Blog Post #25 – Wrestle Like A Girl!!!

This past year has been monumental for women’s wrestling in large part due to the work of organizations such as #wrestlelikeagirl and the doubling in states that sanction a high school girls state championships. The recognition and subsequent growth that comes with these events is fueling other states and organizations to jump on the women’s wrestling bandwagon. Ultimately, the groundswell will push the NCAA to eventually move women’s wrestling to a fully sanctioned national tournament worthy sport and in the end provide more opportunities for females as athletes, coaches and administrators. Take a minute to watch the attached video and let’s consider women’s wrestling at the NCAA Div. 1 level.


In 1999 Clarissa Chun became the first high school girls state champion in the nation in the sport of wrestling. Today, we have over 16,000 female participants and that number should increase exponentially in the next few years with the likelihood of more states sanctioning and the continued push from the youth level. In 2012 Clarissa earned a bronze medal in the Olympics. In many sports, an athlete of her elite status would have been granted the opportunity to earn a scholarship at an NCAA Div. 1 institution. Women’s wrestling is on the doorstep to making that happen. Even though the gears of the NCAA bureaucracy churn ever so slowly the foundation that has been built over the past few years will I believe start to open the eyes of the powers that be. Adding wrestling at the NCAA level is a win-win for everyone.

I’ve always thought that the NCAA and State funded universities should serve their state population and it’s tax paying residents. It baffles me that the NCAA will sponsor a sport that isn’t sanctioned at the high school level just to comply with Title IX laws. Take crew for example a sport that is not sponsored by my state high school governing body but yet it’s a sport the NCAA has pushed to relevancy. Rather than sports that are currently offered and participated in at the age group and high school level driving the offerings of at the University the NCAA has dictated what sport it will offer based on what is easiest for it to meet Title IX compliance. Let’s not kid ourselves there are a number of women’s sports added to the NCAA that have no relevance at the high school level and do not serve the states population.

We as a wrestling community should not be solely focused on women’s equity but also racial equality and the bigger picture here. Our most under-served minority population at the collegiate level is the Hispanic and Latino populations. Even though Hispanics and Latinos account for the largest ethnic minority in the US at 17.8% of the total population, according to the US Census, only 4.8% of NCAA athletes are Hispanic or Latino according to statistics from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (IDES). In other words, our higher educational institutions are wholly negligent in the service to the Hispanic or Latino population. Even though I have not researched California’s state university statistics I would assume they fall extremely short of serving their largest minority population as I know Washington State Universities do.  Of all the sports I can think of wrestling other than probably soccer has the largest Hispanic and Latino participation rates. I write this not as a Hispanic or Latino but as a descendant of Germans who lived in Volga Russia where my  ancestors emigrated from to the U.S. for a better life. As such, my parents and I were able to further ourselves through opportunities in collegiate athletics which has in a round about way afforded me the opportunity to write this awesome blog. That of course is another story but a story that should not be limited to me or people of my race.

Not only does this have implications for women’s wrestling but collegiate sports in general as these statistics show just how far we still have to go. I think there are two questions here, shouldn’t the NCAA and state funded Universities serve the state’s population and if Title IX is truly doing it’s job hasn’t it failed the Hispanic and Latino population? Here’s something else to consider, according to the (IDES) non-resident female athletes account for 6.8% of NCAA Div. 1 athletes. Think about that for a minute, our universities do a better job serving people that are not from this country than they do our own minority populations. Bullshit!!! These statistics speak both to wrestling and also our state university athlete population. Take a look at California and Washington, two of the largest states for girls wrestling in the nation and ask yourself if both females and minorities are being served by our state universities? Check out some names of at the recent WCWA National Championships this past week and you will find the likes of Angelina Gomez, Alleida Martinez, Gracie Figueroa, Brenda Reyna and many more with similar Hispanic or Latino heritage. 

Women’s wrestling is very healthy right now. At every level of the sport growth is occurring on record levels. If you, like me believe in accessibility for all and equity in sport you also recognize we still have a long way to go.

Blog entry #18 – Leadership and California Dreaming

My mother is an artist. She is an exquisite piano player even at the age of 86 but that is not her only art form. She is also a painter using oils where the layering and blending of color and texture is quintessential to the outcome of the final piece. She has had an indelible influence on my life and although I have not followed her path as an artist in the medium of oil on canvas I truly believe I bring the same layered approach to my coaching. Like the many techniques of oil painting where color and texture are deftly applied to give depth and richness mindful coaching can be much the same.

cali team

Our team just returned from an awesome trip to the Central Coast or more specifically Santa Cruz CA where we competed in the Pat Lovell Invitational, a 64 team two-day tournament. It was nice to go from 32 degrees and a chance of snow to 65 degrees and sunny skies but the weather is the least of the ancillary benefits of traveling as a team. We of course had a great time and bonded both as teammates and coaches and we experienced a little different style of wrestling which broadened our horizons on the mat but the most significant reward, in my opinion, was the evolution of our leadership.

I believe leadership can come from darn near anyone within your program but to have good leadership it must be an intentional pursuit with the teams best interest in mind. As the head coach I am naturally thrust into a roll of leader and could easily be viewed as the soul leader never fostering others to share in the process. Leadership does not have to be a plural condition within a team and frankly it should be the goal for the team to rise to a level of ownership where there are multiple leaders. I heard this quote a long time ago and it really rings true to me, “The team becomes a true team when the team members take total responsibility for the actions and outcome of the team.” If, I as the head coach take an autocratic approach to my team the development of other leaders can be stunting. Leadership style is rarely black and white and most leadership transitions between styles depending on the what, when and who. Leadership or the analysis of leadership should be a critical and continuous process. Even the naming of “captain” has to be a well thought out operation that at times can be difficult and even heartbreaking. During my career I have named captains who many of my assistants and athletes at the time didn’t understand why but in the end it turned out to be a stroke of genius. I have also went into the season not naming a captain waiting to see who would emerge and there have been seasons when I failed to release ownership to anyone else and I was the captain by forfeit. I do believe however, if captains and assistant coaches are puppets for the head coach the team will easily see through this and the buy-in and ownership will ultimately be stunted. Teams need to collectively develop a set of tenants that all members aspire to and the leadership holds everyone accountable for. Let’s face it autocratic leadership is the way most high school teams, businesses and organizations operate and their rallying call should go, “All for one and one for one!” Doesn’t sound right does it?

Going into this past weekend’s trip we had a void on our team in leadership due to injury and grade issues to a couple of our senior athletes. I have not been satisfied by the teams leadership up to this point even with their addition. This trip has been an excellent opportunity for others to seize the reigns and take on that roll. As a coaching staff I think we give ample room and guidance for this to naturally evolve but when a natural leader in the program goes down it provides an opportunity for others to grow into that space. It is always fun to see who emerges and being away from home where it’s just the team it’s easy to witness the transformation. My hope is when we get back home to the practice room some of our new leaders will merge with the others to form a new dynamic.

Our team leadership void was not the only issue in this realm nagging at me as I stepped onto the plane at SeaTac. I have been very aware that a couple of my assistant coaches were not where I wanted them to be, especially when I was present.  This was not only true at tournaments but very much so in the practice room. Our program needed more out of them. They had a propensity to take on the roll of support personnel rather than grabbing that coaching chair and using their voice. I believe we are stronger when all involved have the confidence to have both input and to challenge the status quo. This is not to say I want coaches running over the top of each other as that would definitely lead me to be much more autocratic, gurrrrrrr. What I do envision them doing is to have the ownership and confidence to assert themselves both in matches and practice. They need to develop a vision in practice of what needs to be done and verbally guide their athletes to success in a passionate and energetic way. This weekend I came into the tournament intent on changing our coaching culture a bit. When we arrived at the tournament Thursday morning I told them I wanted them in the corner for every match and really wanted them to focus on their craft and work on their relationship with the varsity athletes. For much of the season these coaches spend a majority of time with the JV and C-team kids and one of the reasons for bringing them to California was to improve our staff. This was an opportunity for them to get better take on some more responsibility and in the end have a little more ownership. It also provided my other assistant coaches and myself the ability to watch and observe which can be valuable to actually step back and get a different perspective. Sometimes when we are always in the chair we are so close to the forest we never see the trees. I was also able to read five chapters of a great book between matches on my new kindle my wife got me for Christmas, Bam!

It worked. I realized there was change the first night after the tournament when at dinner with the coaches we talked about the team and the days events. The conversations were much more lively and rich. Now the discussion included everyone and was technical, strategic and holistic and most importantly had a passion and ownership that we previously lacked. This intent to change culture will hopefully carry over into the practice room and lead these guys to take even a bigger roll. It can be a trap when the head coach writes and administers the practice plan each and every day with little input from others. I have always encouraged input from my longtime assistants but have been negligent to integrate our younger staff into the mix. We do however have an ongoing text thread for technique and practice planning where I ask for thoughts and ideas which I will take and build each days plan with. This morning I got up to find a text message from one of young assistant coaches with a tic list of things he observed from the tournament. This is progress and growth in leadership and another stroke of oil on canvas.

Blog entry #17 – Practice Toughness

This has been a long week for the Berzerkers. Our run started with a long trip to Montana featuring two days of tough competition and ended with back to back nights of away dual matches culminating with a late Thursday night arrival home after two tough team losses. I front loaded our schedule in December out of necessity to see some specific opponents and attend a couple key tournaments knowing it wouldn’t be easy. There is a level of individual and collective toughness that is necessary to compete at a high level over such a grueling stretch. This part of our journey is all a test regardless and the outcome on the scoreboard is insignificant compared to how we as a team handle these challenges and what we take from it in terms of growth. Going into this stretch is like buckling your seat belt because there’s going to be a few jolts getting from zero to a hundred in such a short distance. By Wednesday night I could see the teams tank getting pretty emotionally empty. Like any difficult endeavor wrestling requires passion and emotion to get to that fine line of excellence. We knew going in what the challenge was and what was needed but still didn’t have that extra “toughness” that was required. I can’t count how many times as a coach I’ve said you need to be tough or toughen up or this is gonna be tough without ever defining what I really mean when I use the term “tough.”

We define our sport by the word Toughness. As coaches and participants we drape ourselves in a cloak of perceived mental and physical rigor that we believe few others are willing to burden. When we describe a great wrestler we refer to them most often as “tough.” When we don’t succeed we usually reason that we were not tough enough or our opponent was just tougher than us. To be honest I can’t say if our opponents were any tougher than we were the other night but I can tell you they had better energy, intensity, in some cases technique and strength and ultimately more points on the scoreboard but I must admit I left the gym with the initial thought that we were not very tough. I’ve really contemplated this “toughness” issue and it’s led me to postulate on what the term toughness really means. It’s so much a part of our sport and our code as wrestlers we have three very visible references to it in our practice room alone.

Toughness by definition is:



adjective, tough·er, tough·est.

1 strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.

Pretty simple, but I think we or at least I put a lot more meaning into this one word, so much so I believe specific sports create their own individual definition of what toughness means. For example, I view toughness in part as the ability to toil or endure the monotony required in a sport where part of its practice requires repetition. In football you may use the term as how well a guy takes or delivers a hit. How about those individuals who are disciplined enough to set and live by strict priorities, isn’t this toughness? Is moral integrity part of toughness or how about the grit to keep getting up when you’ve been knocked down time and time again? Dealing with both success and failure in a way that continues growth requires both maturity and a certain level of toughness in my opinion. The human nature or psychology of “fight or flight” will contribute to wether we are perceived as tough or even weak. The caveman that hung around to fight the tiger was only as tough as a piece of chuck roast in the end while the caveman who ran and survived stakes his claim for toughness on being durable and a survivor. So, toughness is a broad term we throw around in the wrestling room like a Suples’ dummy and can mean many things to many people. The term toughness is like the concept of love – we know it when we feel it but it’s hard to describe. I do however, love toughness.

In recent years I have tried to define what I mean by toughness to my team. Good communication is good coaching and I want my charges to fully understand what it means to be tough in the Lake Stevens Wrestling Program. We practice toughness daily and I define to the wrestlers what this means. It means we come prepared to the wrestling room with the discipline to focus and be present. We wrestle through nagging injuries and practice dealing with hardship. We sacrifice for others and at times put our needs aside to assist others. We never quit no matter how bad the beating. We keep our chin up and refrain from self pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. We show self-control and poise in the face of extreme adversity or antagonism. We never make excuses or blame someone else for our failures. We do our best, exhibited by our actions (this is important – don’t tell. Show!) no matter what the situation.

That’s a lot of meaning for one word but since we should be transparent in what we say and what we say is usually what we think it behooves us to define exactly what we are thinking when we utter the word toughness.

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! 

Blog entry #5 – The meaning of life

This past weekend I drove Highway 2 through the wheat fields of Eastern Washington with my son Burke to go camping. I have driven these roads before but it’s been quite a while. Sailing through the rolling hills of wheat for as far as the eye can see reminded me of what really matters.

Like so many coaches I went into this career to make a difference. As a teenager I had some struggles and there were coaches in my life who helped me not only get through the tough times but be successful. When I graduated from college and went into teaching/coaching I wanted to have the same impact on young people that my coaches had on me. I also wanted to have a winning program. I envisioned a program that won many state titles, competed on the national level and where our town had one of those welcome signs that said, Lake Stevens Home of the 12-time State Wrestling Champions.  We eventually got the titles but not the sign. It’s ironic that there is no sign because in the end it is not the trophy’s, championships or welcome signs that matter it is something much deeper.

At the beginning of my career developing a successful program seemed so easy and winning our schools first state title was honestly intoxicating. I brought the trophy home and placed it on our mantle for a couple of weeks. There were nights I would get out of bed, sit on the couch and just stare at it having to pinch myself.  We did it I can’t believe we did it. Watching my dad coach for years and never win a title surly put some added value on the accomplishment. I know it may sound naive and simple but that’s what we are when we’re young. I truly wanted to just build a championship program never really  thinking about building a bunch of relationships. In reality that’s exactly what we do each every day is build all different types of relationships. 

Throughout that spring and into the summer I rode a high that spurred me to work even harder on winning.  My team returned some key members one of which was a kid named Matt who had placed 4th in a very tough weight class. Matt was named our captain for the upcoming season. Like me at his age Matt was a kid that struggled outside of wrestling. His dad Robert, a former wrestling coach had died in a plane accident when Matt was eight years old. Matt was searching for a male role model and found one in me when I showed up his freshman year. We hit it off and I couldn’t have been prouder of a kid for turning the corner and cleaning is life up.

At wrestling camp that summer we had some long reflective conversations about alcohol, drugs and the future. Matt had confided that he had been sober for a few months and that he was working hard to put that stage of his life behind him. He also told me he wanted to wrestle in college and become a teacher like his dad. I left camp feeling really good about where he was headed and excited for the upcoming season. The captain of my team had battled demons and was ready to lead. I felt this team, with this leader and the returning members could make a serious run at another state championship. On the way back from Idaho I dropped Matt off at rest stop in the middle of wheat country in Eastern WA. He was going to work his uncle’s wheat farm for the remainder of the summer. It was a very hot day when he shook my hand and thanked me. We hugged and said our good byes. I got back in the car, air conditioning on high and drove away waving to Matt.  He sat on his bag in the grass waving back while waiting for his uncle to come pick him up.

Coaching has always been a season to season endeavor for me.  Looking at each team as an individual entity I work to shore up the weak spots, fill the spaces vacated by graduating seniors and finding the right leaders to bring it all together is part of the craft I enjoy most.  I’m like that wheat farmer who each year busts his ass to make sure his crop yields the best returns.  Sometimes there are things out of our control like weather or maybe not having the right mix of kids to work with that affect the outcome. One thing good farmers and coaches do is to take care of all the variables within their control to ensure the best possible crop. We can sleep well at night knowing we did everything necessary to achieve the highest level of success given that years components.

It was now mid-July and with camp over summer vacation was in full swing. In the summer of 1990 Seattle hosted the Goodwill Games and I had a job mat side running the video for protests and reviews. Upon returning home from camp I was in a state of wrestling euphoria. The greatest wrestlers in the world were going to descend on Seattle and I would have front row seats. I knew many of the competitors from my college days and was looking forward to re-connecting with some old friends.  Things couldn’t get any better.

Enjoying an easy morning with no pressing commitments I had just finished a cup of coffee and the daily paper when the phone rang. I can’t remember now who was on the other end but if I was to guess it was probably my assistant coach Dean. On the other end of the line was news that Matt had died in a motorcycle accident going out to work the wheat fields that morning. I learned later he was following his uncle out to fields on his motor cycle. Matt didn’t see him come to an abrupt stop because of the dust cloud and rammed the back of the truck crushing his chest and dying on the spot.

Up to that point in my 26 year life, other than my grandparents I had never lost someone I was close to. The next weekend I drove the four hours to the small farming town of Harrington to attend Matt’s funeral. The air was bent by the heat and sadness of the day. In the middle of a field a small white church held Matt’s family, a minister, a group of twenty or so of his Harrington friends and a small number of people from Lake Stevens.  Stocks of wheat, brown and dry waved in the afternoon wind. Matt’s body lay in an open casket flanked by memorabilia of youth. Bouquets of wheat, handwritten notes, key chains, a couple cans of chewing tobacco and other fragments of shared memory.  I leaned over and again said my goodbyes to Matt and in turn much of my innocence. My farewells at the rest area just days before held hope and anticipation now were replaced with an abrupt finality of emptiness. On the lonely drive back through those wheat fields I sobbed like I had never before.  I couldn’t stop saying to myself, “we were just getting started, we were just getting started.” My feelings were only eclipsed by the pain I felt for Matt’s mom who had now lost both her husband and son way too early in life.

When I got back to my family that day I can remember how tired I was and how hard it was to look at my own little daughter and son without feeling a sense of fragility. Life could be so cruel and unpredictable. I cried for the first time in front of my son that day knowing full and well there are no guarantees that life will go just as we plan.

In the following weeks and months the hurt and loss was replaced by the great memories of Matt.  I went to the Goodwill Games and watched one of the greatest victories in wrestling history as the US defeated Russia in a thrilling and dominate performance. It was cathartic to get back to the sport and lose myself in the event. The next season would come and pass with a heaviness I didn’t know how to change or prevent. We all thought about Matt a lot that year and still do even to this day.

Ultimately, this tragic moment taught me the most profound lesson of my life and altered how I look at coaching. I realized on that day the State titles and championships won are truly secondary to the relationships we build. Working toward goals are great but the definitive accomplishment in all that work is rather shallow if we don’t create meaningful relationships along the way.  As coaches and teachers we may never really know the true value of the moments we share with our athletes and students. Losing Matt made me realize how his experiences on earth were highlighted by what he did in the wrestling program and the deep and meaningful relationships he developed in his short life. Every once in awhile when we are chasing down those titles and grinding away at the sport we need to remind ourselves of what is truly important as there’s no guarantee it will last for long.