Editor’s Note: The legendary Dan Gable is known primarily for his knowledge of college and international-style wrestling — winning NCAA and Olympic gold as a wrestler and coach. On Jan. 24, Gable was asked to provide color commentary of an Iowa high school meet between Independence and West Delaware, the first time Gable attended a meet in that fashion. Gable, who also has several grandchildren wrestling, spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about the sport at the younger level.
WIN: What were your impressions of high school wrestling after the recent dual meet that you helped broadcast?
GABLE: It was kind of a special meet, a rivalry meet. Because of location, because of the emphasis on the wrestling programs, it was kind of a unique situation. I don’t think it was the typical dual meet that you’d have across the state or the country. The atmosphere was one that you want to use as a template for what you want to happen in wrestling. There was standing-room only … the gym was packed an hour before the meet started. The meet was entertaining. It was being televised. There was more than wrestling at the event. People were charged-up. There was dancing, a light show.
All these things were perfect in getting ready for the main event. When you look at what works, you see some spectacular things. And then there was good wrestling. No matter what kind of pre-meet entertainment you have, the main event still has to be entertaining.
WIN: What did you see in the kids wrestling?
GABLE: I saw more than I normally see. I know there are coaches who promote the technical and tactical parts of wrestling to suggest how good and talented a wrestler is and how good he can execute a move. But what I saw were coaching staffs on both sides that were able to get inside the kids’ heads … even on the losing end as they put on good competitive exhibitions.
The more I watch my grandkids in this sport and see these kids’ tournaments, the more I realize we have a very unique sport. Wrestling is so unique that is should be mandatory for everyone who walks on the planet.
After a college meet, I recently helped televise, a dad came down with his three sons, who all wrestled. They were triplets and cute as can be. Their dad said they have to wrestle through eighth grade even though they also played basketball. That told me that their dad “got it.” He understood there is an edge that athletes can get from the competition that wrestling brings out.
It’s not just about sport. It’s about other areas of your life. Those three kids might decide to play basketball in high school, but wrestling will give them an edge more than those who didn’t compete in wrestling.
As I watch my grandkids and these little kids tournaments, it’s about being able to react without thought. Whereas in most other sports, those athletes have more time to think because of the time breaks those other sports have.
In baseball, there can be as much as 30 seconds between pitches. In football, there is the huddle. And now with football turning to more no-huddle plays, it tells me that football is becoming more like wrestling; because the athletes don’t have time to get their wits together before another play. Wrestling is more initiation and reaction instead of initiation, stop and look at what happened before you do something else. In wrestling, if you take time to look to the side for coaching, you are going to get taken down.
I really think what wrestling can teach athletes is that competitiveness that other athletes do not conquer. This leaves (other athletes) them a little bit behind their whole lives, especially in how they deal with emotional breakdowns. I see breakdowns in our sport because the wrestler might lack confidence or just try and survive.
But eventually, they get that confidence and both of those teams (at the Jan. 24 high school meet) had that confidence and were able to lay it out there on the mat and represent themselves. They had enough competitiveness in them to stay in matches and represent what you want to see and the fans are left feeling good and have more to yell about. That’s why our sport is healthy for a kid.
WIN: Are you saying, the more you train your mind to compete, the body will follow?
GABLE: Yes and at that high school meet, I saw a lot of execution. I saw a lot of wrestling. If you focus so much on the technical and tactical part of wrestling, you don’t get as much done as when you focus on teaching kids how to compete. And you know what comes out of teaching kids how to compete? The technical and tactical part of wrestling.
When you teach them how to compete, they will execute and complete way more technical moves than they will by going the other direction.
It makes me think back to the way I practiced as an athlete and a coach. It reminded me what my edge was. You learn to score way more in a practice where you work on developing your competitiveness. In the meantime, you are also building stamina, the ability to react. You are learning positioning. It makes more sense to me when you see wrestlers who can dominate; that it goes back to their practices.
WIN: What about when a wrestler hesitates? Is it because their minds are not prepared?
GABLE: There is probably more nervousness, which holds them back, which I called being scared. Fear is big and you want to get rid of that. You eliminate fear by making an athlete a tremendous competitor. When I look at the athletes I coached, I had tremendous competitors and I believe the system helped them become that way or brought along something they already possessed.
Coaches and athletes have to study what has been accomplished and why. When you do that, you have to apply that in what you do. Sometimes the most elite wrestler isn’t the most elite athlete. He may simply be a better competitor.
WIN: Regarding fear, is it a fear of failure or fear that you are letting others down?
GABLE: It can be different things but there is a lot of fear of failure and it breaks wrestlers down and they lose focus. Instead of reacting and naturally going on to the next move, you absolutely go into a shell and lose all hope of what needs to be accomplished. Those athletes are in the rafters and not prepared for what will happen on the mat. You see that from a kid who has qualified for his first state tournament and is not ready for the moment. Those kids are not where they need to be. They are scatter-brained.
WIN: Do you force kids to face their fears?
GABLE: Beyond what you do in practice, you have to have special conversations and you have to have many of them because they are not going to understand it or even hear you. People block off what you say. When someone has a different thought than what you have at the time, they are thinking about their thought and not about what you are saying.
At practices, I would preach what I believe are the essentials of our sport over and over. I would say things 100 times in practice and even with that I know there are those who did not hear what I said. But eventually, those thoughts would become part of their process. You also don’t let up until you actually witness that they understand what you are saying. And even with that you don’t let up; you just let off a little as they start to understand.
WIN: What role should parents play with their kids in wrestling?
GABLE: Parents should absolutely keep their kids in this sport until they can learn how to compete at least to a point where parents feel good about them in their lives.
I know there are some parents who pull their kids out because the sport is too hard on them. They are not doing their kid a favor by doing that. It’s too easy to say it’s because he doesn’t like it. But why doesn’t he like it. Is it because he is getting beat or that he is scared? Pulling him out too soon won’t help get him prepared for life.
For example with my grandkids, I want them to listen to and believe in what the people are helping them with. I want to see them be able to hold up in adverse situations. And I like to see support between the parents and the coaches to help these kids hold up better.
By doing that, we are making society more competitive and helping prepare people for academics, for athletics, for life. Then, all of a sudden we have more excellence in the world because we are taking the youth and getting them to learn how to handle adversity, fear and teaching them how to compete.
In the end, they will be more productive people as they get older and our society will be better.