Gable’s coaching secrets on getting a whole HS team to excel

Updated: February 17, 2023

Photo: According to Dan Gable, Bruce Kinseth (right), who won an NCAA title and OW honors at the 1979 national tournament for Iowa, was a wrestler who never took a backseat to opponent, in and out of the wrestling room. (Photo from 1980 NCAA Guide.)

Note: Dan Gable, the legendary wrestler and coach who now has grandchildren wrestling, recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about coaching today’s preps. This is also an expanded version that appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of WIN Magazine. 

WIN: How different is high school wrestling today, compared to when you wrestled in high school and when you recruited high school wrestlers?

GABLE: When I was growing up, you’d just train at that high school. You might have gone to a wrestling camp for a week over the summer. Now there are wrestling clubs all over the state and country. We never had those growing up. These clubs get a good reputation and wrestlers seek them out and will travel as much as three hours one way to train there in addition to at their high school. I know that Ben Kueter (WIN’s top-ranked wrestler at 220), who is on the same high school team as my grandson in Iowa City, has been traveling to places as far as Mason City to also train since he was in eighth or ninth grade.

When I started coaching right after the 1972 Olympics, I would put on a camp or be a camp clinician and some of the top wrestlers looking for an edge would ask me if I had time to work out with them. Now, there are clubs everywhere for high school wrestlers to find that edge.

WIN: Does it force today’s high school coaches to be different with their elite wrestlers compared to when you wrestled at Waterloo West High School for Bob Siddens in the 1960s?

GABLE: Can you imagine what would have happened if I missed a Bob Siddens practice? I would not have been on that team very long. Now, some wrestlers don’t have to go to a high school practice if they are going to a club practice. That can be good or bad. In a perfect world, the kid wants to be perfect and if he feels like he can get better somewhere else, some coaches let him.

WIN: Do those high school coaches need to be more secure in their role and not be upset if a wrestler seeks some other coach’s opinion?

GABLE: A high school coach may not have as much influence on the wrestler, but coaches can still have a major influence. It’s a sign of the times. If a high school coach says, “No,” to a wrestler, that wrestler is going to go somewhere else and that high school coach is going to lose some good kids. High school coaches can’t take it personal and have to be more flexible, but not too flexible. The fine line is whether the rest of the high school team understands what is going on.

High school coaches need to make sure they have good communication with the club coach and get some good feedback at what the wrestler did at that club practice. Frankly, there are some elite wrestlers who don’t really have quality workout partners in their high school wrestling rooms and need to seek out someone better.

WIN: Should high school coaches also find those clubs to help their better athletes who don’t have great training partners?

GABLE: I’d say if it’s needed and wanted by the wrestler. Otherwise, high school coaches should find other ways to challenge a kid within his wrestling room even if you don’t have some other kid to challenge him.

WIN: How do coaches do that?

GABLE: You work him. You can alternate people on him or get a heavier dummy for the wrestler to throw and pick up. There are other ways to get good workouts for these kids without having to leave the high school wrestling room. The wrestler also must have good relationship with that high school coach. But, coaches also have 30 other guys and can’t just spend all their time with one athlete. That’s why there needs to be good assistants.

WIN: And shouldn’t high school coaches have even higher expectations for those elite wrestlers and maybe even get that elite kid to act as more of a coach with his teammates?

GABLE: Elite wrestlers can really affect the rest of the team. The coach should tell other wrestlers, while they are taking a break, to watch the elite wrestler. I really believe the best teams have wrestlers who are watching the best wrestlers on their team in practice. I believe watching some elite wrestler working even harder influences the other guys. They need to hone in on that excellence.

WIN: Should a young wrestler, who may not be as good, simply want to challenge the elite wrestler? It’s not as a wrestle-off, but see what it’s like “to be in the fire” against a highly-ranked wrestler, which in turn will make them a better wrestler?

GABLE: The coach should make them realize how they should compete, instead of taking a backseat. When a coach sends someone out on the mat to face someone with more experience, that kid must still give his best effort and not back down. If that is not happening, then there must be better communication and then send them out there again. When a young wrestler does not take a backseat to someone, that wrestler is representing himself and getting something accomplished for everyone.

WIN: Is this when the team element of wrestling really shows up in the wrestling room, where reserves may get beat badly, but may play the biggest part in helping the better wrestler perform even better in the postseason?

GABLE: It is about the wrestlers getting beat and the wrestler doing the beating. The postseason is not just about the starters. There may be 15 others on the JV squad and perhaps another 10 on the sophomore squad. It’s about everyone moving up the ladder.

WIN: How does a coach get a reserve to think of himself as a starter?

GABLE: Coaches need to communicate that philosophy to the entire group in a team meeting or later pull a kid aside, maybe not in the heat of the battle when he’s getting beat and explain this better. Very few really understand how to battle with a guy who is much better. They might want to protect themselves and simply take a backseat because they don’t have the confidence yet. That’s normal. If coaches can get guys on the team that aren’t as good to step up and challenge better wrestlers, those coaches are going to end up with an even better team.

WIN: Do you have an example of someone you coached at Iowa, who understood that message about challenging someone better … for the betterment of the team?

GABLE: That was Bruce Kinseth, who developed from such competition and eventually was named the O.W. at the 1979 national tournament. He was a guy who had the edge and would not back down against someone better. I didn’t have to show him how to move up the ladder, but the only way he was going to move up was because of hard work. He had a strong work ethic and would not take a backseat to anyone. He kept learning and stayed after practice, despite getting beat by someone in the wrestling room.

Dan Gable was a three-time state of Iowa champion for Waterloo West High School.

WIN: You must have had a similar attitude when you were growing up. Can you give me an example of what you faced when you were at Waterloo West High School?

GABLE: I remember that I was a 112-pounder and I decided to take on the 138-pounder in practice during my senior year. I was pretty good and had already won a state championship. The 138-pounder also had won a couple state championships and we had a six-minute match in practice and he beat me. But when he got done, he said to me, ‘Gable, I always wondered why you won. You never stopped battling me even when I rode you the whole period and I had to work even harder to keep you down. Other guys I wrestled would just lay there. You did not.’ He told me he learned what made someone good in wrestling.