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Editor’s Note: Dan Gable built up his coaching legend by the number of college wrestlers he turned into All-Americans and champions at the University of Iowa. And while he never coached on the high school level, he recently told WIN editor Mike Finn in this recent Q&A that he believes that high school coaches need to deal with their wrestlers differently on that level.
WIN: What makes the younger athlete different than a college athlete?
GABLE: It’s amazing what you can learn about young people. I recently learned that for a whole week while we had our six grandkids stay with us.
There is the question about who do you solve issues when it comes to kids and I thought I was pretty good at that. But it was the first morning and the school buses were coming. It’s crunch time and we didn’t have a lot of leeway to get them dressed and fed.
One of my grandkids was lolly-gagging around so my voice got a little rough with him. Wow, he went into a hibernation and starts whimpering. The more I got on him, the more he hunkered down.
My wife comes over and says, “Here, this is how you handle this. You have to give him a little discipline, but not in a crisis mode. You have to have a mode of accomplishment.” And she showed me how to do it by changing the subject and got into a conversation with him and he went along with her. There is no way I would have gone into that mode because I did not have the ability to understand.
That showed me you may have methods but they are not the best methods for the long run but they are for the short run. The same thing goes in coaching.
WIN: What do you mean by that?
GABLE: I know how to work with guys on the college and Olympic level, but I have a feeling that at these different levels these younger kids are not fully developed. The younger they are, the more coaches have to understand issues on how to get things done. Unless you really learn something about that individual well, your are not going to be able to handle every situation.
On this level and the high school level, it’s up to the coaches to make fine-line decisions and which kids should do what. Generally at this time of the year, when I am coaching on the college level, I’m protecting my starters, I’m putting them in offensive positions to score. I’m eliminating injuries. I’m trying to get their minds and bodies healthy as the same time I’m realizing there are certain issues for each guy that they need to solve or you might have to fine-tune some technique that a guy is working on against special opponents.
And while it is important for the coach to understand these things, it’s important for the wrestler to understand as well.
WIN: What should be the mindset of a high school wrestler this time of year?
GABLE: This time of year you don’t want wrestlers to throw out unbelievable risks. You want them to still do their basics but that’s how you score, too. They don’t have to go into a mode of freezing up.
WIN: Is that where coaches must determine the fine line of wrestling?
GABLE: The fine line is finishing what you start in the mode you can be the most successful in. That is usually staying tough and smart the whole time and quit trying to go into a mode of thinking too much instead of playing and reacting.
In a wrestling match and there is a minute left and you’re up in a big event, a lot of guys starting thinking instead of wrestling. When you start thinking, that distracts you and takes your mind off what needs to be accomplished. With that in mind, you are more vulnerable. You are not in your best competitive mode.
If you can stay in a competitive mode and understand the risk factor, then you can be strong until the finish. That’s part of peaking this time of year and whether you finish first, second, third or whatever, it’s because you have to get into your best mode. And coaches can help you.
WIN: What should coaches do to help the young wrestler who may be facing his first postseason?
GABLE: You may be a high school coach taking five kids to the state tournament and two of them have never been in the (tournament) facility before. You better know that if they haven’t, you better get them more accustomed to that the day before the tournament. If they go out into that venue without ever being there before, often their focus and concentration gets scatter-brained. Their focus may be up in the rafters of the building and will have no sense of competitiveness.
WIN: What was your first experience like?
GABLE: I can remember the week of the state tournament and practices, where the coach did a great job of building that peak for me and I was stronger that week. It was helping me get ready for the culmination. I just remember after those practices I’d say I sure put a lot more effort out.
WIN: Did you have any doubt in your first state tournament?
GABLE: I can’t remember having any doubt in high school or much doubt in college, expect for a couple events and both of those (against Bobby Douglas in the 1968 Olympic Trials and against Larry Owings in the 1970 NCAA tournament) I didn’t win. And it wasn’t so much doubt. It was the fact that I was thinking too much, which created distractions
WIN: How do coaches help eliminate those distractions?
GABLE: If you are organized and get people around you, you can understand what else is happening with the wrestling, including how excited their family may be for the upcoming postseason. The last thing you want to do is put your wrestler in an uncomfortable atmosphere that is going to take him out of his “game” mode.
WIN: But how do you do that considering they don’t live with you?
GABLE: But they do live with you once you get in the car and leave for the tournament. Before that, you can advise. If there is no cooperation there, you have issues. You don’t want to create tension either. There is no doubt that the parents want the same thing that you want. It’s a matter of who knows how to put this kid on the mat in the best form possible.
WIN: It sounds like there are a lot of “wants” among wrestlers, coaches and family, but there are few “know hows” among them.
GABLE: The coach should be the one with the know-how. If the coach does not feel comfortable, he has to search and that’s when you go to other people you have a good relationship with. Sometimes coaches need to get out of their own little realm for help. You have to have other examples of success from what other people are telling you.
WIN: Do you give more examples of wrestlers who may have turned in surprising performances are do you talk about the studs of wrestling who know how to dominate?
GABLE: This time of year may be a crisis mode for high school wrestlers. They are going to face someone who has beaten them like four times this year. You might have to go back to a time when he was successful. You have to think of things, including those off the mat, that might have gotten your wrestler pumped up … or I have to find someone else to pump him up. There are ways to get to people.
WIN: Should coaches find unique ways to motivate and help wrestlers this time of year?
GABLE: I learned that when I yelled at Joe Williams in college after a certain amount of time, that whatever I yelled, he did. Not preseason so much as postseason. That was vital for his success. I didn’t have to yell at Joe when he was up by ten but if he needed to win, especially for the team, I would help him coax his way through to a major win. That’s really important in coaching.
WIN: When you talk about a guy peaking this time of year, how much is physical, how much is mental?
GABLE: I think it is both but it is also mostly mental. There are things at the end of the year that can trigger you. If you’ve done a good job as a coach, usually that comes out. The physical part deals more with what you do to help the mental part. That’s why coaches should shorten practices or why coaches don’t put wrestlers in the bottom positions at practice, except for maybe hard drilling. That’s why coaches make a point of icing down wrestlers after practice. Coaches should want to get wrestlers’ minds ready and their bodies ready.
WIN: In the postseason, a wrestler might lose at a district tournament but still advances to state as the runner-up at that district. How do you help those guys?
GABLE: If you have a kid who had been beaten enough where he is still good and many not be 100 percent sure. But you find things that he may have surprised himself, like beating another kid better than he had in the past. You need to be able to tell the wrestler how much better he is right now. If he makes those corrections, he is well on his way to doing better on the next level.