My oldest son started wrestling this year. He had practiced before, but this was the first season he actually wrestled competitive matches. I had coached several kids before I had coached him, in several different age groups and settings. Nothing prepared me for this though. I wasn’t ready. I may never be ready. But it’s happening nonetheless. I have even coached him in other sports, baseball, football, etc… But this is different. This is more intense and I can think back on several instances where I think that as a coach, I failed. I don’t like that feeling. That helpless feeling where you know that you could have done better, and impacted the results, but you didn’t do it. The worst part, is that more likely than that, is that I have no impact at all and that I’m going through these scenarios in my head like I could have made any difference, but the reality is that whether it was me in the corner or nobody at all, the results would be the same. I don’t know which it is, but I know that it’s stressful and challenging, and hard, and it hurts my heart and soul, and I love it.
But I know that this level of emotional turmoil isn’t sustainable. It can’t be. So I needed help. When I need help, whether personally or professionally, I find it’s best to be humble and go to an expert for advice and guidance. In this instance, I figured who would be better than one of the great wrestling families, the Churellas. Mark Churella Sr was a 3x NCAA Champion for the Wolverines, and his sons, Mark Jr, Ryan and Josh, all wrestled for them as well. Great idea Kevin! Disguise this Father's Day piece as a way for you to learn how to manage this portion of your life.
I’m sure Mark Sr, and Josh, will have some excellent advice on how to get over the stress. I’m sure they will have all sorts of comforting pieces of advice on how to manage both sides of this emotional coin flip. Spoiler alert, what I learned from this exercise is that there isn’t a secret to handling the stress. Weirdly enough, the knowledge that one of the legends of the sport and a hero of mine growing up, didn’t have the secret recipe to not be stressed while coaching your kids, was somewhat comforting. That’s not to say that he didn’t have excellent advice, and strategies, and perspectives to have, but knowing that he was possibly as nervous as I am during his son's matches, was helpful also.
But this is simplifying what was a great conversation with both father and son on their perspectives on coaching and being coached. In this piece, I will share parts of the conversations I had with Josh Churella, Assistant Coach at the University of Michigan, and his father Mark Churella Sr. We cover getting into the sport to begin with, coaching philosophies, motivation, handling losses, and each of them share some sentiments about the other. I’m paid to write for InterMat, but even an expert wordsmith like myself is struggling to put into words how honored I was to have this opportunity and to connect with Mark and Josh. I hope you enjoy the following walk-through of our conversation. Happy Father's Day to all!
I wanted to start this off with both Mark Sr and Josh having the chance to provide thoughts and reflections on their experience getting into the sport. Josh began by sharing how he and his family really started out by playing a variety of team sports. From Josh and the other Churella boys' perspective, they didn’t know much about Mark Sr’s success in the sport and the impact that he had had on Michigan Wrestling. They knew they loved Michigan, and were aware that their Dad had wrestled, but until Mark Jr. had gotten into 7th grade, none of the Churella kids had wrestled. Josh on getting involved in the sport “My dad was grinding in the workforce, and we didn’t really know how good of a wrestler he was, or any of his accolades. He was just a quiet, humble, hard-working guy when we were growing up, so we just got involved in anything we could. My oldest brother started in seventh grade, and he is five years older than me. Ryan was two years older than me, and he obviously gained some interest, and I wanted to follow along with them.”
Mark Sr. (left) and longtime Michigan head coach Joe McFarland at the 2007 CKLV Invitational; Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo
Mark on being a wrestling father; “It was probably one of the best experiences of my life and one of the more difficult ones at the same time. Wrestling is a sport that takes a lot out of everybody that participates in it, and a lot out of the people that support the participants. In our family, there was a lot of wrestling that went on from Mark Jr, to Ryan, to Josh, and to the extent that I was involved in their process, yeah I was involved, but our journey as a family was unique to our family. Maybe similar to others in certain aspects as they matriculated through the process.”
For a long time, I had attributed my poor performance early in the sport to having started so late, in the seventh grade. I remember at some point in High School learning that the Churella’s had started essentially at the same time, which was a great way for me to eliminate any excuses. This is a sport built on commitment and work, not necessarily about longevity and experience. This idea was further enforced by both father and son. Josh commented on their first exposure to the sport other than beginning to train in 7th grade. “Our only real exposure was my dad and Steve Frasier had a wrestling camp in Northern Michigan, up in Traverse City. It was a huge camp, 200-500 kids a week, and a couple week camp, and that was the only real time we were around wrestling. It was a week of our lives growing up, I think back to when I was between 7-8, and that lasted about 3-4 years. My dad got too busy working and then Steve took it over and started the Bad Boy Camp. So we were around the sport, and we knew my dad coached and wrestled a little bit. I remember my dad had some old UNLV headgears in our basement, and we would put them on and mess around, but we were just being competitive brothers. We didn’t really know what we were doing. Everyone else was instructing and we were just kind of on the peripheral watching.”
Mark’s recollection is just about identical. “My boys had been exposed to wrestling for forever. From the time they were very young. They were just not encouraged by me to participate in it. I had a rule that they would not wrestle competitively or be a part of any program until they got to middle school. The middle school program in our area was a six-week program, so they had an opportunity to wrestle, and if they liked it, we would talk about what the next steps were going to be. So the time that they started was different from the time that they actually knew about wrestling.” I don’t know what I expected, or that these would be wildly different stories, but they were just about the same. “I did a wrestling camp for several years, and Steve Fraser and I did a camp in Northern Michigan for several years. My sons were around that, the camp was in Northern Michigan because we have a home in Northern Michigan. They would come and not really participate, and they would see me during the day, but they spent most of their time at the lake. Until that time, when they really started expressing an interest on their own, they were encouraged by my wife Leslie and I, to just participate in every sport other than wrestling. They weren’t really big enough, but they all tried playing football, baseball, basketball, and lacrosse, they played soccer. Josh was part of the Olympic development program for Soccer here in Michigan. But we encouraged them to do other things, understanding that if they were going to wrestle and be serious about it, that there is no entitlement. It doesn’t matter how good their dad did, it’s all about them at that point. I wanted them to experience many other things that weren’t wrestling before they would ever decide to get into it. They weren’t getting any direction or encouragement from me.”
So now we’ve gotten to the point that the Churella boys are competing and how it got to that point. I have some inside information on this, growing up in the area and being in the same High School class as Josh. I was able to ask them each about the level of involvement that Mark Sr. was able to have in his boy's training, practice plans, and warming up, from high school through Senior-level competition. Josh recalls “he wasn’t too involved in middle school. We would maybe work some stuff at home, but after middle school that changed. I was originally all about soccer, but when we went to the NCAA tournament for the first time, I think it was 1998 in Cleveland, the moment I saw NCAAs live, it lit a different kind of fire. I thought ‘I’m going to be on that center mat’. From that point forward, we were all in. In my brother Ryan’s ninth grade year, he told us ‘If you’re serious about this, I will give you the roadmap on how to be really successful. It’s your choice if you want to do it.’ He told us ‘everyday before school I would get up and run three miles every day. This many pull-ups, pushups, this many reps’, and from that point forward, we had that approach pretty much all year. What he told us, we did.”
Mark Sr. and Josh embrace at the 2008 NCAA Championships/photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com
This is the part that I was always most interested in. The entire genesis of this article. How did Mark Churella Sr approach coaching his kids? I need direction and help in this area the most, and hearing Mark’s approach was great. I asked Mark about his thought process as far as how involved he wanted to be with the program, and around how much influence he wanted to have on their development. Mark’s answer; “I had very grown-up and adult conversations with the boys, all of them. I asked them ‘How good do you want to be? Do you really want to be good to great, or are you looking just to participate? Because if you’re looking to participate, I’m cool with that, I’ll help you be a participant, but if you’re looking to train and you really want to win championships, I know that path and it is a difficult path. If you’re willing to walk down that, and willing to put the time in and commit, then I’m 100% to show you what that’s all about.’
That was the read that I got, and I was fortunate with the varsity program. Tom Fritz and Brad Huss were just outstanding when it came to me saying that I’d like to help out. Tom Fritz handed me the whistle and said I can run practice. I didn’t want to do that, but I stepped in and was part of the coaching staff from the time that Mark was a Junior, and coached at the high school through the entire process with the boys. The first time I was really back in the Michigan wrestling room was Mark Jr’s freshman year, and stayed between the high school and college program through when Josh finished wrestling internationally. I know that’s difficult for some parents, and coaching sons and daughters, but our relationship was 100% positive. I explained to them that the choice was theirs, but that they have to actually choose to do it. There is a relationship in our family as a loving father and son, but there is also the coach relationship that I had with them that just told them the truth. Obviously, the truth according to me, was my version of the truth, but if I saw them and they were not performing, or hesitant, or looked like they were lacking self-confidence, it was my job to interject and make sure that they were getting what they needed from a training aspect, psychological and emotional aspect, and being able to detach from what’s being a coach and being a dad.”
Josh on his father's involvement at the high school level, “My dad started to get more involved with the high school program, and my dad, especially in-season, would have everybody who was bought in (who was pretty much everybody) there before school running three miles on the track. We would get there around five in the morning, run, shower, and the school would start at 7:20.”
This was encouraging to me, because this is basically what I was doing. Good call Kevin.
Back to Josh talking about his father’s involvement. “We moved in our seventh-grade year to a new house, and my brother Mark Jr was getting involved in wrestling, he had a two-year hiatus since he had fractured vertebrae in his back from soccer, so he didn’t wrestle his freshman and sophomore year. He was behind the eight ball, but once he got back involved, we had the spark and we got a wrestling mat in our basement and we would have different sessions, where we would be driving it, but he would be putting us through his system. Doing different setups on the feet, I remember drilling the same moves over and over again. My dad's rule of thumb is ‘you hit a move 10,000 times, you master that move’. So I remember hitting sweep singles, high crotches, and one or two finishes from each leg attack. Then he would go over his top series, his leg riding series, progressing to bottom. But we were the ones driving it. We never heard ‘Did you do this many, did you do this, did you do that’ I never heard that once from him. We wanted to do it, and he was assisting us through it. More than the technical piece, and the roadmap, he was really good at motivating. He was really good at getting guys to buy in and run through a wall for him. Buy-in is more about compassion, and you care about the guy enough to where you’ll do anything. I think that if my dad had stayed as a college coach, he could have been a legendary coach, to be honest with you.”
Imagine my excitement when I had the chance in my interview with Mark to bring this up. I asked Mark about his approach and ability to motivate and gain buy-in from his children and anyone else he coached. “Motivation is different for different people. My perspective was always about being truthful and upfront about what it takes to win and the steps necessary to do that. Being brutally honest and attempting to instill a lot of self-confidence. I grew up in an era where there wasn’t a sports psychologist, just a lot of tough love. I was fortunate that I had a coach that was not just a tough-love guy. His name was Dick Cook and he was an NCAA Champion at Michigan State, was a great high school coach for me, and was super positive and able to teach very solid technique. The combination of those two things really encourages you. When you are deficient in something, and you get beat in a match, and he tells you that you need to be able to perform this technique and you’ll have to drill it a lot. That’s when I learned that you have to do it 10,000 times. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s the truth, and it’s a math problem. If you do it 50-100 times a day, 5 days a week, then you get to that number pretty quickly. I learned that repetition through a lot of hard work does pay off. I try to translate that to young athletes.” Maybe Malcolm Gladwell came up with the 10,000-hour rule from Mark Churella Sr. Mr. Churella is owed royalties.
At this point in the interview, I’m motivated, but there’s more. “God-given talent is a really important thing, but it’s not the most important thing. I used to tell our kids, when you walk into a college wrestling room, you are now part of the 1%. 1% of the 10’s of thousands of kids who wrestled a match in middle school or high school. As the 1%, you don’t even get into the game without that toolbox called talent. You open the box, and there it is. It’s the heart, what’s in your head, and how hard you’re willing to work. Those are the variables that, as a coach and a motivator, you need to be able to find those things. Each one of those kids is a little different, and as a coach, you find ways to capitalize on those things that help each one of those kids. Great programs try to find kids with similar desires and attitudes and personalities and get them together. You bring a lot of great kids together, great things happen.”
I thought it was a safe assumption for the father and son(s) dynamic in such a demanding sport to erupt in some frustrations or disagreements as far as the training and development went. Doesn't seem that was the case with this crew. There was so much buy-in from the kids that they were just going to trust it and move forward with the next steps. From Josh’s perspective; “Yeah, not really I can’t think of many issues where there was much conflict. If anything, if you took a loss really hard, we are all emotional, but there was no throwing your headgear or tantrums. I wasn’t great at that early on, so there were some moments like that where I had to learn how to keep my composure better. He was really honest. The rule was ‘You have five minutes to feel sorry for yourself, and then you have to snap out of it’, and that always stuck with me. I even tell our guys that you have five minutes to get yourself together and then we have to get the next best thing. There’s no time to mope or feel bad. I know you’re hurting, and we’ll make adjustments, but it’s time to get it together.”
I was happy to bring the ‘five minutes’ approach up to Mark. “Yeah, that’s kind of a mantra for me for life. You get to compete in business for the equivalent of an NCAA Championship every day. You don’t get to compete every day to compete for an NCAA Championship in college. It’s not an infinite number, it’s not a finite number. In being mindful of the fact that there are going to be hard matches, easy matches, difficult matches, and heartbreaking ones, you only have a short period of time to dwell on things, and then you have to move on. Same thing with losses, if you spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself, that’s a problem. It’s human nature to take time to feel bad after a bad thing happens, but you have to figure out what that time frame is where you have to end it and get past it.” In both my interviews with Josh and Mark, Alec Pantaleo’s tournament at the US Open to come back and take third came up, and the composure that it took. These two guys are like talking to the same guy. It’s remarkable.
Ryan Churella at the 2008 Olympic Trials; Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Here is when we get advice from Mark on how to be parents of high-level athletes, and how to support their goals, separate from the coaching piece. “The first thing you need is to be realistic regarding what your child’s aspirations are. Are they their aspirations, or your aspirations, and make sure you delineate between the two and be brutally honest with yourself. Is this something that you want really bad for them, and you better check to make sure that they want it as bad as you want it. Evaluate how that works between your son or daughter and yourself. The next step is supporting them, which can be done in a number of different ways. It can be being super encouraging, or it can be being brutally honest if they aren’t putting the work in or performing. If you happen to be someone who understands the sport, you should share that with them in the most sincere and kind way.
I see some parents that are super supportive, and some who are trying to understand how it works, but just don’t. The experience of being out there and understanding what it’s like being a competitor, helps you understand what the athlete is going through. I am a person who likes to be isolated on my own, especially when they are wrestling, so I understood that my focus on their match wasn’t really helping them. If I got nervous when they wrestled, then that shouldn’t bleed over to them. The difference is as a parent who wrestled, and watching your son wrestle. When you wrestle and the whistle blows, you don’t feel anything other than you’re just ready to attack. When you’re a parent and the whistle blows, that sense of nausea doesn’t leave (YES! THAT’S THE FEELING! OH MY GOD MARK CHURELLA FEELS THE SAME WAY I DO) the entire time. You may yell things, and hopefully encourage things, but you really don’t have any impact on what’s going on in that match at that point (I SAID THAT EARLIER. IT’S THE WORST FEELING). I have been in the highest highs in wrestling, and the lowest lows, so I have great respect for what officials have to do out on the mat. They have decisions to make, and now they have the benefit of video review, but we’ve had some situations in our family that did not go well with some calls at the pinnacle of what you’re trying to achieve. You just have to accept it. I think it’s important that you hold yourself in your actions and comments so that you’re understanding that.
In summary, it’s just a wrestling match, however at the time it’s going on, it’s the single most important thing going on in the universe. So there’s a period of time when you can lose perspective, and you lose that perspective because you’re invested, your son or daughter is invested, they’ve put in all this time and energy and then something doesn’t go right, or you don’t view the call the same way as the official is, there’s a lot of bad things that can be said and a lot of bad behaviors that can happen. It’s incumbent on the parents to make sure that they understand that they’re the ones that need to set the example and remain under control. It’s not easy if the camera is on you, and multiple things are going downhill, and you’re just thinking ‘How in the heck can it happen’. In the same fashion, you need to have humility in your success.”
Earlier in my conversation with Mark, I spoke with him about some of my personal difficulties with managing tough losses that my son had, and how to work through those issues. When I brought that up, I had no idea that we would naturally come across the Ryan Churella NCAA finals match.
If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the most egregiously poorly officiated match I can think of. I did get to share my distaste for the match, and my inability to watch it to this day. “You’ve always got to be better than one bad call”, is how Mark replied. He also reiterated his appreciation for the officials and their craft. “The officials are human beings, people who put in a lot of time to hone their craft. No matter what people think, they do a lot to try to do the best they possibly can and to get it right, but sometimes, as all humans, we get it wrong. When that happens it’s a sad thing.” This part was amazing, here Mark recalls a comment Ryan made after his NCAA finals loss. “My son Ryan had the best perspective, he was being interviewed after the match. He was asked what his thoughts were after the match, but his comment was ‘If this is the worst thing that happens in my life, then what a great life I’m gonna have’. To this day I’m just incredibly proud of how he handled it.” I want to be like Ryan Churella when I grow up.
I asked him about to what degree can you separate the emotional component of coaching your kids from the competitive and objective portion of being there for your kid. “I think objectivity is a pretty hard thing. Objective self-evaluation is hard to have, so to be able to put into perspective as a parent, everything that’s out there in the moment. I think perspective comes over time. It’s like how things look when you’re on the ground rather than being in the air. It’s difficult to do that, but if you’re in the sport, and you look at other people who have participated or families who have been in it. Look at the ones who have finished the journey, and if that’s what you’re hoping to be, then try to emulate that.” Well good! That’s exactly what this piece is. I did it! I’ve solved the problem of how to coach my kids.