The Mats Don't Roll Themselves Out
Ask any coach and they will tell you this: Volunteer support can be the backbone of a successful wrestling club, and parents who graciously volunteer their time can make the difference between a club thriving and merely surviving. Whether it's transportation to and from the gym, rolling up the mats after practice or a tournament, working concessions or providing snacks, volunteers play a vital role in helping coaches manage the off the mat aspect of running a wrestling club.
Coyte Cooper was an All-American wrestler at Indiana University in 2004. While his competitive days are over, Cooper has since spent his professional career focusing on how wrestling programs—from the grassroots youth levels, through high school and college—can better run, promote, market and grow a wrestling program. In 2011 Cooper founded Elite Level Sports Marketing, an organization that provides wrestling coaches unique resources to market and grow their programs effectively. A big part of that is through the recruitment and retention of a strong volunteer base.
"It’s critical for all wrestling programs to develop support at all levels," says Cooper. The grassroots level is particularly important because that’s where wrestling develops a fan support system for the sport, he notes. “Parents are particularly important because they are one of the keys to keeping wrestlers involved in the sport,” he adds. “If their experience is good, then they are far more likely to encourage their kids to stay involved and they will also tell other parents about the sport. I actually got involved in wrestling at the age of five because my neighbor’s parents suggested it to me."
There are examples throughout the country of parents uniting together to help a wrestling club through volunteering efforts. The Tulsa (OK) Union Wrestling program features a group called the Mat Moms, who were organized to support the wrestlers and coaches on and off the mat, including tasks such as feeding kids properly for competition, working concessions and merchandise booths, providing fundraising ideas and organizing a hospitality room to help welcome opposing teams during home events. The Inver Grove Heights (MN) youth wrestling club has provided a pipeline to the successful Simley High School program for over 25 years. One person who was always involved with the program was Pat Short. While her husband Jim (and now son, Will) led the program on the mat, Pat kept tournaments running smoothly as pairings director. She was named the 2002 USA Wrestling Woman of the year and went on to become one of the most talented and experienced pairing officials in the nation. Other programs have mat maids that get sisters/daughters of club members involved in volunteering roles.
Translation: There can be a role for everyone.
Jeff Wichern, now a coach with the Eden Prairie (MN) Eagles Youth Wrestling Program, says parents who volunteer their time are often making more of an impact than they realize.
"It takes the burden off of coaches and helps make the program run," says Wichern. "And kids try harder when parents or relatives are there to support them. Wrestling is a tough sport so when you have mom or grandma there to support you, no matter how you do, that always helps."
Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, agrees. "Just having a parent that can be there to take over some of those off (mat) responsibilities goes a long way," says Johnson. "What's also important is parents are serving as role models in that other kids see how they handle themselves and how they are trying to make a positive impact through their efforts."
The keys to building a solid volunteer base starts with fostering enthusiasm among stakeholders, says Cooper. In this case those stakeholders are the volunteers. Coaches should hold a preseason parent meeting to emphasize the impact volunteers have on the program and to start the foundation for setting up a volunteer program. Be forward thinking, Cooper says. What new things can we do? What didn't work? How can we get more parents involved and in what other ways can we get people involved? Some programs organize booster clubs. Others volunteer for specific roles—such as fundraising coordinator or marketing director, for example.
Technology has created new volunteer and marketing opportunities that can help brand a program as well, says Cooper. Have someone who is tech-savvy or into social media such as Facebook or Twitter? Start a team Facebook page or Twitter account and use it to connect with people in and outside the program. Create short, fun video profiles on wrestlers and upload them to Facebook or YouTube. Sharing them with family and friends helps garner interest and recognition. These capabilities weren’t around 10 years ago and they go beyond the traditional thinking of volunteering in-season only.
Every club has volunteer programs in place that works. Making it fun—and social—can be a boost to attracting parents to participate.
At Eden Prairie, Wichern says there is a dad's night where all the fathers of wrestlers in the program go out to dinner together. Other clubs hold team picnics, and some hold mom's meetings where those new to the club can get to know other mothers in the program. The payoff for those who volunteer reaches far beyond winning wrestling matches, says Wichern.
"We try to make it a family atmosphere," he explains. "Parents get to become friends with other parents. We have pizza parties and pool parties and all the kids and parents attend. I have friends from wrestling when I started when I was five years old and our families are still all friends. So the fun thing about wrestling is you build relationships for life."
Volunteer Resources: Tips to attract, retain, and recognize volunteers
1. Public recognition is key: Cooper says it's important to publicly recognize volunteers for their time and commitment. This can be done at a team banquet, at a tournament, on a team web site, through a team newsletter and on social media—using the team Facebook page or on Twitter. "Make sure that these individuals know how much you appreciate their efforts," Cooper emphasizes.
2. Marketing works: Cooper has also partnered with the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) to assist in marketing efforts of college wrestling programs and has worked closely with the NWCA and the NCAA as the author of newly released NWCA Marketing Resource Manual. While geared towards colleges, youth and high school clubs can benefit from this resource when planning volunteer efforts and ideas.
3. Year-round opportunities: Always be on the lookout for ways that parents can get involved and support the program, especially outside the season. Have a parent who loves to golf? Maybe that parent can organize a golf fundraiser for the program. Get to know the resources involved in your program. A parent might not know a lot about wrestling and might not have time to physically be at events, but they may have other ideas and abilities that can help beyond the mat.
4. Think outside the box: What is relevant to your area/community? What would be something people not involved with the wrestling program would be interested in participating with? Try to come up with new ideas that can involve volunteers from outside the program, or get people interested in the program even if they are not directly connected.5. Give back: The best way to attract volunteers is to volunteer yourself. Organize events throughout the year where the wrestling program volunteers within the community. Volunteer to bus tables at the local fish fry. Participate in programs such as Habitat for Humanity or assist the elderly with lawn mowing or home repairs, participate in community events and just be generall active in the community. All of these can help give back and motivate others to help the wrestling program in the future.