Successful wrestling teams seem to have many great attributes within their team’s inner fiber. Most championship teams have very high goals, great work ethic, talented athletes, and strong team unity. But the thing that stands out the most in my mind is “athlete leadership.”
Granted, it all starts with coaching leadership, no doubt about this. However, most great teams have athletes that rise up and become outstanding leaders. These athletes lead other athletes. These individual athletes set the pace for the team in many ways. They lead by example. They push teammates to greater heights. They keep others honest when it comes down to paying the price. These athletes that take strong leadership roles on their teams create a team unity and spirit that drives everyone forward toward the overall mission and goal.
Recently, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dan Gable where I had the chance to pick his brain about a variety of wrestling and coaching issues. Needless to say, Gable’s success as an athlete and a coach was remarkable to say the least. Besides winning the Olympic gold medal in 1972, as a coach Gable won 15 NCAA team titles. I was thrilled to discuss many coaching strategies and challenges that we all face as coaches. I am always looking for more insight to help our U.S. Team become stronger internationally.
Dan Gable and I spoke about many issues but the one that I will share with you in this article is the one about athlete leadership. Gable stated that some of his best NCAA championship teams all had great athletes who were great leaders of men. These individual athletes like, Bruce Kinseth, the Steiner brothers or the Brands brothers, took strong leadership roles within the teams unit. They lead by example and pushed as hard as any coach might push. These leaders were the pace setters that helped bring more effort and confidence out of younger or less talented wrestlers on the team.
It just so happens the night before I met with Gable I had dinner with my good friend and colleague, Kevin Jackson, who is currently the head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones and as an athlete won the Olympic gold and two world titles. We were discussing the exact same thing – “athletes that take leadership roles on a particular team and how important that is.”
Jackson reminisced; “In 1991 after making my first world team I attended the world team training camp. I had leaders to watch like Kenny Monday (Olympic Champion), John Smith (2 X Olympic Champion) and Bruce Baumgartner (Olympic Champion). Watching them told me I was training and living right. Chris Campbell (Olympic bronze medalist) was also a leader that I learned a lot from. “
The year before in 1990, Jackson went on a three week training and competition tour in Russia – competing in the famous Yarygin and Tiblisi tournaments – where he roomed with Chris Campbell. “Most days and nights were spent with me asking Chris questions about training, diet and match tactics,” said Jackson.
At the Tiblisi Tournament Jackson got beaten badly by a particular Russian, and more than that, he got thrown for ‘five’ with one of the nastiest throws ever. “I returned to the locker room minutes after the loss. Campbell and Dave Schultz (Olympic Champion) were laughing at me for being thrown so bad. What Campbell and Schultz taught me on that tour was that they were pure professionals ‘locked in’ on being the best in the World! And at the same time they taught me that it is supposed to fun,” said Jackson.
Do you think that David Taylor and Ed Ruth of Penn State, who both won the NCAA’s this year as sophomores, are great leaders? Do you think Taylor and Ruth coming in, as undergrads, with their intense approach to wrestling and winning – didn’t spark a little more effort, confidence and leadership from some of the upper classman? It’s possible that some of the upperclassmen saw Taylor and Ruth coming in as youngsters with their great drive and thought “dang, we better get the job done too!”
Great teams have great athletes that are willing to take ownership with their squads and help move their teams forward. Of course it starts with the coaching staff. Coaches must lead their teams forward by teaching them; conditioning them; testing them; continuously putting them in tough situations so the team can practice overcoming all adversities.
Athlete leadership is one of the key components to building a team for championship success. We must step back and ask ourselves what role we are taking on our particular team. Whether we are a coach or an athlete, we must keep in mind that to create a championship team we all have to lead the team forward. We all are responsible for our team’s preparation and performance. We all lead by example and need to guide our team in the direction of greatness. Yes, wrestling is an individual sport, no doubt. But we are also a team sport. And each and every team member on that team is responsible for that team’s success.
“Expect To Win!”