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Athletes enjoy Games success with coach Paul Ragusa

August 1, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

No matter how many times a person goes to major Games or world championships — and Paul Ragusa has been to quite a few — they never cease to provide their own magic moments.

For Ragusa, the Kingston man on the coaching staff of the Canadian wrestling team at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, one such moment happened Thursday morning.

Brittanee Laverdure, one of Ragusa’s athletes with the Dinos Wrestling Club in Calgary, was in her quarter-final match and she was being attacked. Her opponent had Laverdure in a headlock and had grabbed her elbow, in an attempt to roll her over. Laverdure anticipated the move, shifted to the other side, locked her legs and put the other woman on her back.

“I’m thinking, ‘I would have done that,’” Ragusa said, “and she’s doing it, even before I yelled those instructions.

“When I can see them adjusting and making those decisions … when I see that execution, that thinking, that decision making; when it clicks, those are the moments that make me extremely proud.”

Later in the same match came another feel-good moment for the coach. Time after time, Laverdure was denying the opponent’s attack but in the corner, Ragusa couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t executing a counter move that seemed an obvious choice. “When we talked to her afterwards, the way the girl had her hand, if she’d made that adjustment, it would have put the girl right into her legs. From the angle we were at, we couldn’t see it.

“Britt could feel it. She knew. The fact that she didn’t make the adjustment made sense, and that’s good. Those are the things you want.”

Oddly, in such a detailed analysis of the match Ragusa never once spoke of its outcome. (Laverdure won it, en route to winning the gold medal Thursday night). Perhaps that’s because, as proud as he is of the performances of the three Dinos club members with him in Glasgow — in addition to Laverdure, Erica Wiebe won a gold medal and Jasmine Mian won bronze — Ragusa sees winning not so much as an end but as a happy by-product of coaching them to think for themselves.

“There are different coaching philosophies,” he said. “There are some who believe, ‘You need to listen to me and do exactly what I say.’ Athletes need to listen, but … good decision-making skills are things you need to practise as much as your technique.

“That’s how I was brought up in the sport and that’s a philosophy that I carry here with me. When you don’t involve athletes in the problem-solving process, if you don’t help them exercise their brains to figure out how to make good decisions, they won’t be able to do it when they need to.”

It’s a coaching style Ragusa experienced in Kingston, when he was a student at Holy Cross Secondary School and a fledgling wrestler under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Tom Mastantuono.

“Tom was a very good technician and he taught me a lot of fundamentals but he instilled a lot of confidence and the ability to problem-solve,” Ragusa said. “At a young age it’s a little bit different. You’re still focused on learning the techniques and listening to your coach, so if he’d tell me to do something, I would do it, but as I developed and matured, he’d start asking me more difficult questions.”

By nature of being part of the fraternity, coaches tend to be eager to help their athletes, Ragusa said. “We want to jump in there right away and fix things,” he said, but he’s a firm believer in resisting the temptation to do so.

“You have to hold back and ask them the questions,” he said. “I have athletes (to whom) I’ll say, ‘I know what happened to cause that outcome, but do you know?’ A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Just tell me.’ I won’t let them off the hook. That doesn’t work for me.

“They need to recognize it. That way, they remember it. It’s not like rote memory. There’s steps in every technique, things you have to do, step by step, to be successful, but ultimately if you don’t really understand the concept, and during one of those steps something changes and you have to make a quick decision … you can’t make those decisions.”

If an athlete has been suitably prepared, Ragusa believes, a coach’s role by the time he or she gets to the actual competition is relatively minor.

“Here, we polish up,” he said. “We put together a game plan but they know what to do. I’m able to help them with strategies and tactics. I study their opponents and come up with a game plan but ultimately they need to execute it.

“I’m not a coach who’s going to win a match in the corner for them. I can help them with key words to make adjustments. If I see an opening I can let them know, but if they’re looking back at the corner to me, saying, ‘What do I do?’ I’ve failed them. I don’t work that way. The kind of athletes I like to build are individuals who are going to make good decisions for themselves, both on and off the mat. We’re creating people who need to make good decisions in their work lives and their family lives, and that’s what I hope carries forward for them. It’s not just about the wrestling mat.”

Ragusa said the quality of the competition in the Commonwealth Games wrestling tournament is mixed. There are world champions and world medalists in Glasgow, but there are also countries that, due to lack of funding, don’t have a lot of opportunities to compete at major international events. “This is their Games,” he said. “There’s a lot on the line for them, so it’s not a tournament you can take easy.”

Though he’s been to Olympic, Pan American and Commonwealth Games as both an athlete and a coach, Ragusa says it’s still a thrill to see how excited the participants are to be there.

“Some have never experienced something like this and in this kind of environment, the matches come quick. It’s a different type of strategy and you’ve got to be ready. There’s a real short turnaround (between matches). There’s also a lot of intensity. With the crowd, the tension builds, so it’s a great experience for them to learn how to handle the pressure.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of this but I still get excited about it. We had some great matches yesterday and today that were won in the last 10 or 15 seconds. That’s a big step for us, to be able to pull matches off in the dying seconds; when you really need to score, being able to rise to the occasion. For some of these athletes, that’s a real pleasure to see. You know that the things you’re teaching are working.”

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From → Amateur sport

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