Gable: When determining a wrestling style, start with a great attitude

Updated: December 27, 2010

Editor’s Note: Every wrestler who steps on the mat has a little different “style”. Legendary coach Dan Gable recently spoke to WIN editor Mike Finn about what is most important in developing a style of wrestling. This is also an expanded version of the Q&A that appeared in the Dec. 29, 2010, issue of WIN.

WIN: Is there such a thing as an Iowa style or an Oklahoma State style or an Eastern style of wrestling? If so, why?

GABLE: People who are successful seem to stress what made them successful and will push that. If they are influential to their group, other people will want to do that to be successful.

When you think of the Oklahoma State style the past 25 years, you think of John Smith’s style … low single right at the ankles, a lot of movement, not a lot of tie-ups. Before him, there was Myron Roderick, who taught, “take them down and let them up.” (Former Iowa State coach Harold) Nichols coached against that style. When I coached, I coached against that low single. But at the same time, I always felt aggression was better than a low single. I knew how they had to set it up and if we kept attacking them, they would have a hard time setting it up.

The Eastern style was more mat wrestling, more Granby rolls, more riding, especially the legs. If you were going to wrestle someone from the East Coast, you had to make sure you got your legs out or what to do with the legs in.

The Iowa style or the Gable style or the Brands style, in my opinion, was getting to people’s heads and putting a fear in your opponent. The style was being well-conditioned and wrestling through the edge of the mat.

WIN: Do these certain styles exist as they once did?

GABLE: Not as much. People are now looking the success elsewhere and if they are having more success, they are stealing from them by being smart.  I don’t know if you have to have one complete style, but there are people taking away from certain situations, which makes them more complete wrestlers.

WIN: It sounds like you are saying the two biggest differences in styles is either being aggressive or being more laid back, more of a counter wrestler.

GABLE: That is not necessarily true. You can be aggressive by setting things up. Iowa became aggressive by going forward. Oklahoma State was aggressive by going backwards, which sometimes is associated with stalling. Sometimes, it may look like they are stalling, but may be setting a hold up. When John Smith wrestled, he may have taken a step back and if a guy came across to him, boom Smith would come right back and penetrate. He wouldn’t have to penetrate as much because his opponent would be coming into him.

WIN: Did you develop your style from Nichols or (former West Waterloo coach) Bob Siddens?

GABLE: Yes, but I think I got it more from watching someone like Tom Peckham (who won two NCAA championships for Iowa State in 1965 and ’66). I would pick out someone that I liked.

WIN: How does a younger person develop a style? Is it body makeup or is it attitude?

GABLE: I think it starts early on. It started for me with (former Iowa State champion) Tom Peckham. I had at least a year of wrestling before I first saw him. I was also exposed to Bobby Buzzard (Iowa State, 1963-65), who preached the Peckham stuff but also was more slick. Sometimes your body frame might fit into another category better. I had (recruits) tell me they wouldn’t come to Iowa because they didn’t fit into that style.

WIN: With that in mind, is a shorter wrestler more able to be aggressive?

GABLE: Not necessarily. It may appear that way because a taller wrestler may have less position to be able to penetrate as much so he may work on more defensive scoring moves. There are moves he can become more aggressive with. A guy who is a little shorter or has a good athletic stance … and knows how to go up and down really well will have the best ability to be aggressive. John Smith was up, down and moving. He has the flexibility to get down close to the mat.

WIN: There are some wrestlers who tend to be more aggressive when they are younger, but then lose some of that aggressiveness when they get older. Why is that?

GABLE: I would see no reason to lose a style that is working well for someone. Maybe it’s a difference in competition and maybe the level of success is affecting your mind.

WIN: Do some wrestlers have a tendency to lose aggression by focusing too much on new moves, which in turn hurt that style?

GABLE: First of all, you have to decide what you are good at. That means there are unique things that you are good. Don’t get away from them. You also understand what the essentials are for everyone in this sport. You have to be good on offense and defense. That’s how simple it is. But is a fireman’s carry more basic than a leg tackle, which in my mind is the most basic takedown. But look at (Russia’s World/Olympic champion) Saitiev. He was tall and thin, and did a lot more shucks and those type of moves. He’d do a lot of stuff where he’d just drag and was better on the mat and on top.

WIN: Did you ever coach someone who was good at something, but quit doing it because he felt he should do something else?

GABLE: There are some wrestlers who move on and develop new skills. But in gaining more skills, you actually wouldn’t be scoring as much because you think you have to do this and this and this. Before if someone was good at doubles and hit them, but when he learns to also hit outside sweep singles or an inside high crotch and he may not be quite as effective.

WIN: Is there a fine line between being effective and diverse with your skills and trying to do too many different things? In other words, is that wrestler thinking too much?

GABLE: You don’t want to move on to a new move until you’ve established another move. The bottom line is that you learn one thing really well. Instead of learning five things so-so, instead of one good thing, you need to learn all five of those things really well … but it takes time.

WIN: Looking back at some of your NCAA champions at Iowa, was there really that much difference between a (Tom and Terry) Brands style and a (Troy and Terry) Steiner style?

GABLE: They were similar in attitude, but different in technical and tactical terms. They proved you have different ways of being successful because they may have been genetically different and do things that are different but also very good.

The Steiners were really good with legs, even though they may not score on their feet. But if they got on top of someone and cranked someone, the next period they may be really good on their feet. The Brandses were pretty good riders, but mostly they were good at taking people down, letting them up and taking them down again. When you let someone up, you are working on their brains too. Both sets of brothers enforced their wills. The Steiners were utilizing talents while the Brandses were using essentials. What they all had was what they were doing, they were doing it hard.

WIN: Did you recruit more of their attitudes or did you recruit their skills?

GABLE: I looked at the void the Iowa wrestling team then. There was something lacking when we finished between second and sixth. What we were lacking was what we had early on when we built the program: that discipline of hard work, dedication and commitment to wrestling. Those four boys brought that back.

WIN: Can skills be taught if wrestlers have great attitudes?

GABLE: Yes. They can be taught better. I don’t remember if I even saw the Brandses or the Steiners wrestle. I just heard about them, met and talked with them. All the people who were backing them, were telling me what their traits were. And their traits were exactly what we needed then. Everyone was talking about their wills to win, their attitudes.

What the Brandses and the Steiners brought to the program was the discipline of getting guys back into the wrestling room, working extra hard at practice and living a lifestyle off the mat that was not just partying.

WIN: There have been some high school wrestlers, who had great skills, but when they went to college, those skills appeared to dry up and the wrestlers don’t do anything in college. Why?

GABLE: Skills don’t dry up when you have the will and motivation or see someone who is a great example. I remember the Banachs (Lou and Ed) didn’t have a lot of skills.

WIN: Should a high school wrestler who wants to excel in college want to learn more skills or learn to work harder? Nowadays, there are videos and internet sites with technique that wrestlers can buy to help them improve. What do you recommend that they buy?

GABLE: When I saw something that I really liked, I went back and worked on it. At a point in my career, I could see someone hit a move that I had never tried before but come back and hit it live. You can’t do that unless you have something like 12 years of wrestling behind you. You can watch something on video, but you have to learn to execute it live on he mat. You have to be able to drill under live conditions. Most of the time when you get to this level, you can learn and incorporate it.

WIN: Is it more important to learn drills or learn a skill?

GABLE: Drilling is a skill. If you don’t know how to drill, that is a very important area. I like live drilling and I like live combat. I want to be able to perform a drill under live contact because I know it will work. I don’t know if it works if I don’t try it under live action. I’ll also tell the guy what I’m doing and still try to execute it on him in a live setting.

WIN: What is the most important thing a high school coach can do in teaching a young wrestler a skill. Should the coach be developing the young wrestler’s skills or mind?

GABLE: You can’t do one without the other. That coach has to capture their will so that every time the coach talks to the kid, the kid will soak up everything the coach is saying.

Wrestlers have to be reinforced, not just verbally by the coach. But the wrestler has to experience the good stuff going on to keep what you have and build from there. Otherwise, that wrestler will just reach a certain level.

WIN: Should the coach be developing the young wrestler’s skills or mind?

GABLE: You can’t do one without the other. Wrestlers have to be reinforced, not just verbally by the coach. But the wrestler has to experience the good stuff going on to keep what you have and build from there. Otherwise, that wrestler will just reach a certain level.