What are the Best and Worst Things to Say as a Coach?

Jude Swisher

November 25th, 2019

As most people may know, I am a dedicated high school wrestler.  As a result, I competed throughout the preseason at several different events and as I progressed through these tournaments, I found myself paying close attention to the things that coaches would say to their wrestlers.  After observing so many coach-wrestler interactions, it’s clear to me now that a coach’s attitude and tone when talking to their athlete can have a profound impact on the athlete’s performance, for better or worse. With that in mind, my partner (Sam Herring) and I decided to compile a list of the best and worst things that you can say to your competitor.

As an active high school wrestler, I can say that the things that my coaches say to me DO make a difference. All sorts of thoughts – positive, negative, and everything in between – go through my ears and into my brain for me to either dwell on or replace. As we all know, it’s easier to compete at your best when you’re enjoying wrestling and thinking positive thoughts, so it’s that much more important for a coach to stay positive with their athlete!  Here are some positive guidelines to follow while coaching to help your wrestler think positive thoughts:

  • Compliment them! Tell them that their attacks look sharp, their defense is stingy, they’re wrestling great, and they are powerful. Compliments are an easy way to put positive thoughts into a wrestler’s head and can distract them from thinking negatively. Be genuine!
  • Remind them of the work they’ve put in. Remind them of the hard work they’ve put in, and keep them focused on the things that they do best. Explain why they have earned their right to win. 
  • Let them know how proud you are. Everyone’s been there. You forget why you love doing something! For wrestlers especially, it can be easy to lose sight of why you’re wrestling. If you’re competing for the approval of your parents or coaches, you aren’t wrestling for the right reason. Coaches should help remind their wrestlers that no matter the result, you’re proud of their hard work and their progress. This will free up their minds to follow their own passion. 
  • Tell them what they did well. Win or lose, always find something your wrestler did well. It really does make a difference. If you only say what they did wrong, it can throw them off their game. This can even mean pointing out their good attitude leading up to or after their match. 
  • Be specific with your critiques. Shortly after a match, while it’s still fresh in your mind, go through specific mistakes that were made during the match and how your wrestler can learn and improve from them. Keep in mind that the more specific you can be with your critique, the better chance your wrestler will have of implementing it in the next match. 
  • Keep it in perspective. At the end of the day, wrestling is a sport. It’s hard and time-consuming, but remember: your success in life doesn’t depend on your success as a wrestler. As a matter of fact, we all know that losses teach us more about ourselves and how we need to improve than wins. Wrestling, at its best, is just a passion, and in the grand scheme of things, I’m sure God doesn’t care about the outcome of a trivial contest. Keep it in perspective and enjoy it!
Photo: Tony Rotundo/Wrestlers are Warriors

Just as there are good, positive, and wholesome things to say, there are far more negative and distracting things to say to your competing wrestlers. Here are some things that you should avoid saying at all costs:

  • “I’m proud of you for winning!” Basing your pride on a result is extremely dangerous. Rather, you should be focusing on the attitude and effort of your competing athlete. Remember, you want your wrestler to indulge in his passion and love! Worrying about results and wondering if your coach is proud of you is NOT FUN. On the flip side, remind them that you are proud of them, no matter what the outcome is.
  • Effort-related negativities. Yelling things like: “You’re not trying hard enough!” and “Try harder!” is simply not the way to go. Screaming at your competitor will almost never inspire them to try harder! And, in some cases, trying harder is not the answer. Note: There are circumstances where a kid is not putting forth his best effort and will need to be told so. Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to yell negative things about their effort, but there are specific situations when increased effort should be encouraged.
  • Don’t talk about how good the other kid is. I promise you, talking about how good your wrestler’s opponent is will only make it harder for them to compete at their best. As soon as they start thinking they might lose, it makes it exponentially harder to win. The results don’t matter! Upsets happen all the time, and telling your kid that they’re wrestling the returning state champ who beat wrestler XYZ and to watch out for a fireman’s carry, don’t forget to sprawl, and to keep your hands in on bottom etc. will not be conducive to positive thoughts. Note: some wrestlers can actually thrive from knowing who they are wrestling, how good they are, and what positions they need to avoid. This is a rare occurrence, so you’ll want to really know your wrestler before you try and use this tactic. 
  • Insults and threats. This one needs very little explaining. There is no place in our sport for insults, vulgarity, threats, etc., While you have the right to experience frustration, irritation, and even anger in the middle of coaching a match, as the adult in the situation, you do not have the right to outwardly express those emotions. Rather, maintain the responsibility to model self-control both to your wrestler and all of the youth in your presence. 

So there we are: a solid list of good and bad things to say to a competing wrestler. Now obviously, this is our opinion, and we are definitely not sports psychologists. If you think anything should be added/taken off, please write to Sam or me at We’d love to continue the conversation and discuss the things listed here.

Jude Swisher

Hey! I'm Jude Swisher, one of the founders and co-hosts of Home Mat Advantage Wrestling Podcast. I live near State College, PA, and am a wrestler for David Taylor's M2 Training Center. I love to wrestle and listen to podcasts.

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