sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Penn State’s Cael Sanderson shows what a coach should be

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I watched the NCAA wrestling championships the other night and saw the stunning dominance of Penn State. The Nittany Lions won five (of 10, for you non-wrestling folks) individual national titles. Two of those guys beat two-time defending champs. Another was a redshirt freshman who took off the redshirt midway through the year. The other two are buzzsaws. The team won the national team title for the sixth time in seven years.

Yet their coach, a wrestling legend himself, Cael Sanderson, was sometimes hard to find.

During the finals matches, he sat, stoically, watching the bouts, as he had throughout most of the tournament. He occasionally would offer some advice or input, delivered at choice times and in a mild way.

The parade of national champs were interviewed post-match, and they said a surprisingly similar thing when asked how Sanderson prepared them for these incredibly high-pressure matches. They all said something like, “He told us to go out and have some fun.”

Take a good look at “fun” in the dictionary. Wrestling and “fun” don’t normally go together (“lighthearted pleasure”?). In fact, wrestling may be the least fun scholastic sport. When things go bad in other sports, you lose. When they go bad in wrestling, you get your face rubbed in/driven into the mat, your limbs twisted, etc.

People, including myself, I must admit, look at wrestling as a life activity often because of its inherent challenge to self. It’s a monumental personal journey. Fun isn’t something you seek on that path — in fact, you may deliberately avoid it in the quest for toughness, seriousness, and determination.

But that’s not what these studs from Penn State said. They went out and wrestled with wide-open styles, as this blogger points out, that not only looked fun for them but was fun to watch.

There was even talk during ESPN’s broadcast of the finals about how Sanderson has PSU wrestlers “play wrestle” in practice, allowing them to develop creativity instead of just rote drilling and agonizing conditioning. Hey, look, they’re doing those things too, make no mistake about it: They have shot 10,000 single legs and done hundreds of thousands of push-ups, but the cold grit of wrestling was augmented — and evidently improved — with a desire to be open and to have, well, fun.

During the tournament, Sanderson sat in the chair, offering advice when needed, but you didn’t see him prancing around and screaming his head off. When they handed the championship trophy to Sanderson, it was such a wrestling-like thing. The awarder said, “Good job.” Sanderson took the trophy for a moment, said a couple sentences attributing all the success to his guys, and then quickly stepped behind the team and the rest of its supporters for a picture.

Contrast this with that other tournament going on now in the NCAA, that pathetically overhyped gambling fueled-extravaganza, in which these coaches can’t suck up enough camera time and spend entire games with their ties flapping around yelling and gesticulating. Unfortunately, these coaches often serve as models for what youth coaches are supposed to do. You must be active, vocal, the center of attention.

But Sanderson embodies what coaching and teaching should be about: Most of the things that prepare athletes for success happen in their training, in this case, in the wrestling room.

Maybe some of these other coaches need a few minutes locked in a room with Cael Sanderson (check him out online: he can still rumble). Perhaps he’d set them straight. And he might not even have to get out of his chair to do it.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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