In my time at Penn State one of my favorite things to do with my team outside our practices was to help out at the NLWC’s kid’s club practices. They are required for anyone who trains at the NLWC to be there a few times per month but I always found it fun to help out. You’re dealing with little kids who pretty much obsess over any wrestler regardless of starter or non starter. They’re little balls of energy and chaos which always made for an entertaining session. My favorite day to help by far was Saturday mornings when we would run matches for the kids. I loved Saturdays because the matches they’d wrestle were 3 minutes of kids basically just rolling around, some kids knew technique, some basically didn’t know where they were, but the important thing is THEY ALL HAD FUN! Regardless of the results, both got their hand raised, and both got a tootsie pop. Now, I know some old school people out there are not too pleased to hear about negating winning and losing in a competitive space, but that’s just not how these practices go. At the end of each practice we break it down saying “Wrestling is fun!” and not only do the kids believe that, they’ve lived it! Find me a six year old who can realistically remember what happened when they’re too busy running around with friends and a lollipop! These kids are learning to associate the sport with fun and joy regardless of their levels of success. If you don’t buy into teaching these kids to enjoy the sport at a young age I’ve got more examples for you!
Penn State has fun, and we win too:
When you first get to Penn State, as a freshman wrestler you learn fast how our team operates. Don’t get me wrong, every single person on that roster is competitive, possibly more so than most athletes. We are told that we “expect to win national titles” but we are also told that we want to constantly fall in love with the sport.
There’s a reason that people often in jest call the Penn State team, “Cael and the fun bunch”. You hear a lot about our team playing games, having fun, and relaxing in situations when you would think we’d be as serious as could be. That’s exactly how we are trained though! We are trained to work hard but to have fun as well. There’s no reason in any sport to not enjoy the sport. Before our match against Lehigh my sophomore year, Lehigh wrestlers were warming up on the stage while my teammates and I played duck-duck-goose, we won that match 30-10.
In football, teams are hyper competitive but when they’re scoring and doing organized celebrations it’s fun for the team and fun for the fans. Wrestling for so long has been such a serious sport. People glorify “the grind”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in my opinion you have to be realistic with athletes and let them know that this sport will not be glorious. You won’t make millions, you might not ever wrestle after high school, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun.
When Coach Cael, or any coach was getting you ready for a match they would tell you to “Score Points and have fun” That is the motto of my wrestling club, and it’s what I tell my wrestlers every match. I could care less about the results as long as they wrestle to score points and they come off the mat like someone who is doing something they love. I lost plenty of matches in my career but some of my favorite matches in college were in fact losses. That may surprise you but they are my fondest memories of laughable moments. Like being up 7-2 with 3 minutes of riding time and getting headlocked and pinned as I tried to take the opponent down again. Was I upset I lost? Sure, but I was trying to score, I was having fun competing. Coach Cael saw me laughing and told me “Higgins, you’re a nut.” He wasn’t mad I lost that match. I lived and died by the sword. Coach Cael would only be critical of a loss if it looks like you weren’t trying. It’s okay to lose if you’re competing hard, especially if you have a win or learn mindset. It is much more fun to compete in any sport when you don’t view it as a high pressure situation.
Sports aren’t a job, even when it is:
You always hear about athletes possessing some genetic code for being excellent. That they are somehow born a naturally gifted athlete and know what to do in every situation no matter what. I am here to tell you that that is not the case whatsoever. We all come out unable to eat, walk, or speak the way we do as kids and adults. There are a lot of studies on sports psychology and mastery of any skill, none of which have found a secret DNA sequence for excellence. It does not exist. The best athletes in the world, in any sport all have a lot of commonalities; they perform herculean tasks, they inspire millions of people, and they typically win a lot. Find me a pro athlete who is considered Top 5 in their sport and you will see that they have a tremendous amount of fun. Is it their job? Yes, but it is also their passion, their childhood, and the game that they love. Whenever you see a professional athlete interviewed after a win, their teammates are celebrating, their fans are excited and they look like they had a wonderful time. When they lose some of them look more serious than usual but the greatest have short term memory and they learn from it. It’s the mediocre and the underperformers that dwell on the loss, because for them the pressure mounts.
There’s a good reason the top level athletes look like they’re having more fun than everyone else, because they are! Most high level athletes will attribute their elite level of play to their love of the game and just being grateful for the opportunity to compete. They don’t consider their sport their job, they don’t feel the pressure to compete like their life depends on it, they’re playing the sport they’ve loved since they were children.
When you are excited to do something you can either let the nerves take you over, or you can use them to go out there and do your best. Professional athletes have mastered controlling their nerves/excitement, but they did this at a young age. They learned to love the sport as a kid, if they didn’t I can assure you they would not have made it into the pros. No pro athlete is playing a sport because someone else tells them to, if they do they’re a unicorn. Some coach or parent along the way made the sport a lot of fun for them, and they learned to love it. They wanted to practice hard, compete hard, and emulate their idols and become great. Being nearly 25 now I am older than a lot of NFL athletes at this point, and what amazes me is that these guys are playing with and against guys they idolized just like I did. I wasn’t built to be a professional football player but I love seeing these guys achieve their dreams and play the sport they love, and in turn they inspire a new generation of fans and athletes. There are a lot of incredible athletes that fall through the cracks because someone, be it a coach or parent made a sport hell for them. Sports at the end of the day are games, meant to be fun and relaxing. We don’t play sports to solve political disputes, we don’t play sports to figure out who gets to eat, we play sports to entertain those playing and those watching. I hear coaches of other sports, and see coaches and parents bragging online about how they work kids like dogs, or punish them with grueling workouts, and overall how they glorify making kids hate sports they should love. Sure, some kids will learn to adjust and “Embrace the grind” they will often build resilience and have success but sports don’t need to be that way. There are millions of kids who quit sports due to coaches and parents taking the fun out of it. Often these kids are dismissed as “being too fragile to handle it” or “too mentally weak for this sport”.
As someone who quit a few sports due to coaches and family taking the fun out of it, and someone who regrets quitting because I truly enjoyed those sports and wonder where I could’ve gone had I stuck with the sport, I empathize with any kid that wants to quit. A kid could be the next Lebron James but might quit basketball because a coach mistreated him for costing them a game that ultimately doesn’t matter.
A young football player who is a bit on the heavier side is forced to play a position he hates and quits the sport, he grows and leans out and has the perfect build to play football but believes that he will be forced back into positions he hated due to his size still. This story is actually based on my friend, he may have been excellent at football but he never played due to childhood experiences.
Sports are meant to be fun at all ages. That’s not to say you should not want to win but it shouldn’t be the only reason for showing up. Sports are about making friends, making memories, and growing as people. You learn a lot from your teammates, coaches and even your opponents. I learned a lot from some very gracious and amazing opponents, they taught me more in losses and taking the time to treat me like a worthy competitor than some coaches in my career did. It’s time to make sports fun again, specifically it’s time to make wrestling fun!
Make Wrestling Fun not Punishment:
As I write this I am watching the Phillies game. When one of them hits a homerun they get a straw hat to wear to celebrate their homerun. A few years ago the University of Miami had a chain for any turnovers they caused. Ohio State tried to get a pin chain to catch on but it never really did, not to the extent that the turnover chain and similar tokens did. But I do give credit to the Buckeyes for trying to create a little extra fun. It’s interesting to me that at the highest level some of the best teams seem to be prioritizing fun and enjoying the moment while high school and youth level coaches seem to think that wrestlers need to be treated like troubled kids who need to be reformed. Our sport is dying in a lot of ways because there is a big issue, it’s not seen as a fun sport. Most athletes don’t want to have to lose weight to compete, they don’t want to wear the uniforms, they don’t want to be a part of a sport that doesn’t seem fun. To the initiated and those who have been around the sport before they understand some of these issues, I know I do.
It’s easy to watch a football game and have it seem fun, but wrestling can be the same way. Wrestling has an entrenched group of old school thinkers who believe that our sport needs to be cutthroat and “only the strong will survivor” type of sport. But even the sport that is perhaps the closet thing a wrestler has to “going pro” Mixed Martial Arts, seems to have more fun than wrestling. Now, this is quite literally a sport that has people get beat up for the entertainment of others, how fighters who are cut and bleeding and getting punched in the face can seemingly have more fun than a youth athlete is beyond me. Now, I love the old school guys, don’t get me wrong. There’s old school in every sport but sports are evolving, wrestling needs to too.
How do we evolve the sport? Making the sport fun is not as hard as you would think. Making any sport fun is quite simple actually, keeping kids interested. In any sport the key to the growth of the team and of the athlete is continued involvement. If a kid quits in year three you’ll never know how good they could have been in year ten. To keep kids involved in the sport parents and coaches need to change, make the sport about the fun, the process, and the experiences. Stop making it about the results and medals. You want your kid to win? Keep them involved and interested.
Now, I get that some kids love winning, that’s all they want, and that’s awesome BUT! It can still be fun for them too. They can use their competitive nature and success to push teammates to be better, to bring guys up the ladder with them. But some coaches cherish these types and allow them to develop into team killers instead. Early success breeds bullies who demean other kids, I have experienced this as an athlete and seen it happen as a coach. Not only can coaches and parents make kids hate a sport but kids can do it just as well. So another way to make the sport fun, learn to make kids love the sport in whatever way they can, and to learn to help their teammates and friends.
A third way to make wrestling fun is to become better coaches, parents and advocates. A lot of wrestlers or people around the sport get defensive of our sport when we face criticism. Whether it be criticism of our coaching, of our sport, or anything really. We tend to lash out and put other sports down rather than build our sport up. There’s a lot of popular shirts out there about why wrestling is better than some other sport. You don’t see many shirts making football appear superior to other sports. Why? because football has nothing to prove to anyone. So why should wrestling! We as coaches, wrestlers, and proponents of the sports need to show people what is great about the sport. What got us involved and kept us in love with it in the first place. Advocate for the sport and understand that there’s a lot of good things to talk about rather than trying to explain away bad things.
Additionally, we as coaches need to be better. No matter the age group we need to understand that we are coaching and molding young minds. I have seen coaches scream at kids and embarrass them in multiple sports but I see it a lot more in wrestling since I am around it a lot more at multiple levels. There is no place in this sport for coaches with an ego, in any sport for that matter. Be better, learn to control your emotions and drop your ego to inspire kids to follow that example. Yelling is like throwing up, it might make you feel better but it makes everyone else sick.
Finally coaches need to represent the best interests of athletes not just on the mat but in their life. Encourage them to apply lessons from the sport in real life, to work hard in school, to show gratitude and be kind. Encourage them to be someone people want to be around, not someone people fear. Be a coach for life, not just the sport. I teach my athletes to treat people well, to stick up for others, and to be respectful of places, people, and things. This may not be “fun” but those who learn and adopt this will become good men and women. They will be people that people want to be friends with, work with, or work for. Wrestlers consider ourselves a special breed, if we want to act like it we must coach like it.
Careers end but memories don’t:
To end this post I want to talk about one major idea. That at some point your career in this sport will end. As an athlete, as a coach, as a parent. Whatever that may be, at some point it is all going to wrap up. You gave years to the sport, dedicated time and energy, blood and sweat. At the end of the day our careers and abilities to actively do many things in this sport are finite, but the memories we make along the way will last us to the end. I don’t care about my wins and losses, nor do I care about what I did or didn’t achieve. I’m not the greatest wrestler that ever lived, I won’t be the greatest coach that ever lived, but damn did I have fun being a wrestler, and I LOVE being a coach. The sport has been around thousands of years, I hope it is around thousands of more. But in the time I have with it I choose to continue making memories, and helping new generations of athletes make memories. My hope as a coach and proponent of the sport is that each and every kid I encounter at the end of their careers can truly say that they enjoyed the sport, that THEY HAD FUN! I hope each athlete can think back on some awesome memories, good or bad, doesn’t matter. I want them to be telling stories of their glory days, their blunders, and teaching their lessons to the next generations too. I have been privileged to be coached by many wonderful people in my life. Above all the thing I am most grateful for is that even through horrible weight cuts, and injuries, and a lot of self doubt, I had coaches believing in me. I had coaches who made me fall in love with process, the sport, “the grind” even. Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t love every moment! But I loved my overall experience, I will cherish my friends, the memories I’ve made, and am blessed and excited to continue to make more. Wrestling is a great sport, and like any sport WRESTLING IS FUN!
If you made it this far I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have a lot of fun writing these and put a lot of effort into these posts to make them the best I can. If you enjoyed it please consider sharing the post with someone else who might benefit. I welcome any and all feedback, I am hoping to continually improve my writing and the content I can put out for athletes, parents, and coaches. Finally, I want to thank you for just giving me a chance, whether you enjoyed the post, or want to wring my neck, I am grateful for the opportunity to help in any way I can. Thank you so much again, all the best -Coach Patrick Higgins.