Blog entry #16 – Counting coup….

Our travels this weekend took us east to the start of the Great Plains and ancient war fields of the Crow Nation. We wrestled in the Sydney Eagle Invitational in Sydney Montana a short two hour flight and five hour bus ride from Seattle.

Indian tribes from as far west as the Pacific Coast and east to the Missouri River Valley utilized the ancient practice of counting coup. Counting coup was a method Indians gained prestige as warriors by acts of bravery against the enemy. During the season individual wrestlers will take small steps in much the same way. I always evaluate who made a positive step toward improvement or becoming a vital part of a state championship run. It may be a kid who places for the first time in a tough weight bracket or knocks off a state placer. It may be as simple as competing for a hard six minutes or moving up a weight class and taking one for the team. Counting coup could also be an act of leadership or selflessness. Whatever the case these positive steps are a great teachable moment and chance to acknowledge when an athlete is making improvements. It’s easy to leave a long weekend tired and defeated if all you’re worried about is outcome but if you approach the sport from a process based focus the victory is in the learning.

This being the first weekend to count coup of the season I really boned in on some bright spots for our team. So much of the sport is mental and you hear people say that all the time but rarely do we have a concrete approach to improving the mental challenges of the wrestlers. Mental changes are also the hardest things to change in my opinion. It’s easy to except mental challenges of your athletes as “That’s just the way he/she is” or “they are who they are” and move on. What a terrible pigeon hole to put a kid in. I believe as long as a kid keeps showing up there’s always an opportunity to help them overcome the mental hurdles that may be standing in the way of success. We’ve all coached the kid who is talented, skilled, works hard and practices well but when they get in competition they can’t seem to be that person. Coup is so important for these types of kids. Little steps of confidence and moments of self actualization can go a long way toward overcoming what’s happening in their mind once it comes to competition.

In one of my early posts I shared my struggles with being a nervous athlete and how I came to coach from a process based approach. Even though I won more than I lost I really responded to steady acknowledgement of little victories to keep my head above the mental flood plane. One of my athletes this weekend who has battled confidence issues among other things I was really hoping would catch some coup. He works hard, is talented, has wrestled for a long time but just can’t get past himself to cut loose, let go of baggage and scrap. After his first match this weekend (a loss) I shared with him how he constantly looked over at me during matches. When something out of sorts took place like giving up a takedown or not cutting clean from underneath he would glance at me. I shared with him that I felt like he was constantly looking for approval or disapproval and that he was in a constant state of self analysis and self judgement. It’s an engrained habit for this young man and to simply say, “hey quit critiquing yourself during matches” is just too simplistic of an answer. During competition is not the time to go through a critique. Compete without judgement or the fear of failure. This negative behavior shows in his wrestling when the slightest thing out of the ordinary occurs he momentarily stops. He could take a perfect shot and in the battle to finish just let go of the leg. We ask why in the world would you let go of the leg when the guy just sprawled on you but for him it’s a series of math problems where he is constantly checking to see if he got the answer right mid-equation. So, in an attempt to find a way to help him focus through a sport that is not black and white but very gray and there is no time to stop and self-critique I came up with a mantra. I discussed with him what I was seeing in his wrestling and the momentary gaps. I told him a match was a series of problem solving activities. For many athletes who don’t suffer from this in-competition self analysis they just flow from situation to situation never thinking about what went wrong. It’s their fight instinct and survival take over. For others like my athlete they don’t respond the same the fly when faced with the adrenaline rush. It is probably unfathomable to even have some thought of analysis in their brain for the fight response athlete but for this kid it’s a real flight situation and a major hurdle in his path to success or even enjoying the act of the sport. My mantra from the corner this weekend was “solve the next problem.” In other words this is code for “focus on the here and now, don’t worry about what went right or wrong and let’s deal with where we are at right now.”

After the tournament I felt like this may be one usable mental warfare tool in what is a private and personal battle. He responded positively and in that counted coup. We talked, like we have so many times before that this issue was not going to be solved in a day or week and it will take more practice and diligence than learning a new move or wrestling technique but it is surly fixable. There must be hope.

According to ancient Crow tradition warriors who counted coup are permitted to wear an eagle feather in their hair. If the warrior is wounded in the act they are required to paint the feather red signifying their sacrifice. There are many red feathers earned in wrestling and this weekend we put a few red feathers in our hair.

Blog entry #15 – Lamb shanks and a good Syrah

For me, the early season is akin to crafting a fine wine. Good grapes, high quality yeast, new oak, a vigilant eye and a soft touch. It’s a slow deliberate process that takes patience and an understanding that the wine at crush will mature to be something totally different after it ages in the barrel for a year or three.

Today was practice 14 of the season and we are definitely getting the itch to compete.  One thing I feel good about is our intent during this period to really instill some good habits on position and general technique. Our ratio of teaching-drill-live at this time of year is somewhere around 40%/40%/20% and really that stat must come with a caveat that much of our drilling is also introduction of new technique through the natural progression many of our base drills use. Ha! You may ask how we get our team ready to compete with so little live and the answer would be pace of practice. I also don’t really give a rat’s ass if we are ready right now as I want to be ready in February and we will sacrifice now for later. Long bouts of early live lead to the reinforcement of the same old bad habits, increased chance of injury and late season burnout. This being the “comfort food” months let’s do a low and slow braise with these kids so at the end they will be very flavorful and succulent. Yummy! Our practice pace is very high and even though we are teaching a lot it is always on the run and wrestlers are hardly ever stationary for any length of time and that in itself will allow us to build a good conditioning base. I don’t like sitting or standing around in practice so we don’t do it much.  To instill good habits we need to have a good period of time where we teach-drill-situational live-re-teach-drill and on and on. Some research says that it takes 21 days to change a habit. I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds good and seems like three weeks is a great stretch early in the season to instill some good behaviors. We incorporate so much technique into drills that teaching and drilling are often interchangeable and hard to isolate. After Christmas we will actually ramp up the live and start to build both a better wrestling/conditioning base and mental toughness. Than at some point in mid-January we will revisit many of the base drills we did in the first few weeks. After weeks of long live-wrestling there is a natural loss of clean technique that can easily be recovered by revisiting some of the base drills we did in November. I liken it to the touch of lemon and seasoning you add at the end of a delicious Osso Bucco.

In high school wrestling with a broad base of experience in the room and large numbers (we are currently at 65 kids) it can be tough to meet everyone’s needs. We of course want to get our experienced wrestlers ready for the rigorous events in the coming weeks but we also have to be cognizant of the younger wrestlers and their need for remediation and a slower technical pace. If we treat the youngsters the same way we do the veterans we can risk chasing them off. So, how do we manage all this?

Morning practices are one way to separate the experienced group and focus in on their specific needs. Morning is also a great time to teach. We will run for 20 or so minutes before we hit the wrestling room and start instruction. This way they are awake and haven’t had an entire day of school beforehand to muddle the learning process. In wine tasting there is such a thing as palate fatigue and in learning there most definitely can be mental fatigue after a long day of school. When a kid gets to the wrestling in the afternoon sometimes it’s nice to just go and not have to be taught to. That’s why sometimes I like to just drink the wine rather than taste it. With this in mind we do a lot of hard drill and live in the afternoon on the double days. One negative with morning practices is kids in general do not change their sleep patterns and are exhausted after a couple consecutive days of two-a-days. To manage this we don’t have morning practices every day and when we do practice in the morning we generally cut the afternoons short for the older kids. I am a true believer in respecting our athlete’s time and making sure they have ample time to do their homework and take care of their needs outside the world of school and wrestling. In turn I ask them to respect the process and practice time by being totally engaged and present. Teenagers want to be treated with respect and fairness and by being acutely aware of the demands on our athletes it gives us an opportunity to foster a better work relationship. It’s also nice to walk out into the day light every once in a while as wrestling season can feel like you’re living in a dungeon for three months. Limited hours of daylight are especially true here in the Great Northern Hemisphere and home of the Berzerkers. Morning practice also allows us time to remediate and slow down the teaching for the younger kids in the afternoon when the older kids are released. On days we don’t have morning practice we will go a little longer and use some practice time to put the younger group in the weight room (all our older kids have  morning lift class) and we use that time to speed things up for the older kids (meaning a little more live).

I love practice and the start of the season with basically three weeks to really focus in on technique without weigh-ins and competition hanging over our heads every other day is very enjoyable. Almost as enjoyable as a nice Tuscan Roast Lamb paired with a Chianti Classico.

Blog entry #14 – Ch-ch-ch-ch, changes – Turn and face the strange.

One of the great things about being a coach is the new beginnings and influx of new athletes into the program each year. This also gives us the chance to evaluate what we do and where we are going as a program. I try to make small changes, additions and subtractions each year. These are usually technical or involve practice structure. Some years it delves deeper into who we as coaches are, our approach toward athletes and if we can improve that essential athlete-coach relationship. But, wow man that’s deep and takes some serious self analysis some of which can be uncomfortable. My wife has been trying to mold me for 36 years so I fully understand the toil and commitment it requires. Or at least she does. (The picture below has nothing to do with this post other than Ike Anderson is an awesome dude. I’m the dude on the left and Ike’s on the right.)

I think we owe it to our athletes to keep it fresh and improve our craft just as we ask them to improve their’s. Some of these kids, if they are in our club, will have seen hundreds of practices you as a coach have administered. If there is no change, improvement or addition it can get pretty darn stagnant for the athlete and possibly inhibit growth. Plus, it behooves us to stay current on technique and the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes of the sport. Good programs have routine, rituals and a steady culture that is driven by philosophy. This is essential as athletes learn best within a system. That stated, if you don’t change, adapt or seek best practices as a coach/program you my fine feathered friends will be left in the nest never to truly spread your wings and sore like the champion you were meant to be.

Ok, I went a little far there. As you know I’ve been coaching a while but even so I have been frustrated with my teams ability to attack offensively from neutral (feet). I’ve watched the Japanese woman for years now and their willingness to attack is impressive. They have great position and that helps but they are also willing to roll the dice a number of times in a match. Being a guy who loves Vegas I can appreciate this mind set. They may shoot 5-6-7 times in a match but finish only twice. How do they get away with this and why so many chances? Where’s the strategy in this crazy attackfest? Because they can. Haha, they finish twice and get on top the match may and probably will end in a leg lace. But, they can do this because their SHOT RECOVERY is exceptional and their CONFIDENCE IN THEIR ABILITY TO RECOVER from a poor position very high. So, I’m thinking they must spend a lot of mindful practice time from shot recovery positions. I’ve asked but I never get a straight answer. Probably because they’re speaking Japanese and don’t want me to know their secrets anyway.

You know the little kid wrestler who perfects the Olympic roll or cement mixer early on and never shoots because they learn its safer to cement mix than it is to go underneath their opponent on a shot? The same kid gets to high school and lacks a decent leg attack or more importantly the belief they can score on leg attacks. Confidence and trust is king and wrestlers learn by experience. With this in mind I decided to front load my teaching and drilling this year with shot recovery rather than penetration and attack like I’ve done in the past. In an attempt to get my athletes comfortable underneath someone on a leg I’ve purposefully emphasized this position prior to attacking. I don’t know if this will have a huge effect on my high school kids as many of them have wrestled quite a while and are already set in their ways to a certain extent. This is however, an example of ch-changes and attempting to improve what we are doing after analyzing where we need to improve. I am encouraging my middle school and kids coaches to apply this approach of teaching backwards to their programs and see if it positively effects their ability/willingness to attack legs. Lots of shot recovery and finish positions on the front end to build that confidence.

Hopefully, you can ask me in three months if this small ch-ch-ch-ch-change benefited our program.

These lyrics by the way are awesome – look inside RIP David Bowie.

I still don’t know what I was waiting for

And my time was running wild

A million dead-end streets

Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

So I turned myself to face me

But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Blog entry #13 – First and last we remember the most.

Today is the First Day of Wrestling practice at Lake Stevens High School yippee! The power is out due to a wind storm but School is still a go. An ominous start to the season.

Even though the first legal practice is today there was a ton of work by both wrestlers and coaches put in prior to this first day. Morning conditioning, off-season club practices, pre-season tournaments are all the normal activities but there is an ongoing educational process most great coaches and wrestlers partake in on their own to prepare. I️ read books that will give me some nugget I️ can use to enhance my craft. Most coaches attend preseason clinics to get them going and add to their acumen. I️ also try and visit a University program or the like, prior to the season to get some juice. This year I️ spent four days at the OTC working with Terry Steiner and the woman’s program. I️ am ready and excited to get this thing going.

One thing I’m a true believer in is having a plan. It’s not only best practice to have a daily plan it’s also a liability necessity. If anything ever happens within your program where a lawsuit is brought you as a coach need a record that shows you covered the essentials of safety and your structure sought to best protect your athletes.

This morning I’m planning the first practice of my 31st season at Lake. I️ have every practice plan I’ve ever written stored in my office. I️ keep last years plans close at hand so I️ can refer back to them on occasion. This is not just a technical tool, it’s a lesson plan and a journal or what we did, how we did it, when we did it, why we did it and what was talked about beyond Wrestling each and every day.

Beyond the daily plan I️ have a season plan and a end of the season plan for peek performance. These are great tools to provide direction and a resource for guidance.

Technically, I️ as a coach want to know what I’ve covered and in what detail. If there is a glaring weakness in our team technically we can usually refer back to the plan to see if we have been deficient in our instruction or focus.

One of the great things about this job is the new beginnings we get to experience. Each and every year there’s a new start and with that new start there is hope and wonder. The possibilities in front of us and the work building up to this day gives confidence that this year will be a success.

Blog entry 12 – What I talk about when I’m talking about wrestling. 

Just spent the weekend in Colorado Springs working with the woman’s program and spending time with a number of coaches. Anytime I’m with another wrestling coach there is learning to be had and the growth can be transformative. We should never stop learning and trying to hone our craft. I’m a true believer that if you don’t change you eventually won’t continue to maintain or build success. The subjects covered this weekend were as follows – technique (pressuring opponents from neutral, being purposeful with our hands, using fakes to pressure, shot recovery, go behinds, front headlocks, double up shots and a bunch of other cool stuff), practice planning, motivation, integrity/humility (Thomas Gilman), peaking, dealing with different personalities, the issues facing the elite athlete outside of the wrestling room, a need for a life class after wrestling for our  World and Olympic team members, beer, the process and being mindful and how to properly grill a steak. Whew! That’s a lot in two days and I didn’t even get to all the awesome friendship stuff and the bonding. 

Since we are on the subject of working on our craft this would be a great time to share my coaches reading list. So much of the sport revolves around understanding people. Reading gives us so much insight and reflection it is, I believe, essential to truly expand as a coach or teacher. 

I will warn you that my list is not your standard coaching fare. Here’s the list with a related blurb. 

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy – a real account of an athlete dealing with not only the struggles of attending the Citadel but also an account of having a toxic parent. 

Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood by Jeffrey Marx – This is a great lesson in how to treat athletes, what a programs focus should be and how thinking out of the box can lead to success. 

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey – If you are into focus, mental preparation, THE PROCESSS, applicable practice situations to improve both mentally and technically. This may be about tennis but it has so much information that applies to all sports, especially wrestling. I give this book to all my athletes who struggle with performance anxiety. 

The Water Is Wide – a memoir by Pat Conroy – If you’re a young teacher you need to read this. If you’re a teacher and work in a school of diversity this is required reading. 

Old Man and the Sea –  Earnest Hemingway – An epic struggle with incredible connections to psychology. 

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee – A portrait of an athlete striving for perfection by a great author in McPhee. 

Trying To Save Piggy Snead by John Irving – Irving was a college wrestler and even coached his boys when they were in high school. In this book he has notes on pararalels between writing and wrestling. His description of Dan Gable is fantastic. 

Last but not least….

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl- What really drives people to survive in harrowing situations? You can choose a few things in life. 

Blog entry #11 – another beginning

It’s been a while since I last posted. A lot of things have kept me away from the blog including a shoulder operation, travel and the start of a new school year. 

In a week I start my 33rd season as a coach and 31st at Lake Stevens. I have never thought of myself as a creature of habit but teaching and coaching in the same school for 31 years is a dead giveaway. There is a history and rhythm to being in one place so long. A connection to the past links me to a time and people that are long gone but lives vividly in my mind. What they say about the first and last memories are true. I can mentally account for my first team at Lake Stevens like it was yesterday. When I arrived there were 800 students in four grades and now we have over 2,600. My schools size and demographic have changed but my mission is still the same – take each and every student/athlete as far as I can as a human being, student and athlete. This has been the opening salvo of my coaching philosophy from day one and it still is today. This past weekend I was inducted into the Washington Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. It was a fantastic honor and also an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done and who has helped me along the way. I have been fortunate to share this journey with my family and two assistant coaches who have stuck with me from the start. It’s amazing to think that the three of us coaches have plugged away at this for over three decades now. I believe the reason are many but one thing we all share is a common philosophical statement. We believe helping kids become good adults is paramount and trumps winning, losing and all the other outcome based accessories some people deem so important. Outcome is always a function of process and philosophy. Another reason I believe our staff has stuck together is ownership and having a roll. We all know what we best bring to the table and take ownership of the program. This great pride each of us has is a precursor to the toil and dedication it takes to be successful over a long period of time. If I was a young coach starting a program the selection of assistant coaches would be the biggest duty I would take. I was extremely lucky to stumble onto the guys I work with but there was also some training that occurred along the way. We have definitely grown together and our desire to continuously improve has been a hallmark of our careers. 

As we head into this upcoming season I look forward to working with my long time coaching partners as much as I do the great kids we have in our program. Our time together as a staff is precious and fleeting. I realized this past weekend that I am much closer to the end than I am to the beginning. Crazy how it creeps up on you. 

My goal is to post regularly throughout the season as an in-depth look at what a high school wrestling coach sees and thinks. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I do. 

Blog entry #10 – Don’t be fooled by the fat guy jogging down the road. 

We are in trouble. It’s easy to be clouded by the recent successes in the wrestling world but there is an underlying, incidious trend in our sport that if we don’t act now will eventually be our downfall. 

At 40 I ran a 3:18 marathon weighing 206 pounds. Today I can run maybe a 10 min mile without stopping at 215 lbs. After a mile I have to stop because my hip gets tight. If you drive past me on the road you might say, “wow he is still running great after all these years.” But they keep driving and don’t see me stop and walk the next half mile. Viewing the world through small positive snapshots can be deceiving. 

This summer’s wrestling has been off the charts positive. USA Wrestling’s performance this summer can be deceiving. Kinda like when I go for a run around the block. At first glance wrestling in this country looks as good as it’s ever been and in many ways it is. I believe our National Team will be at the top of the world for years to come. Woman’s wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in our country and could be making inroads into Div 1 Universities. The NCAA Tournament is incredibly successful and a true spectacle. In some parts of the country youth and high school wrestling is as popular as ever. Things look pretty good. I truly believe our best wrestlers coming out of high school are better than ever. Things are good, ahh. 

Now for the multiple knee and ankle operations, the bad hip and saggy paunch around the midsection of this story. Wrestling is in trouble. According to Mike Moyer and the NWCA the statistics tell us high school participation for boys has declined the past six years with year seven trending the same. 

I didn’t have to see the statistics to know we’ve declined as I’ve watched this trend for the past 10 years in my home state. Not only have our numbers declined in our state but the over-all quality of wrestling has declined. There is not as much push from the bottom up. In high school wrestling there are more forfeits, fewer exciting and crowd building dual meets and therefore less school/community wide interest. From Andy Hamilton’s article last spring, one issue Moyer sees is the lack of home dual meets for high school programs. He said the average has dipped to three home duals per season. Moyer also stated that we need to give the average wrestler a reason to stick with the sport. I agree, we have to make a concerted effort to bring back the dual meet so we can sell our sport to our community. It’s hard though to find the kind of competition that puts people in the seats. 

The above is true, dual meets are important but what Moyer is saying is a symptom of a bigger problem. We are not seeing the fat guy walk as we drive out of sight. The statistics are symptoms of a greater disease. I believe there are two major issues facing wrestling and are at the core of our decline in numbers. 

The most substantial reason for our decline is a lack of quality coaches. Let me repeat that – WE ARE NOT PRODUCING ENOUGH QUALITY COACHES! We are not putting quality coaches in the pipeline as we once did and with the addition of woman’s wrestling the need is even greater. We have fewer and fewer teacher/coaches going into the profession and therefore we have fewer coaches on campus. Putting together large teams takes oversight, time, recruitment and if you show up at 3:00 each day that’s tough to do. There are outliers to this but the best programs generally have coaches that are on staff and in building. 

If we don’t do something about the slow drip of coaches going into education we will continue to decay and wrestling in many states will become a club sport. I would argue that teacher colleges have done more for the sport of wrestling than any other institution or group simply because of the incredible impact teacher/coaches have had on the sport. The downside is we’ve lost so many of these programs to cuts over the years. 

The second issue we face is Football. America’s sport. The sport that, through brain trauma studies and leading the statistics in catastrophic injuries is still very popular and the king of sports on most high school campuses. Here’s the kicker, football is now a year around sport. With the advent of 7 on 7, speed and agility training, off season strength and conditioning and a change in the fundamental scheme that is played, football lends itself to year around training. Wrestling is losing athletes that were at one time their best ally. In 1954 my dad started the wrestling program at his high school as an off-season training  activity for football and an alternative to basketball. Wrestling was and still is a great partner to football but it’s not the trend we are seeing at the high school level. This is especially true with high powered high school football programs like the one at my school. 

It’s not that football is the only sport to become a year around endeavor. Baseball, soccer and pretty much everything else including wrestling are now year around. Sports that wrestling once drew our core athletes from, not the state champs but the athletes that filled out the dual meets that Moyer is talking about are too busy specializing. The only hope in my opinion to again capture some of these athletes is a quality in-building coach. Here in lies the conundrum previously stated – we are losing quality coaches to retirement who is going to take their place and recruit these athletes? 

#wrestling #coaching #nwca #beatthestreets #prowl #nfhs #usawrestling

Blog entry #9 – It’s all about the journey.

Of all the things I’m most proud of during my coaching career providing young people with the opportunity to see the country or world is at the top of the list. Travel affords us a plethora of lessons and learning experiences and it may just be the spark that leads an individual to personal heights otherwise unreachable. One of the reasons I’ve not posted in a while is I’ve been traveling – I’m a voyager at heart fostered by my trips as a high school wrestler.

In 1978, as a junior in high school I took part in an exchange trip to Germany.  Part of the trip included a training camp and the AAU National Tournament. The week prior to leaving for Germany was spent at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. Not knowing it at the time but this turned into an epic week for this boy from Puyallup, Washington.

I crossed paths for the first time with Dave Schultz. He was a year ahead of me in high school but was training with the senior world team. He was battling in practices with the likes of Humphreys, Lee Kemp and Andre’ Metzger as I was thinking how tired I was getting up three hours earlier from the time change. During the training camp some of the World Team members and their training partners provided a technique clinic for the 300 plus high school wrestlers. Watching Dave show technique I couldn’t get past that he was relatively the same age as me and was leading the clinic like a seasoned teacher. Like all wrestlers we size everyone up, especially if they are our weight class and I had to ask myself, “how would I do against him.” We were at very different levels but this experience in itself gave me an idea of the possibilities in our sport. I believe he placed in the Tiblisi Tournament earlier that year. He was the first and probably only one of two true wrestling phenom’s I’ve seen over the years (I watched firsthand Sadulaev win Cadet Worlds the year he went on to win Senior Worlds and I said to my friend sitting next to me that is the toughest 18 year old I have ever seen.) I never got to watch Dave wrestle at 18 as it was way before the world wide web and believe it or not personal video. As a note of significance: in USA Wrestling history the World Team was still governed by AAU hence the training camp situation along side the AAU Nationals even though the premier high school tournament and largest tournament in the country was USWF Nationals in Iowa City. A few years later USWF would become USA Wrestling’s governing body leaving AAU in the dust.

Two days later I experienced another wrestling great but this time it was up close and personal.  In the finals of AAU Jr Nationals I wrestled a cat named Nate Carr who at the time was considered one of the best high school wrestler in the country. Also in my bracket was the older brother of Rico Chiapparelli and Iowa State All-American Murray Crews. For me, making the finals at a National Tournament and wrestling some pretty good competition along the way was my coming out party as a wrestler. This was my first exposure to wrestling out of state and when I realized I could do really do this.

After getting a my butt whooped by Nate my fellow Washington teammate, Mitch Powers and I snuck into the city of Chicago to watch Eric Clapton play alongside Muddy Waters at Chicago Stadium in what was a monumental blues/rock moment. This was my introduction to blues and an experience that has for sure made my life richer. The the trip back to Concordia that night was very sketchy but a story for another time. I’m sure our coaches would not have been happy if they knew just exactly where we were at early that morning.

What an eye opening experience. In a matter of three days I was afforded the opportunity by some very gracious coaches to see and meet Dave Schultz and Nate Carr, watch music icons Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters and navigate the south side of Chicago at one in the morning, pretty big stuff for a hayseed from Puyallup,WA. All this and we still had a trip to Germany to attend to.

Years later while sitting in my office talking about the upcoming season’s schedule I said to my assistant, “what do you think about taking these guys to the Virginia Duals?” He laughed and than we went to work making it happen. You must realize, Lake Stevens, WA is a far stretch from Norfolk, VA and a trip for twenty people for a wrestling tournament is a lot to ask of the administration, parents and wrestlers. Fortunately, we had garnered some success and had a little clout with our administration who was very accommodating. It helped that I took my Athletic Director and strength and conditioning coach with us to make this an opportunity for more than just the team and coaches. That initial trip in 1998 started it all and the experience for many of these kids who had never been out of the state before was a selling point for years to come. One of the edicts I’ve always maintained about travel and my high school wrestling program is that it must be beneficial to the wrestling team first and foremost. The wrestling component of the trip is paramount and we will not take a trip just to go on a trip. Of course, no matter where we travel there will be ancillary educational benefits but the wrestling competition must fit the needs of our team. Since that inaugural trip we have attended the Powerade Tournament in Western PA, wrestled in the Phillipsburg Duals in Eastern PA, competed in the Final Four in Easton PA against the likes of Blair Academy, High Point, NJ and Easton. We have traveled to Minnesota for “The Clash” and competed against Apple Valley and many other nationally ranked programs. We have traveled south to California to The Doc B, Torrance Tournament of Champions and El Cajon. We have watched the ball drop in Times Square twice and been greeted in the office of Washington Senator Patty Murray in Washington DC.  We just recently spent a week in San Diego this past summer working out with Poway HS. All this on top of the trips to numerous college campuses, Vegas, Fargo, Western Regionals and many others have opened our kids eyes to the places, people, culture and possibilities that are available to them if they are willing to take the step. The lessons of travel are many and go from taking care of yourself, dealing with others in close quarters for an extended period of time, being respectful of other people and their ways, eating strange food, being flexible, being attentive to your surroundings and maybe the most important – breaking down stereotypes.

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook a picture of a trophy in a box of junk I found while cleaning the garage. The trophy was one my son, Burke had won at the prestigious Powerade Tournament his junior year in high school. The trophy got taken to the dump but the memories of that trip, the great competition and watching the ball drop on New Years Eve in NYC, like my trip to Chicago as a kid, will last a lifetime.

Sitting in hotel room in Berlin, Germany this past week during the Charlottesville, VA attacks and protests I reflected on the history of Berlin, the insidious nature of bigotry and racism and what can happen in a society that allows hate to grow and fester. I also recognized all the great people I ran across in my travels to Germany, their kindness and how they have taken in a record number of refugees and function in what may be one of, if not the most diverse country in the world. I thought about how their horrific past has molded their current country and how we can continue to learn valuable lessons from it. I reflected on my trip to Auschwitz years ago and what atrocities hate can reap. The wider scope of thought and understanding is fostered by travel and spending time meeting others. The true gift of travel is learning the average person, no matter where they live is not much different than us and like us wants peace in this world.

#wrestling, #coaching, #travel, #usawrestling

Blog Entry #8 – Releasing your child to the sport.

Burke and I

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.

Go Team USA – Blog entry #7

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!