Jr. and Cadet Nationals is underway this week in Fargo, ND in my opinion the toughest high school tournament in the country. It doesn’t seem that long ago my summer, actually my year revolved around “Fargo” and what transpired over a ten day period each July. You see I was invested way beyond your average high school coach for many years because I was also a parent. There are a lot of coach/parents just like I was that make the trek to Fargo each summer with there sons or daughters. Each year dreams of scholarships and stop signs are realized or shattered on the floor of the Fargo Dome. That investment by parents can be both a blessing or curse to the athlete competing depending of course on how it’s all handled.
The song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun (1986) with Tom Cruise will forever have a sour effect on me every time I hear it. When my son was a first year cadet he was up 9-0 going into the break in the freestyle finals against a tough kid from Ohio. He needed just one more point to tech fall and become a National Champion. With “Danger Zone” humming in the background he proceeded to lose 10-9 and take second. It was heart breaking to watch him be so close and not be able to close the deal. After, the coach in me analyzed everything from his warm-up to his par terre defense but the parent in me could only try to console him. There were lessons to be learned and I didn’t have to say anything for him to learn from those lessons. The sport took care of all that and by me opening my big fat mouth I would have only gotten in the way of the natural learning process. He recovered, probably faster than I did and came back the next year to win both Freestyle and Greco being named the OW in Greco and teching his way through his Freestyle bracket. I can’t remember what song played during either one of his finals matches that year.
It is a tough balancing act coaching your own kid and what truly can be considered the parenting “Danger Zone.” There is no separating yourself from wanting him/her to be successful, it’s human nature. We all want the best for our child regardless if its in sports, school, relationships or whatever they are invested in. The tricky part for parents is understanding that ultimately it is not about us as parents, it’s about the well being of our child. For some that’s hard to understand because they are so blinded by the connection and investment they emotionally have put into their child. Due to the personal nature of wrestling and the intimate setting this relationship can get distorted into something other than just a sport. Go to a kids tournament and look at the side of the mat where parents, grand parents, siblings and whoever else climbed in station wagon are all sitting on their knees screaming at the top of their lungs for their little guy to “Get’er done!” In other forms this intense involvement continues for many athletes well into their teenage years. If they make it to Fargo and still have the love and desire to compete they may have endured everything from nightly critiques in the car on the way home from practice to straight up punishment for simply losing to someone who was better than them. I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to parents, coaches and kids and I understand because at one time I was the crazy dad/coach. I understand but I don’t condone poor behavior by parents who justify their actions in the name of competition, toughness or whatever reason they may have to make their kid feel as if the highest value they have is as an athlete. I have told many an athlete, “Wrestling, its what we do it’s not who we are and winning and losing on a mat does not and will not define us.” If you are reading this and you don’t understand that last statement you may have a problem.
When my son was about 13 years old I made a rule for myself, once practice was over and we got in the car to go home I never brought up wrestling. We of course talked about it but I always let him initiate it. To this day we both love wrestling and we probably talk about it in some form each and every day. There were some tough lessons to be learned along the way for me as a parent. Ultimately, I wanted him to know I valued him way beyond on the sport and wanted him to own it for himself and not for me. That may sound obvious but when you spend as much time in the sport as we did and a good portion of each day is dedicated to becoming a better wrestler the message we are sending is huge. Our actions tell our kids what our priorities are and we need to be very cognizant of making sure our kids know we love them regardless of the sport and who they are is not defined by their performance.
Sports are a great conduit for parents and their children. For many of us it’s common ground that we can come together on and forget all our differences or issues. It would be sad to have the sport be something a child resented because a parent didn’t keep it in perspective. Parents should have unconditional love and support first and foremost regardless of what type of athlete their child is.
Happy 4th of July. I’m writing this entry on a plane headed from Cleveland to San Fransisco where I’ll connect to Seattle. Early morning 7 am flight. Ugh. The past five days I was at the combined Woman’s Cadet/Jr World Team Training Camp along with teams from Canada, China and Japan. I will have 14 hours at home to wash my clothes, hang with Beth and get some sleep before heading to San Diego with my high school team. We will be training with Poway High School the next five days. When I return I have exactly two weeks before leaving for the Jr World Championships in Tampere, Finland. Once in Finland we will be attending a week long acclimation camp before the World Championships on August 3&4.
I am very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to be a volunteer coach for USA Wrestling. There are so many ancillary benefits being a part of this (thanks Terry Steiner). Being able to attend world class events, work with highly skilled coaches and athletes, travel to incredible places and compete at the highest level is a special opportunity. Beyond all those great things I cherish most the rich friendships I’ve developed over the years and having to really stretch myself as a coach.
Working with the woman’s program and specifically the World Team is a much different beast than my life’s work of building teams at Lake Stevens High School. I’ve had to look long and hard at how I approach coaching athletes and what my role is with each program. My high school team has my handprints on each and every athlete and we spend years together. For the woman’s program I’m working with athletes I’ve possibly never met before. There are inherent differences between a significantly more individual endeavor in the woman to the building of a high school team within the confines and expectations of an interscholastic program. We have to remember that high school sports are an extension of the learning environment and the end goals are directly tied to the schools mission. In high school we have a broad range of athletes where we hope to provide a healthy experience. In the woman’s program our goals are to develop Olympic level athletes and human beings and the athletes we get to work with are the best in our country and possibly the world at what they do. Most of my high school athletes will finish there career as seniors in high school where as most of the woman have aspirations of competing for years well beyond the Cadet and Jr level. Their journey as a cadet is just starting.
Earning the girls trust is a big deal. They all come to these camps and teams with an engrained set of skills taught to them by some very dedicated coach back in their home program. They have a comfort zone and belief system that takes time to learn. They all have different personalities that require me as a coach to get a feel for as quickly as possible. The USA staff and college coaches at these camps are a valuable source in speeding this process up but unlike my high school kids where I have been that beacon of technique and development there is a steep learning curve with the woman. That said, there are few areas I try to focus on to bring support to each athlete. First, I can be of most help cleaning up small correctable technical issues. There is not enough time to make wholesale changes at these camps nor the time to buck trends and habits they have built over a career but working on small adjustments and cleaning up position is critical to their success. Remember, position travels well. With this new athlete-coach relationship it’s better to ease into it rather than try and hammer on them. I try to be very succinct and always explain why changing a small area would benefit them. They need and want a justification. At the start I mentioned being stretched and this what I’m referring to – being a great teacher and using all my tools to help this athlete. It’s not easy to have an impact unless your really on it as a coach.
Another area is tactics and strategy. On this years team half of the girls have never been to a World Championships. Giving them insight into the subtle differences in the international style and officiating is where my experience can benefit them. Any information you give during training has to go through a filter and the closer we get to competition the tighter that filter becomes. They need to have a clear and confident mind when they step on the mat and each individual will process the information you give them differently.
Last is simple support from working to make there trip as worry free as possible. We cater to the needs of these athletes so they can have a singular focus and feel ready to roll come competition day. They are special and on the days leading up to competition they need to feel special. This is not pampering because what they are doing is very difficult. We don’t do this during training camps or regular practice all year long. This is facilitating the highest level of performance and feeling great is important. There are things I will do for the World Team members that I would make my high school kids do on their own.
It’s a privilege to be a part of this and also an opportunity to hone my craft. I hope you enjoy the sharing of my journey. Go USA!