USA Greco

USA NT Head Coach Herb House Ready for Pan-Am Olympic Qualifier

herb house, 2024 pan american olympic qualifier
Herb House -- Photo: Justin Hoch

The USA contingent had not yet returned stateside from Tokyo when the thoughts started to creep into everyone’s brain space. There was a World Championships event on the immediate horizon — in just two short months. Figuring out the training plan for when that rushed selection process concluded was indeed the priority, but whirring in the background was something else. Like ambient noise you only notice when the talking stops.

not all roads lead to gold, parent edition, jim gruenwald

The Worlds are, and will always be, a huge deal; and depending on who you ask, the difficulty of that event may, in specific years and for specific weight categories, trump whatever goes on inside of the spectacular five-ring circus. But there is no avoiding, or obscuring, the truth: wrestling revolves around the Olympics, and it has been a while since the US program has brought home a medal from the event (Adam Wheeler, bronze — ’08 Beijing). It has also been the same amount of time since the country has sent a full roster to the sport’s marquee playground. As the phrase goes, ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it’. The more athletes a nation is able to field at the thing, better are the odds they have of coming home with hardware. Math, it’s easy.

For the coaching staff, USA Wrestling brass, fans, and even the athletes themselves, it was futile to ignore the obvious. As soon as the postponed Tokyo Olympics became a memory, eyeballs started to look towards Paris ’24. No one had to worry about waiting four more years to get vexed regarding the situation. The next Olympic cycle was going to be compressed, and understanding how to improve on all items large and small during the abbreviated quad assumed precedence.

Yes, there has been turnover among the oversight of the United States Greco-Roman program. Sort of, anyway. “Sort of” and not in totality. Because although Herb House was not in charge of steering the ship in the wake of Tokyo, he was certainly on-board. Now he is, effectively, the captain, and he inherited Greco’s unchanged #1 priority: get weight classes qualified.

Like, all of them.

As it was with Greco-Roman Sports Director Justin Ruiz last year — and with Army coach Spenser Mango just last week — the topic of optics and pressure with regards to Olympic qualifying is part of the story.

What is “pressure”? The noun begs for negative connotations. A stressful burden heaped upon the shoulders of anyone in any walk of life who is compelled to complete a task. That’s one read. Or is it merely the byproduct of active grey matter spinning ’round and ’round due to having both attached ultra-importance to said task and, for whatever reason, the encountering of lapses in confidence?

Mango feels that it is the latter. So too does House. Because it is. Factually, it is. Pressure can be seen as negative, it can even be tabbed as a positive. In reality, pressure is really nothing more than mental conditioning. Athletes and coaches sense pressure in what are deemed high-leverage situations because they think that they are supposed to. The circumstances dictate as such. But it can be ignored. Or, it can be removed once paired with reason.

This is how House attacks the subject. He reasons with it.

Of the upcoming Pan-American Olympic Games Qualifier on February 28 in Acapulco, Mexico, House has taken on an air of pragmatism. He gets the talk, and definitely observes the goal as one of immense importance. But he also does not think for one second that anyone from the US delegation should go cower in a corner over it. “Stress and nervousness? For what?” House asked rhetorically on Saturday morning. “We’ve been doing the same stuff, wrestling these same guys for the past three years and our results have been pretty good. Next week is going to be no different. We just have to go in there and do the same thing. You know their weaknesses, they know yours, and you go in there and wrestle a smart match. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be smart. Get the job done, and get off the mat.”

He is accurate on all accounts.

The US dominated en-route to team titles at the Pan-Am Championships each year of this cycle and came away with top honors at the more-prestigious Pan-Am Games in November. What’s more is that two athletes who will be vying for Olympic quotas next week — Ildar Hafizov (60 kg, Army/WCAP) and Alex Sancho (67 kg, Army/WCAP) — both secured their weight classes on behalf of the US at the previous edition of the continental qualifier in March of ’20, and both are back on this year’s roster. In addition, Kamal Bey (77 kg, Army/WCAP) twice defeated Cuba’s Yosvanys Pena Flores in ’23, which means that the popular Bey has two consecutive wins at the expense of his bracket’s primary obstacle.

To Whom Belongs the Glory graphic

One could derive myriad breadcrumbs from recent continental competitions as well from the other three members of the US Team (Spencer Woods, 87 kg; Alan Vera, 97 kg; and Cohlton Schultz, 130 kg) and still arrive to the same conclusion as House. Woods, who won the Pan-Am Championships at non-Olympic 82 in May, is currently surging and has made marked improvements in his game over the past three seasons. Vera, formerly of Cuba, holds an intimate degree of familiarity with the entire Pan-Am landscape and has medaled in various iterations of continental events previously, including this past May. And although not many require a reminder pertaining to Mr. Schultz, the US boasts the luxury of having an authentically-skilled heavyweight who began compiling World-level experience before he had even reached upperclassman status in high school.

Another footnote: at press time, Sancho and Schultz may very likely walk into the Olympic Qualifier bearing the top seeds in their respective brackets. Vera has a shot, too, particularly if he takes first at the Championships later this week. Considering that the Olympic qualifying tournament will seed #1-#4 and athletes need only to win in the semifinal rounds to earn Paris berths, that is, potentially, a crucial advantage to have. Bey is at the moment sitting at #2, while the best Woods can do is #2 so long as he places in the top-3 at the Championships.

Hence why pressure, or at least the perception thereof, is unwarranted. House is leaning on reason to make his case, and it is a strong one. It also does not end with “settling”. House is bypassing the idea of shooting for, say, four weights cemented in place following Acapulco (four is the number that the US has brought to the past two Olympiads). He wants to return home with all six categories sealed and ready for Paris. It is a doable proposition for Team USA and the National Team head coach keeps pounding that drum to ensure the message gets across. “I’ve been preaching all year that we can go in there and come out with all six weights qualified,” said House. “They just have to wrestle smart, do what they do, and they can get it done.”

Pre-Pan-Am OG Qualifier Q&A: USA NT Head Coach Herb House

5PM: What was the thought process behind bringing in specific partners for the athletes in the six Olympic weight classes who are preparing for the Qualifier?

Coach Herb House: Basically, I looked at our our six guys, what their weaknesses were, and selected certain individuals to come to the camp. It was mostly one-on-one for all six guys and they were working on their weaknesses and things that they need to improve on. I brought in specialists. Guys who specialize in certain areas and can replicate the type of movement that our athletes will see at the Pan-Am Qualifier. I wanted them to get that same feel so that they could practice with it and execute a plan drawing from it.

5PM: How do you feel that the intensity of the overseas tour in Croatia carried over to Pan-Am preparation camp last week?

HH: I think it carried over greatly. The guys went out to Croatia and wrestled some of the best Greco-Roman athletes in the world at that camp. I think what happened is that they got a feel. They were able to stop them — and turn them. And then they were like, Hey, I’m in this. I can do this. I think that brought them the confidence they needed for when they came back home to get ready to train for qualifying these weight classes. When you are wrestling World and Olympic Champions and stopping them from turning you? Or you’re turning them? That’s a big confidence booster. I think that played a big factor for us at this camp, just looking at these guys and seeing how they were moving. Even some of our athletes who are not on the roster for the qualifier had their confidence boosted. They are feeling good about their own par terre skills and saying, I can stop it. With a little practice, I can do that. It has been good. The motivation part and the rise in confidence are the big things that came out of that camp.

5PM: How has recovery been for the six qualifier roster members as well as everyone else coming off of all this activity?

HH: The majority are healthy. This wasn’t like a “beat me up” camp where we just pounded their bodies until everyone was sore. This was really a technically-focused camp. It was about improving areas that needed to be improved. It was very specific. This wasn’t a “beat up” camp. Ildar, Sancho, Kamal, they’re healthy… Alan is healthy, he actually wrestled in every practice. It was really good. It was a good camp. We were very cautious to make sure that no one got injured and that they weren’t fatigued. We wanted everyone to still have that hunger for when we get to the Qualifier.

5PM: It is quite something how this works now, with the Pan-Am Championships taking place the week before the Olympic Qualifier, and how the points from the first tournament affects seeding at the second and more important one. Each of the six wrestlers on the Qualifier roster will be wrestling at the Championships with the exception of Ildar. How do you view the Championships? People can get tricked into thinking of it as a practice tournament even though the US Team can kind of use the points.

Coach Herb House: Right, exactly. I think that this tournament is all about the points system, but it is also about getting rid of any rustiness or confusion. You may wrestle that same person from the Championships again in the Qualifier, and now you figured something out about them that is going to help you. But the points are very important, too. If you can be on the opposite side of the guy who is your biggest competitor or the guy who can threaten you the most? Then why not? Who cares? It’s not about ego. Your main goal is only to qualify the weight class. If you can put yourself in a better position to qualify the weight class, why not do it? That’s where we’re at right now. We are putting these guys in the best possible position by accumulating these points. That is what we have been doing since the beginning of the year. We have been collecting these points knowing that they play a big factor in the seeding at the Qualifier.

As of right now, Ildar is #1, at least currently. Sancho is #1, Kamal is #2, and Cohlton is the next guy with a #1 seed. And the only reason why Woods and Vera aren’t is because they moved up to different weight classes and you don’t carry over your seeding points.

5PM: Qualifying these weight classes has been on your mind for a long time but even more so ever since the conclusion of the World Championships in September. There was the New York tournament, the Nationals, you went over to Croatia, and now you have just completed camp and are getting set to leave for this objective. For you as the coach, what part of this process have you learned from the most? And what part have you enjoyed the most?

HH: I think the thing that I learned the most is that you have to trust the process. If you don’t instantly get the results that you want to see, you just have to be patient. Patience is key for being a head coach. You have to be patient. You can’t abandon the game plan just because something is not instantly working. You have to let it play itself out.

What I have enjoyed the most is just being around these guys. These guys train their butts off. They give it 100%. They know all of the criticism they get in Greco — and it doesn’t bother them. They don’t care about that. They just love the sport and want to wrestle. They want to become the best. They want medals, too. They really do. And they want to put themselves in the best position to make sure that they earn medals.

I think that’s the big thing, being around the guys and watching their growth, despite all of the negativity they might hear in the background.

5PM: The messaging has become consistent and on target for the athletes for quite a bit now. I ask this a lot, but will there be any space for a pre-Qualifier sort of pep talk? Or is the assignment so well-understood by now that it isn’t necessary?

Coach Herb House: Motivating your athletes is always a good thing to do. The Pan-Am Championships might not mean as much, but you want to motivate them and help them feel at ease. My big thing is making sure that they’re comfortable. That they are confident. The message is, Hey, if you go out there, do what you do, and just wrestle, and stick to your plan, you’re going to win. Put yourself in the fight. Don’t ever let yourself not be in that fight.

If you go out there and give 150% and the other guy somehow gives 151% and beats you? So what? I can live with that. But if you just go out there and feel sorry for yourself or let the referee control the match, or complain about not getting a passive call? No — go out there and take what you want. Like Spenser (Mango) said, no one is giving you anything, so take it. Take it. It’s yours. Act like it. That’s what a champ does. A champ takes what he wants. If he feels that he is the champ, he is going to take it. He’ll get that belt, he will get that gold medal, because he believes that he is the best wrestler on that mat. If you believe in your training, if you believe in everything that you’ve done this year, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You should be like, I’m taking it. I’m the champ. I’ve done everything right to be put in this position, so why would I waste it now? I’ve talked to the guys. They’ve done everything. All they have to do now is put the parts together and execute. That’s it.

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Listen to “5PM57: Kamal Bey and David Stepanyan” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM56: Rich Carlson and Spencer Woods” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM55: Recapping Final X with Dennis Hall with words from Koontz, Braunagel and Hafizov” on Spreaker.

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