The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
USAW’S Clayton communicates with coaches and kids
By Mike Finn
All one has to do is watch the video on Mike Clayton’s Facebook page of a hand-slapping game — where he let several Uzbekistani children, attending the 2014 World Championships in Tashkent, slap his fingers before he could pull his palms away — to know why this employee of USA Wrestling believes he can connect with young people … whether they speak English or not.
“For me, the kids will always be the future of our sport,” said Clayton, recalling this moment when both he and kids could not contain their laughter as they continued to slap his hands. “Those kids had purity in their hearts and they had never played the hand-slap game. They thought it was a blast and I got a kick out of it.”
Clayton, a native of Brooklyn, Iowa, feels the same way when he works with America’s young wrestlers and coaches while serving as manager of USAW’s National Coaches Education Program (NCEP), a position he has held since March of 2014.
He is responsible for Olympic developmental camps, curriculum development, coach training and administration for over 225,000 coaches and athletes.
Before that, Clayton spent 15 years coaching college wrestling, including stops at the U.S. Naval Academy (1995) and United States Military Academy (2004-07) before heading up the NCAA Division III program at Stevens Institute of Technology (2007-14) in Hoboken, N.J.
“I’ve been fortunate to attend many educational programs all over the U.S. and I get to share with other coaches what (USA Wrestling) is doing so they can make good decisions,” said Clayton, who reminds coaches that it’s more important to educate the young wrestlers and not just demand success.
“Let’s make it fun for them,” Clayton said. “Sometimes it’s too easy for coaches to say, ‘This kid needs to win this tournament.’ No they don’t. It’s a big planet and even bigger galaxy and no one is going to care if a kid won a tournament if they are 8 or 10 years old.
“The experiences that we offer and the way we work together with the likes of a Russia or Iran is the kind of spirit I know (United World Wrestling) wants and continue to promote.
“I call it mindfulness, being aware of emotions around you and how to control those emotions. Are coaches supposed to stand up in their corners and scream and yell and get a bad attitude with the officials?
Instead, if a call does not go your way, that should be a teaching moment.”
There are four levels of coaching education — named gold, silver, bronze and copper — and the curriculum, written by Clayton, can be found on USAW’s website, TheMat.com. Last year, this program certified over 1,100 coaches on-line at the bronze level.
So how will Clayton know he is successful in reaching both the coaches and wrestlers?
“When I took the job, I first thought we needed to change the world, but I realized quickly that it takes doing it one coach at a time.
“When one coach coaches 20 kids for 20 years, that coach has impacted kids over 400 years. If you can get 20 of those kids to go on and coach for 20 years, what we are going to see is that the good coaches are going to breed good concepts to their kids and even to some parents. “We try to work with small groups and give each person personal attention and try to be very available.”
This program deals with nearly every style of wrestling and Clayton admits he would like to steer more wrestlers and coaches towards Greco-Roman.
“We work with USA Wrestling coaches in all styles and there is such a crossover,” said Clayton, a former NCAA qualifier from Navy who also competed in freestyle after his college career. “It’s awesome for me to work with (U.S. national team coach) Matt Lindland. How do we get some of the kids to get interested in Greco?
“The more I learn about the sport, the more I ask myself why didn’t I do more Greco that would have complemented my freestyle and folkstyle training.
“In this job, I can open my mind and go after opportunities that are out there. I just have to package it and get it out to coaches.”
Clayton, who coached some of America’s better wrestlers at international events before joining USAW full-time, believes USA Wrestling is developing very talented young wrestlers because of the ever-needed coaches are learning what it takes to develop these kids.
And while Clayton is thrilled to see so many young wrestlers excel at World-level events — like this past summer when 20 Americans placed at either the Junior or Cadet World Championships — he wants to make sure they will be just as successful and excited about competing as they get older.
“Success is a word that scares me because we just relate success to winning,” Clayton said. “For young kids, the true test is how long will we keep them in the pipeline and keep them healthy and motivated. That is how I measure success.
“We want to avoid overuse injuries and there are so many concepts that go into it. Success is not a snapshot that comes from that one moment, but do they go on later in life?”