Wrestling legend Dan Gable on ways to ‘make’ great athletes

While reading Sam Sheridan’s “The Fighter’s Mind,”  I stumbled across a passage where wrestling legend Dan Gable shares his insight on how a coach builds the foundation behind any successful athlete or team.

9780802145017_p0_v1_s260x420Gable candidly stated that not all athletes have that special “it” factor.  He felt that it was important to surround his athletes with people that were not only talented but hard workers to get others to realize that with hard work they could achieve great things as well.  I especially related to this section.  A few years ago a former teammate of mine won an ADCC trial and earned an opportunity to compete at the ADCC in London, England.  Even though he lost first round to Rodolfo Viera, that former teammate had a big impact on how I view jiu jitsu and competition.

In his words:

“I don’t give up on kids that don’t have it, but I have them surrounded by kids who DO have it. Without examples, it won’t happen. And there’s not many out there who have it. A lot of them have the science, but only a few have the mentality…they influence others. They win matches before they get on the mat.” – Dan Gable.

Sheridan wrote that Gable needed real life examples of what highly motivated people could accomplish. Gable demands aggressiveness and does not favor the easy way out or coasting to victory.  He recounted a situation during his Olympic match where he felt himself essentially coast to victory and he was still upset with that decision because he said that he doesn’t preach that to his students.  I also favored his take on competing against people that are at a higher level than yourself.

Gable said, ” Now, for me, when you go against higher competition you get MORE out of yourself. In the quarterfinals of the Olympics you got to be a little better, and then even better in the semis, and so on.  You step it up as the season progresses.

At first glance my former teammate looks like an everyday joe and then he’d step on the mat and just run through people.  When I first started training I needed that example to realistically consider entering in larger tournaments.  Sometimes you just got to quiet your nerves and put your name in the hat.  I think it’s imperative as a competitive athlete to surround yourself with ambitious and hard working people.

Anyways, Dan Gable said that it only took a few people to raise the level of the entire team. His athletes felt his genuine belief in their abilities and that helped in training and preparation too.  Gable’s commented in several interviews that as a coach to truly be successful you must believe what you’re preaching to your athletes because whether it be through words or body language and they can sense your belief in them and their abilities.


Joe Baize after winning his weight division ADCC North America qualifier

Even though not all people are born athletically superior or have that killer aggressive instinct during competition Gable felt that if you surround people that don’t have “it” with people that do then those that perform below the level of expectation with work hard to rise and meet it.

I’ve met many people that I thought had “it”.  They were so good! But then in the same breath most of the people that I’ve met that had natural ability had a tendency to be lazy, or not motivated to do extra because they thought they would handle problems with ease.  Their attendance at class would dwindle and when adversity hit they would take excessive amounts of time off to tend to bruised egos. I love how Gable incorporates scaffolding into his training programs. Think Lev Vygotsky and not those metal shelves you use during home improvement projects.  Quick psychology lesson:

Scaffolding; Made popular by Lev Vygotsky is essentially where a student is able to master a task with incremental assistance from their instructor. This task can be accomplished by modeling the desired behavior or strategy, fading assistance appropriately, or by providing cues, hints, etc.

This definition is much better:

Scaffolding is an instructional technique whereby the teacher models the desired learning strategy or task, then gradually shifts responsibility to the students

Coaching is half the battle.

“A lot of great athletes don’t make great coaches, because they’re already fixed on what they were doing to be great, as individuals.  Because I’ve been a fanatic, and an extremist, I know it works well and for me.  But I’ve made adjustments for a whole range of people,” said Gable.

m One thing that I know is essential to becoming a great athlete is experiencing losing. With jiu jitsu you’ll frequently hear that you don’t lose your learn.  Which is true. I learn more from matches that I lose but at the same time losing in tournaments sucks. 🙂

In the book Gable  went on to discuss how crucial losing on rare occasions was in terms of advancing to higher performance levels.  He said, “Too much losing…it becomes a habit-it’s not devastating.  But if you only lose once in a while at rare CRUCIAL times, you can build to a much higher level.  You can use that as fuel.” (Sheridan, p.23)

I began reading  “The Fighter’s Mind,” in attempt to find ways to wrestle my own mental demons. I would highly recommend reading the book to all athletes.   I love it because it’s intended for individuals who are active and do not have excessive background knowledge of various sports.  He interviews prominent figures in wrestling, ultra running, boxing, muay thai, mma, and brazilian jiu jitsu.  I had never even heard of ultra running yet that did not get in the way of me being completely impressed by that particulars person’s drive and mental toughness.

I’m thinking that I will post more about Renzo Gracie’s section of the book soon enough.

Oh and since i’m on my motivational kick…I like listening to this when I run.

3 Responses to “Wrestling legend Dan Gable on ways to ‘make’ great athletes”
  1. Ronnie Brown says:

    Shakia, this article is excellent! I mean that. I genuinely enjoy what you post (and that may be because of your proficiency at tying psychology into much of it!) I love sport psychology and learning about the mental game. The concept of “scaffolding” was new to me and it dawned on me that my own coach uses this technique himself. I’m imagining it is inadvertent, but he has used scaffolding to help me improve my submission game. This seems to be his dominant teaching style, to teach by example and model the specific behavior he is wishing us to develop. When I first came to him, my base and balance on the ground were fair, as well as were my submission defense, and possibly my strongest assets; however, my own submission success (offense) was lacking severely. Every single time he sparred with me, he would catch me in a submission from literally any and all positions we got into and it influenced me to think more about “looking” for the submission from every position I found myself in, whether against him or against others. My submission success soared and I did manage to “absorb” some of his intensity and ferocity when it came to attacking with more confidence and aggression. Also, I can’t thank you enough for recommending the book. I’ll be ordering it from Amazon very soon! Best – Ronnie

  2. shakiaharris says:

    thank you so much Ronnie! I’m glad that this post had a positive effect on you. I can’t recommend the text enough. I found myself highlighting entire sections because the interviews were candid and relevant regardless of the specific sport that the athlete specialized in. I have a newfound respect for the mental game in various sports now.

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  1. […] Wrestling legend Dan Gable on ways to ‘make’ great … – Aug 20, 2013 · While reading Sam Sheridan’s “ The Fighter’s Mind,” I stumbled across a passage where wrestling legend Dan Gable shares his insight on how a coach …… […]

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