Jody Strittmatter is coaching wrestling practices in ways he never could have imagined a month ago.

Here’s a state champion practicing a leg-lace technique on a 6-foot teddy bear. There’s another PIAA titlist shooting a double-leg takedown on a couch. 

Brothers, fathers, even mothers and sisters have become workout partners for those stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re all sending online videos to the Young Guns Wrestling Club as part of a virtual practice session. Some have their own wrestling mat in a basement or garage. 

Most are making do with whatever space they can find, often a living room or bedroom.

“It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure,” said Strittmatter, the Cambria Heights grad who won a pair of Division II national titles at Pitt-Johnstown before moving on to become a two-time Division I All-American at Iowa.

Although it’s technically the sport’s offseason, the dedicated wrestlers who helped turn Young Guns into the No. 1 club in the nation know it’s anything but. The spring and summer months are when they concentrate on freestyle and Greco-Roman disciplines of the sport instead of folkstyle, which is wrestled in schools and colleges across the nation.

Freestyle, with its emphasis on constant action and the ability to score points in bunches, is Strittmatter’s favorite. The freestyle and Greco-Roman state qualifier scheduled for May at Pitt-Johnstown – and others like it around the state – are casualties of the stay-at-home orders in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. So, too, are the Young Guns practices that draw wrestlers to locations across central and western Pennsylvania as well as one in West Virginia.

‘It’s not going away’

“It’s really, really, really tough,” Strittmatter said of handling the disappointment of having most, if not all, of the international season wiped out by the pandemic. “The first two weeks were extremely tough. It was still the unknown, like, ‘OK, they’ll shut down schools for a couple of weeks and then we’ll be back to normal.’ But you turn on the TV and realize it’s not going away.”

That’s when his brothers stepped in with some suggestions on how to keep the club practices going. Joe is principal of Central Cambria Middle School and John teaches at Cambria Heights Elementary School, so both understand how technology is helping educators connect with students during the health crisis. They suggested that Young Guns use some of those same tools to hold virtual practices.

Knowing that wrestlers and parents alike would wonder how effective a virtual practice could be, Young Guns offered a free trial. Using Zoom video conferencing, Google Classroom and several other online tools, the idea has taken off quickly. Strittmatter said that more than 100 wrestlers are now participating in the virtual practices, and it’s spread far behind the reach of those who could normally attend a Young Guns practice. Wrestlers from Massachusetts to Florida and North Carolina to South Dakota to California – a dozen states in all – have joined the workouts.

In some ways, it’s been therapeutic for Strittmatter.

“It makes me smile every time I get on there,” he said, noting that he hasn’t seen many of them in person for weeks or months. “These kids love the sport so much and want to get better.”

Bridging the social distance

While virtual practices aren’t ideal in some ways, there have been some unexpected benefits. 

For many of the younger wrestlers, it’s inspiring to see some of their high school heroes working out beside them on a computer screen. Forest Hills fourth-grader Keegan Bassett, who was on pace to become the most decorated youth wrestler in state history before the pandemic forced the postponement of the Pennsylvania Wrestling Championships, is used to seeing the Rangers’ Jackson Arrington – a 2019 state champion – on the mat, but in the virtual workout Keegan is able to practice alongside Glendale’s Brock McMillen and Waynesburg Central’s Rocco Welsh, among others.

“It’s really cool,” said Keegan, who had to leave one online practice early so that he could do attend another virtual meeting for school. “We usually don’t see them because they’re at a different location of Young Guns.”

Full schedule

The practice schedule has grown quickly. Young Guns is holding technique sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

There are cardio workouts at 6 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. John Strittmatter, who won a Division II title at Pitt-Johnstown, and Larry Hohman, who was an All-American for the Mountain Cats, provide book readings and motivational meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays feature a live Q-and-A session with a special guest. Last week’s involved Spencer Lee, who won three youth-level world titles competing for Young Guns and is a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa.

“The kids thought it was the best thing in the world because Spencer Lee was on live with them,” Strittmatter said.

He also asks the wrestlers to keep a daily journal of what workouts they’re doing during the isolation period. The online diaries, which Strittmatter can access, have helped motivate some youngsters who were getting into a disturbing routine for the normally active athletes.

Strittmatter said he’s had parents say, “He was getting kind of lazy but after you started this, he’s been working really hard. Once he started the journal, he knew you could see what he was doing.”

Feedback is critical to the learning process, and that initially seemed like a major hurdle to overcome as virtual practices became a reality. Now, Young Guns is using an educational tool called Flipgrid that easily allows wrestlers to demonstrate the techniques on which they’ve been working.

“On Thursday I demonstrated leg laces,” Strittmatter said. “On Friday, I said it’s your turn to show us your leg laces. “They click on it. It says record, and they record their leg laces and send it to us. I can say ‘Keep your left hand lower.’ We’re not physically at practice but it’s not just us showing them technique.”

‘Hoping and praying’

The hardest part of dealing with the stay-at-home order for many is that no one is quite sure when it will end. Wrestlers such as Bassett are still hopeful that the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling tournament will be rescheduled. His brother Bo, a seventh-grader who won a junior high title this season and is among the top-ranked junior high wrestlers in the country, is concerned that freestyle – which he said is his best style – will be canceled.

“I’m hoping – hoping and praying – that we’ll have freestyle and Greco this year,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have freestyle, but if we do, I’ll be ready.”

That kind of attitude is prevalent among the wrestlers, which is what has impressed Strittmatter the most about the whole experience.

“They’re not training for anything,” he said. “They don’t know the next time they’ll compete.”

Bill Bassett, who runs The Compound in Richland Township and coaches Forest Hills’ junior high team in addition to being Bo and Keegan’s father, said that what athletes do now will impact what they do when the isolation period ends.

“Kids are going to create habits – good or bad,” he said. “The kids who create good habits, when everything opens up, they’ll be used to be doing their morning workouts. Or they’ll go the opposite direction and won’t be doing anything.”

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