In one of the more recent editions of WIN Magazine I enjoyed reading an article by Jordan Burroughs addressing the issue of what we have to do to move USAWrestling and America back into competitive relevance.
I like Jordan; he’s a good man, a great wrestler and an outstanding ambassador for the sport. So when I saw his article, I knew it was a must read.
One of the first topics he covered was freestyle versus folkstyle. It was JB’s opinion that if we’re ever going to be competitive in world competition, we need to focus our attention away from folkstyle.
Of course that isn’t a new assertion; people have been expressing that for years. And it’s as wrong today as it was when USAWrestling began using it as an excuse to cover up almost two decades of international incompetence. To eliminate any confusion here, I’m talking about the leadership of USAWrestling and not the quarter of a million men and women that expect effective leadership. I’m referring to those who either enjoy the salaries and perks of power or those who are in line to succeed those who are currently enjoying the salaries and perks of power. This is how accountability gets skewered and status remains quo.
For the following statistics, I’ll be referencing America’s freestyle program for men at the World Championships which has always been the barometer we use to determine program effectiveness.
Did you know; that since 2000 when the present leadership at USAWrestling came to power we’ve only had 3 individuals win a World Freestyle Championship . . . just three. And in the same period of time prior to 2000, the United States won 22 individual World Freestyle Championships.
So if we’re to believe the excuse regarding the evils of folkstyle, how is it possible that we won 22 individual Gold Medals during those previous 16 years? I thought the idea was we needed to decommission folkstyle so we could concentrate on freestyle?
So I wonder if it’s not a folkstyle-freestyle issue, what could it be? I only see two options, either the leadership in Colorado Springs is woefully inadequate or someone drained America’s gene pool around the time our current administration took office?
Personally, I refuse to believe that starting in 2000 our athletes somehow became genetically inferior to their European counterparts. That only leaves the leadership option for those whose corner offices are on Lehman Drive. They simply don’t have a clue how to build a world class program or develop athletes for international competition. Isn’t that the most important responsibility for any National Governing Body; to assure its membership and in this case the USOC that the sport is in good hands? Failing the international performance tests as they repeatedly do has to put into question their capability of developing the sport here at home.
Even if it were true that folkstyle is getting in the way of effective freestyle performances, which it’s not, why would anyone want to kill a 200 year old combative style so 10 freestylers may or may not have a better chance of winning an Olympic medal once every 4 years?
Are we actually talking about the elimination of a wrestling form that hundreds of thousands of children compete in every year just so we might be able to benefit less than .000001 percent of our population? Somehow levelheadedness isn’t part of this conversation?
Just so everyone’s clear on how bad it is; were you aware that we have more wrestlers competing in America than any country in the world? That we have more wrestling rooms, more officials and more registered coaches than any country in the world and while we’re on a roll here, better sports medicine, sports psychology and access to better nutrition than any country in the world and if that didn’t get your attention, should I mention that America spends more money on wrestling than any country in the world.
And yet we’re continually losing matches to countries that are smaller than some of our states and have populations less than a lot of our cities.
We can’t even hold our heads up when we host World Championships; at least in the areas where it counts. When the event was in Las Vegas last summer, USAWrestling touted the outcomes as being a tremendous success, clearing over $600,000.00. However athletically, even with home court advantage and all that means from officiating help to partisan crowds, we only qualified 2 freestyle weights for the men, 1 for the women and 1 in Greco-Roman. In other words 4 out of 16 weights got their ticket punched for Rio.
Boy has our priorities changed. We use to plan, prepare and expect to win world medals in every weight, now USAWrestling worries about how they’re going to qualify weight classes just to be able to say they sent a team or worse, almost a full team to the big dance. When this becomes the mindset of any leadership group, where they begin to focus on just getting by, everything is about to go south, if it hasn’t already.
There may be some of you who are thinking about, “now wait a minute Wade, what about all the Soviet Republics that are now sending athletes to world competition as a result of the breakup? You need to compare apples to apples here to be fair.”
Good point, however the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 so for those 11 years leading up to 2000, I am comparing apples to apples. And prior to that, for those who remember back that far, the top 5 or so wrestlers in each weight class who didn’t win the Russian National Championships were sent to various Soviet Bloc countries to represent them. Not to mention others who simply defected for the chance to be free and compete under a different flag. So we’ve always encountered multiple wrestlers from the Soviet Union in world competition.
Another issue that is high on my of course they do list is we not only can’t win, too many of our bouts end up with our coaches trying to explain what happened with let’s see if I can keep my job statements like “we were close, we wrestled tough and I’m so proud of the way Johnny fought. We just have to work a little harder that’s all.”
Work harder? At what? Doing the same thing?
That philosophy only worked decades ago when matches were 9 minutes long, but not anymore. We’re so hard wired into thinking that being tough in the physical sense and/or in great shape entitles a person to a world medal that it’s all they think about.
Toughness is a state of mind, not a physical presence and being in better shape only helps the athlete if he or she attacks enough to make superior conditioning an issue.
Jordan succeeds because he’s extremely talented and skilled but his strength by far is his mental toughness. You see it every time he steps on a mat. The difference between Taylor and Dake is not talent or skill but the fine line between levels of mental toughness. The same is true for Dake versus Burroughs. It’s just that Jordan was raised on a different street corner than the rest of the field and it’s apparent. It’s always the difference in big matches. Being a physical bruiser or in great shape only qualifies wrestlers to be entrants in tournaments, it never puts anyone on the medal stand.
Right now there are several differences between American wrestlers and their European counterparts. Mental toughness is certainly one of them and as I explain myself here please don’t point to Kyle Snyder or Burroughs as proof to where I’m off base. For they excel primarily due to the overwhelming dominance we enjoy in America as a result of the numbers of wrestler’s we have competing and the exceptional amount of resources we consume. I don’t think anyone believes they’re winning as a result of the administration in Colorado Springs.
As my college coach use to say; “when you have a great wrestler, don’t screw him up by trying to coach him. Just get him to the match on time and both of you will be fine.”
But if there is good news in all this it’s that mental toughness can be learned. Unfortunately it’s just not part of the curriculum at USAWrestling. As long as our national governing body doesn’t require our top athletes to gather in Colorado Springs for steel sharpens steel practices, no matter how amazing our athletes are, there will always only be minimal development. And as we’ve seen, Europeans eat minimal for lunch.
Last night my son and I were texting back and forth during the Penn State-Ohio State match and I was being critical of how the sport is failing and using the commercials that were being aired throughout the event as an example. Jake wrote somewhere during the evening, “Dad, I think you’re being hypercritical here.”
Well, perhaps. But if we’re to fix the things that keep us in the middle of the pack, it’s probably important to identify what they are and let people know.
Then it dawned on me. The reason I’m so adamant about fighting for the sport I love is my look into the future binoculars. It’s so clear where we’re not headed. How can we possibly feel we’re doing fine with 16,000 fans packing the Bryce Jordan Center and not one main stream company like Visa, Coke, Nike, T. Rowe Price or Chevrolet wanting to have anything to do with us? That should speak volumes.
All the Big Ten Network could round up were a few wrestling camps and one wrestling shoe manufacturer as advertisers because Wall Street is acutely aware of our nonexistent demographics.
Back to our international performances, I’m just sick at all the events we attend and the amount of resources we squander to continually see the letters DNP appear after our athlete’s names.
Our athletes deserve better, they deserve more.
But when USAWrestling continually gives their Executive Director hefty bonuses each year for embarrassing performances, I start to wonder if they aren’t actually a US government agency like the Veteran’s Administration? Especially when they turn around and increase the cost of memberships and service fees to overcome the hundreds of thousands of dollars of USOC money they don’t receive for medal production. It just seems wrong, every young athlete and hardworking volunteer has to pay more so those who are doing less can benefit.
The next failing I’d like to direct your attention to from those in Colorado Springs is their technical policies. It seems we’re so enamored with Soviet programming due to their current dominance that we’ve convinced ourselves the only way to win is to emulate their style.
What are they thinking? Sure, Russians do quite a lot of things well but so could we if our athletes were allowed to pour themselves a liberal dose of creativity.
Americans have always been the global kings of inventiveness, that’s one of our strengths and how many of our legends made the rest of the world shake their heads in confusion. We took creativity to interstellar levels and the opposition had no idea what unexpected techniques “those crazy Americans” were going to throw at them. But today we’re so predictable that countering our attacks seems like child’s play to even third and fourth tier athletes from other countries.
Now I do believe we should videotape all the opposing greats, but only to find weaknesses in their positioning, conditioning and attacks, not to turn what we see into a core curriculum for Team USA.
When you think about it, it’s irresponsible to coerce, compel or persuade athletes who have won several NCAA titles wrestling one way to change their styles. We should be fine tuning them instead, coaching to their strengths. If we would have forced Rick Sanders or Kendal Cross or John Smith or Dave Schultz or Ben Peterson or Andre Metzger or Randy Lewis or Cary Kolat or Bobby Weaver to wrestle like Lee Kemp or John Peterson, well, you can imagine that wouldn’t have gone well. Just look at the horrid performance Ben Askren had to endure in Beijing. He was our best chance for Gold and our coaches told him he couldn’t win if he was going to wrestle the way he had for the previous 15 years of legendary performances. So they changed him in a short three months, they took away his creativeness, his uniqueness and with it his confidence. It was just so sad to watch one of our greats implode on national television.
The idea shouldn’t be to eliminate the basics of wrestling or to make fun of conditioning, it’s to allow the cobra to bob and weave as the battle unfolds and the mongoose to feign, lurch and re-attack as openings are created. Battles like these don’t always go to the swiftest or the strongest but to the one who forces the opposition into unknown territory. No one can do that like Americans can.
We fail because our leadership core only subscribes to one way of wrestling and that philosophy has effectively reduced America’s flow of medal production to a trickle.
The point is we should be working to improve every athlete’s strengths; not trying to cram everyone into a one size fits all singlet. It’s so frustrating to see Colorado Springs have multiple freestyle coaches who all sing from the same hymnal. There’s no diversity of thought or any interest in diversity.
If I were wrong in my analysis here, you’d see our freestyle team flying to the OTC on a regular basis for fine tuning. But instead those from Iowa choose to stay in Iowa City to train; Pennsylvanians go to Penn State, Ohioans to Columbus while JB prefers Lincoln, Nebraska. Their non-verbal insistence that they stay clear of Colorado Springs should speak volumes.