By Patrick Smith, MTC
Photo by Mark Beshey, The Guillotine
Zach Sanders, a four-time NCAA all American for the Gophers, and former graduate assistant, stepped into a new role last fall when he became volunteer assistant coach for the Gopher wrestling program. This season the Gophers surpassed a lot of expectations, qualifying nine for the NCAAs and advancing two athletes to the finals.
In addition to coaching for the Gophers, Sanders is training full-time as a member of the Minnesota Storm. He plans to compete next in the U.S. Open National Championships in Las Vegas, NV, April 27-29.
We caught up with Sanders to ask how it's been for him to pursue his own goals on the mat while coaching for the Gophers. We also asked him about Ethan Lizak, an NCAA finalist for the Gophers this season at 125 pounds, and what it was like to be in his corner throughout the year.
Here’s our conversation with Sanders:
This last fall you accepted the volunteer assistant coaching position at your alma mater. Walk us through that offer and how the opportunity came up.
Sanders: I knew I wanted to coach someday so it was just a matter of when and where. The U of M wrestling program had been through a lot after the previous season and we were not sure what was going to happen. Being off the mat most of the spring and summer I had a lot of time to reflect and was not so concerned about workouts or competition. I looked at a few different opportunities with an open mind and talked with people I trust. The school year had already started when we found out J Rob was not coming back and Brandon Eggum was named Interim Head Coach. I had already played out a lot different scenarios in my mind ahead of time so when Eggum asked me to be the Volunteer Assistant Coach I accepted right away. I think he was surprised that I didn’t need time to think about it.
Was it a hard decision, taking on coaching responsibilities, while still pursuing your own athletic goals?
Sanders: It is definitely tricky to balance coaching and training sometimes. I have seen other assistant coaches be able to continue to compete at the highest level. Some people handle it better than others. I am the type of guy who always needs to be doing something or I feel like I am wasting my day. I was a little banged up this winter and was unable to go to the Dave Schultz Memorial but instead of worrying about not being able to compete I was able to put more energy into our guys. I am better off when I am more involved. The seasons are set up differently too. You do not compete as much at the international level so it gives you more time to work on skills between competitions. At the end of the day, wrestling is wrestling and I am around it constantly.
Throughout your career you’ve been sort of a poster boy for doing things right. How do you bring that knowledge of training, nutrition, and overall lifestyle into your coaching?
Sanders: Just like any good coach or athlete when you are passionate about something you want to get the most out of it. The best are consistently trying to find ways to get better. I have ideas that I try to pass on to the college guys. It is easier for them to buy into that lifestyle when they see me living it. I am approaching my tenth year at Minnesota as an athlete/coach and I can say we have had great leaders on the team every year. We have had a lot of guys who were not big recruits do great things because they buy in and live the right lifestyle. That’s one of the reasons Michael Kroells and Brett Pfarr were so valuable to our team. They did a lot of things right and it can be contagious.
How have you had to adjust, now that you’re responsible for 35 guys and their goals as well as your own?
Sanders: Well, luckily we have an awesome coaching staff as a whole to help each other out. I wouldn’t say I responsible for 35 guys but I do work with some guys a lot more than others. We were all coached under J Rob so we have similarities but we also complement each other in certain areas. It is important to realize that people are different. People have different mindsets and are motivated by different things. People have different body types and wrestling styles. We each do a lot of individual practices with certain guys to improve their weaknesses and make sure they are utilizing their strengths.
This year the Gophers exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, with 9 qualifiers, 4 All-Americans, and 2 national finalists. Being part of many successful Gopher teams yourself, what was is it like being in the chair this year at NCAA’s?
Sanders: It was definitely exciting. I am not only proud of our finalists and All-Americans but the other guys as well. We had two semi-finalists and five in the All-American round. They all wrestled with a lot of fight and were in it together. We always tell our guys that we are not concerned about winning or losing as much as we are concerned about the way we wrestle and compete. They all progressed and improved when it mattered most. They were going forward and putting points on the board. I believe in our guys. I also believe things could even have turned out better but it was not from a lack of effort. Not one of our guys were satisfied with how the year ended for them so that can be motivating. If they pick up where they left off and continue to progress we are going to be tough.
Lizak especially had a turnaround year. Coming off a redshirt season and making the finals.
Sanders: Lizak did a great job this year. He hit a few speed bumps along the way but he did a great job of making adjustments. I believed if he wrestled his best he could have beat anyone this year. At the end of the year he was really believing it too. He is a smart wrestler and is a nightmare for his opponents. He has a unique skill set. It hurt to see him lose in the finals but I am really proud of the way competed.
Has coaching changed your perspective on training or overall approach?
Sanders: My perspective has changed quite a bit over the last 5 years. You have a philosophy and values that you carry with you but like I said before you have to continue to make adjustments and pick up new things to pick up along the way. I still learn a lot of things from guys on the team. People are wired differently but you can pick things up from everyone. Seeing how Brett Pfarr carries himself is inspiring. He never lets little things bother him and is super relaxed and it saves him a lot of energy in the long run. Sometimes people like that help you take a step back and look at the overall big picture.
Now that NCAA’s are over, we are looking to the US Open at the end of the month. How do you feel going into that competition. You have already had some international success at the NYAC. (Sanders earned a silver medal competing in the NYAC Bill Farrell International in New York City in November, 2016.)
Sanders: I love to compete. I am getting more and more excited each day. I was feeling pretty worn down after NCAAs but am feeling more like myself each week. We are two weeks out and I really feel it starting to come together. The older I get the more thankful I feel for the opportunity to wrestle in each competition. It really is a rush that you can’t get elsewhere and am glad I don’t have to wait much longer.
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