June 12, 2021

Differentiating Between Working Hard vs. Training Smart

(Photo/Sam Janicki; Sam JanickiPhoto.com)

How many wrestlers hear their coach bark at them every day at some point, maybe many points, during practice : “You gotta work hard every day to be the best!”? How many coaches are guilty of using this phrase as a mechanism to get their athletes to give their best effort in a workout? What do coaches actually mean by working hard? Working hard is such a subjective concept that has different meanings to different people. For some, working hard is training at Austin Desanto’s pace, and for others, it’s somewhat slower. Not everyone is wired to train and wrestle at Desanto’s pace. Could wrestlers and coaches be more efficient with their training if they trained smart, as opposed to just working hard? The purpose of this article is to differentiate between the concepts of working hard and training hard and smart to illustrate a better preparation model for wrestlers that they should be following in whatever cycle of training they are currently working in. Some coaches feel that working hard is training smart. Distinguishing between these concepts will also help the coach make practices much more effective and meaningful; instead of the wrestler going through the same motions day in and day out, they should strive to make every moment in a practice count. If it doesn’t count, the motion is meaningless.

Working Hard

To the athlete, the idea of working hard focuses solely on output: number of reps, intensity of those reps, and energy throughout the practice. Working hard is a vague concept, other than the wrestler needing to get as many reps of a skill in a drill period at a very high intensity or pace, and use up as much energy as possible in the session. Working hard generally yields a significant weight loss by the end of practice, something too many wrestlers (and coaches) focus on. But working hard is not a concrete concept; it merely focuses on picking up the pace or intensity level of the workout. Shouldn’t the purpose of a wrestling workout be something other than just working hard? Most wrestlers will tell you that they work hard in practice and give it their all, but did they actually improve as a wrestler during that session?

Practice sessions that focus on the concept of working hard should take place the day before an event: the I need to cut a few pounds to make weight, workout, or used as a way to “shake things up” during the week to get the wrestler to build wrestling endurance, especially if the athlete gasses out at the end of a match. Simply having working hard practices every day won’t help the individual improve on the things they lack; the end result is producing wrestlers who are in great shape, but make the same mistakes in competition.

I was guilty of scheduling mostly working hard practices early in my coaching career. I felt that if my wrestlers were in better condition than their opponents, we could wear them down late in a match and grind out victories. Technique instruction took place early in the season, but adjustments were not addressed on a daily basis. Monday practices were work sessions to fix the mistakes made over the weekend. In retrospect, most of my wrestlers plateaued before the end of the season, because I did not consistently fix mistakes or add to their system of wrestling. It was all about getting in as many reps as possible, pushing the pace during live, and grueling conditioning activities at the end of practice. The working hard model of training does not benefit the whole; only athletes who fully embrace the grind of the model can find it as their best path to success. The rest of the team needs something else.

There is nothing wrong with working hard in practice, but working hard should not be the only practice goal. Every coach wants to get the maximum output from their wrestlers every day, but if there isn’t an opportunity to learn, fix, and correct technique, the wrestler will not make significant improvements.

Creating a Culture to Focus on Improvement

For the last thirteen years, I have been fortunate to coach in a program and work with coaches that strive for their athletes to improve every day in practice. We want our athletes to work hard, but at the same time, we focus on getting better every day. The coaching staff spends considerable time developing practice plans that address our bread and butter system, making fixes and corrections to the problem areas, all while expecting every athlete to be held accountable for working hard. This model has been pretty successful for our program. In twelve years, we have won six state titles and finished second six times, while reaching the top ten at the National Prep Wrestling Championships at Lehigh University each year.

Many of our drives back to Richmond, VA, after competition, involve a lot of discussion about the things we need our athletes to improve upon for the upcoming week. We are brutally honest with each other and with our wrestlers in this regard because we want every single athlete on the roster to get better. This gives the coaching staff a framework to begin planning practices for the week. We realize that no wrestler ever reaches perfection on technique and there are always things to fix and improve upon.

Training Smart Focuses the Athlete

I like to use the term training smart for the model we use to focus the entire team on the correct mechanics of technique, constantly fixing mistakes, and working with them to develop focus and concentration in the teaching and learning process. Training smart does require hard work, but the main concept revolves around daily improvement and giving the best effort possible. Sure, there are periods in practices where we push the pace- especially in live wrestling, but we also incorporate time to slow things down and work on specifics of technique.

The training smart model requires coaches who are extremely detail-oriented; if you have ever spent time watching Jeff Buxton teach, you know what I mean. Coach Buxton breaks down every aspect of a specific technique down, so the athlete understands the mechanics of the technique. Before coaching at my current school, I was more of a general concept coach: explaining technique in the broadest means possible so every kid would have an idea of what I am teaching. But since coaching with guys who are detail-oriented, I have adapted my teaching style to reflect the details. This has made me a more effective wrestling coach, and a better teacher in the classroom.

Training smart requires the wrestler to have laser focus when the coach is teaching, so they understand every aspect of what is being taught. It also encourages the wrestler to ask questions, especially if they are unsure of the specifics. Far too many wrestlers watch what their coaches teach and accept it as perfect, even if they don’t quite understand something. Training smart also allows the wrestler to learn how to drill correctly, giving their partner a good feel and not giving zero resistance while practicing. Making the drilling periods more realistic, in terms of resistance, pressure, and feel, provides the athlete with the opportunity to drill the technique correctly, so when faced with it in a match situation, they instinctively know what to do.

Another positive benefit of training smart is developing communication skills between workout partners. If a wrestler is not getting the correct resistance and cooperation from their partner, they have to communicate this so their partner can adjust. Instead of getting frustrated with their partner, training smart requires wrestlers to compromise and do their best for their partner because drilling correctly will benefit both in terms of offense and defense. This concept helps both wrestlers improve and develop a rhythm that works for both sides.

Athletes should reflect on their daily workouts by keeping a journal. Journaling is a great way for the wrestler to review practice and be honest with themselves about whether or not they just worked hard, trained smart, or something else. Furthermore, keeping a daily journal allows the wrestler to delve deeper into their effort during practice and what they can do to improve. Simply going through the motions of practice, just because the coach said to workout, does not provide the opportunity for growth and improvement.

Coaches who use the training smart model are actively engaged in practice. They do not stand against the wall in silence. Rather, they circulate around the room, engaging with the athletes, correcting mistakes as they arise. They do not focus on “just’ the best kids, but with the entire team. And while the focus may be different for different athletes, it gives every wrestler a sense of belonging and meaning.

Training smart also includes activities like cardio-respiratory conditioning, strength training, and diet/nutrition in practice. Since wrestling is such a unique sport that requires multiple types of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardio-respiratory endurance, and flexibility, it is essential that these are components in practice. There are plenty of activities that can be incorporated into practices that focus on the components of fitness; bodyweight activities such as rope climbing, push-ups, squat jumps, etc., are examples to add muscular strength and muscular endurance to practices. Proper nutrition and weight management need to be part of the training smart model. Most young wrestlers do not have a depth of knowledge about eating correctly and managing their weight, so they do not have to drop ten pounds in the days leading up to competition. If left to their own devices, many wrestlers will not eat food that will help them have energy to use for training smart and try to cut all of their weight in less than two days before a match, leading to underperforming and a lack of energy. Coaches who use the training smart concept will stress weight management over weight cutting, so the focus in practice can be on improvement.

Wrestlers can and should work hard using the training smart model; maximum effort in every practice is essential. But making practices worthwhile in order for wrestlers to make improvements each day should be a primary focus of training. Coaches should strive for their athletes to learn and improve their fundamentals every day, regardless of whether they are the best or worst kid on the team. A central goal of wrestling should be to improve every day, fix things when improvements don’t happen, and remain positive and working smart each day. Focusing on improvement should make the sport fun and will lead to success for all.

There is much more to the training smart model. This article is a short introduction to the important concepts of training smart, as opposed to just working hard. Feel free to send me your thoughts about training smart. You can email me at: