Dan Gable: In motivating wrestlers, coaches need to make them individualize their strategy

Updated: December 21, 2011

   Editor’s Note: Perhaps the biggest reason that Dan Gable was successful as a college and Olympic wrestler and later as a coach at Iowa, where he won 15 national championships in 20 years, was that he knew how to motivate himself and many different individuals. The wrestling legend recently sat down with WIN Editor Mike Finn and talked about the importance of motivation.

WIN: Where does motivation rank as a key to winning in wrestling?

GABLE: It’s the king. It’s a big part of the beginning. I don’t know if it is somewhat genetic or not. It is somewhat unscientific compared to how much muscle mass someone might have or how large someone might be.

But no matter your activities, motivational drive determines outcomes. Just because you are strong on a physical point of view, you still have to apply a lot of motivation in your training to go to the highest level. I think outcomes are determined more based on the journey you choose.

WIN: Regarding motivation, who should primarily be responsible for it: the wrestler or the coach?

GABLE: You are genetically vulnerable to not develop your traits. That’s why it’s key to have people who take care of you. If we look at someone in high school, it’s the coach’s responsibility to determine what athletes need help in what areas.

The really good coach is able to break down those components and give what those athletes need a little more than the one who tries to teach to the masses. Over the years, when I’ve talked to the coaches I find the ones who are the most successful are the ones who can individualize motivation.


WIN: Are you saying that motivation can be developed?

GABLE: Absolutely. A lot of people question my feelings on this. When I hear that and if I’m competing against then, I feel that I have a major edge. Some coaches talk about the tools a kid does not have and that kid will never make it. When I hear that, I know I have an edge against the coach. If the coach has already written this kid off, there is no development there and part of that coach’s team is going to be dead. For me, there are no dead pieces in a line-up. Even the wrestler who no one might look at, I think I can raise that kid’s level to where he is going to raise the entire level of the team.


WIN: How does a coach bring out the motivation in a wrestler?

GABLE: You go about it several different ways. You need to see who the kid spends time with, who he lives with, what’s his home situation like, who are his best friends. You might look at the girlfriend situation if that’s where he spends most of his time. You look at who influences his life and people who have been associated with him before.

You also need to see if he’s been exposed to motivation tactics. Some people may have already worked hard on him and he hasn’t picked up on it. Then you really know you have a case. Or you may have discovered that some of these people have brought him out of his doldrums and that he is making progress.


WIN: Are there some coaches who rely too much on what motivated them?

GABLE: You hit it right on the nose. Coaches can’t help their team until they understands the make-up of the team. And everything about motivation needs to be fine-tuned. What you may say one day will have to be updated a day later. You never want to say something that is totally wrong for a group. You have to feel good about what you are saying.


WIN: Is lack of motivation another way of saying lack of confidence?

GABLE: Confidence helps your motivation, but it can also slow you down. With too much confidence, you may already think that you are good enough to the point that it slows your learning curve down.

I certainly believe that confidence is somewhat inherent to your surroundings. But I believe real confidence comes from actually experiencing a lot of success. Confidence may be a part of genetics but if you get hammered down and have no success, you’re going to lose even more confidence.


WIN: There are some kids who aren’t good enough to make the varsity. How can that kid find success in a practice?

GABLE: The coach should determine that everyone is having a good day. Even though one kid may be beating another, there are ways of making sure the kids who was not successful in a match find some other success; whether it’s through words like saying, “Wow, you really competed well. And even if you didn’t win, you competed. Most people would have just rolled over. You fought ever second.”

In high school, I might have been at 112 but somehow coach hooked me up with the 138 pounder, who he beat me like 2-0. When I got done after that practice, I was kind of down after that match. But the kid walked up to me and said, “I know I’m way bigger than you but I couldn’t believe that you never stopped competing. Most people I’m beating, they just give up. You were fighting me all the way to the end.

I sat and thought about that for a while and eventually developed a style, whether you are winning or losing, to keep competing hard. It helped me understand what I was doing and what I was supposed to be doing … even if I lost … to fight to the end.


WIN: If a kid gives up, is it the coach’s fault?

GABLE: There is nothing worse than a coach watching a kid give up. That’s a failure in two parts: from the coach and the wrestler. If coaches have what I’m talking about, you are going to develop into a good team. You are not going to be perfect every year, but you certainly want to be.

I also believe that is one of the carry-over values of sport. Wrestlers can get inside their opponent’s head when they know they have a real battle on their hands.


WIN: Do coaches have to make wrestlers believe the unbelievable to reach their potential?

GABLE: You have get them to see a vision that puts their goals in sight. It’s really hard to get it in there unless you are surrounded by it. If you are not surrounded by it, you have less of a chance. If I would have looked at the odds of me winning, that might have hurt me. If someone had told me there was a one-in-ten-million chance I was going to win a gold medal, I would have felt those were bad odds and not tried. But doing the opposite and keeping the odds out of my mental frame of mind, it was giving me a better chance of being successful. I didn’t have too many doubts that I was going to win.


WIN: Do coaches have to preach patience while developing confidence in a wrestler?

GABLE: I hate patience. I want things to be there as quickly as it possibly can. But since you don’t know when it’s going to come, you have to preach a little patience but with the understanding that you don’t let patience slow you down. While coaches have to be patient, don’t fall into a frame of mind that you don’t have to work as hard.


(This Q&A with Dan Gable appeared in the December 23, 2011 issue of WIN magazine. To subscribe to WIN, either click on the “Subcribe to WIN” button or call our office at 1-888-305-0606.)