Always Switched On: Coach Mike Powell Shares His Philosophy

coach mike powell, illinois greco-roman wrestling
Original photo: Todd Rosenberg

No matter which of the four corners of the US you find yourself in, uttering the three words which comprise his name might be enough. Coach Mike Powell. You don’t really say it differently, at least not if you’re an outsider. Maybe the kids at Oak Park High School in Illinois refer to him as “Coach Powell”, or “Coach”, or some other amalgamation. But you don’t. No, to you he is Coach Mike Powell, the guy who may have been a very good wrestler but became such an enormous influence as a coach to where many of the young men who competed under his thumb revere him as much more than a dude with a whistle around his neck. He’s been a surrogate father, a best friend, a psychologist, a source of unwielding inspiration so profound, that even if you’re thousands of miles away, you feel connected to him. Maybe you had a coach like that. Maybe you always wanted one but weren’t fortunate enough, so the stories about his unique ability to communicate on a level everyone seems to understand has to suffice.

How else do you explain a wrestling coach who himself was not a Greco-Roman competitor becoming one of the country’s most dedicated proponents of the sport? It has to do with Powell’s uncanny acumen for the sport and his observant translation skills. He can break down technique from one style and instantly decipher how it affects the other. That’s where communication comes into play. He sees it. He can spot the nuances others view as conflicting and make it so all of the inherent similarities present are put on full display. Powell also believes in the other values Greco-Roman offers to age-group wrestlers. The hand-fighting, the pummeling, and the unforgiving hard-nosed attitude that the style demands. Of course, some of the attributes associated with the verifiable dirty work of Greco-Roman serves as a metaphor. “You have to be able to brawl,” Powell declares. When he says this, it’s not just because that’s what works for Greco — life requires some brawling, too.

Together with Bryan Medlin, the yin to Powell’s yang, Illinois Greco-Roman wrestling at the youth level morphed into a world all its own. You’ve seen it for years either at the National Duals or Fargo. Illinois kids thumping, throwing, and celebrating like they’re in the midst of some giant party they are the caretakers of. Other states are plenty strong, as well. But none of them look like they are having the same kind of fun. Both coaches are credited with this level of enthusiasm, and it is much more important than one event, one year at a time. These kids take it with them. Some all the way to the top of the Greco-Roman ladder in the United States. They remember the lessons, certainly. The camps, the workouts, the technical finer points. But they also remember what it meant to be called upon to stick it out together, and how the attitude and devotion required needn’t be a burden.

Powell deflects praise practically on reflex, as if he was just “a guy” who happened to be around when the stars aligned. Meanwhile, you can’t get through a conversation with a Senior-level US Greco-Roman wrestler from Illinois without hearing both he and Medlin mentioned countless times. So no, Powell hasn’t been a bystander. This isn’t all some happy coincidence. He’s changed lives in whatever style of wrestling he has coached, and it just so happens that USA Greco-Roman has been a beneficiary of that fact. Plus, he can’t help but ooze passion. It drips from the breadth of every statement he makes. You listen to the man talk and you don’t know whether to start jotting down notes or hit the deck and pump out some push ups. That’s the effect this man has. Naturally. After all, he’s Coach Mike Powell.

5PM Interview with Coach Mike Powell

5PM: When you began your coaching career, where did you see Greco-Roman fitting in for high school student athletes?

Coach Mike Powell: It wasn’t even on my radar. I mean, I wrestled, I won the Northern Plains in 2000 because I was continuing to wrestle and I was training with really bad high school kids at the time. But there was nothing there. That was it. I didn’t know anything about Greco, I wasn’t any good at it. I tried hard to get on the freestyle staff with Team USA and they kind of wouldn’t give me the time of day. And then I approached the Greco guys and they were like, Oh yeah, come over by us. They kind of took me in and I started coaching Greco.

5PM: For the kids you have coached who would wrestle both styles during the summer, whether tactically, technically, attitude-wise, how would you say it improved their acumens for folkstyle?

MP: In my mind and having done what I’ve done now, and I have a pretty high wrestling IQ — I don’t mean to brag — but I’m not some average guy. But if you can’t see it, it means you haven’t really invested in it in terms of Greco’s benefits for folkstyle because of all the things you just said. First and foremost, hand-fighting is everything. Unless you are a completely outside wrestler, unless you’re Jordan Burroughs and have the strength of six men and the length of two, you have to be able to hand-fight. You have to be able to brawl. That’s it. You have to be able to dominate ties. If you watch great folkstyle wrestlers, just like great Greco wrestlers, they get to their dominant tie and they get to their scoring. That’s how most of the Zain Retherford’s, and the Kyle Snyder’s do it. And there’s no better way to learn how to dominate a tie than in Greco. For me, that’s everything.

I just coached a match in the Southern Plains Greco finals, two Illinois boys, one of them was our guy. And it was six minutes of, How hard you can wrestle, as tough as you can possibly be. My guy has got a black eye afterwards and it’s like, Man, this is so good for how we want him wrestling next year. I tell our guys this and that is, I think the biggest thing is the fear of the unknown, which is the opposite of what we want with a growth mindset for our guys. The reason why you have detractors or guys who ignore it and say, We’re just going to train freestyle and folkstyle, it’s because they are ignorant and/or scared. Because I don’t see a single argument for how you would be wasting your time with Greco.

Joe Rau is a great example. I watched Joe Rau’s matches at the Last Chance Qualifier and I said to myself, All of those guys who wrestled Joe should start training Greco now like they do in other countries. One day a week, one day every other week, they should go train with the Greco guys and get punched in the mouth by Joe Rau. Or get pinch headlocked by Joe Rau, you know what I mean?

5PM: Do you think we miss the boat on that in this country? Especially when it comes to the Senior-level athletes who just focus on one thing in this country, do we not mix styles up enough? 

MP: Yes, I definitely think that. I think we totally miss the boat on it, and for the same reasons I just said. Wrestling is wrestling and it’s not any different at the Senior level. It’s a little more technical and a little bit more strategic, but wrestling is still wrestling. Like my friend Robert Stevenson says, Single-double-high crotch, but if you add a little Greco there, Two-on-one to underhook. It basically comes down to the same things, so yes, I definitely think those guys should train freestyle and Greco from an early, early age. And I think it is really easy when you want to believe something to say, Well, look at those guys, they’re not doing well. Joe Rau would never beat so-and-so, but he did (laughs). He just beat the tar out of a guy who took third at the NCAA’s and trains at the Ohio RTC. I think the proof is in the pudding with that.

You also have to understand the ways the other guys beat us, when our guys get two-on-ones and they don’t know what to do. I mean, my guy (Bryan) Medlin was over in Russia for three weeks and the freestyle guys trained Greco. They do it in Iran, and I know they also do it in other countries.

5PM: The ‘wrestling is wrestling’ narrative is something that comes up a lot, especially on this platform and Greco has to use that a lot as a way to sell it to hesitant kids, parents, and coaches. When you’re dealing with age-group athletes, can you personally identify a wrestler and say, “This kid is more cut out for Greco than he is anything else”?

MP: Yeah, I think you can say, Oh, he’s got great hips, or He has naturally strong shoulders, or whatever that might be. But it’s almost the opposite for me to where I’d say, This guy sucks with his hands, we need to get him to start training Greco. And I grab the guys who I know don’t want to go to the Greco practices and explain to them, You have a deficiency in your wrestling and this is what studs do. You know, you don’t avoid the squat rack because it hurts. The fact that it hurts is why you go through the squats because it is going to make you better and stronger. It’s the same thing with Greco.

You want to be a good, all-around wrestler. You want to have ties, you want to be able to wrestle from open, if you’re talking folkstyle, so it’s huge to be able to develop skills you don’t naturally have. So you learn how to hand-fight, you learn how to clear ties, and learn how to not get tossed on your head in a bad situation. Even if you’re never going to be Kamal Bey, learning to wrestle in those uncomfortable situations and how to wrestle out of them is huge. How many guys every year at the state tournament in New Jersey get bounced on their heads? Probably not that many, but enough to where you have to know how to wrestle up there. There is a lot of reasoning behind why you would want to wrestle Greco, particularly if you aren’t good at it.

I get a lot of calls every year from coaches who say, I have a lot of guys who want to wrestle freestyle but I have this one kid who loves Greco, can I send him up to you? And sure, I’ll be glad to have him, glad to have guys training Greco in Illinois. But for my guys, I have a kid in mind right now who is a freshman and doesn’t like Greco. But I tell him, As long as you don’t like things that can help you, you’re just not going to be very good in the end. At some point you stop excelling if you don’t have a growth mindset and don’t want to explore new things or get in uncomfortable situations. I think for the young guys, that is the best thing you can sell. Obviously, you want to have a coach who the kid will listen to and buy into. But a kid who doesn’t want to do Greco because of the fear of the unknown or is uncomfortable, or isn’t naturally good at it, if you’re talking about reaching your highest potential it is something you should be involved with.

5PM: Would you say you subscribe to the concept of being a complete wrestler? Like Mason Manville is the most recent example, he just won the World Team Trials and leading up he was training in the Nittany Lions practice room. He believes you can use all three styles to excel at one. Do you see it that way?

Coach Mike Powell: Oh, of course. Absolutely. Well, I don’t think folkstyle helps freestyle and Greco in the same way freestyle and Greco help folkstyle. But yes, I do believe that. I’ve also heard the argument that you’re missing out on freestyle and folkstyle practice because you’re practicing Greco. It’s fresh, it’s new. You don’t know who is going to be the next Joe Rau or Max Nowry. Bryan Medlin had to beg Max Nowry to come out to the team. The first tournament I think he ever wrestled was Fargo — and he won it. For me, It’s try new things, explore, and become a well-rounded wrestler. I would argue that with our Senior athletes. I think some of our Senior-level freestyle guys are too one-dimensional. I don’t claim to be any expert, but I feel they would benefit tremendously from wrestling a little more open and a little less confined.

Joe Rau, 2016 US Olympic Trials

Joe Rau (red), shown here wrestling in the 2016 US Olympic Team Trials finals versus Caylor Williams, was inspired to start training in Greco-Roman after meeting with Coach Mike Powell at Oak Park High School. Rau was a Fargo National champ prior to his Senior career. (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: How do the rules affect your approach to coaching?

MP: I pay attention to them, sure. I’d like to see more consistency. I am not a big fan of these new cautions. I am kind of one of those who don’t sit around and cry about it because I am not in control of those things. We make adjustments accordingly. I do however think the rules benefit some of those other countries that have a bigger group of Greco coaches who wrestled different styles and are familiar with different rules. I think the United States is always a couple of steps behind.

I am sure you watched Ellis Coleman’s second match in the World Team Trials finals. I am not sure how it’s possible he lost, but he did. I might be biased, but it sure seemed like he held the middle ground and out-pummeled his guy.

5PM: The rules tend to put both athletes in precarious positions. 

MP: I agree. And I hate the fact that those two wrestled three matches without scoring an offensive point. I know they are bringing back slips, which I like, but it doesn’t seem to really encourage scoring. You don’t really have to take risks to score since you know all you have to do is get the other guy cautioned. And plus, the Russians will probably benefit tremendously from that (laughs).

5PM: One of the things you are most known for is your ability to communicate and foster relationships with different athletes. Team-building is currently a big theme in US Greco, bringing more unity into the fold here. How do you get athletes to drive towards a common goal in what is an intensely defined individual sport to the naked eye?

MP: I can’t pretend to know. We have had teams at Oak Park and within our club that have been unusually wonderful in terms of culture, work ethic, bonding, and love for each other, and we have had some teams that weren’t. So I don’t pretend to be a master at this, but I think it comes down to relationships. Having the ability to build those relationships and getting guys to buy into something that is bigger than themselves. It’s an all-powerful thing. There is a reason why so many top-level athletes are tough due to their personal beliefs, but it also happens to benefit their athletics when they are part of a religion and they can look up and say, It’s up to you, buddy, I am just going to give it my best. I think that’s probably not quite as powerful, but it’s the same thing when you can be a part of something that you feel is bigger and more powerful than you. It’s really a great thing for sports psychology when you have that, because you focus on what you can control, which is another one of the big things everyone talks about now — Focus on what you can control, focus on what you can control. That idea you can be a part of something that makes you more powerful and more focused than you otherwise would have been is huge.

I think everyone wants that. I think everyone wants to be part of a powerful and meaningful group. Something that gives meaning to your life. I don’t think wrestling as a sport being for the individual is a deterrent to that concept. It is part of human nature and people want that. But can you build it? That’s the trick. Penn State has done such a nice job at that on top of having all of the greatest recruits because they probably have a very strong culture and the guys buy in. I don’t know how Greco does it. I see a lot of stuff on social media from Coach (Matt) Lindland, he certainly seems focused on it and I like to see that.

5PM: Well, okay, take for instance the fact that we’re now into the age-group season. With Cadets and Juniors, there is always a lot of turnover because kids grow older and move on. One of the things that Illinois is known for besides success at the Duals and Fargo, is being a team that is unified and having a lot of fun.

MP: I think that’s Bryan Medlin. I think it starts at the top. I get a lot of credit that I really don’t deserve. I’m a loudmouth, I have a big personality, and I coach a good high school team that a lot of good kids come out of. But Bryan Medlin is the reason Illinois Greco is what it is, there is no other person who deserves to be named with him or next to him. You know, I haven’t been to Fargo in ten years. My name gets tossed in there by Max (Nowry) because I love Max and I coached him on a bunch of teams, and then he coached with us for a year at Oak Park. And Joe Rau, guys who were part of our club, Chris Gonzalez… But Bryan Medlin is a unique coach and a unique person. I think Ellis tried to say this in your interview, but he was Ellis’ Greco coach. Ellis was trying not to hurt my ego, but it certainly wouldn’t have done that. Bryan Medlin is the Greco coach of Illinois and he is the reason why that culture of fun, commitment, and belonging is there.

Those guys love it. There are kids who absolutely look forward to Greco, they love it and look forward to the Fargo camp, and they really enjoy being a part of that. Again, I think that is part of what I spoke to before. It kind of has a life of its own now. Everybody wants to be part of this really awesome group of people doing really great things at a really high level, and it means being part of something that is bigger than themselves. That was created by Bryan Medlin and I was lucky enough to be there for the beginning of it. I learned a ton by watching him and I am very grateful for being a part of some of those Dual teams and for coaching some of the better kids. But he’s the guy who did that.

5PM: What has it been like for you when it comes to some of these notable athletes like Ellis, Rau, Max, or Gonzalez and seeing the success that they have had in the sport? Because they all throw credit to both you and Medlin. 

Coach Mike Powell: Well I think it’s great. It’s nice to know on a personal level that you might have had a little something to do with them and were maybe there at the right time to say, help Ellis learn to love Greco. But at this point, I’m just a fan and it’s really great that these are guys you deeply and dearly love and to see them having success at the higher levels is really quite special. I’m overwhelmed. It’s been an honor to be a part of Joe Rau’s journey, to have my name mentioned by Max Nowry. It has been a neat thing, but I certainly do not feel like I’ve been doing anything differently than any of the other coaches. We just had some special kids come through.

5PM: Maybe this is my being removed from the situation, but I always veer to environmental factors perhaps playing a role in an athlete’s makeup. Are these just tougher kids than other places?

MP: No, no. No, they’re not. They are the same gene pool. Joe Rau is an Italian kid, Max Nowry is Latino, Ellis and Chris Gonzalez are a mix of black and Latino, and they’re all from different neighborhoods. Joe’s dad is a military guy and he was either going to grow up clearing out bars on the north side of Chicago or making Greco World teams. He was going to be a tough guy either way. Ellis was going to be tough, too. But I’m not one who believes tough kids come from tough neighborhoods. My best friend played five years in the NFL and his dad was a radiologist (laughs). And me, I grew up in a suburb and frankly, the guys on the other side of the street wouldn’t come by my block (laughs).

So I don’t buy into that, that we’re tougher than everybody else. I used to tell the kids that, though. We’d go up against California and my grandfather lived in the Back of the Yards, which is a slaughterhouse, he was a Ukrainian immigrant. So we’d talk about how we grew up in the steel mills and these guys left the harsh conditions of the winter to go out to sunny California, but Stephen Abbas is from California (laughs). Some bad dudes are from there. Jake Varner is from California. I used to say that to the kids but I don’t anymore. Again, I think it comes down to culture. If you read about any of these hotbeds when it comes to tennis or golf, it comes down to people buying into having the sole focus of having success in those particular sports be it girls tennis, golf, or men’s Greco-Roman wrestling in Illinois. The hotbeds are created by leadership that was significant.

Bryan Medlin is the hardest-working coach I’ve ever known. Hands-down, there’s not a close second. And he would do anything for a kid, be it my kid from my high school, his kid, or some kid from down south. He’s picking guys up, he is driving two hours one way just to get them to come to the Greco camp, which is the kind of stuff you hear about great coaches doing. Like the stories about the Tennessee women’s basketball coach making recruiting calls while she was in labor, that’s Bryan Medlin. If you saw the things that I’ve seen him do, it’s so easy to follow that guy. It’s so easy to buy into what he’s doing. He is 100% present, he is 100% in, and he is a unique man in the sport. He’s tough, he was an MMA fighter and a Greco wrestler, so he is an old school tough guy. But he’s cerebral, he is a math teacher, and he is just the best of the best. That’s why it is what it is. It doesn’t just happen. It happens by design.

I know Cael (Sanderson) was a great wrestler, but there are plenty of great wrestlers who didn’t go on to build great wrestling programs. Dan Gable, too. I mean, I don’t know if you put Medlin in the same sentence with Dan Gable (laughs), but he has really developed something very special in Illinois. As a young coach, I’m sure Medlin had something in mind when he started to build this and he tried to look at what these other guys did, and he did it, and he has done it with everything he has. He puts everything into the sport. And crazy enough, he somehow finds the time to go home and be a great dad. He’s just a unique tough guy and incredibly hard-working. He also doesn’t do anything else except maybe hunt and fish. It’s not like Cael Sanderson has six other hobbies. This is what these guys do. They put everything they have into what they do. I know people might think I am crazy for mentioning Medlin’s name with those guys, but that is how strongly I think of Bryan. It’s at a different level and it is a different group of kids, but Illinois Greco is a really special organization and it’s because Bryan has gotten kids like Max Nowry, Joe Rau and all of these other kids to buy into becoming Greco wrestlers, identifying themselves as Greco wrestlers, and being proud of themselves as Greco wrestlers while envisioning still being Greco wrestlers when they are 25.

5PM: How do you bring your own experiences as an athlete into your coaching? Just because, the lion’s share of coaches in this country aren’t Olympic gold medalists, obviously. We do have some. But we have many more guys who maybe wrestled in junior college and nothing else become outstanding coaches, so it takes all kinds. How does a wrestling coach, regardless of style, translate their experience as an athlete to the guys in the room?

Mike Powell: You know, I’d love to say I know the answer to that. I don’t know why some wrestlers don’t make great coaches. I think some guys are better at being selfish in that way, not necessarily in any other facet of life, but just having a singular focus as an athlete. It’s different than your focus as a coach. You don’t need empathy to be a great athlete. You don’t really need to be aware of your surroundings. So it is kind of a different level of intelligence. Clearly, I think some guys have it both ways. One other thing, is that you have to be self-effacing. For me, I had some injuries. I made excuses because I could and I did for a long time, but the fact of the matter is I never won the NCAA’s, I never All-American’ed more than once. I had the physical ability. I had great coaches and good workout partners and everything else, but I was a wimp. I was scared, I didn’t train hard, and I wasn’t disciplined. Now I look back and I remember it, and if I’m calling a kid a wimp, it’s not that hard for me to say, Hey man, you were there once, too, because at some point, you have to convince them to be tougher. Or you have to convince them to buy in more, or give more of themselves, or whatever it is.

Pete Kowalczuk is one of our guys, he’s from our high school and he has been coaching with us. He was a promising heavyweight. Frankly, he should have been right there to take over for (Dremiel) Byers, and he will tell you the same thing. I think Pete is going to be a great coach now partly because he will be able to say, and we’ve talked about it, that, Hey, this is where I broke down, I’m aware of these situations and I can coach kids through this, I can work with a kid who is like me. Because to be honest with you, I don’t know if Kevin Jackson could have ever looked at me and seen himself in me, you know what I mean? But I can see myself in just about every kid because there are times when I’ve been tough, but this guy was a bad dude since birth, so far as I know. They just can’t empathize in a way that you would want them to. I think there is a lot to it also when it comes to social intelligence and other stuff, but I think a lot of it is due to the ability to be self-effacing with your experiences. I don’t know what that says about someone like Cael, but he is someone who seems to have that social and emotional intelligence that I feel like some coaches have and some don’t.

5PM: When you are evaluating wrestlers who may come out to the high school team or have interest in the Greco team, or whatever it is, and you don’t know a kid, what are the three qualities right off the bat you’re looking for?

Coach Mike Powell: We want them to want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the single biggest thing. You can teach kids toughness if they are all in. You see the kid who says, Yes, I want to part of this group, I think this is going to be awesome for me. If you see this kid, you take a hold of him, I don’t care if he has two left feet, he’s going to be awesome for your program. And we have plenty of kids who you might have thought weren’t going to be good wind up becoming superstars. But that is what creates the culture. You can push those kids, you can push them way out of their comfort zones and into those areas of growth. I think that is one of the single biggest things — when I grab a kid’s hand and ask, Have you thought about coming out for the team? If they don’t really have the time of day for me I walk out and say, Okay, he didn’t think about it. And yeah, every once in awhile you’ll see those kids come out later, but it is those kids you make eye contact with who are looking for some kind of positive male influence or relationship. Those are the kids you want.

Follow Coach Mike Powell on Twitter to stay on top of his camp schedule and Oak Park Wrestling. 

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