Abe returns as wrestling head coach after a 10-year hiatus

February 12, 2019 — by Justin Guo and Michael Wong

Despite struggles with participation and misconceptions about wrestling, Abe remains passionate about coaching the sport.

As a passionate coach and former collegiate wrestler himself, teacher Kirk Abe is trying to build a wrestling culture at the school. Though it is not very popular here, he believes wrestling is the best sport in the world and hopes all students can experience it.

Abe’s famous love for wrestling started early. He hails from a family of wrestlers — all of his brothers wrestled, and his dad, a Los Gatos High alumni, also battled on the mat.

Perhaps surprisingly, Abe’s main sport in junior high was actually tennis. Over time, though, his passion began to turn toward wrestling, beginning at his alma mater, Homestead High.

The prospect of different weight classes encouraged him to initially try out the sport.

“Wrestling is a sport that everyone can be a part of,” Abe said. “Since I wasn’t particularly big or tall, the weight classes offered an opportunity for me to participate.”

Through the years, Abe learned to love the sport. He peaked in his senior year, not losing a point during the entire season until the league finals.

Abe went on to wrestle at UC Davis in his freshman year. The competition at the college level was intense, something Abe was not expecting.

“Everyone on the team was the best in their sections. I went  in there, and I just got beaten up,” Abe said. “I was the last string on my team, and I was just constantly getting beaten up. It was a completely different experience [from wrestling at Homestead].”

When he arrived at Saratoga High as a teacher in  the 1990s, Abe took on the role of assistant coach. Wanting to get more involved with extracurricular activities that students participated in, wrestling offered him just that, and so he helped various head coaches before becoming the head coach eight years after his initial arrival.

As a coach, Abe faced a lot of new challenges that he didn’t experience as a wrestler.

For starters, he had to find a way to deal with the lack of interested participants. This was new for Abe, because his own high school had had a full JV and varsity team when he was a student.

“I tried having open mat and opening the room during the off-season. I talked to students about wrestling,” Abe said. “Just trying to talk to people at every opportunity and see if they wanted to wrestle.”

The difficulty with finding wrestlers stems from a general inexperience and misunderstanding of wrestling as a sport, resulting in reluctance for students to try it out.

“There are definitely misconceptions of wrestling; its either WWE wrestling, with people jumping off the tight ropes, or its like MMA Fighting or something. It's not that, it’s its own sport,” Abe said.

Compared to mainstream sports like football or basketball, where kids are familiar with the rules and the basic idea of the sport from a young age, wrestling has historically been an underrepresented sport in many areas, especially on the West Coast.

“These wrestlers, they come in at high school and they tend not to know the rules of wrestling,” Abe said. “So we have to start from the very beginning, from block one, and try to build from there.”

First, developing fundamentals such as basic techniques and skills is most crucial, in addition to conditioning and mental strength. Most students who try out wrestling for the first time are not aware of this, Abe said.

Abe himself demonstrates a few of the techniques, but these moves and skill sets have evolved since his wrestling career in high school.

“I have had to learn a bunch of new techniques since high school because wrestling as a sport has expanded so much. What my era lacked in technique made up in toughness and grit,” Abe said. “Back then wrestling was really gritty, mean and tough, but now its a lot more technical.”  
In 2009, a neck surgery coupled with raising his two children forced Abe to take a 10-year hiatus from coaching wrestling. Doctors told Abe to refrain from running, wrestling or even engaging in any physical activities.

But the tug of wrestling proved too strong.

He slowly eased his way back into the school’s wrestling scene, working as an assistant coach three years ago before finally coming back as the head coach this year.

One of the reasons that Abe is coaching the wrestling team to one of its best seasons in recent memory is his hands-on approach. Although he is not supposed to have any physical activity due to his previous surgery, Abe shows his wrestlers numerous techniques that can help them in matches.

Senior Victor Chen said that Abe always demonstrates his passion and knowledge of wrestling.

“From what I know, he’s a very busy man. He has a lot on his plate, but he still comes to practice every day and goes to every one of our tournaments, and he sacrifices a lot of his other commitments just to support our team,” Chen said.

Another difference between Abe and previous coaches is his understanding of the students.

“I’d say that our previous head coach was definitely more passionate about wrestling than kids,” Chen said. “But Abe is definitely one of the coaches that loves the kids more than he loves wrestling. I prefer coaches who would be more understanding and appreciate the student-athletes’ feelings more.”

After all these years in wrestling and the plethora of challenges Abe has had to face, his passion for the sport remains unshaken.

“It sounds silly, but wrestling is one of these sports where you have a place in your heart for it, and you want to, if you can, help out,” Abe said. “Some people say sports develop a character, but I think they bring out character. And with wrestling, it's such a tough sport that it’s always with you. So I want to give back and give others the opportunity to see what they can do.”