Building a Dominant Culture…and doing it quickly

Let’s be honest with each other. I have a confession.

As a wrestling coach, I love learning new moves and watching technique video. I’m obsessed.

And it almost killed my program.

When I was a younger coach, I thought coaching was just about teaching our kids holds and techniques – constantly trying to improve our “system.” I became a student of the sport. I poured through any technique videos I could get my hands on. (In fact I’m writing this here because in 16 years of coaching wrestling, I’ve never found a better resource for this than Attack Style Wrestling!)

If it gives us an edge and helps us win, I want it.

So, what’s the big deal, right? Sounds like the kind of thing any committed coach would do. How does that kill your program?

Here’s the thing: Like so many less experienced coaches, I was so focused on the technique (the “fun stuff” for us coaches!) that I never took the time to understand the other part of coaching that really makes a team or a program great – developing a strong, positive culture.

We were teaching our kids all the right wrestling skills – good, solid, fundamental wrestling – but we didn’t seem to get that much better. We were missing this “other stuff.” Most of our kids weren’t very committed, many cared only about themselves, some would quit or not come back the next season. Our numbers dwindled.

I was so committed to improving our program, but I felt like was struggling just to keep our kids engaged.

It felt like I cared more about their success than they did!

It was SO frustrating. I started asking myself why I even bothered.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that mastering technique isn’t the only critical factor in developing a winning program. It was hard for me to admit there was a better way to run my program. It took a lot of talking to more experienced coaches. A lot of reading coaching books. And more than anything, it took admitting that I didn’t have all the answers I thought I did. I had to change.

At that point, I would have tried anything to help our program improve.

As I became more intentional about building our program’s culture, here’s what I came to realize:

Wrestling programs are like giant skyscrapers. The technique and the wrestling skills you and your coaching staff bring to your wrestlers – your system – are like the structure of the building. They’re the steel I-beams that give the building its shape, hold it together, and allow it to rise higher and higher above the ground.

Having a solid technical system is necessary to win and it’s the part of your program that everyone sees, but it’s your foundation beneath the surface that’s responsible for keeping your building upright. You don’t have to be an architect to realize that the taller you want your building to get, the deeper and more substantial your foundation’s gotta be! Without a deep enough foundation, even the strongest steel in the world topples over as soon as a wind of adversity blows through.

It doesn’t matter how tall your skyscraper
is if it doesn’t have a deep foundation!

I’m sure you guys can see the problem here. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this! Like many coaches, I was so focused on my structure, I neglected to build the foundation I needed to really build a successful program. When I finally “broke ground” on our foundation, everything started changing.

Our program started jumping levels. Kids were winning Sectional and State Titles. The numbers in our program were growing every year. The only difference was the added focus on our culture.

Now many League Championships, All-State Wrestlers and State Champions later, I’ve learned the rock solid foundation of our program is the culture we build. A strong, positive culture of caring. When we intentionally created an environment where our kids cared deeply about each other everything changed.

Teaching our kids to care about each other made them 10x tougher on the mat.

Alright – I can see a lot of you rolling your eyes!

I get it.

This is wrestling. We’re training our kids to step out on the mat as hardened warriors and to dismantle their opponents. How does taking the time to build this kind of culture translate to tougher wrestlers and more success?

Hear me out:

  • It builds a much deeper level of commitment in your wrestlers. If your wrestlers love each other, they’ll want to spend more time together, and if they want to spend more time together, they’ll start showing up earlier, staying later and working harder with each other to get better year round. Who doesn’t want to spend more time doing something they like with the people that they like? For many of our kids, this was the gateway to them developing the kind of true intrinsic motivation that creates champions.
  • It forges unshakable mental toughness. When kids care a lot about their teammates and know their teammates a care a lot about them, two amazing things happen: (1) it becomes almost impossible for them to quit on themselves in a match or in training when they have a deep desire to not let down the people they truly care about; and (2) it makes it so much easier for them to wrestle fearlessly and aggressively every match knowing that they’ll be supported by their teammates regardless of the outcome.
  • It creates kids who are all about the team. It’s really easy, especially in an “individual” sport like wrestling, for kids to get caught up in themselves. Selfishness, entitlement and the “all about me” attitude seem to be everywhere. The single best way I’ve ever seen to combat this is to create a culture where kids really care about each other. Suddenly it’s effortless for them to put the team first…because they care.

So here are the comments I always get:

“That sounds great, but how do you even go about doing this? And where do you find the time? I can’t even get through everything in my practice plan!”

Here are three tips to get you started:

  1. Your mindset is everything. When you start trying to change a culture, it has to start with you, coach! And your kids are smarter than you give them credit for. If you’re not really bought into shifting the culture of your program, your kids will see it and they won’t buy-in either. Want to really change things for the better? Get your mind right! Buy-in, model the behaviors you’re looking for and know it will make a difference. Be authentic about it!
  2. Use the spaces between. You don’t need me to tell you wrestling coaches never have enough time. So how are you supposed to take valuable time from your practices for this kind of stuff. The answer: strategically. Utilize your pre-practice talk to reinforce your culture. Create team-based conditioning activities or lifts. Have team events outside the scope of practices. Do a team-building activity after practice one night. The spaces are there – we just need to get strategic!
  3. Find creative ways to get the message across. There are hundreds of ways you can build a culture of caring, but the key is to find ideas and tactics that are meaningful for your team. If you want to impact your culture, you need to activities that are impactful! Over the years, through A LOT of trial and error, we’ve come up with a bunch of unique, creative tactics that don’t take much time and work really well to build a positive culture specifically in wrestling programs. They’ve worked for us and many others as well.

Want tougher, more committed, more selfless kids? Want to get some quick tactics you can use to start building this kind of positive culture today?

To make it as easy as possible for you, I put together 10 of the most impactful things we do – all in one PDF. Grab your free copy right here. We’ll even throw in an exclusive discount to Attack Style Wrestling’s Flagship Bundle, since it’s the wrestling technique and culture together that really creates Championship programs!

Pete Jacobson has been a varsity HS coach in New York for almost 20 years. He also works with coaches of all levels through
WinSmarter to help them get better at what they do, have a greater impact and go home happy. Check out 10 Insanely Powerful Tactics for a Dominant Team Culture for some of the most impactful tactics you can use to build a Championship program quickly.



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