Klessinger: Here are five lessons I learned from wrestling

Updated: July 2, 2020

Photo: Among the lessons that high school coach John Klessinger has learned from wrestling is dissecting online matches of great wrestlers like Olympic/World champion Jordan Burroughs.

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By John Klessinger

It’s been many years since I put on a wrestling singlet. For that matter, when I wrestled at Warwick High School in Lititz, Pa., all we could wear was a singlet. There was no optional uniform, headgears could still be taped and shoelaces didn’t need to be taped or secured. We had to be clean-shaven, hair above our collar and weigh-in rules, guidelines and certifications were less strict. When I graduated high school in 1992, I knew of no females wrestling in or around central Pennsylvania. However, there may have been one or two. I just didn’t know them.

John Klessinger

Over this time, in my opinion, the sport of wrestling has changed … for the overall good of wrestling.

Being somewhat “old school” in my beliefs, I would have liked to see some of the old rules remain. I understand for safety reasons the multiple changes that have occurred in the last 25 years. Techniques that were once legal are now illegal or potentially dangerous.

Weight management programs, weigh-in rules and descent plans are now the norm. Gone are the days when you would show up over weight and had an hour to an hour and a half to work out and lose a pound. No longer can your community doctor eyeball you, squeeze some fat on your belly and certify you for a weight class.

It is comical now to an extent the procedures (or lack of) we followed. The black eye of kids “cutting” unheard of amounts of weight using rubber suits and saunas has somewhat disappeared. Yet, there still remains the stigma. The sport is still laced in negative opinions of young men and women losing weight.

I can’t speak for other programs or states, but most kids are not “cutting” weight. They are shedding unneeded body fat to compete at a more competitive level, not drastically losing 10, 15, or 20 pounds on an already relatively lean frame.

Maybe that’s the old school in me. I do not think a kid losing five to seven pounds with a body fat of 15-20 percent is unhealthy. Nor do I feel running a bar (arm)with more forward pressure at 12 o’clock is a bad thing.

However, I do recognize the changes have been made the sport safer.

What I have learned since my competition days? I would be remiss if to say if I walked on a mat today in my 17-year-old body of 1992, compared to a 17-year-old with similar experience and skills in 2020, I would have the same results.

The sport has progressed. The resources available to a wrestler today are practically unlimited. Today you can pick apart any elite wrestlers and learn from them. You can model their technique, mindset, and intensity. Their “secrets” are at our disposal. You only have to spend the time and energy, figuring it out. FloWrestling, Intermat, and WIN put the great wrestlers’ methods up for display daily. As close to osmosis as it gets, turn on your phone, and its there.

Lesson #1 – Be a student of the sport. I didn’t have these resources. My primary resource was videos of the PIAA AAA and AA finals matches that I had on VHS tapes, 1987-91. I would watch these matches relentlessly. No on-line social media site existed to analyze and pick apart Jordan Burroughs’ double-leg takedown. Learn as much as you can about wrestling! Learn the finer points of techniques. Compare opposing philosophies and methods of the greats. It is all there for the taking.

Lesson #2 – Practice the mental game. If I could go back in time with the information I know now, I would spend a significant amount of time working on the mental side of the sport. Like technical aspects of wrestling, the internet provides opportunities to mentally prepare ourselves for battle. The mindset aspect of wrestling in 1992 was not readily accessible. It is everywhere now and big business.

Mindset, personal development, self-help, mental toughness training or peak performance mental training is within a Google search and a click. If I was wrestling today, much of my days would be spent on gratitude, self-talk, visualization, and positive thinking. Our minds are powerful, but often we under-utilize its capabilities and neglect its importance in wrestling.

Lesson #3 – Challenge yourself. Piggy-backing off the preceding paragraph, I would challenge myself more. I know from years of physical training, our mental toughness improves from difficult challenges. Each time we leave our comfort zone, and “live” in discomfort, our lives get a little easier. Our perspective on what is difficult continuously recalibrates and we grow stronger. Do things often that test your limits! Physical and mental tasks. Make it hard on yourself. It should suck! Repeated efforts of being uncomfortable expand your capabilities.

Lesson #4 – Train like a wrestler. For much of my high school career, our high school had only a five- or six-station universal machine. Fortunately for myself and my teammates, we had “Tim’s Gym” in our small PA town. Tim’s was full of free weights. However, we didn’t know how to use them. Most of what we did was taken from Muscle and Fitness magazine’s Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilding work-outs that weren’t for athletes as much as for aesthetic reasons to look better.
Training has become much more advanced over the past 30 years. The fitness industry has exploded and now offers strength and conditioning programs specific to every sport.

Not training like a wrestler is a poor decision on any wrestler’s part. This is not to say you need fancy equipment. You don’t. Training to increase and enhance your wrestling abilities entails doing a lot of pull-ups, push-ups, squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and grip-strength exercises. If I was wrestling today, I would train for the demands of wrestling and put the bodybuilding workouts off to the side for when my career was over.

Lesson #5 – Recognize that your time on a wrestling mat will end. I never thought of that as a high school wrestler. Your time as a wrestler goes quick. Really quick! Do all you can to be the best wrestler you can be. It may not seem like it, but your time as a competitive wrestler is short. I was a competitive wrestler for about 12 years. Really, only the last eight. Nothing before high school was important.

For the small percentage, those eight years (four in high school and four in college) may extend to 10 years, or more for the elite wrestlers competing for World and Olympic teams; the one percent and professionals in our sport.

You can’t go back in time. I encourage you to leave your competition days knowing you did all you could. Have no regrets. In the end, you will be proud of what you did if you gave it your best.

(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)