What To Do: Male Coaches, Female Wrestlers

By Matt Krumrie | April 14, 2016, 2:56 a.m. (ET)

Girls wrestling is growing. Fast. According to data from the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), the number of girls who wrestled in high school grew from 804 in 1994 to over 11,496 in 2015. Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington all sponsor a girls state high school championship and over 30 colleges now have a women's varsity wrestling program.

And while there are more women coaching girls, coaching at the youth wrestling level is still done mostly by men. No matter their gender, wrestling coaches do what they do because they love the sport, says Terry Steiner, head coach of the U.S. Women’s national wrestling team. The challenge and reward of teaching life lessons is what drives them—whether coaching boys or girls, men or women. "Their goal is to help move human beings forward and make a difference," Steiner says. "Wrestling is wrestling and sport is sport.”

Nevertheless, Steiner, who was an assistant coach for Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin from 1994-2002, acknowledges that he went through an adjustment period the first time he coached female athletes. "I remember that first practice," he recalls. "Here I am, someone who has been involved in wrestling my whole life, and I wasn't sure how to approach certain things," like how to demonstrate certain moves with a female wrestler. But Steiner quickly realized was that these concerns were issues he, as the coach,had to figure out, not the female wrestlers.

"The athletes that are in the room, that you coach, just want someone to lead them," Steiner explains. "Your job as a coach is to get to know them and lead them. You have to put in the time and effort to get to know them to succeed.”

Shannyn Gillespie runs the Chicago, IL-based Elias George Wrestling Foundation. Previously, he spent eight years as the head coach of the women's freestyle team at the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan. During that time, Gillespie worked the top women wrestlers in the country, including many of today's elite women's wrestlers.

Gillespie admits that he had some ups and downs during his first few years coaching women at the USOEC. So, he began to attend seminars, read books, and watch videos on how to more effectively coach female wrestlers. Over time, he started to realize the mistakes he was making. For example, he’s learned that boys and girls often have different listening and emotional coping skills, which can require more attention to detail from the coach. Also, he warns that gender stereotypes can negatively influence how a male coach interacts with female wrestlers.

To combat this, Gillespie says he continues to research and train and recommends today’s coaches do the same, especially when it comes to coaching female athletes. "I still try to get better everyday," he says.

Aaron Meister, head coach of the Wayland Baptist University (Plainview, Texas) women's wrestling team, says he often hears male coaches say things like “I don’t see boys or girls, all I see are wrestlers.” This an overly simplistic approach, he says. Boys and girls have a different centers of gravity, he notes. Likewise, their ability to build muscle mass and flexibility aren’t the same. "Acknowledging differences between male and female athletes, and learning to communicate with both helps make the athlete and program more successful, and ultimately grows the sports we all love," Meister says.

Tina Syer grew up playing a wide variety of sports where her male coaches had little experience coaching girls. She found they had lower expectations for girls and did not push them as hard (in conditioning for example). Syer, who is now Chief Impact Officer at the Positive Coaching Alliance and has coached at the high school, college, and Olympic Development levels, drew upon those experiences in her own coaching career.

"We know our athletes often perform to our expectations, so make sure to have high expectations for your female wrestlers," Syer says. "This is not just about the scoreboard, but also about the type of work they put in at practice.” Coaches should help female wrestlers find other female athletic role models to emulate, especially within wrestling, she adds.

This might be as simple as talking about female wrestlers from the local community who compete on high school or college teams, Syer explains. Or it might mean inviting your young female wrestlers to go with you to watch these women compete. If you're utilizing video to help teach your wrestlers a new move, she suggests making the extra effort to find video featuring female wrestlers.

Finally, think long-term, says Syer. When you're talking with your female athletes, let them know you hope they'll think about coaching one day. If you have female wrestlers in your community (high school or college-aged), invite them to help out or be an assistant coach in your program. After all, to grow the sport, every coach should be thinking about developing not just more male and female wrestlers, but more male and female coaches too.

Additional Resources from the PCA Development Zone Resource Center

-USA Wrestling's Kelsey Campbell on being a female wrestler

-USA Wrestling's Clarissa Chun on how gender diversity in wrestling helped her make the U.S. Olympic team.

-A coach's impact on self-image in young girls