Olympic pioneer Bacher & WLAG: Know strategic differences in coaching girls and boys

Updated: December 6, 2022

Photo: Since returning to her native Alaska, 2004 Olympian Tela O’Donnell Bacher (center) has coached both boys and girls, including (from left) college wrestlers Rayana Vigil and Seth Inama and local siblings Henry and Jesse Adcox. 

By Mike Finn

Tela O’Donnell Bacher has always been full of surprises; whether it was showing up on the Discovery Channel’s reality show, “Alaska: The Last Frontier” in the past eight years or becoming one of the first American women to wrestle at an Olympics in 2004.

And now it’s that spirit that this native of Homer, Alaska — the site of the reality series that features the Kilcher family living without modern conveniences — hopes to share with young wrestlers.

“I’m actually really shy when it comes to putting the focus on me,” laughed Bacher, who was inducted into the Alaska National Wrestling Hall of Fame on Nov. 22 of this year. “But I’m getting over myself because when we celebrate the accomplishments of women in wrestling, the value of women in our sport grows.”

For those who are not familiar with Bacher’s story, she first appeared on the national stage in 2004, when she upset two-time World silver medalist Tina George at 55 kilos to make the 2004 Olympics; joining Patricia Miranda (48k), Sara McMann (63k) and Toccara Montgomery (72k) as this country’s first female Olympians in wrestling. All three of her Olympic teammates had more previous success than Bacher.

“I worked hard to peak physically and mentally to make the Olympic team,” said Bacher, who was just 22 years old and went by her maiden name O’Donnell when she twice pinned the reigning champion, in consecutive rounds of the 2004 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis to earn her spot on the inaugural U.S. Olympic Women’s Wrestling Team. 

“The Olympic Games were my first World championship-level competition,” said Bacher, who placed sixth in Athens at the Games and continued to wrestle for another year before retiring. 

“I had always seen myself as an underdog and suddenly there was all this external energy to perform. I got a little burned out in my preparation for the Olympics. The focus on winning and medals overshadowed my true motivation that had gotten me to the Olympic level: my love of the sport of wrestling. I fell out of love with wrestling and moved on.”

Tela O’Donnell (Bacher) did not wrestle in a Senior-level international event until she made the 2004 Olympics at 55 kilos. Those Games in Athens were the first time women’s wrestling was contested as an Olympic sport.

After retirement, Bacher finished her undergraduate degree at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She then turned her focus to motherhood, having the first of three children two years after the Olympics, and returned to her hometown, where she married Paul Bacher.

Wrestling was no longer a big part of her life until 2016 when former teammate and founder of Wrestle Like A Girl, Sally Roberts, asked her to join the founding board of the national non-profit organization.

“I had a love-hate relationship with the sport. I had gained so much from wrestling, but I had also been burned by it,” she admitted. “But seeing how girls and women’s wrestling was beginning to be valued gave me a sense of hope. Working with Wrestle Like A Girl rekindled my passion for wrestling. Now, I get to help shape a future for girls and women in wrestling.”

Back home in Alaska, she now coaches both young women and men. She also leads special projects for WLAG and heads up their Female-Specific Coaching Education Program.  

“Coaches who have always coached boys in their wrestling rooms, now have female athletes joining their practices. Many feel unprepared to coach girls. It could be argued that coaching is coaching, and a successful coach will support their athletes regardless of gender. But on the other hand, there are a couple tips and tricks of coaching girl wrestlers that can make a significant difference.

“I want to apologize for my gross generalization of gender in advance, however, there are a couple of things that are unique to coaching girls and when understood by coaches, can make a more positive experience for athlete and coach alike. For example, boys’ center of gravity is in their shoulders whereas a girl’s center of gravity is in her hips, and girls tend to be more flexible. Adjusting for this reality can support success in wrestling and beyond.

“Anybody who has coached girls in middle school or high school knows this common situation: A girl shoots in, gets sprawled on, and holds onto that leg like her life depends on it. After four years of her using her flexible shoulders against the strongest part of her opponent’s body, the hips, the girl may end up having significant shoulder injuries. Instead of encouraging our girls to hold onto the leg, it is important to teach them to turn the corner or come back to neutral.”

Bacher, who coaches the local high school team in Homer as well as a club called the “Anchor Kings,” said there are also psychological differences between male and female athletes. For example, confidence can differ. 

“I will have a freshman boy who head-and-armed himself through middle school come into practice and say, ‘I’m going to make it to state this year,’” said Bacher. “That confidence is charming, though somewhat unrealistic. 

“Whereas, I may have a senior female wrestler who placed at state twice, but doubts herself before her state finals match. 

“I help my male athlete set incremental goals that are more realistic and will help him develop into the wrestler he sees himself as. Whereas, I might I remind my female athlete of her abilities and her accomplishments so she wrestles with the confidence that she deserves.”

“For boys, confidence precedes competence. For girls, competence precedes confidence.”

Oddly, Bacher pointed out that some coaches will talk about how much they love coaching girls because they are so coachable and “they listen to the feedback from their coaches and incorporate it into their wrestling.

“But if coaches only give feedback on what their girl wrestler is doing wrong, she might hear, ‘You are a bad wrestler’ and she may start doubting her abilities. Instead, if a coach takes a more positive approach saying, ‘This is what you did well, and this is what we want to work on,’ it will help the athlete develop both wrestling skill and confidence. 

“I actually don’t think this is specific to girls; taking a positive approach to coaching definitely benefits female athletes and probably male athletes as well.”