Klessinger: 12 simple tips to help in wrestling, coaching and life

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Updated: November 10, 2022

Photo: John Klessinger (right), who has been coaching high school wrestling in Maryland for a quarter of a century, and his wife Kristel (second from left) are the proud parents of son Mason and daughter Ellie.

By John Klessinger

I have been a wrestling coach for 25 years. Over that time, my beliefs and philosophies have changed drastically. As a younger coach, I focused most of my time on winning. More accurately, we didn’t win much back then, so my focus was on losing less. A few years later, I put my attention on myself. What do I need to do to have a winning program? 

I took a hard look at myself and determined I needed to make some changes. For the next 10 years, I was determined to be the model for my team. I decided right then to show them how to work hard each day. I participated in nearly every drill, conditioning activity and live wrestled daily. I demonstrated what it meant to be committed by being at every practice. If I wanted them to be there, I had to. No exceptions. 

In 22 years as the head coach at South River in Edgewater, Md., I have missed two practices. The first was in 2001 because I got married. The second and last missed practice was in 2004. My six-month-old daughter at the time needed surgery. 

I share that with my wrestlers each season like a badge of honor. I want them to be committed. Attendance is the first step in commitment. I have loosened up my policies over the years on attendance. It is still a big deal. However, I recognize there is life outside of wrestling. Well, my wife would disagree with my statement. Which leads to the next evolution of my coaching career. 

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”.

After the 2014 season, I temporarily resigned as head wrestling coach. For about six months, I wasn’t in the sport for the first time in 30 years. Although we were successful for a long time at that point, the school couldn’t fill the position. Still being a teacher at the school, I couldn’t let the program I spent 14 years building fall by the wayside. 

I was “rehired” for the vacant position one month before the season. The return to the program was always meant to be short-lived. I never thought I would be in the same situation eight years later. But, when I returned with a different mindset and attitude, so did my intentions. 

Whatever happened in those six months changed my objective as a coach. Thinking I was a short-timer, I was more concerned with developing people through wrestling. I wanted each of my wrestlers to learn from the sport the same great qualities I learned as a wrestler: grit, determination, resiliency, and toughness, to name a few. That became my focus and remained my goal each year for my team. 

A weird thing happened with the new approach. We have been more successful in the past eight years than before. Our numbers grew to nearly 60 student-athletes coming out each year. We have won our league dual or tournament championship six of the past seven years (we didn’t wrestle in 2020-21 due to COVID). We wrestled in the Maryland 4A State Dual championship match in 2019. 

And this past season, we won our first wrestling state championship in school history. 

I could go on and on, but the point of this article is about putting in place a philosophy or mindset that will support you to do your best work on the mat. My views may be counter to what most people tell you. But, again, through time, experience, and adversity in my own life, how I look at things has changed. 

Below is a list of ways to advance yourself, your wrestling, and your overall life. It has seemed to me in life “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So, take it for what it is worth and discard anything you don’t feel will benefit you. 

The suggestions below have helped me as a coach, teacher, father, and husband. Some I have only learned recently. I wish I had known these things when I was a high school and college wrestler. However, in my opinion, we learn from our mistakes and failures to become better people. We are who we are because of the events leading up to this moment. For good or for bad, life is our teacher.

1. Relax. This is a new one for me admittedly. We do our best work when we are relaxed. Think about times you’ve wrestled your best. I would bet you were relaxed. When you are relaxed, you are more confident and think with clarity. Develop a practice of relaxing. Multiple times a day, do an internal check of your current level of tension. Then, relax. Do a body scan, breath, sit in the sun, take a slow walk in nature and relax. 

2. Simplify. Minimize the things in your life down to a small few. Clear out the clutter that is distracting you from doing your best work. Maybe it is dropping friends who historically bring you down. Or write your daily plan instead of wandering aimlessly from one thing to the next. It could be cutting out the activities that bring you little benefit — partying, gossiping, complaining, etc. 

3. Journey. Wrestling is a journey. Life is a journey. Stop focusing on only the results. Start spending time seeing the joy in what is happening right in front of you. We rush to the end only to find that we missed a lot of great stuff along the way. 

4. Commit. Commit to being your best self. All it is is a personal decision you make day after day, month after month. You will have easy days, hard days, fun days, boring days, so-so days, and entirely unexpected days. Through it, all, stay on the path. You will never regret giving your best effort — win or lose. 

5. Self-care. Take care of yourself first. Do not be selfish but make it a priority in your life to take time for yourself, your hobbies, and your mental well-being. Self-care is a buzzword these days. Some have used it as an excuse to be lazy or give less effort. Not you! It is taking care of you so you can be your best when you need it most. 

6. Tough. Get tough. Do hard things. Stop playing it safe. Refuse to not take the easy route. If I gave people a choice between a challenging workout, an easy workout, and a medium workout, almost 90 percent of the time, the average person would pick the medium one. Why? Because it is safe. It’s less of a risk. Go big. If you aim for a 100 and get 93, you are better off than aiming for an 80 and getting a 75. 

7. Fight. This is a contradiction or a paradox. The more you fight, the more challenging things become. Go back to No. 1. What you resist, persists. Stop fighting each day. I don’t mean quit or give less of an effort. I mean, we hold onto things with a tight grip, creating unnecessary stress and tension. Start seeing that resistance keeps you stuck. “Go with the flow.” Accept the tough times and know nothing is permanent. Forgive yourself for poor performances. Nothing good comes from beating yourself up. It creates hesitation and fear. 

8. Love. Love wrestling. Be grateful for it. When you see what you do each day as an opportunity instead of a requirement, you see it differently. Train your mind to look at all challenging things as an opportunity.

9. Help. Help others. Be kind. It is written in many places that the more you help others, the more it comes back to you. Help your teammates get better. Help your parents. Life has a strange way of bringing back what you give to others. Also, celebrate others’ successes. Resentment and jealousy add negative energy to you. 

10. Intention. Each morning decide how you want your day to be. For example, you may want to work hard, be kind, have a positive attitude, or whatever. Often, your days will match your intentions. 

11. Excuses. Don’t make them. Excuses are the mind’s way of letting you off the hook for mistakes and failure. Admit fault. Forgive yourself. Another contradiction in some ways. The result is when you refuse to find fault, blame, or complain; things have a way of turning out better for you. 

12. Human. You are a human being with faults and imperfections. You will not win every match. You will not always make the right decisions. Give your best effort. That should be a given. 

As it has been referenced a few times, you will not wrestle better if you are hard on yourself for every mistake. Have an attitude of positive expectation, and if things don’t go well, be OK with it, learn from it, put in the work to improve, and move forward. It is called being constructive compared to destructive. 

(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”.)

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