21 things I've learned in 21 years as a head wrestling coach: Part 1

Posted by John Klessinger on Jun 17, 2020 9:05:58 PM



The list of 21 things I've learned could be 51 or 101. I have learned so much over the years about coaching and working with people that it easily could consume an entire book (which I am working on). Below are 11 of the 21 most impactful concepts, ideas, and practices I have learned in my 23-year coaching career, the last 21 being as a head high school coach.

1. Actions speak louder than words

My dad would say this to me often. In the context of coaching, it means your actions will make more of an impact than what you say. If you want your team disciplined, you have to be the first to demonstrate discipline. Your actions have to reflect your words. Young men and women respond well to visual models. If you talk too often without a concrete backing, eventually your team will not listen. I want my wrestlers to be at every practice on time and ready. Therefore, I am at every practice on time and prepared. It is a simple philosophy that has paid significant dividends over the years.

2. Rapport is a better motivator than yelling

I learned this from some of my high school and college coaches. Later the idea was cemented by a fellow coach and teacher I had the opportunity to talk at length about coaching, athletes, and teaching. Your team "will run through brick walls for you" (her comment) if you develop a relationship with them and show them that you care about them. Building rapport is not a difficult task but does require conscious effort. Sometimes we "live" in our agendas and practice plans, and we neglect to talk to our athletes about their life, school, and family. By the time they are juniors and seniors, I usually know much about their hobbies, interests, family, and goals. It takes time for you and them to open up about matters, not about wrestling. Each of us has our "story" and background unique to us. The more you learn about each of them, the more you will be able to push them later on.

3. Lead from the front

Set the example for your team. Be the first to get "in the fight." Like actions speak louder than words, your team will come to expect from what you consistently demonstrate to them. If you routinely model what you want from your athletes, your team will fall in line. Setting the examples entails doing first what you want from others and then helping them do the same.

4. Focus on developing people first

This concept has changed my belief and love for coaching. For too long, early in my career, I focused on winning. More accurately, not losing. Admittedly, I probably dislike losing more than I like winning. As a competitor, the exhilaration from winning fades more rapidly than the feelings you have when you lose. Losing kind of haunts you and leaves you with the dialogue of "what if, why didn't I, or I should have." Once I changed my belief or focus, it became much easier to try to make "Jimmy" better than winning or losing a wrestling match. I can control making Jimmy or Sally better. I cannot always control the outcome of a wrestling match. More interesting though, once I changed my goal of coaching from winning to developing young men and women, it became much more fun, and ironically we won more. Go figure.

5. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is negativity

You can practically change the perspective of any situation (wrestling or non-wrestling) with having an enthusiastic attitude. Your view of every situation is dependent on your perspective. I make it a point on Saturday morning practices to be upbeat, play some loud music, and be a little "hyped." I know if I went into it with negativity, the practice would not be effective. Your team will feed off of the attitude you have, good and bad.

6. Mental toughness is more important in skill

Don't get me wrong. Athletic ability and talent are good traits to be successful. However, when working with athletes with varying abilities and skills, mental toughness will take an athlete to a higher level than an athlete who is more gifted without the mindset of determination, grit, and perseverance. Each day, incorporate lessons to learn mental toughness- challenges, activities, or literature.

7. You can teach people to be tough

I believe there are varying degrees of toughness. With that, you can take a person to a higher degree with training. Each of your athletes comes from different backgrounds and different degrees of toughness. Some have become hardened and calloused at a young age from adversity or struggle. Others may not have had to deal with challenging situations. Regardless, with training, you can affect their toughness. Consistently putting them in situations that are difficult for them will grow their "toughness muscle." I have seen kids come into our room with little toughness and resiliency, leave badasses. There is a mind-body effect on training toughness. As they become physically tough, they become mentally tough, and they want to challenge themselves more and more.

8. Teaching positions are more important than technique

Granted, if they do not know a double leg takedown, teaching them how to scramble out of a bad shot is pointless. As they learn the prerequisite technique, showing them where to be at certain times becomes more important than the technique. Teaching positions create a "feel" in their body that something is not right and needs to be adjusted. Newer wrestlers do not have that "feel." Therefore, you have to teach it to them. If wrestler A does this, then wrestlers B does this. Drilling and repeating positioning in practice lead to chain wrestling and the ability to scramble and counter-attack. One drill we do regularly is closing our eyes on our feet, and in a tie-up, a wrestler shoots on their legs. With repeated practice, the wrestlers will "feel" when their opponent lowers their level and attacks.

9. Kids are kids

They do not see life the same as adults. How many times have you heard, "The kids don't care about it as much as the coach?" They do care, but some kids are more committed than others. Others play multiple sports or are in various activities. Kids haven't experienced life as a coach has. They can't relate to "regret, hindsight, and consequences" like adults. Their experience is limited. Some kids will not get your message until long after they leave your program. It can be personally frustrating trying to get your athletes to devote the time needed to be a successful wrestler. You still push and focus on making them better, but you keep it in your mind that they are kids and have a lot of "growing up to do."

10. Accountability is the secret to achievement

I wished I learned this earlier in my career. To be honest, it probably wasn't until ten years into coaching that I learned the significance of accountability when coaching an athletic program. My "epiphany" spawned out of anger. I assigned my team of nearly 40 wrestlers to take a paper home and get signed by their parents. The following day when only four of forty returned the signed paper, I was livid. Immediately, without any thought, I told them to get against the "short" wall to do Strittmatters (an exercise involving a knee run, bear crawl, and a sprint). We did one for each person who did not turn in the paper and a few more to emphasize my disgust. The next day everyone returned their paper. Since then, I have learned not to make idle threats. If I say it, I need to do it. The athletes quickly understand the meaning of accountability. I incorporate some form of accountability practice into almost every drill, conditioning activity, assignment, or off-season workout. I believe the level of our program changed when we become more accountable.

11. Teach to the top 1/3

I stole this from Coach John Fritz. Coach Fritz is an NCAA champion and former head wrestling coach at Penn State. For many years, we went to his Keystone Wrestling Camp. While listening to a meeting with his counselors and instructors, I overhead him tell them that during camp, "Teach to the top 1/3." Some fifteen years later, his words still stick in my mind each season when teaching technique. Teaching to your highest performing athletes raises the level of all your athletes. You can always go back and review and revisit techniques later if needed or work with some individuals to catch them up.

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Technology brings wrestling lessons home

Posted by Mark Palmer on Apr 30, 2020 11:00:17 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on our lives. Disrupting long-standing ways of doing things. Like conducting wrestling practice in these times of shuttered schools, "shelter-in-place" orders, mandatory "home schooling" and "social distancing."

Even in these challenging times, there are ways you can use advanced technology and distance learning to help your wrestlers master the vital skills to become even more successful in the oldest and greatest sport.

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Topics: Coaching

2020-21 high school wrestling rules changes address weigh-in procedures, hair length restrictions

Posted by NFHS on Apr 28, 2020 5:34:38 PM

As the result of a concerted effort to accommodate the growing number of female wrestlers, the 2020-21 high school wrestling rules changes are headlined by significant adjustments to weigh-in protocol and appropriate hair length requirements.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Wrestling Rules Committee met April 5-6 and recommended 11 rules changes to take effect next school year. In accordance with current health safety guidelines, the rules meeting was held in an online format. All rules revisions recommended by the Wrestling Rules Committee were approved by the NFHS Board of Directors.

"These rule changes are some of the most prolific modifications in the history of high school wrestling," said Elliot Hopkins, NFHS director of sports and student services and liaison to the Wrestling Rules Committee. "The rules committee made necessary, drastic changes to attract more young people to our sport without sacrificing the health and safety of the participants."

The weigh-in procedure was altered through a combination of changes to Rule 4, Section 5 (Weighing-In) of the Wrestling Rule Book. Following an amendment to the legal uniform laid out in Rule 4-1-1c, which now permits female wrestlers to wear a form-fitted compression shirt that completely covers their breasts in addition to a one-piece singlet and a suitable undergarment, Rule 4-5-7 was rewritten to require that a legal uniform be worn during weigh-in and that no additional weight allowance be granted. An additional clause prohibiting shoes and ear guards during weigh-in was also written into 4-5-7.

Weighing-in with a legal uniform allowed the Committee to break down more gender barriers with subsequent changes to Rules 4-5-1, 4-5-2 and 4-5-4. Previously, weigh-ins consisted of shoulder-to-shoulder lineups of each contestant that: were separated by gender (4-5-2), took place a maximum of one hour prior to competition (4-5-1) and required supervision by a referee of each respective gender (4-5-4).

With the institution of the legal uniform (one-piece singlet or two-piece), male and female wrestlers are now able to weigh-in together in the same lineup, allowing gender-specific language to be removed from all three rules. Additionally, the form-fitted compression shirt offers females a more suitable uniform for post-weigh-in skin checks, which are typically done by male officials.

"The change to the weighing-in process is remarkably timely, as schools have struggled in the past to identify adult females to weigh-in the female wrestlers," Hopkins said. "This action accommodates transgender children as well; it respects their rights and dignity and addresses any modesty concerns for any affected children. We anticipate that the entire weigh-in process will be expedited and more efficient."

Significant changes to the hair length rule (Rule 4-2-1) were also linked to the committee's focus on inclusion. Previously, a wrestler's hair could not "extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar" in the back, below earlobe level on the sides or below the eyebrows in the front. Those confinements, along with the requirement that a hair cover be used for hair that exceeded said limitations, were deleted. Considerable support for this rule change from coaches and officials was generated by an initiative of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which successfully experimented with relaxed hair restrictions this past winter.

"Removing the hair-length rule is a monumental change," Hopkins said. "It is important to embrace the current culture of young boys and girls who are expressing themselves through their appearance, making this the perfect opportunity to extend wrestling to young people who otherwise would not be attracted to our sport. While the hair-length restriction has been removed, the requirement that hair control devices/treatment items cannot be hard, abrasive or sharp remains. If a hair cover is used, it shall be attached to the ear guards. Additionally, the barring of oils, or greasy substances on or in the hair is still in effect."

Another modification to the wrestling uniform came through Rule 4-1-3. In order to curtail participants from intentionally lacing their shoes too loosely to cause a stoppage in the action and potentially thwart an opponent's scoring opportunity, a technical violation will be assessed in any instance where a shoe comes off, and the injury clock will be started to correct the situation. This change is made under the assumption that a wrestler is, in fact, properly equipped to wrestle when the match begins, as a wrestling shoe that is properly laced and secured will not typically come off.

Technical violations were the subject of change in Rule 7-3-1 as well. To avoid penalizing a participant twice for the same sequence of events, wording was added to 7-3-1 declaring that points will not be awarded to a wrestler whose opponent has fled the mat if that wrestler has already scored for a near-fall or takedown.

Under Rule 8-1-4, a match will now automatically be stopped and restarted in the event a wrestler commits a fourth stalling violation. Previously, if the offender was called for a fourth stall of the match while in the defensive or neutral position, there was no guarantee his or her opponent would be awarded choice of position through a restart if the violation occurred during the third period.

"This rule remedies that if the fourth stall occurs in the third period there might not be an opportunity to restart before the end of the match," Hopkins said. "This rule change assures that the offending wrestler is held accountable and subsequent points are awarded to the opponent."

Based on the hair-length changes, Rule 5-29-1, which addresses unnecessary roughness, was edited to include "pulling an opponent's hair" as an additional example of the offense.

Finally, a new article was added to Rule 8-2 dealing with participant injuries. Rule 8-2-9 has been designed to discourage wrestlers from requesting injury time from the official as an attempt to stop an opponent from scoring. If the referee determines a wrestler would have scored had the injury time-out not taken place, the injured contestant will be charged an injury time-out and applicable points will be awarded to the non-injured party.

According to the 2018-19 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey, wrestling is the seventh-most popular sport for boys with 247,441 participants in 10,843 schools. In addition, the number of female wrestlers increased by almost 5,000 participants in 2018-19, as 21,124 girls competed in 2,890 schools.

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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 54: Kevin Ward

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 5:30:23 PM

Army West Point head wrestling coach Kevin Ward returns to the MatBoss Podcast to talk about the situation at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York on Episode 54.

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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 53: Virtual 80s Bracket

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 5:21:14 PM

The Virtual NCAA Bracket from the 1980s has been released and Chad Dennis and Jason Laflin will go weight-by-weight to talk about this virtual tournament being run via FloArena and as part of the Legends of NCAA Wrestling Facebook Group and the MatBoss Podcast.

The MatBoss Podcast is also sponsored by Barbarian Apparel.

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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 52: Coaching Roundtable

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 5:11:40 PM

With no wrestling, Episode 52 features Chad Dennis and his assistant coaches from Harrison High School in Ohio will chat some wrestling. Join Dennis and Chris Baird and Eric Meyer as they talk all things wrestling in the current climate.

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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 51: Johnny Sebastian

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 5:07:15 PM

Johnny Sebastian, a New Jersey native who recently wrapped up his career at the University of Wisconsin joins Chad Dennis on Episode 51 of The MatBoss Podcast. Sebastian was from the wrestling powerhouse at Bergen Catholic and started his career at Northwestern. After graduating, Sebastian was granted an additional year of eligibility and used it to stay in the Big Ten and wrestle at 184 pounds. Sebastian talks about his wild ride in college wrestling and what’s next. 


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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 50: Nick LeForce

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 4:55:10 PM
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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 49: Mark Branch

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 4:52:04 PM

In the wake of the cancellation of all NCAA sports for the winter and spring seasons, Chad Dennis gets on the horn for Episode 49 of The MatBoss Podcast to talk with Wyoming head wrestling coach Mark Branch about the situation and the feelings going around his wrestling room and others around the country.

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The MatBoss Podcast Episode 48: Big Ten Championships Preview

Posted by Chad Dennis on Apr 28, 2020 4:49:12 PM

Chad Dennis sits down with college buddy and wrestling junkie Jason Laflin as the two host a Facebook Live discussing the upcoming Big Ten Championships at Rutgers. Chad and Jason go weight-by-weight on Episode 48 of The MatBoss Podcast.


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