By Steve Fraser
July, 26, 2018
Before quitting my corporate job at Domino’s Pizza to become the national Greco-Roman coach at USA Wrestling, I had accomplished my dream goal of becoming an Olympic gold medalist.
In my tenure of being the Greco coach, I had the honor of coaching our Olympic team in five Olympic Games. During this time we won more World and Olympic medals than in the prior 100-year history of the sport.
I returned to coaching from Domino’s with some reluctance at first. I wasn’t sure it was the right move for me. But once I decided to go for it I did it “all the way.” The lofty goals I set were considered laughable by many in the sport. Even maybe impossible.
This story is a story of belief.
It has been one of my strategies, I guess, or maybe it’s more in my personality, or maybe I’m just not that smart. I have always believed that people can achieve the impossible.
I have tested that boundary more than once.
In 1984, I won gold at 90 kilograms at the Los Angeles Olympic Games and forged a Greco program breakthrough, first Olympic medal ever by an American. Maybe thought by many impossible to accomplish, especially by an average kid from Hazel Park, Michigan.
Shortly after the Olympics, I retired from wrestling to go to work for Domino’s Pizza. I spent 10 years there, working in public relations, training, recruiting and eventually landing in operations. In operations, I ran 65 of Domino’s corporate pizza stores.
The call came out of nowhere. The Greco-Roman job was open, and the folks at USA Wrestling asked me to apply.
I interviewed with Jim Scherr, then the head of USA Wrestling. Scherr later became the chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee.
I laid out the goals thought to be so unattainable that one of the wrestlers, Rulon Gardner said most wrestlers did not believe in them. The goals included high medal counts at the Olympic Games and winning the team world championship title. Scherr look at me and smiled, but he probably thought the goals were much more difficult than I might have imagined.
History suggested the same. Wrestling in America is geared toward freestyle and folkstyle. Internationally the United States Greco-Roman team was the one that foreign countries wanted to draw in the first round, figuring an easy match.
My boss at Domino’s told me to go try it for a year, and if I didn’t like it, he would allow for me to return to the same position. Of course, I realized my love again, and never once looked back. I was lucky.
Yes, I was lucky… especially in Brazil.
It was a night I will never forget. I was at the Pan American Championships in 2006, when I went for a drink on the Rio de Janeiro boardwalk outside the team hotel, across from the beach. A group of locals befriended Rob Hermann, my assistant coach and I.
I still don’t know why I wore a $20,000 Rolex watch, a gift from Domino’s founder, Thomas Monaghan. I never wore that watch much and especially overseas. Yet on that night, on the boardwalk, the flashy watch hung from my wrist.
I remember seeing one of our new friends eyeing it and thinking to myself, why did I wear it?
Our new friends suggested we go to an outdoor cantina down the street. We didn’t want to be rude so reluctantly we went. On the walk, Hermann decided to turn back.
“I’ll be right behind you.” I told him.
The guys bought me a drink. I remember taking one sip and glancing down the street to see if Hermann was still in sight.
I woke up 15 hours later in a local hospital, without the Rolex and $1000, groggy but relieved.
My partner, Hermann, did not leave my side for four days. He fed me like a baby, wiped my forehead and soothed my nerves. When we spoke to the locals there, they were surprised I was still alive. At that time in Rio there were many accounts of people being drugged and then cut open and robbed of their organs to be sold on the black market.
I stumbled around for a week in Brazil, dazed and confused. I refused to stay in the hotel and rest, insisting on going to the competition. The other coaches decided to let me film some matches. I did this for hours before someone realized there were no batteries in the camera.
This gave me a new perspective on life! I realized that my three children could be fatherless right now.
It took me two weeks to return to normal. Ten days later I was still bumping into curbs with my car.
A year later, the impossible happened. My U.S. Greco-Roman team clinched the 2007 world championship. My once laughable goals had become reality. I remember hugging my athletes and coaches thinking back about how I almost did not take the job and how I almost died.
By the way, in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Rulon Gardner defeated Russian superstar, Alexander Karelin who had not been beaten in thirteen years and was going for his fourth Olympic gold medal. With this upset victory Gardner became Olympic Champion!
What many thought impossible had been achieved again.
The message? Think big! Believe it! And go ALL IN! The impossible is in fact possible!
Rulon Gardner accomplished the impossible, defeaing three-time Olympic Champion, Alexander Karelin. Karelin had not lost in 13 years.
This month's submission is from Coach Braumon Creighton
Develop your system
How many wrestlers walk out onto the mat without a game plan? It amazes me to see countless kids in competition without a clear objective. As a parent or coach do you know what your wrestlers are going to do before the match begins? Do you know what to expect from your athletes in terms of technique, pace and intensity? So many kids have no idea what they are doing on the wrestling mat. They just let the wrestling happen to them, instead of them happening to the wrestling.
Giving your athletes a clear set of instructions and objectives will improve performance and decrease anxiety. One of the main reasons we fear competition is because we don’t know what is going to happen. The fear of the unknown is the cause of the fear. When kids have a carefully prescribed set of skills that account for the majority of common errors in their main positions; then they can anticipate what's going to happen next.
Once your athlete(s) has mastered many of the repetitive motions and mechanics required to execute a position then coaches can begin to increase the amount of resistance. Coaches need to simulate competitive environments in practice in order to increase the automaticity of their athlete’s physically and physiological response. Use the concept of dosing your athletes incrementally to higher and higher levels of stress. Overtime, they will become inoculated to stress and turn into finely tuned wrestling machines.
Building your system means teaching a specific method that leads to a predetermined set of offensive or counter offensive skills. Do this for all three positions; neutral and parterre top/bottom. Once the athletes begin to understand position they can begin to move smoothly from one skill to the next. Here’s an example… “I want you to go out, control the inside tie, push snap and hit your head inside single leg to your trip finish. You have trained these positions now go out a execute.” Or something like that. As athletes mature in their understanding of the sport and competitive instincts, they will be able to dictate to us, the coach or parent, how they intend to win the upcoming match. Then you can ask questions like,”How are you going to win this match?” And they will be able to tell you.
Watching the NCAA’s this year was a thing of beauty. Every round was action-packed with athletes that seemed to be two and three moves ahead of their opponents. Yianni Diakamilhalis’s first period takedown in the finals was a great example of subconscious skill in action. I encourage you to go back and study that situation. You can bet that young man has rehearsed that scenarios a few times before. Great coaches know that high quality repetitive practice is the most important factor to producing a great performance. Zig Ziglar said that “repetition is the mother of skill.”
As a wrestler, you have freedom to create on the mat. You are free to compete however you choose. Individuality is one of the things that makes wrestling so awesome. However, it is vitally important to develop a common skill set, language and philosophy. This is especially important for inexperienced wrestlers. If your team, athlete or child is going to compete at any level. It is worth the time to develop your system.
2x NCAA DII Champion
USA Wrestling Gold Certified