21 things I've learned in 21 years as a head wrestling coach: Part 2

John Klessinger

Disclaimer: I am not an expert coach and I struggle at times getting my teams to perform at the level I expect from them. But I have been more successful the past ten or eleven years than the first ten or eleven because I've recognized that I needed to keep learning more and get better. There is so much we can take from coaches like Cael Sanderson, Tom Ryan, and Cary Kolat and many others. If you are a coach, watch and learn from those guys. If you are a wrestler, watch and learn from Spencer Lee, Yianni Diakomihalis, or Daton Fix. We can absorb so much by merely observing them. Listen to interviews of coaches and wrestlers. What are they saying that you can use to up your game? Peoples' words reflect their thoughts. Everything we do starts with our thinking. Being successful begins first in our minds with an idea, followed by an action.

Modeling the behaviors and thinking of the best is a quick way to improve performance.

Related: Part 1 | "Strong Mind Strong Body" ebook

12. Be consistent in your communication and behavior

Consistency in your actions, what you say, and your day to day interactions with your team builds trust. From trust, your team will respond more effectively. Loose cannon outbursts and erratic behavior puts people on edge and can be counterproductive when working with your team. However, I believe there are moments when we should deviate from our regular routines. A good "rant" every so often can light a fire in your kids.

13. Be loving, kind, and grateful

I know there is a belief that our society is getting "soft." Being kind and caring to your kids may perpetuate the development of lack of toughness if we mistake love and kindness as taking it easy on them. I look at being loving and kind as holding your team accountable. People that genuinely love us want us to be successful. They go the extra mile to help us. They are also the ones who let us know when we aren't giving our best effort. Gratitude is an extension of love. It is recognizing and appreciating that we become better through challenges and hard work.

14. Be hard on them when they win and love them harder when they lose

I stole this from a book years ago. Ironically, a book by a basketball coach. I think most people do the opposite -- be tougher on them when they lose. However, when you are winning, your attitude is in the right place, and you are more motivated. When you lose, a flood of negative emotions can surface -- doubt, fear, insecurity, and questioning of commitment. No one likes to lose. The natural defense mechanism is to downplay a loss and say, "It is not a big deal." But losing hurts. After a team or individual loss, it is always good to step back and evaluate your team's mindset. It may be a good time for a light practice, a team meeting, or a general morale boost. The statement does not reflect my belief about poor effort. A poor effort is not the same as giving your best and losing.

15. The more I've learned, the more success we've had

There is so much to learn about wrestling and coaching. As I said in the opening paragraph, we can learn from watching the greats. When I was a younger coach, I was hard-headed and thought I knew a lot about wrestling. I admit I had a very good youth league, high school, and college coaches. I learned a lot from them, but when I opened my eyes to other methods and practices, my knowledge expanded, and we began to win more. I continue to learn from great coaches and leaders in wrestling and outside of wrestling about leadership, culture, technique, communication, and more.

16. Parents will support you if you challenge their children to be better

Better said, the majority will be on your side if they know you are looking out for their child's best interests. Dealing with parents can be a juggling act at times. Parents want fairness and open communication. Being a parent myself has allowed me to understand and be empathetic towards sometimes irrational behavior. A parent loves their child and wants to see them succeed. I have learned if you "practice what you preach" and are clear in your expectations for each wrestler more often than not, they will not only cooperate with you; they will be helpful, kind, and generous.

17. Recognize the foot soldiers in your program

Everyone wants to be recognized and given a "pat on the back." It is human nature to want to be accepted and acknowledged for our efforts. I do, as well. I have learned it is important to highlight and give attention to all the members of your program, whether varsity or JV. Your better kids will get the validation from their performance. But it is the ones that grind through the season each day without attention from the media, their peers, or even family that may need it the most.

18. Awareness (some guilt) is more effective than fear

As I have already stated, rapport is more effective than yelling, and day-to-day consistency in your behavior is more effective than flying all over the map with your emotions. I have learned (from an opposing coach) that instead of scolding or yelling at your team for poor performance or attitude, questioning their effort is more productive. By this, ask, "Did you do your best?" "Did you do all you could?" "If you gave your best effort, you should be able to sleep well at night." This type of communication hits people more directly.

19. Kids will rise to the level of expectation you set for them

I guess this is common sense, and I believe any good coach follows a similar philosophy. However, I think it needs stating. If you expect a strong work ethic day in practice or good citizenship amongst your team, it needs to be said, set in stone, and have accountability. Most will rise to the level you set for them.

20. Be human and vulnerable at times

If you make a mistake, tell your kids. Hold yourself accountable as well. If you could have done something better, own up to it. Admitting that you "dropped the ball" shows honesty and transparency. It goes a long way in building trust and rapport with your team when they know you will accept responsibility for things you could have done better.

21. Be a teacher first, coach second

Teach them wrestling. Teach them about life. Wrestling is great because it is a school for life. Be a teacher of the sport, not just a wrestling coach.

John Klessinger has been a high school teacher and wrestling coach for the past 21 years. As a head coach, his teams have won close to 400 matches, and they have won multiple county, region, and tournament championships. Six times he has been named the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital Gazette Anne Arundel County Coach of the Year. As a competitor, John was twice a Pennsylvania All-State wrestler. He was a four-year starter at the Division I collegiate level and a Division I East Regional champion. John competed in the 1997 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

John wrote an ebook called "Strong Mind Strong Body" that can be found on Amazon.


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