach from 1982 to 2012, winning the Prep National championships in each of his 30 seasons. His Blair Academy teams were ranked No. 1 in the nation 10 times, beginning in 1995 and running through 2012. He has coached numerous NCAA All-Americans and NCAA champions.
Since 2012, Buxton has served as Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club’s director and head freestyle coach. He also owns and operates the Buxton Athletic Training Center.
MatBoss caught up with Buxton to get his thoughts on various topics in wrestling.
How different is it coaching a senior level wrestler compared to coaching a high school wrestler?
Buxton: Just about every aspect is different. Right now I’m working with 5, 6 and 7-years-olds all the way up to guys who are 28-year-olds out of my club. It’s very different for the older athletes. The recovery for a senior level athlete is a little different than an athlete that is 19, 20 or 21 years old. Sometimes they need a little bit more recovery time. Or they need a period of rest days between workouts. I would say a younger athlete listens to just about every word that you tell them. They’re really intrigued by the technique. An older athlete at times needs to be swayed into learning new techniques. In that way it’s a little bit different in how you approach practice and the things you do practice.
It seems like more and more student-athletes are specializing in sports at a younger age. What are your thoughts on sport specialization?
Buxton: I’m not against it. I was a three-sport athlete up to college, and then in college I played two. I kind of liked the different seasons, but I wrestled year-round and I played lacrosse almost year-round. So I would always dabble with those other sports in the offseason. I went through this when I was at Blair — and I coached there for 30 years — they wanted kids involved in two sports. I thought that was OK for the freshmen and sophomores. But as they got to be juniors and seniors, I thought it was a good idea that they specialize if they want to, especially if they were looking for scholarships and trying to pick up a little bit more on the international scene. Some of the best athletes I coached were two-sport athletes all the way through, some were even three-sport athletes, but those kids who specialized usually ended up doing really well and getting a scholarship to college. There are some advantages to it. I think a lot depends upon the student-athlete and how they handle being able to do something for 9, 10, 11 months out of the year.
This was something that I struggled with when it came to my own son. As a ninth-grader he wanted to not play lacrosse. He had to show me that he was going to be just as fresh going into Fargo in the middle of the summertime as he thought he would be. That’s something that he really wanted to do, was to put in the months in the summertime, training four or five times a week and getting ready for Fargo. I would say that especially if it’s a kid who is that motivated and really wants to do it, you’re going to get some positive workouts with it. You’re going to get some improvement. A lot of kids make really good jumps in the offseason because there’s not the pressure of the season. Spring and summertime were when I would try to make the biggest adjustment in kids’ techniques. I found it to be valuable for kids in high school.
What is your philosophy on weight cutting?
Buxton: In the early years I don’t think kids should be cutting weight. I think the sport should be a lot more fun for them. I’ve been able to travel a lot over the last four years overseas and watch what the Russians are doing, what the Iranians are doing, what people in Azerbaijan are doing, what’s happening in Japan … They tend to not be as competitive as we are as 6,7,8, 9, 10, 11-year-old kids. Their competitions are less. I think they try to bring them along as athletes a little bit more in teaching them tumbling and trying to work on tactics, strategies and techniques, instead of the number of competitions. Some of these kids here are making weight every weekend. They’re growing through the season. I’m not a big believer in it. When they get to high school there is going to be a certain amount of weight cutting for a kid to make a team, and I understand that part. And there are times when as a coach I’m talking kids out of one weight class and trying to move them up to another weight class because I think they can be a little bit healthier and be a lot more productive and certainly make practices a lot more fun because they’re not sitting there cutting weight through practice. There is a place for it. Obviously, if you’re on a real competitive team and you’re trying to make the team, sometimes you have to lose a little weight that you don’t want to lose. But if kids are eating healthy and maintaining good diets they can really help themselves out being better athletes instead of concentrating on the weight cut.
How important is film study in wrestling?
Buxton: I watch at least an hour of film a day. Part of it is to keep me on my toes. It keeps me interested in the sport. It keeps developing my technique. At age 60 I’m still learning things. That’s what keeps me evolving as a coach, being able to learn what’s happening on the world level … and the world is really good. It’s always evolving, always changing. I think kids can learn quite a bit by watching wrestling. Sports like basketball and football are on TV so much that kids develop in those sports. Even watching your own film is so important. It’s something that I use in practice. I’ll take out my tablet or phone all the time and video tape somebody so they can understand where their body is in space. They don’t see where their head position is. Or what their hand position is doing. Or just even watching them wrestle. They’ll sometimes say, ‘I didn’t even realize I was doing this.’ So I think the ability to watch film, watch yourself, watch other people, use it as a scout is really important and to continue learning in wrestling is really important.
In wrestling, you often times hear the word burnout. Do you believe burnout is real in wrestling?
Buxton: I think there are certain times when you need to take a break. I don’t use the term ‘burned out.’ But I will use the term ‘It’s time to take a break,’ especially if there are situations where things aren’t coming together. Then it’s time to take a break. I’m not a big believer of burnout. Either you love the sport and you have a passion for the sport and you want to keep getting better in the sport, you’re going to keep working on it almost every day. But there are times where you need to step away and get off the mat for a few days, or even a month, sometimes to change your training up so it’s not as rigorous where it could be more play. It’s more of a learning type situation. Those types of training cycles are important. If you try to grind, grind, grind, grind all the time, it’s sometimes hard to kick that engine over another time. That’s when kids will get tired of the sport because it’s a grind all the time. I think it’s important for coaches to put people through training cycles when they’re going to train really, really, really hard. And other times where they’re going to back off and work on technique. I think it’s important to make practice fun. If you’re grinding at a hundred percent all the time, it’s sometimes not as productive. I try to teach young kids how to play and put them in positions to learn how to play, which is hard to develop because they just love wrestling so much. I do it with the older athletes, especially with the senior level athletes. We will spar in situations all the time where it’s a learning situation, not a beat ’em up, grind it out all the time.
To get back to the question, I don’t like the word burnout. I think there are times when any athlete needs to take breaks. There were times when I was coaching Blair when we would take some time off during the week to recuperate if I felt people were a little bit tired and worn down. There are times during the season when you’re in a really competitive part of your season where taking a day off makes a lot of sense. Keeping people fresh, keeping people motivated I think is important. I think it’s important for coaches to have a feel for their team to be able to understand when a kid needs to take a break, especially when a kid falls in a bad rut. There are times when you say, ‘Hey, we need to take a week off, recuperate a little bit, do some film work, maybe spend a little bit more time in the weight room. Let’s get off the mat.’
How do you view private lessons in wrestling?
Buxton: I think they’re really important. The one thing that I try emphasize with kids who come into the lesson is they come in and tell me what’s been working well and what hasn’t been working well. So we have an idea of working on the positives and working on the negatives and trying to keep an idea about where one lesson is moving from another lesson. You can get a lot of things done, especially if you’re both on the same page about what you need to improve on, what needs to be fixed, what do you do well with and how can we make it a little bit better.
What is a good age to start wrestling?
Buxton: When they beg you to. That’s a great time to start. When your son or daughter begs you to wrestle, instead of the parent pushing them into the sport. I’ve always felt that’s key. That’s when kids are really motivated and have fun with the sport, instead of that kid whose mom or dad is bringing them to practice and they don’t want any part of it. It’s a tough sport. It’s not a sport for everybody. It’s a good social sport because kids are on a team and they’re doing things together. They’re trying to make improvements. It has that individual aspect, as well as a team aspect. It’s tough. It’s physical. It’s demanding. You’ve got to make sacrifices. You’ve got to be disciplined. It has all the right things for a parent to want to put their kid in the sport. With that said, the kid has to want to do it. If they don’t want to do it, boy, it can be one of the most awful experiences ever.
I go back to my own son … He begged me to let him wrestle. It was around the second grade. We started slow. He played other sports. He came along a little bit slower than some other kids were at his age. But he went on to wrestle in college and really loved the sport, and still loves the sport. So I think that progression was really good for him. It was a little bit different than a lot of the Blair kids.
Do wrestlers benefit more from being in the same system with the same coaches throughout their career? Or do you think it’s important for wrestlers to get exposed to a variety of coaches and systems throughout the career?
Buxton: I’ve worked with kids for a long period of time, so I like that aspect. I did this a lot with Joey McKenna. I started working with him when he was maybe in fifth grade. Seeing his development moving into high school and into college has been a lot of fun. He has developed under this system, and he has been able to go out right away and do well in college. Now he’s away from me. I miss working with him. I wish he was still around. He brings up the level of everybody else that is around him. One thing I do as a coach is make sure people go out and see other people. I think that part is important. There is a lot of ways to skin a cat. You see with the Russians, Iranians or Japanese where they have these club systems over there where they’re with their coach almost their whole life. It seems to work out for them too. At times there is a need for a change, and when that time comes it happens. Even here we see guys jump from one RTC to the next RTC. Sometimes it’s something that sparks them and they do well right away. Other times you can see it backfire. If something’s not working I think a change should happen.
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