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Photos: Championship Productions creates numerous training videos, including from some of the sport’s most legendary coaches like Dan Gable and John Smith.
By John Klessinger
Sitting in my bedroom day after day in middle school and high school, I watched the PIAA Wrestling Championships. My dad would record both the AA and AAA finals matches each year from the mid-1980s until I was in my twenties in college.
I remember watching Ty Moore, Brad Silimperi, Chris Kwortnick, Joey Wildisin, Ray Brinzer, etc. My high school, Warwick, was a AAA school. So I was more familiar with the AAA schools. It was something when watching where I imagined myself someday wrestling in the state finals on television.
I never had that opportunity to wrestle in the PIAA AAA finals. Twice I lost in the semifinals to the eventual state champions, Jim Thal from Bellefonte, and then to Ryan Nunamaker from Nazareth the following year. Wrestling in the PIAA tournament is a neat experience. As I get older, I forget more and remember less. But, I appreciate the experiences that wrestling provided me more than I did as a high school and college wrestler.
Entering the old Hershey Arena brings back memories like the roar of the fans when an upset was occurring or watching legends, future NCAA champions and All-Americans as well as national powerhouse teams and coaches like Gus DeAugustino of North Allegheny, Steve Powell of Easton and Don Rohn of Northampton.
Watching those matches on a VCR taught me a lot about wrestling techniques. To a certain extent, I became obsessed with analyzing wrestling moves and incorporating them into my own repertoire of techniques and skills. It was a game-changer when my parents got me a VCR with slow-motion capabilities. I could watch a Brad Silimperi duck under in slow motion picking apart the set-up, motion, and finish. I would learn a John Smith-low single watching Big Spring’s Matt Mentzer execute the shot on my high school teammate Scott Mitchell in the 1990 District III final.
Technique videos were not in supply as they are now. So the PIAA matches were my instructional videos. I was also fortunate to have a high school coach who attended camps each summer and brought moves back to our room each winter. My coach, Jerry McDonald, was a technician. At 40-something years old, Coach McDonald was still “schooling” me and my teammates with smooth and sound techniques. He made us look like new wrestlers with his mastery of arm drags and elbow leads.
From those videos, I became a student of the sport of wrestling. Not only did it up my game on the mat, leading to increased success, but later served me well as a high school coach. My student approach to wrestling has dramatically enhanced my knowledge of the sport. There is so much out there to learn. Today, although being in the sport for nearly 40 years, I continue to learn something new practically daily.
My VCR and slow-motion have been replaced with my computer and cell phone. On Instagram, I follow numerous instructional pages. Beyond technique, I pick up news and information about wrestling. I listen to podcasts and watch videos of the careers of our great wrestlers. I love the sport of wrestling, but I think what I enjoy most about it is the continuation of learning more. It keeps it exciting with fresh ideas from expert coaches and wrestlers on and off the mat.
Most of what we teach in our room today are wrestling moves I have learned over the past 10-15 years. How we teach our kids has been adapted from what I learned at Keith Lowrance’s Granby camp. A step-by-step systematic way of instruction. Moves are broken down into small parts leading to greater understanding and learning. Techniques are often taught from the end to the beginning.
At John Fritz’s Keystone Camp, his staff at that time included former and current Penn State wrestlers, who demonstrated techniques starting from the end and working back to the beginning. I picked up that coaching strategy nearly 20 years ago. Since then, we teach go-behinds before block downs and sprawls. We introduce finishes to high crotches and singles before level changes and penetration steps.
Each wrestling season, I encourage the athletes on my team to be a student of the sport of wrestling or a student of in any sport they are interested in. The newer wrestlers look at me like I am kind of nuts. “Student of the sport? What is he talking about? This is not school.”
I share the hours I spent watching the PIAA videos, reading about wrestling, listening to interviews with coaches and wrestlers and just thinking about ways to get better. Quickly, they understand. My fascination is a mix of passion and curiosity. It was finding the best ways to score with the least amount of effort as a competitor.
Admittedly, I was one of those wrestlers who strived to woo the crowd with “slick” technique. I definitely was not an Iowa-style wrestler. I enjoyed hitting a fireman’s carry to a person’s back, a Silimperi duck/high crotch or a sweep single to an easy score.
My “student-of-the sport” mindset has carried over into coaching. Like I said previously, I am learning something new almost every day. Recently, I watched a pretty cool way to clear a collar tie to a sweep single or knee-pull single on the Compound Wrestling page on Instagram. I watch wrestling on the Big Ten Network equally as a fan and a coach.
College wrestling is innovative. Nearly every wrestling move I see for the first time happens in college. The “quad-pod” stand-up, mat returns and rides on top originate in college wrestling rooms. You would think at some point everything to be created would end, but I see something new (to me at least) in almost every dual I watch. The next day I walked into practice and asked one of our coaches if they saw what I saw. Then, we work trying to figure out the technique and steps to share with our wrestlers.
I like listening to interviews because it shows you their mindset. Then I share the comments with the kids I coach. Sometimes I will print an article from someone like David Goggins and have my team read it as an assignment. The next day I will quiz them. It all goes back to being a student. What can I learn today to help myself and others?
Being a student of the sport is not hard work. It is a mindset mixed in with passion and curiosity. If you want to be good at anything, you need passion and curiosity. If you are passionate and curious, you will like to learn as much as possible. I never look at my “wrestling homework” as work. The rewards are so much greater than the time spent.
Imagine what you could learn if you decide to be a student of the sport of wrestling. How much would it elevate your progress? Last month I said the difference between average to good and good to great is inches. Being a student of wrestling is inches that can turn into miles. At worst, you know more about the sport you love. At best, it will lead you to dreams.
(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”.)