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.
Janice has a big game today. She thinks to herself, 'What if I choke and mess up? My teammates are relying on me to perform well.' John has a big speech to give to a group of potential clients and worried that he will not get the sale. 'What if I look like an idiot to them? What if they don't listen?' Michelle has an interview for her dream job. She is nervous. She is having bouts of anxiety that she will forget all the reasons why she is the best person for the job. 'I hope I do not freeze and look like a fool. I struggle in interviews and cannot remember what to say.'
I have been a high school wrestling coach for the past 21 years. I have coached youth lacrosse, soccer, and wrestling when my kids were young. This is not a bash on parents. I am a parent as well. It is only a justification from a coach's standpoint on why it makes the "coach's" job more difficult when parents are coaching their kids from the sidelines.
I am a parent of two kids, who are highly involved in sports. I sit at many games watching from the stands. I, on occasion, get excited and yell instructions to my own kids when they are playing. For the most part, though, I only yell encouragement and the ever so often rant to one of my children to "run" … "fight for the ball" … or "hustle." Really, that's about all I can offer to them when they are playing. I haven't played lacrosse, field hockey, or soccer. There is not much I can say to them outside of the encouraging them to be more aggressive or play with more intensity. I am not knowledgeable enough about the finer details of the game to accurately provide coaching in their sports. Truly, my goal for my kids is for them to play hard and work hard in practice and in the games. I know those two skills alone are transferable to most other areas of life; and if they do those things, most likely their skill in the sport will be adequate -- if not excellent -- with time and experience and they will be successful.
As a wrestling coach with approximately 40 kids each year, it can be challenging to hear contradictory instructions and coaching from parents. Our program has a specific system in place to not only teach wrestling but also accountability, discipline, and a strong work ethic. We spend many hours developing our system in practice. We fine tune our system each practice. Each day we have a plan in place for what we want to accomplish. It's rarely, if ever, "winged" or made up on the fly. From 2:30-2:40 p.m., we warm-up with sport related activities. From 2:40-3:00, we work on conditioning. From 3-3:20, we work on technique A and how to effectively execute it in various situations. At 3:20, we work on combining technique A with previous taught techniques of B,C,D, and E. At 3:45, we set up match situations to practice techniques A-E in a "live" setting with an opponent actively trying to resist. I think you get the point, but this is how most practices are run at the high school level and beyond. There is a logical plan in place to teach our kids "the game" with the end-goal being to win and be successful.
When game time, or match time, rolls around, we have spent hours to prepare for the contest. That doesn't mean we are 100% ready but we try to be to the best of our ability. We begin the game and a funny thing happens. Our opponent also has a plan. They evidently didn't get the memo that we have a system to run and their plan is negatively affecting our performance. Obviously this is sarcasm, but that's the reality. That is sport. Two teams competing to win. Things usually do not go exactly as planned. For that matter, there is no perfect plan. Coaches put out their game plan and try to execute it as efficiently as possible with the expectation that mostly likely it will need adjusted throughout the contest. These plans are unbiased. They are not personal in nature towards any player. They are developed with the available personnel in mind to best win the game. These plans can change game to game or match to match depending on the opponent. When our players hear information from the stands that is different from ours, it makes us nervous. The information is not part of the system that we have practiced diligently for many hours. The information is contradicting the time we spent with our players to prepare them for this event. So our preparation, strategy, and plan is highly compromised in a game when our players are hearing different messages contrary from what they've heard in practice. It creates confusion to the players and undermines the trust that is created between the players and coaches in practice. Furthermore, throw in a loud crowd, the weather, fatigue, and the general anxiety of a game, often times a player's performance is hindered, not helped.
In a previous blog post on toughness, I referenced our love for our child that sometimes impedes their maturity and development of grit. I believe what we say to our kids during the game isn't any different. We want them to be successful. Our vision is clouded with our own biases. We see things differently when our interest goes well beyond an athletic contest. Our kids will be our kids forever. The game might be two hours long but after it is over we leave and go eat dinner as a family. You will always be their dad or mom who loves them and wants them to be successful regardless of the number of goals scored or the minutes played.
From a coach's perspective, we want as few distractions as possible. We want to execute the plan we have in place. The plan that we practiced day after day. The technique that we drilled all week leading up to the contest. We want our team focused on the task at hand. If adjustments are needed, we will see it and make them accordingly. Hopefully not too late. We see the whole team. Not just one player.
When I watch my daughter play, I see her a lot more than the other players. My focus is mostly on her. I see everything she is doing almost as if I am looking at her under a microscope. "Why did she do that?" "Wow, she just got hit hard." "That was a good shot!" Then my son. "Why isn't he running hard!?" " He just shot from too far away!" "Catch that kid!" It's almost like no other player exists. You almost forget that it's a team sport because you follow your child around the field analyzing every move and turn.
When I am coaching my team, I see 40 players and I am concerned about each of them learning our system for us to be a successful team. I am monitoring many different personalities and attitudes. John needs pushed harder. I need to lighten up on Jacob. Tim needs more work with his shot. Jeff's defense is great, but his top work is struggling. Why can't Billy get out on bottom!!!!???? Can someone tell Brian that we are wrestling a match and to get ready!?
None of it … I mean none of it, is personal. The question always is, what do we need to do to get better? If I ride a kid, it is only because I felt he could have done better and is capable of more. A coach has a vested interest as well. Let's not misinterpret when coaches are tough on players. It's for them. It's for the team. It is not for any other reason. As a parent, I would be more concerned about why the coach isn't pushing my kid to be better. What is my child doing to not get pushed? Is he being a bad teammate? Does he have a bad attitude? Does he not listen to feedback? Is he not coachable?
Food for thought.
John Klessinger is a physical education teacher, high school wrestling coach, and fitness trainer. He has been a public high school teacher and wrestling coach for the past 21 years. John has worked in the fitness industry as a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, and group fitness instructor for the past fifteen years. To read John's blog, visit https://coachkless.com or visit his Facebook page. He also has an eBook titled "Strong Mind Strong Body: A 21-Day Personal Development And Fitness Guide To Live Your Best Life" that can be purchased on Amazon.
Wrestling is the greatest and the oldest sport dating as far back as 20,000 years ago. I believe, and I hold it in my heart, that nothing can compare to it when developing young men and women. I understand that I have an extreme bias toward wrestling. I have been in the sport for 36 consecutive years as a competitor and a coach. I have dedicated much of my life to wrestling because of the benefits I and many others have received from the sport.
Why is wrestling so great? Wrestling offers people so many positive benefits to its participants. I played other sports growing up. Football, baseball, and one year of basketball. I have coached youth soccer, lacrosse, and wrestling. I have taught thousands of teenagers who have played practically every sport possible, at least those available in the U.S. I would rival some of those sports to wrestling for their work ethic, commitment, and discipline. Some of them, not many. I would put cross-country, boxing, gymnastics, and hockey up there as sports that teach its participants similar lessons. Don't get me wrong, I loved baseball and football when I was a kid. They were both enjoyable and fun sports to play, and I believe they, along with most sports, teach many valuable lessons. I just know wrestling is the best to educate people about life.
I will admit of all the sports I played as a kid, wrestling was the least fun of them. Wrestling is hard. It is hard physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your body gets beat up and your ego gets damaged often. Each day your mind toggles between feelings of confidence, doubt, and insecurity during a wrestling season.
So why then should every person wrestle?
1. Wrestling teaches people to deal with adversity
According to Merriam-Webster.com, adversity is defined as "a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune." The definition perfectly sums of a wrestling season. Each day presents difficulty and challenges. The sport of wrestling is filled with adversity, and a person can only become more resilient by it.