Minnesota's Strength and Conditioning Coach Scott McWilliams (photo courtesy of Minnesota athletics)
Wrestlers are known for their unique mental toughness and work ethic on and off the mat. Strength and conditioning coaches play an important role in not only developing them as athletes, but play an important role in keeping them healthy through the season. With load management becoming increasingly common across all sports, their importance is only increasing. I had the chance to interview strength and conditioning coaches Gary Calgano of Oklahoma State, Scott McWilliams of Minnesota, and Seth Diters of Virginia Tech. All work extensively with their schools' wrestling programs. Here are their responses to questions about their roles with collegiate wrestling.
How did you begin working with the wrestling team?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - I literally was assigned wrestling here at Oklahoma State by the former AD, Terry Don Phillips. Stroke of luck you could say.
Seth Diters (VT) - I accepted this position at VT a year ago and the job is baseball and wrestling. I've worked baseball my entire career but grew up wrestling, so I always had a passion for the sport. So this job couldn't be a better fit.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - I got hired as the Gophers Wrestling Strength Coach in September 2016. Prior to this, I was an assistant wrestling coach and strength coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. A good friend of mine from grad school was one of the hockey strength coaches here, at the time, and when the wrestling strength coach position opened, he gave me a heads up, and I was fortunate enough to be hired on staff.
How would you describe your experiences working with wrestlers compared to athletes in other sports?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - The intensity level is off the charts. Plus the willingness to put in the work for them is learned at an early age. I truly believe that's what sets them apart from most other sports.
Seth Diters (VT) - These guys are awesome. Hardworking and respectful. These guys want to be the best and it shows in their work ethic, but that's ultimately most kids. Athletes don't commit to a school to be mediocre.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - My experience working with wrestlers is what makes this career so enjoyable for me. I have worked with a wide variety of different sports teams along the way and have immense appreciation for the talent and dedication any athlete has, but I've grown up around wrestling, so I have a natural bias towards it. I think having the passion and appreciation for this sport goes a long way in getting quality work out of the wrestlers when I'm with them.
While I'm sure it's fun to get to work with wrestlers, what's one thing that's hard about working with wrestlers, even if it's not a serious issue?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - One thing that took me some getting used to is the team/individual dynamic. We can have a big dual win but a young man may have gotten beat in his individual match. So I had to learn to temper my enthusiasm during the next lift to make sure everyone kept their head up. I hope that made sense.
Seth Diters (VT) - They are such tough kids, sometimes it's hard to get them to understand it's okay to go light sometimes.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - One of the most difficult things about working with wrestlers is helping them with weight management. Especially when guys first get to college, they've maybe been able to cut corners or think they have a system that works, but in reality, is not going to be effective at this level. Wrestlers are creatures of habit and to help educate each one of them on how their individual routines need to improve takes a lot of trial and error. Getting them to be professionals and utilize every hour of the day, as a chance to increase their performance, not just the hours of practice or lifting, is an ever-changing puzzle to figure out.
Do you work with the coaches to develop training programs?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - Yes sir. I absolutely do. I talk regularly with Coach Smith and the staff. I never wrestled myself, so I try to get as much information from them as I possibly can.
Seth Diters (VT) - Absolutely. I'm here to complement what the coaches do. The kids don't sign to lift weights, they come to wrestle, so I have to compliment the program.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - My coaches are awesome. They give me complete autonomy when it comes to strength and conditioning with the guys. I think other strength coaches who do not have a background in the sport that get "assigned" wrestling as one of their teams do not get the freedom I do. My coaches will certainly let me know if I'm missing something, but for the most part, they have too much other stuff to focus on to micromanage the help I'm trying to provide.
How does your training change throughout the season?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - It changes from the amount of days we lift per week to the volume of each workout. I am constantly switching exercises as well to provide the CNS (central nervous system) with proper stimulation. We try to keep the intensity high no matter what phase we are in.
Seth Diters (VT) - Just depends on what time of year it is. Offseason we go pretty hard, but as we near competition we shift focus to a lot more mat work.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - Our training throughout the season is ultimately dictated by (upcoming) competition and travel. Early in the season, our weight room volume decreases and we start to move away from absolute strength. October into November is one of the more difficult times of the year and my focus is on helping the guys adjust to making weight routinely, while still getting quality work in. As the season goes along, we'll always touch on maintaining strength as much as possible, but the majority of the weight room work shifts to a velocity-based philosophy. As soon as duals are done and we're peaking for Big Tens and NCAAs, I give the starting ten guys some autonomy to pick certain movements they like (or don't like) to get the most out of shorter lifts.
With load management becoming more prominent in the sport, do you play a role in those decisions and if yes how so? What effect does this have on training?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - Yes and no. Coach Smith has been crazy successful as an athlete and also as a head coach, so he knows what to look for especially during the season. If he notices a guy needs to be off the mat, then he will send them down to me to get an extra lift in for the week. I will visit with him and the staff if I notice any wrestler that is dragging for some reason. Good, open lines of communication are key.
Seth Diters (VT) - We do some basic jump monitoring, but so much of the monitoring comes from building relationships with these kids and adjusting based on how they feel day-to-day.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - Load management is rapidly becoming such a big topic of conversation, as I think it shows there is an approach to help wrestlers perform better than the old school thought process of 'more is better.' I have learned a lot from our wrestling coaching staff on how they try to peak the guys. Our wrestlers consistently outwrestle their seeds at the conference and national tournament, and I think a huge reason behind it is because my coaches care so much about when to push, but more importantly when to back off. Intentional focus on quality work will help an athlete a lot more than doing a bunch of extra work for the sake of quantity. In season, I weigh the guys in every day before practice and am at every practice (and obviously lifts too), so I have a good amount of insight from the guys on how I think they're operating. For my role in load management, I get to sit in on daily staff meetings where upcoming practice plans are discussed and the coaches are really receptive to hearing my feedback on what I'm noticing on any given individual. I use these conversations to match the work I have planned in the weight room. I see load management making a big shift towards wearable technology such as Whoop or Oura Rings. I am fascinated by anything to help educate the athletes on understanding how their habits affect performance but in reality, it comes down to having a good coach's eye and simple, honest conversations with the athletes.
Why is a good strength and conditioning coach or coaching team important for college athletes?
Gary Calgano (OSU) - I think that a good strength coach can teach so many valuable life lessons. From the little things like being on time, to learning to give your best effort every single day. Not just to provide a good workout program but also to provide them with the confidence they need to power past any obstacle life might throw at you.
Seth Diters (VT) - We wear so many different â€œhatsâ€ other than S&C. We are here to create high-functioning, good young men and women, so it's so important to have a well-rounded person in strength and conditioning.
Scott McWilliams (UMN) - A strength and conditioning coach only gets a couple hours with the athletes each week to help them move better, make them a little faster, stronger, and more injury resilient. During the year, those hours spent together really only add up to play a small role in the athlete's overall development. But every athlete across the country at this level is extremely talented, works hard, and has the resources to succeed. A good strength coach is hopefully able to embrace the fact their impact might be small but it also might be that small aspect that separates their athletes from the majority.