USAWrestling; Red, White and Feeling Blue

Before USAWrestling has much of a chance to spin the results of the Games, you might like to know a few facts. Out of 72 medals that were awarded for wrestling in Rio America won 3 of them. That alone should tell you where we stand in the world and the job Colorado Springs is doing in relation to international competition.

In Rio there were 19 wrestlers in each weight class, 12 of which received first round byes. It’s hard to believe that we can’t do better given all the wrestlers had to do was win their first match to move into the medal round.

Now I’m not suggesting that winning matches on this stage is easy, but if our athlete’s preparedness was equal to their levels of talent, success shouldn’t be a stretch. That’s my point here and where USAWrestling falls short; we have the talent but the athletes aren’t ready and the sad part is they’re not even aware of it because they don’t know what they don’t know. Their unpreparedness is leaderships fault. I’ll take a more in-depth look at this point in the next blog.

As to Greco, of the 138 matches that were wrestled in the Games, Team USA won 2 of them.

We had two 3-time World Champions in Rio and all they could manage was 1 win apiece. Both exited the Games without a medal. So what happened, it’s not that they won their previous championships by mistake? This too will be discussed in the next blog.

Between 1972 and 2000 (the year that the current administration arrived in Colorado Springs), America averaged 5.7 medals per Olympiad. Since 2000, we’ve dropped to 2.25 medals for an embarrassing 250% decrease in performance.

But Wade, there were 10 weight classes per style back then and we only have 6 today so you’re not comparing apples to apples. You’re right about the number of weight classes then but there wasn’t a woman’s division in the Olympics prior to 2000 so the slide in our competitiveness is still over 200% and certainly signifies we’ve fallen off a steep cliff.

In some regards what we’re going through is like death by a 1000 cuts. We’ve grown so accustomed to slowly decreasing performances that we’ve grown numb to the lethalness of our decline. If you wonder why that is it’s because we’re Americans and always prefer to see the glass as being half full versus half empty, to see what we’ve accomplished rather than what we haven’t.

If America has anything to hang its hat on during this Olympic cycle, which granted isn’t much, it’s that we weren’t the only team that did far less than expected. Perennial powerhouse, Russia, finished behind us which is a first as far back as I can remember not counting the Games in Los Angeles that were boycotted. I would imagine their coaches belongings are already boxed and on their way to Siberia as a result of their failings.

Now before I continue I’d like to apologize to the staff of USAWrestling for a comment I made two blogs ago, when I complimented Pete Isais and followed it with . . . “he’s the brightest star we have within a constellation of white dwarfs.” My words clearly suggested something I didn’t mean, and I see how they could be mis-perceived. I was trying to point out that leadership was not preforming to the levels we expect or the athletes deserve. These shortcomings are probably a result of administrative non-decisions rather than poor decisions but either way, the buck stops at the top and my words missed the mark. I’m very sorry.

The staff at USAWrestling is professional, efficient, and devoted to the growth of the sport. Without them we’d be in a real pickle.

And further, to be very clear, every time I criticize leadership I don’t mean that every single decision they make is off the mark or any specific department within the organization is poorly run. To the contrary, USAWrestling as a whole is the envy of many of the USOC family of sports. It’s just that when they fall from grace in competition, as they so often do, they do it in spades, which is reflective of the entire organization.

When it comes to CEO’s or Executive Directors, they’re ultimately accountable to their investors or in our case, membership. In Colorado Springs Mr. Bender has the unenviable task of keeping a wide and diverse organization pleased which isn’t an easy job. And he does it well when it comes to Operations and Finance, Sales and Marketing, Capital Improvement, Human Resources and Employee Training but unfortunately appears clueless with regards to athlete development. Or quite possibly he’s so deep in the political swamp that it’s impossible to win for losing.

So here’s the problem . . . he’s the Executive Director in charge of the entire organization and is the man in charge of finding out when a ball is dropped who dropped it? But if he knows, he’s not saying but regardless he’s the one responsible to fix it.

Here’s the solution . . . Rich needs a buffer, he needs to hire someone who understands his weaknesses who can take the hit when teams have sub-par performances and give the credit to the organization when they succeed. That person should have the title of Director of National Teams and be responsible to provide strategic leadership to the coaches while overseeing athlete training and qualifying tournaments. If that position already exists under a different name, I think we’ve found the person who isn’t doing their job or possibly knowing how the organization works, isn’t being allowed to do their job? We need to approach leadership in today’s fast paced, information overloaded environment like a gardener approaches gardening. Gardeners tend to their gardens and find success when they create an environment where plants flourish, and the gardener only has to perform maintenance as all the ground work was done up front.  However, this type of leadership is not passive but active and requires the leader to lead from the front where the actions of the leaders speak louder than the words.

So if I were in that position, and I’m definitely not lobbying for it, here are a few examples of what I’d insist take place. Most of them will be vehemently opposed by coaches and rejected by the athletes but that shouldn’t be a concern. Greatness in sports never happens by mistake and it certainly doesn’t happen when you allow the athletes or coaches to do their own thing or dictate the curriculum.

1) Insist that every wrestler who receives stipends train at the OTC or lose their funding. I know this idea is not going to be a popular initiative but we aren’t running a popularity contest. Winning is about setting goals and then achieving them. May I remind everyone that Lombardi was hated by every member of the Green Bay Packers until they won a few Super Bowls then the old coach was loved. If championships were easy, everyone would be a champion.

It’s simply impossible for any athlete to be at his/her best when he/she trains with others who aren’t currently at his/her level of development. NFL players don’t become All-Pro by working out with players from their old college teams. You can’t compete with lawyers in New York City when you practice law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s simply impossible for a David Taylor who I happen to believe is one of our greats to reach his potential by working out in the Penn State room. He needs global level competition on a daily basis with people like Burroughs, Dake, Dieringer, Howe and Cox all who are well within reach of obtaining international greatness. As steel sharpens steel, we must insist that our best toughen one another just as other countries do. What do you think would happen if every member of the Iowa team decided to go back to their high schools to train during the week and then show up on the weekends to wrestle? How crazy is that, Tom would never allow it to happen but if he did, he’d only have to endure four months of losing before he was replaced. Does anyone else see the futility of allowing America’s best to train apart with those who have yet to step on the world stage? Getting along, being politically correct, having the individual freedom to do what you want when you want isn’t how anyone becomes great in a combat sport. It takes discipline, sacrifice and for those who just want to whine; to retire.

Our most successful years in wrestling were when everyone who was anyone lived in Iowa City and trained with Gable. My joints still remind me when the barometric pressure drops of those daily workouts with Dziedzic, Schultz, Kemp, Peterson, Keaser, Campbell and of course “the Gabe.” It wasn’t pleasant, and it wasn’t easy, but it did put all of us in the Hall of Fame. A day of relaxation for me was facing off against Carl Adams, and I can tell you that wasn’t a vacation. But today, everyone trains apart, and the results reflect that.

If anyone’s curious how Jordan, Kyle and our amazing women won championships training apart, remember I said “for athletes to be at their best they need to train together.” It’s just that the best those athletes have is above the line that’s necessary to be a World Champion. They’re that good and would become even better if they worked together while, at the same time, elevating those around them which is of equal or greater importance as USA Wrestling looks to improve their position on the world stage.

Taking this idea a step further, if I had the power to do so I’d add a second criterion for making a World, Pan Am or Olympic team. Instead of just winning the trials, each athlete would be required to fly to the OTC for a predetermined period of time to train. This wouldn’t be optional. Failure to show up means the athlete forfeits his/her position and the second place wrestler immediately replaces him/her. If we want to be serious about winning, then we have to be serious about winning.

2) One size doesn’t fit all and how we coach our national teams should mirror that fact. For the sake of argument let’s say there are three completely different wrestling styles. The first is conservative and hard-nosed like Ramos, Molinaro, Howe and Snyder. The second is moderate and creative which are your Pico’s, Cox’s and Burroughs’. The last one is unorthodox and imaginative like Taylor, Dake, and Rutherford. By the way, this last style is the most fun to watch, the most difficult to compete against and the hardest to dissect if you’re a foreigner.

In my opinion the second largest challenge USAWrestling faced leading up to Rio was every member of our freestyle coaching staff were disciples of conservative and hardnosed. Slay would do wonders with Snyder types but struggle to understand Dake. Zadick could improve Ramos but doesn’t speak Rutherford very well. Burnett believes that basics win matches and he’s right; however that doesn’t always help develop America’s imaginative wrestlers.

Now none of this is to say or insinuate that these men can’t coach, they’re some of this country’s best. I’m just trying to point out that in any organization if you have 3 people with the same mindset, it’s believed that 2 of them aren’t necessary. And if there’s one thing that makes America special it’s our creativeness and innovation. To stifle that for the benefit of conservatism is to witness what we saw in Rio.

Success development of our athletes means matching mindset with mindset, skillset with skillset and that can only take place when you pair athletes with likeminded coaches. This is exactly what Lombardi did when he built the Green Bay Packers into Super Bowl Champions – he used a framework built on what he called the seven blocks of granite; 1.Spartan qualities of sacrifice, selflessness, competitive drive, and perseverance; 2. The American Zeal to compete and win to find their better selves; 3. A man’s commitment to excellence and victory; 4. Too much freedom and not enough authority bringing us close to chaos; 5. Lack of disciplined leadership where people want to be told what to do but also to have freedom – effective leaders needed to understand this paradox; 6. A great leader is one that identifies himself with his group and backs his group even if it means displeasure from the superiors and to give a sense of approval as well as belief in teamwork through cooperation – a balance between mental toughness and love; and 7. The two inseparable qualities that make great leaders stand out are character and will – will is character in action – leadership is in sacrifice, self-denial, love, loyalty, fearlessness, and humility to build the winning team. Bottom line, USAWrestling needs to do a better job in diversifying their coaching staffs and learn from our own history of what makes people and athletes great.

3) Know your enemy without duplicating them. The former is where we score high marks, the latter produces losses. USAWrestling has done great work at gathering and analyzing videos of the world’s best wrestlers. But the question is how to handle this treasure trove of information? Obviously we should use it to identify those techniques the opposition will throw at us and then develop a) counter measures and b) counter attacks after blocking their shots. However, I’m not so sure that counter attacks is part of USAWrestling’s curriculum. If it were, our non-medalists would have done better. Cox and Snyder were successful, in part, to their counter attacks, a staple of collegiate wrestling – a fact which should be noted since those two still have collegiate eligibility remaining. It could be coincidence that they medaled where those who graduated several years ago didn’t but I think I see a pattern. What is obvious to me is we’re missing defensive offenses; ways to score from our opponent’s shots. This is as American as apple pie and exactly the area where the Europeans and Asians have trouble figuring us out. They have all learned to train by the step 1 is followed by step 2 methodology. That’s all well and good for them, but if you throw step 4 in-between steps 1 and 2 you’ll often notice smoke coming out of their ears as their circuitry is fried. No one knows chain wrestling like Americans do, yet, it appears that we’ve shelved it as not being “the way the Russians do it.”

What videos shouldn’t be used for are learning tools to duplicate our attacks to mirror theirs just because “the Iranians or the Russians win with it.” Americans need to wrestle the way we’ve always wrestled. But as an example to tell Ben Askren in ‘08 that he had to completely change from his “give them a leg and win from there” style to an elbows in, square stance, down block and push away philosophy took him from being the favored to win Gold and turned him into a spectator with 1 win and 2 losses. Misguided coaching by the staff of USAWrestling cost him his dream. That’s sad and I’m sorry but it’s also unforgivable.

Now if I offended anyone here, once again I’m sorry but I stick by my one size doesn’t fit all philosophy. It took me years to figure out that how I wrestled shouldn’t be shared with conservative hard-nosed types. That was a miscalculation on my part just as Gable learned after a couple of years at Iowa that his crunch style of coaching didn’t work well for those who were unorthodox and imaginative.

4) Fire any national team coach who sits in an athlete’s corner opposite another American. No exceptions, one strike and you’re out. You cannot have a cohesive program when sides are drawn by individuals who are paid to know better. This is one of the primary reasons why a vast majority of our greats won’t show their faces at the training center in Colorado Springs. They know if they do, they’ll more than likely be scouted, and their weaknesses used against them. Now it doesn’t matter to what degree this feeling is real or imagined, it’s an outgrowth of observing members of the national coaching staff choosing sides during matches between Americans. We can’t be at our best when coaches show favoritism and the athletes don’t trust them, or the organization, for allowing it to take place.

My next blog will go into depth regarding Rich’s more inhibiting challenges and how he might see them in a different light. It should be fun.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

6 thoughts on “USAWrestling; Red, White and Feeling Blue

  1. Love the blog Wade! Great post, I love your insights and even when I don’t agree with you, I love that you always have sound logic with no BS behind it. I think that the other thing killing our system is that our kids are getting peaked too early.relating back to your posts about youth wrestling, It used to be a 1-2 time state champ got offers, now having 3-4 is a must, so the best kids get into college but their bodies are used up.

    *I was also wondering if I could email you with some questions about coaching. I graduated and finishing wrestling for UTC last year and will be the head assistant at a local high school. I apologize if this is not the proper place to ask, its just that the blog post where you talked about coaching styles best for each athlete is something I’m trying to figure out as a coach.

    Either way thank you, love the blog, and I’ve been able to use/show some of your posts to convince parents of some young wrestlers not to overtrain them or burn them out

  2. Great start to analyzing what is needed to be done to improve the sport.
    One area that wrestling should look to is how the women’s gymnastic program has their national training center set up. The women get to train at their local gyms but then once a month they have to show up at the national center to be analyzed and coached on their strengths/weaknesses. I totally agree that wrestling has too much of the one size fits all approach to wrestling on the national and international scene. We all have different styles and abilities, We need coaches that recognize this and have the ability to either coach to fit the wrestler or at least help the wrestler find the help that will make them successful.

  3. Makes a lot of sense. Would you change, minimize or eliminate the formation of the Regional Training Centers?
    I think they can serve a great purpose in allowing athletes from all over our country to get in these rooms and work toward getting to Colorado Springs–to train together as you suggest.

    Us wrestling fans may have grown too tolerant of mediocrity.

    Lastly, since wrestling is only a provisional sport through the 2024 Olympics, do you think the Mongolian Coaches did any lasting damage to our fight to once again be a core sport?
    (With their strip tease protest of their wrestler losing his bout because he decided to celebrate his win with time still on the clock)

    • Mike . . . thank you for writing. The RTC’s are both good and bad depending on how they’re handled? Using them to train America’s youth and serve as a place where dreams are created is a positive and vital to the sports long term health. But for our best to feel they can train “at home” and be ready to tackle the big boys on the ultimate stage, well, they’re kidding themselves.

      I wish it were mediocrity. When you compare our statistics against our talent pool and America’s resources we’re not middle of the roaders; more like road kill.

      The Mongolian coach is only one of many reasons why we’re not the most desirous sport in the IOC stable. I worry far more about the corruption, not the corruption itself but why so many of our world leaders have little class. They not only “fix” things but they have to let everyone know who welds the power. The truly best of the best in business will beat the pants off you but you’ll never learn where the ax comes from that is lodged between your shoulder blades.

      In wrestling many of our top international leaders just has to say, “I did.” Not everyone is like that but enough are to gain the attention of the IOC. This is what will ultimately bury us.

      The Mongolian coach incident is only a blip on the radar but a significant one just the same. It confirms to the world if we get the boot that the sport is without class. Put the two together and you have a lethal cocktail.

Tell us what you think