In the heat of competition, emotions can get the better of athletes and lead them astray. Coaches—even veteran ones—are no different. All too often, their best intentions can have unintended consequences if they try to win matches from matside. So here are some best practices to keep in mind.
1. Best coaching happens in practice
The best wrestling coaches do their best coaching during practice, in the practice room. Not matside during the heat of a match.
"Practice is for developing strategy, skills, and planning efficient communication between coaches and athletes," says Mike Clayton, Director of the National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling. "Matches are good for testing the practice philosophy, not for teaching new skills."
Clayton helped create this Corner Coaching Tips & Strategy document for USA Wrestling.
2. Know your athlete’s limits
Competition is not the time to ask or instruct wrestlers to try something new that they haven’t practiced, notes Clayton. "If I haven't taught it to a wrestler before the match, it's almost certain the athlete won’t learn it in the six minutes of a competition,” he says.
However, there are situations—like a gym with a loud, boisterous crowd—where the coach must raise their voice to be heard, says August Manz, a coach with the COBRA Optimists Wrestling Club of Council Bluffs (IA). But coaches should remember that even though they are raising their voice, the wrestler may not be able to hear or acknowledge it—so don’t just yell louder. Voice, body language, and facial expressions all make an impact.
3. One athlete competing = one coach talking
At many youth tournaments, it’s not uncommon for coaches, teammates, and family members to stand in the corner of their wrestler. While many do so for moral support, too many voices can become a major distraction, says Tom Kuisle, Mat Officials Director for Minnesota USA Wrestling and the 2012 USA Wrestling Officials Association Official of the Year
"Assign one coach to speak and talk from the corner," says Kuisle. "If there is a second coach, that coach should offer advice through the assigned coach. That way, when the athlete hears that familiar voice he or she knows it is meant for them. They don’t have to spend the mental focus needed to deal with their opponent filtering out all the other noise to find the voice of the coach."
4. To help your wrestler keep his or her composure, keep yours too
Manz points out that many kids are nervous when they step out on the mat, especially those not used to competing in front of a crowd. So, coaches who remain calm and in control will help the wrestler follow suit.
"If you have a child in an environment and their coach or parent is sitting in their corner yelling at them or pounding on the mat to do a certain move, what kind of emotions will the child be feeling?” Manz explains. “The answer is scared or intimidated."
5. Working the refs doesn’t work
Coaches need to focus on coaching the athlete, not the official.
“When a coach is talking to or at the referee, the athlete is missing the assistance that they may need,” Kuisle says. “Yelling complaints like ‘What’s the other guy doing?’ Or ‘Call it both ways!’ won’t change the call and instead leaves you offering nothing to the athlete as a coach.
What’s more, Clayton notes that there is a shortage of wrestling officials in our country and one reason is that because officials often get yelled at or worse. “Let the official off the hook, and if a call doesn't go your way, get used to it. It won't always go your way.”
Instead, use that experience as a teachable moment. Remind your athlete that referees are human. Occasionally, the calls they will make won't seem fair. "This will allow your athlete to start building resiliency," says Clayton. "This will serve them well as their matches start to mean more.”
6. Stay focused and positive
Kuisle says the best matside coaches develop a coaching vocabulary that is tailored to each individual wrestler. These have been discussed and put in place at practice, well before competition takes place. These key words or hand signals can relay short precise instructions that help the athlete focus on the match. “Words should always encourage, be positive and instructive,” says Kuisle. “Scolding and reprimanding when the athlete is working hard will flip the listening switch to the off position."
Wrestlers at the high school level are better equipped to understand why a coach is raising his voice, says Manz. But ultimately, all coaches need to understand how each individual wrestler responds. “Some kids thrive off of a coach that is in their face, some don't,” he says.“This is where you need to know your wrestler and treat each one as an individual."
For his part, Clayton recommends praising in public and reprimanding in private. "Kids often think that yelling at them means that, as a coach, we are attacking their self-worth. Coaches in this situation think we are motivating the athlete. But not all athletes—very few in-fact—react well to yelling.”
Finally, after the match, give your athlete a positive comment on his or her way off the mat, adds Clayton. Remember the golden rule in that moment, he says: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.