Interviews

USA Greco Gold Medal Series Entry #2: Mike Houck

mike houck the ultimate inspiration
Photos: MTC Storm

The second entry of the USA Greco Gold Medal Series features the first Greco-Roman World Champion in American history, Mike Houck.

You won’t find another custodian of the sport who is more well-liked than Houck is — and you also might not stumble upon another athlete who has been just as influential post-career.

It’s a long list of accomplishments for Houck. He presided over the National Team as head coach for five tremendously successful years that saw the US usher in a collection of World and Olympic medalists (including its second-ever World champ) and is credited for playing a vital role in instituting the resident athlete program at the Olympic Training Center. As if the laundry list of eventual Hall of Fame athletes under his watch and helping set the flag in Springs weren’t enough, Houck is also responsible for launching the careers of countless wrestlers regionally in Minnesota, such as 2017 World Team member Patrick Smith (77 kg, Minnesota Storm).

But still he breathes with humble breaths. Especially when it comes to discussing his own sparkling athletic career.

During an era when US Greco-Roman wrestlers were largely forced to develop by coaching one another and attempting to replicate what they witnessed from foreigners, Houck was a true innovator. Along with his teammates from the Minnesota Wrestling Club, he applied his analytical mind to every position, technique, and situation the sport has to offer. As such, he birthed his own style, a style that was eventually shaped in large part by the arrival of Latvian-born Pavel Katsen to US shores. They referred to one of its machinations as “stick and move”.

When Houck got done with the 1985 World Championships in Kolbotn, Norway, he had all but moved the Earth.

Several World/Olympic champs were present in Houck’s 90-kilogram bracket on that August day, including Russian legend Igor Kanygin and the late Frank Andersson of Sweden. The type of guys who just a few years prior either had, or would have, run into little trouble defeating the eager American. Alas, times had changed. Skills had been developed. Confidence had grown. Faith was unshakeable.

Houck’s unprecedented run to the World title set a new standard, this after an Olympiad in 1984 that brought with it two golds and four overall medals for the US squad. It’s not that the glory attained in Los Angeles was diminished in any way by Houck’s achievement; if anything, it was confirmed while at the same time raising the bar during that era.

Even now, the place from which he speaks carries an air of urgency. That gold in Norway was over 33 years ago — yet Houck’s tale seems to unravel in the present tense, mostly because what he has to say is timeless. Wrestling’s lessons never really change and are transferable to other disciplines, as well as other aspects of life itself. But they are absorbed differently by the Greco culture, particularly within the United States, where education is as ongoing as the frustration brought on by the style’s negligence.

There’s no self-importance with Houck, no reflection for the sake of tilting one’s head back to remember what the spotlight felt like. This is a man whose drive to succeed actually pales in comparison to his natural inclination to help. The funny thing is, that’s why he deserves the spotlight even more.

5PM USA GRECO GOLD MEDAL SERIES

ENTRY #2 — MIKE HOUCK

5PM: When going against foreigners who were more accomplished than you, at least earlier in your career, what was your approach?

Mike Houck: As an athlete, and it started early on for me, I was always looking for markers, indicators, snapshots in time. I wanted to know in just boldfaced, hardcore honesty, Where am I at with this guy? When I wrestled those foreigners, most everyone was better than me, you know? My job was, I’m going to go out there and give it everything I’ve got and then I’m going to reflect on it. I’m going to see where I’m at. And then every time I’d have a new competition, would wrestle the same guy again, or the same level, those were always my markers.

I loved the process. The journey to the top was so… I want to use the word “invigorating”, but “stimulating” might be a better word because there was so much learning that could take place. I wanted to win — I’m really competitive — but it was also like, Okay, I’m going to control what I can control. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and assess. And then I’m going to go back to the room and start working on how I can better.

Another way to look at is, when I was competing against those guys I didn’t know what I didn’t know — until I actually competed with those guys. Right? It’s like, Now I know where the holes are, now I know what world-class Greco-Roman wrestlers feel like, because it was different back in the States. I had great feel back in the room with my Minnesota guys, but wow.

So to me, it was all about learning. I embraced it.

5PM: Can you remember a specific turning point in your career that made a difference?

Houck: I started training with the Minnesota Wrestling Club in I think 1978. I made my first Junior World Team in ’79. My first international overseas trip was ’79. The World Team in ’81, won another National title there, in ’82 I didn’t make the World Team, and then ’83 was my turning point. ’83 was a phenomenal year. Pavel came in January and just hit it hard. He brought a concept and a form to what we were doing, a strategic plan.

In ’79 at the Junior Worlds I was 0-2, and then in ’81 at my first Senior Worlds I was 0-2. I had lost to Kanygin there, who ended up winning the tournament, and I lost to the second-string Hungarian who was really tough. The first-string Hungarian (Noerbert Noeyvenyi) was the Olympic champ in ’81. So in ’83, I go back to my second Senior World Championships and I draw Noeyvenyi. I trained with Noeyvenyi a while and so I knew who he was. He was an outstanding wrestler. I’m like, Okay, here we go. And I scored on him — early. And I actually scored some points they didn’t give me and I could tell he was rattled. He was shook a little. I scored four points on him and he beat me 12-4.

But I’m walking away from that match thinking, If I can score once on an Olympic champ and it makes him nervous? I think I’m on the right path. It was a huge turning point.

In round two, I draw a Pole who was ranked fifth or sixth in the world (Boguslaw Dambrowski). Tough. Just a brick, just so physical, and I ended up beating him 10-9. It was just a slugfest, a brawl. It was just unbelievable. It was the first match I had ever won at a World Championships.

I came off the mat and (Dan) Chandler was there, he was on the Team again that year. He grabs me. Now I can barely stand up, but he turns me around, grabs my shoulders, he gets in my face and goes, “Houcker, how do you feel?!” I’m like, Gosh, I’m so tired. Then he’s shaking me. “That’s how you’ve got to feel every time you wrestle!” He scared me a little bit (laughs).

But that’s what it takes. There is no bottom, there is no empty to the tank. You dig as deep as you’ve got to go, and as hard as you’ve got to go, to get the job done.

In the third round I wrestled Kanygin, who ended up winning it that year, he beat Noeyvenyi. That was the second time I wrestled Kanygin and it was awful. He took me down, turned me, and pinned me — with an arm bar. And I’m like, An arm bar? That match is a blur to me.

But I walked away from that World Championships and I had been committed. I had been into it, I had my goals and my dreams, but I came out of 1983 with a new level of belief. I could start to see the kinds of ways that my style — and Pavel was bringing it together, too, with the “stick and move” concept — could actually work. How I could match that whole training perspective with my style, and how I could compete with the very best in the world. That was the turning point.

I would say that the Noeyvenyi match was big just because of who he was and the fact that he was shook a little bit. I scored on him, and then beating that Pole, that just took me to another level.

5PM: How did experiencing international success change your mindset, training curriculum, or just the general way you saw the opposition?

Houck: I feel like there are levels of skill in our sport, but there are also levels of belief. For lack of a better word, “mindset”, maybe. I feel like in my experience as an athlete and then observing as a coach, so many great, skilled wrestlers lock themselves in. They haven’t unlocked that something in their brains that allows them to pull the trigger to go out there and lay it all on the line.

If I had success against those top-level guys, those barriers in my mind began to break down. Like, Oh my gosh, right? If I can score on an Olympic Champion one time? If I can make him feel uncomfortable? If I can do that for ten seconds? Well, what if I did that for 20 seconds, or 30 seconds? Or do it for six minutes in a match? It gave me the mental confidence to believe that I could do it.

The other thing it did was, in 1983 with the new training concept I did that Pavel brought in — the strategy on how to beat the very best in the world — it was a confirmation to me that the things we were doing were on the right track. What it also did and it’s something I wish I talked about more as a coach, was continue to build knowing exactly what you are and what to do in a match. Sticking with your plan, and being prepared for that.

When I started this journey, this is what I believed I was supposed to do and was going to do. I was in it till the end and my goal was to be an Olympic Champion. When you have a big goal like that, I couldn’t necessarily see the details of the way. But I started down that road by faith, in a sense, that I’m going to train and I’m going to be an Olympic Champion. But then when things start coming together and you can see the way that you’re going to get there? Well, I didn’t see that when I started. That’s why in ’83, I mean, the roadmap now? I had come so far. It was, I’m three quarters of the way up this mountain, I’m above the treeline. Now I can see the path. It’s hard and there are no guarantees, but I can see how to get to the top.

That is really when I started having success against high-level guys. I could see that I can win.

5PM: How much credence do you put into the draws at World or Olympic events, regardless of format?

Houck: When I first started going overseas for Senior-level stuff, I remember being all excited. We’d talk about the draw, I hope I have a good draw in the tournament. But after the second or third tournament, I realized that I was the good draw. There was not a good draw for me (laughs). My maturing as an athlete over the years became, and I know it’s not healthy to overthink your draw, but I hit a point eventually. Because, in ’81 I had a bad draw. I had the Hungarian who was really tough and their #2 guy, and then I had Kanygin, the #1 guy. 0-2, right? In ’83 in Kiev, I’m looking at Kanygin first and the Pole second. I didn’t know I was going to have the Russian third, but it was a terrible draw, terrible.

Your first thought is, Great, 0-2. But what happened to me somewhere in there is that I stopped really thinking about or caring about the draw, and I kept coming back to a phrase I used later as a coach, which is that you should always be looking for small victories. So in ’83 when I drew Noveynyi in the first round, Okay, let’s see where I’m at. I’m going to execute stick-and-move, I’m going to give it to him. And it’s like, Wow, I had a lot of small victories in that match. 

What I want to say is that I don’t put much credence into the draw. As a coach, I have seen athletes with these incredible draws and just fall on their faces. So what does it mean? If you get a good draw you’re a shoo-in for the finals? No, it’s the mentality. If you’re thinking about your draw and you’re worried about your draw, haven’t you just put yourself in a box?

If I get a draw and I have the first and second ranked guys in the tournament — and I’m sitting in the middle someplace; I’m not one of those top-level guys, I’m fighting my way to the top — if I start worrying about the draw it’s going to affect the way I compete and now I just took myself out of the game mentally. It all comes back to the mentality.

For me as an athlete, when I became the mature professional, and not in a literal sense necessarily but as an ultimate athlete warrior, it didn’t matter. You’re either in it to win it, or you’re not. It doesn’t matter if you wrestle that #1 guy in the first round or in the finals. It doesn’t matter. You have to be in it to win it, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to show up. Am I going to wrestle the #1 guy differently than I would the #10 guy or the #6 guy? I better not, because both of those guys are going to take everything I’ve got to be able to win.

There are some mismatches you see, but when you get in that competitive realm with guys, you have to bring it. For everybody. As a coach, I tried to communicate that. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to wrestle everybody. We’re going to wrestle everybody the way we were trained to wrestle them. Period.

5PM: What do you believe are the key differences between your generation and the current one?

Houck: I think that my generation was far more independent. I was born in ’59 and the 60’s were this radical, anti-establishment kind of thing. I looked at Dan Chandler and my mentors in Minnesota, and they knew way more than their coaches did. I feel like my generation didn’t have that expectation that someone is going to step in and give you the perfect training plan and show you how to do it. It wasn’t on them, it was our responsibility. We were independent. We were our own individual coaches. We coached each other, we shared information. Until Pavel became the National coach, and he brought tons to the program, it was pure in the sense that there was no one telling us what to do. When that’s the case and you’re learning through discovery, your learning becomes very authentic. You’re not trying to please a coach. We were such an independent group of individuals. We would learn from each other, we would learn when the foreigners came in, we would learn when we’d go overseas. We would talk, go back-and-forth, share information, and we would have these great conversations.

(Dennis) Koslowski and I, gosh, we would just pound the crap out of each other during practices. Well, in the later years it was him doing the pounding and me doing the surviving. But after practice we would sit around and talk about the mental, technical, and physical aspects of the sport. It was just so cool. But I never expected nor felt like, If this person is here, I’m going to do better, and if they’re not here I’m not going to do better. never looked at it that way.

Here’s the difference: this generation is looking to the coach. They want the coach to get them there. There is too much dependence upon the coach and the system. I think that is one of the biggest things. That’s what stands out the most. How does that translate to success?

When I think about the Soviets and that Eastern European system, they gave themselves to the coach. The system cranked out World and Olympic champions. They were machines; they did drugs, they had the sport science departments at universities working on their sports; they studied technique like scientists and the training regimes and plans. And that worked, but they were all robots. I feel like now that we have all of these full-time coaches and programs — and the programs are great, I wouldn’t shut them down — it’s almost like the kids are looking too much at others to get them there.

Gosh, I look back at the guys I coached and Dennis Hall is one of the most independent human beings on the entire planet. Dennis would come into camp and he would be a whirlwind. He was old school still. He would take what he needed. I say this about Dennis, and that is he was going to be a World Champion no matter where he trained. He was going to get there because he took total responsibility. I think that is the biggest difference.

5PM: Coaching at a World or Olympic event, what’s the one thing you’d want the athletes to know before they stepped on the mat?

Mike Houck: I want them to know — and again, this is my lifelong and training relationship with them to help them get ready to win a World or Olympic championship and I had that great experience for five years — that they’re prepared. I’d want them to have that confidence and not second guess, and that gets fostered through training and preparation. I want them to have a strategic plan of how they are going to approach their match. It’s not rocket science.

For us, the “stick-and-move” was about controlling the edge. One of my things was, I’m going to get better as the match goes on. I’m going to start at a high pace, I’m going to move guys, I’m going to get them out of position, I’m going to force them to react, and keep them uncomfortable. And as the match wears on, I’m going to minimize their skill and ability because I am going to get better and better while they become weaker and weaker. I knew if I made attacks work on the feet, when I made contact; I knew movement patterns that would work, and my combinations. I had to think about what my technique was on top, right? I was limited, but it was about gutting guys. It’s not like I never lifted (opponents), but if it’s the money match I am going with the gutwrench and I am going to execute. I am going to do what I do best. I am not going to fool around or play around with stuff.

Even then, strategically knowing. For us, par terre defense, remembering where I needed to be and where I needed to move. Maybe I’m unpacking it more than I need to, but I want them to have confidence in their toolkits. I think of David and Goliath. When he went to do battle he was offered Solomon’s shield and sword. He looked at them and they were too big and clunky. He had never used them before. David was the sniper of his time. He took a tool that he used watching sheep in the field. He took a sling and a rock. That is what he used against this warrior, and he put him down. Immediately. He took his skills and he applied his skills to the battle.

Don’t look at what the other guy’s skills are, apply your skills and use them strategically. Have confidence in what you do and work your plan.

The other thing is that I want them to have a mindset that maximizes their performance. Everything I did was about maximizing performance. When you step on the mat, don’t worry about outcomes, per se. These are my words. Focus on execution. Focus on just taking it to this guy. Focus on breaking his heart and his will, focus on just pouring yourself into this and being at your very best. If you get behind or you get a bad call, don’t worry about it! It just doesn’t matter. What do you have to do from this point? Be there till the bitter end. Free yourself up to be the very best you can be.

That’s what I want from my athletes — trust your skills; know that you’re prepared; and have your maximum performance. That’s a winning combination. And guess what? If you fall short, you and me, we’re going to go back this next year, go into the room, and start plugging those holes. We’re going to work on that little place where you got turned, where you lifted your hip up too much on the right side, or you’re not anticipating where that guy’s lift or gut might be. Or you’re out of position, you’re leaning, you’re pushing with your chest forward as opposed to with your hips forward. We are just going to pick away at the technical stuff. But being ready to go is important.

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