Harding: Coaching youth wrestling benefits the youth and coach

Updated: February 22, 2024

Photo: Dan Harding (left) started coaching kids in wrestling in his 20s while assisting his father on Long Island.

By Dan Harding

I was in my mid-20s when I moved to Connecticut for a career move. New to the state, I didn’t know anyone outside of work and was at a point in my life where making friends was a challenge.

Years earlier, I enjoyed coaching the youth wrestling program my dad started on Long Island. I decided to volunteer at a local youth wrestling program as a way of kicking my growing Netflix habit and hopefully meeting people.

I called the director of the Berlin Minutemen in the middle of the season, told him about my background in the sport and asked if they could use an extra pair of hands. I didn’t know it then, but that call changed my life. Luck would have it, the club coaches were seriously outnumbered and they welcomed me with open arms.

Coaching a youth wrestling team immediately contributed to my life. After a long day staring at a screen in a cubicle, practice soon became the best part of my day. In between writing stories for a boating magazine, I watched technique videos or sketched out practice ideas in my notebook. Arriving at the wrestling room/cafeteria in the evenings was in many ways the antithesis of my day job.

This column appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Not only was raising your voice tolerated but it was essential. I quickly learned that whatever energy I brought to practice is what the kids would feed off of. If I came to practice in a bad mood or with low energy, the kids reacted in kind. But if I came jogging into the room while clapping and flexing, then the kids would feed off that. It was a master’s class in emotion management and learning to leave the day’s frustrations in the car.

Over the ensuing years, I watched as the kids in our program really started to improve and that was equal parts exciting and addicting. I would often be found on a Sunday evening after a tournament talking on and on with my now-wife about which kids wrestled well, which ones didn’t and what we needed to work on. She would just listen and smile, not knowing what the heck I was talking about but being happy that I was happy. She wouldn’t be on the sidelines of our program for long. 

Karen would come and join me at the all-day Sunday tournaments, chat with the parents and take photos for the team. I knew then she would make a great wife and mom as we spent our date day in a gym and eating painfully-bad cafeteria pizza. Through youth wrestling we found our community, our tribe. Through countless hours of coaching and shouting from the corner together I grew exceptionally close with guys I coached with. I’m confident we’ll all stay lifelong friends.

I used to think that youth competitions paled in comparison to the excitement that comes with coaching at the high school level; now that I’ve done both, I can say that while each is certainly different, both are incredibly rewarding. 

In high school you coach a kid for four years. But at the youth level, it’s not unheard of to coach someone from the age of 5 to 13. You’re literally their coach from the time they’re borderline toddlers to young adults. Having a positive impact on kids during these formative years has been the most rewarding aspect of my adult life.

Dan Harding (right) authored the book “Elite Youth Wrestling” in 2021.

After eight rewarding years with the Minutemen program, I found myself faced with a difficult decision. Lucky enough to become a high school coach, I found myself struggling to balance those commitments, work and family. I now have a three-year-old of my own who likes to wrestle on the living room floor or on my bed. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to put my full heart into youth coaching as well but I knew I would miss coaching with people who became like family. I wrestled with what to do until a recent pre-season coaches meeting.

I looked around the table and saw 12 passionate young coaches all signed on for the season ahead; in them I saw the fire and energy I had in those early years. That meeting made my decision to step away from the team a little easier; I was leaving the program better off than I found it, and for that I’ll always be proud.

One of the biggest shames in our sport is that so few wrestling alumni have the opportunity to coach middle school or high school programs; so few careers allow you to sneak off for a 3:00 practice. To those who still have a passion for our sport and understand the life lessons it teaches, I would encourage you to do what that 25-year-old kid from Connecticut did and consider becoming a youth wrestling coach.

I’m fond of saying that I’m a coach today because I wanted to give back to the sport that taught me so much. The truth is, as a youth wrestling coach, the sport has given me so much more.

(Dan Harding is the editor-in-chief of Power & Motoryacht magazine and has coached youth and high school wrestling in Portland, Connecticut. He’s the author of the book Elite Youth Wrestling; you can connect with him on Instagram at @eliteyouthwrestling.)