One of the most important figures in United States Greco-Roman wrestling over the past few years is Herb House, a fact that at the current moment, is indisputable.
A Junior World bronze medalist in 1992, House went on to enjoy a remarkable Senior career that included four University National titles and a number of solid placings internationally, though he never quite cracked the roster for the Worlds or Olympics. It’s something that sort of lingers to this day. House knows what it means to be in hot pursuit of the guys at the top only to fall short of punching it all the way home. There is no other struggle in sports that leaves the same type of sting. Wrestlers are often called upon to dance the fine line between reaching for the stars and suppressing the soul-crushing disappointment that follows when an objective isn’t met. For some, it’s just about enough to extinguish the competitive fire altogether. Meanwhile, others, like House, use what took place in their careers to fan the flames even higher as they move into coaching.
Officially, House is a coach for the New York Athletic Club. But if you were to draw his blood, there would be blue and white mixed in the with the red. In other words, House is all about Team USA. He stands as a constant presence in a wrestling room at the Olympic Training Center that features several of Greco’s most elite young athletes, and they lean on him for wisdom related to both technical nuance and mental toughness. Life lessons learned in the cruelest of fashions make an appearance from time to time, as well. With House, you get everything, his mentorship isn’t limited to two circles on a block of vinyl-covered foam.
More than anything, House is a witness. He has seen it all. A silver spoon missing from his mouth upon birth, he was forced to fight for every blessed inch he could somehow latch onto. He was that way as a competitor and even more so now as a coach. It is part of why he carries such esteem. People want to hear what he has to say because they know it’s coming from place that could perhaps best be described as brutal yet compassionate honesty. His style of communication drips with assurance, like a verbal arm around the shoulder, even if the words sometimes have an edge to them. House, who by now has coached on multiple World Teams and will be again in 2018, wants nothing less than the best version of his athletes to shine through every waking moment. A heady endeavor, of course, but the mere attempt to try and be better is a valid first step in his eyes.
Q&A with Herb House
5PM: You hold a lot of influence as a coach with the young athletes because you’re a guy who went through the wars on the mat, but you also understand the value of what takes place off of it and how that presents itself in competition. I talk to a lot of these younger wrestlers, it’s an interesting generation. They’re different than when I was between 19-25 years of age, that’s for sure.
Herb House: Well, I think the problem with today’s athletes is, yes, you’re right, they are 100% different. Are they hungry? I mean, some of them are not hungry. Are they content? A lot of them are content with where they’re at. Do they understand what it really takes to be a World champ, a World medalist, or an Olympic champ? I don’t think they understand that yet.
When I was wrestling we had a lot of competition. In the top six you never knew what was going to happen, who was going to be one or two. You had to train as hard as you could just to compete. I remember having to wrestle (current Army/WCAP head coach) Shon Lewis. I couldn’t beat this guy, it was unbelievable. I’m in the room with him all the time, and then finally once I started to beat him, I got too big and had to move up a weight class. The same thing with (Dave) Zuniga. I couldn’t beat him at first, and then at the end, I started beating him because I set a goal. There were a lot of guys I couldn’t beat because unfortunately, our competition back then had a lot more depth. You had to be good and you knew you had to wrestle.
I think the guys today, I don’t think they have the hunger and you have to find that inside of them. We as coaches have to find a way to relate to these athletes so that they are motivated and driven to want to be successful. They have to understand that this is not about us, it’s about them. This teaches them how to become successful people. I used to say that about myself because I had my up’s and down’s and now I have a very successful company, and I don’t think I would have been able to do that without wrestling and the dedication to push myself. Having guys like TC (Dantzler), Shon Lewis, Zuniga, Chris Saba, (Matt) Lindland, (Jim) Gruenwald…that whole fortress was pretty rough. My training partners, Keith Sieracki and Miguel Spencer when I was with WCAP, you had to push yourself or you got eaten up. But it taught me a lot, you know? It taught me how to be successful in business and in life. Hopefully, I’m coaching and teaching these guys the same thing as that.
5PM: A well-known retired athlete told me recently that one difference between his generation and the current group of young guys is that when he was coming up there were a lot of doubters, a lot of people saying that he and other US wrestlers weren’t going to amount to much. Whereas, the young generation has it it the opposite, they’re being told how great they are all the time and then we wonder why there is a sense of self-entitlement. Do you think that’s accurate?
House: Oh, he’s accurate, he’s accurate. And I think we’re all at fault for it in some way. We kind of baby them, we want to comfort them. A lot of people we babied, we didn’t hold them accountable for their actions. But at the same time, they have to want it. They have to, we can only do so much as coaches. They have to come in and say, I want this, I want to do this. You’re either in or you’re out, basically. You’re either a part of this whole thing we’re trying to do or you’re not a part of it.
I say this to almost everybody — every coach, every volunteer — you get on board. Our time is short here. Greco hasn’t had medals in a while, we have to get medals. We have to get focused, we have to work together, and we have to become a team in this country. There’s no such thing as clubs anymore, it’s all about Team USA now. We have to work together in Greco. We can do it. There are a lot of minds out there and I know there are a lot of opinions, but if we all come together and just meet on common ground, we can accomplish it. Because I think the athletes see it, too. I think the athletes see that sometimes we as coaches are not on the same page. But once we show them — all the athletes, all the coaches and all the staff — that Hey, this is the plan, this is the goal and this is what we’re doing to help you, then it becomes, Are you in or are you out?
5PM: You seem to have a very directed purpose in what you’re saying.
House: We have some great minds out there. Shon Lewis, Momir (Petkovic), great minds. There is a whole bunch. Brandon Paulson, JJ (James Johnson), Matt Lindland, Gary (Mayabb), Mohamed (Abdelfatah)…there are so many people, all we have to do is work together and motivate these athletes, make them believe in themselves. I don’t think some of these guys believe in themselves. I don’t think some of these guys believe they can even get a medal. I think they know that they’re good, I think they know that that they want the medal, but why haven’t they taken that next step and what is holding them back? I think that’s the question. As coaches, we have to figure it out, what is holding our Greco athletes back from taking it to the next level?
5PM: When you evaluate an athlete, what is the first thing you look for right away? We’re talking about guys you know personally, not just bodies in a room. What is the first thing you want to see?
House: The first thing I want to see is how determined he is. What are his goals? Why does he want to do this sport? That’s the biggest thing, if he doesn’t have a goal in wrestling and you don’t want to do it or you just want to go through the phase of it, there’s no reason. You’ve got to want it. I want to be able to look at a guy and and say, He wants to wrestle. He wants to learn. If a wrestler is uncoachable, that’s a problem. Uncoachable athletes are always a problem.
But if this kid wants to change and learn from multiple coaches, and then put it into a plan, that’s the kind of kid we want. An athletic kid, the kind of kid who wants to grind and doesn’t just want to wrestle you. I want someone who wants to score, someone who wants to take risks and chances — that’s the kind of athlete I want. I don’t want an athlete who is just going to grind and beat you up, I want an athlete who is going to grind, beat you up, and also take chances and risks in order to score. If you could do that, I think you’re going to be a great athlete.
5PM: It seems as though the US enters World events with a fingers-crossed attitude rather than a level of competitive confidence that is more evident in places outside of our country. Fair or unfair?
Herb House: I think the biggest problem is that we didn’t have enough athletes who we focused on to replace the ones who were leaving. Once that era left with the (Harry) Lester’s, the Spenser’s (Mango), and Byers, I don’t think we focused hard enough on the group to replace those guys. This is the result you get. I think we lost a lot of potential athletes who just went to freestyle because we didn’t give them the chance we probably needed to. It’s learning, it’s a learning experience.
How do we get back to it? We need to find a solution. I think a lot of people are looking at freestyle and the way their program is working with the regional training centers at all the colleges, and a lot of people want to replicate that in the Greco program. Like in freestyle, maybe the colleges can work with Greco, too, so maybe they have two or three Greco guys at each college with an RTC program. There are a lot of options, but we have to go a different way. We are a folkstyle country, unfortunately (laughs). That’s how it has always been. Everyone wants the American dream, to be Cael Sanderson, everyone wants to be like him, everybody wants to be a four-time NCAA champ. So it’s hard to compete, how do you compete with that? Greco can only offer you so much.
5PM: You’re on the frontlines so I’ll ask you this question: do we do a good enough job utilizing whatever benefits folkstyle offers and translating them over? That has been a criticism, that since folkstyle isn’t going away the US needs to learn to work better with it.
House: You know what, why not? Why not try it? It can’t hurt us. If there is a way, I think Gary and Matt will find that way. I think Matt has actually been on that for the last two or three years, I know he has called many colleges trying to get that set up where we can work together. Matt has talked about flying to certain colleges and working with some of their Greco guys. So it’s there, it is how do we work that in with the colleges? That’s the big question, how do we do that? How do we work it in where the colleges feel comfortable enough to let, maybe not their starters, but some of their wrestlers do Greco and bulld on it?
5PM: But that’s the challenge, right? Some of the college coaches are hesitant to let their guys wrestle Greco.
House: Yeah, but you know, I get it, I get that some people feel like it is going to take away from their shooting style and they become uncomfortable in a lot of the positions they’re not familiar with. But really, I know a lot of people out there, like Bo Nickal. I’ve seen him since he was a kid, he used to wrestle my kid and everything. And I’ve never seen a wrestler who can throw so well. I mean, he was a really great Greco-Roman wrestler. I remember, I think he won Fargo a couple of times in Greco (insert years–Ed.) and freestyle, but he did in Greco. There are a lot of kids out there who were really good in Greco but I think their goal, and the goal of most coaches, is freestyle, so that’s what it is. But I think a big benefit is if we work together, Greco and folkstyle. Because imagine, if you could go upper-body with a person and throw them, how dangerous you would be? And you can shoot, too? You’re a powerhouse. That was one of my biggest advantages in high school, I could do both, I could shoot and I could throw. People hated for me to go upper-body with them.
5PM: Presenting it that way has become a necessary mechanism for attraction.
House: That’s how we have to present it. We have to approach the colleges and these wrestling programs by saying, Hey, we want to help you guys get better, and send certain coaches to colleges and help their guys learn Greco. Maybe run clinics and translate those into their folkstyle. Right now, we do that with the freestyle team. Momir will come in, Matt Lindland, Mohamed, and our team will have joint practices with freestyle. We teach them the two-on-one and things like that to help them with their freestyle. Same thing with their guts, we teach them a better gut and so forth, better throws, too.
But it can work, we just have to make it work with the colleges now. The freestyle, the Greco team, they get it. They’re doing it now and it’s working. It works great.
5PM: Working with athletes on a daily basis, do you do a lot of comparisons to the wrestlers from your generation? Is that part of this process for you having now been a coach for awhile? Do you glance back and compare guys you have in the room to guys you used to compete with?
House: Yeah, I do that a lot. If I see a certain habit I try to correct it. I try to teach these athletes right now to always do the right thing. Your character will follow you. Do the right thing when no one is looking. When you build a bad reputation or a bad character, it is going to haunt you for awhile. No one is going to trust you, no one is going to want to deal with you, and that is going to be your downfall in life, I feel like. Wrestling is only short-term. You can be like me where you get a hand injury and can’t wrestle anymore, and then it’s over. It’s done. You’re right at your peak and then your career is over with. Wrestling? It’s short. You have to take advantage while you have it.
That’s my big thing. Everyday when I’m coaching these athletes, I try to teach them about life, mental strength, building them to get that encouragement to want to be the best, and wanting to do the best for themselves. Sometimes we focus so much on their wrestling ability that we forget the mental part such as how to make sure they are stable at home, how to make sure everything in their lives is okay. Because unfortunately, today’s generation has a lot more problems than we did as kids, too.
5PM: What do you mean?
Herb House: Just the peer pressure, the drugs, the parents spoil them…I don’t know, there is so much out there. I can go on in that conversation for a while and I can defend both sides. But I think the biggest thing for us as parents is that we have to hold our kids accountable for their actions. We have to be able to say when they’re wrong, they’re wrong. Because if kids do not understand the consequences of their actions and have no fear of them, they will continue to do it and continue to do it. They have no fear because they’ve been allowed to get away with it for so long that they’re like, Okay, I got away with it the first time, I got away with it the second time.
5PM: The younger guys coming up are exposed to so much more than the previous generation, too. Social media has as many disadvantages as it does advantages probably.
House: Right, and that is mostly because they get too much spotlight. Too much. Then they lose that edge to want to succeed because they see rankings, they see their face everywhere. Some of them have to look deep inside. But every one of our athletes can do it, every single one. Ildar (Hafizov), Ellis (Coleman, Ben (Provisor), Robby (Smith), everyone…(Alex) Sancho, Kamal (Bey), Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock), Pat Smith…I can go on for days, every one of them has the potential, they just have to look deep inside and pull it out.
It’s a strategy, too. You have to come in with a strategy. You have to know what your weaknesses are, you have to fix them, you have to know what your strengths are, you have to improve them, and I think that is what it’s all about. Everybody has to have their own strategy and they have to be disciplined. You have to go after it. You have to give everything you’ve got, because I don’t care how you tired you are in that room, you’re going to recover. It’s going to be okay. You’re not going to die, your body is going to recover. But if you go out on that mat and you lose, you’re going to go up to your hotel room and you are going to be miserable. And you’ll be thinking about What if? What if I did this? What if I trained harder? It’s a horrible feeling. We’ve all had it. We’ve sat in that hotel room and thought, I should’ve did this, I should’ve did that, I should have done this more.
5PM: Since you’ve been coaching Seniors, what is the most important thing you’ve learned in this role that you constantly refer back to that has helped you become such an influence to athletes?
Herb House: The family commitment, the loyalty, understanding that, and gaining the trust of these athletes. The biggest thing is trust. They have to trust you, they have to believe in you. When you tell them that you want them to do something for their benefit, they have to believe in you. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to want to perform for you. They’re just going to go through the motions and they aren’t going to trust you. That is one thing. The other thing I’ve learned in this position is that as a role model and a coach, you are going to have to make tough decisions and put your foot down on the athletes. You’re going to have to tell them things they don’t want to hear, and they are going to have to deal with that. You can’t be their friend all of the time. If you do that, you’re doing the same thing as some of the parents are, which is over-spoiling the kids and giving them too many excuses. It’s a learning thing. As coaches, we learn every day to make sure we keep a balance between being a mentor, a friend, and a coach.