Pirozhkova waiting patiently for coaching career to begin

  • Greenfield’s Elena Pirozhkova, red, competes against Bulgaria's Taybe Mustafa Yusein during the women's 63-kg freestyle wrestling competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pirozhkova is currently the head women’s wrestling coach at New Jersey City University. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2020 7:26:07 PM

Elena Pirozhkova never thought the opportunity would present itself to get into coaching the sport she loves.

A former World champion, two-time U.S. Olympian and the 2010 USA Women’s Wrestler of the Year, Pirozhkova accomplished just about everything she could have imagined when she retired in 2016 as one of the most decorated American women in the history of the sport. She then decided to get into a career in chiropractics, moving to New Jersey to earn her degree. Three years later, she was looking for a way to get back into the sport and finally saw an opportunity when New Jersey City University announced it was starting both a men’s and women’s wrestling program that would compete at the NCAA Div. III level. She decided to go for the women’s job.

When the former Greenfield resident, who graduated from Greenfield High School in 2005, walked into the NJCU gym for the first time, she saw a court and a few basketball hoops. There wasn’t a wrestling room or even wrestling mats, for that matter. There wasn’t a team to meet who she’d inherit, or a blueprint on how to keep the program alive. Instead, the job gave her an opportunity to build the program from the ground up, allowing her to build a culture of her own. Her own team and her own environment: a challenge she accepted in August of 2019. 

“I never thought I’d be in coaching,” Pirozhkova said. “I didn’t think there was a lot of opportunities for women’s coaching. Coaching didn’t offer you a living wage where you could make it a career, whereas for men it did. So I had other things I wanted to do in life. I felt a lot of people gave me a lot and put a lot into my life in a lot of different ways: time, energy, money, etc. I think what goes around, comes around, and I believe in a sense of karma. If somebody gives you a lot, you have to make sure to give a lot back. I never wanted to leave the sport without giving everything that was given to me back.

“The last four years of my competition from 2012-2016, I did a lot of mentoring at the Olympic Training Center,” she continued. “I would mentor girls in my weight class, I would stay after and say ‘Hey, you did this wrong, I’ll show you how to do it.’ I purposely went out of my way to help a lot of girls and it was something I really enjoyed. When I was younger, it was all about winning and only about myself. When you get older and you’ve won, it was more fun to give back. It was something I wanted to do.”

Year one on the job was more like year zero for Pirozhkova. Instead of rushing things, forcing her to find athletes on campus to compete on the team just mere months after getting the job, the school decided not to compete right away. Pirozhkova used the time to focus on recruiting, making relationships with schools in the area to establish pipelines for future recruits. She made sure to bring in assistant coaches she felt would develop her wrestlers, got her budget squared away and did all the little things a coach has to do before actually taking to the mats. 

Having the year to get everything set was a blessing. She got her face out there —with her name already well known across the wrestling community — and found many girls reaching out about coming to wrestle for her in the future. 

“Some schools, they throw a coach in super cold and they have to start right away and then they have to hustle and have only a month of recruiting,” Pirozhkova said. “It doesn’t set the coach up for success. You’ll see some of those teams, they only have one or two girls for a long time because they’ll recruit a couple of girls last minute but they don’t have enough time to do it right. What NJCU did perfectly when they created the men’s and women’s programs, they gave us a head start and plenty of time to think about building a team. I had plenty of time to recruit and I think both (teams) are doing it successfully.”

Everything was going smoothly for Pirozhkova in her first year, and she had 11 girls commit to the team for the 2020 season.

Just when everything looked like it was trending in the right direction, COVID-19 hit. As if starting a program from scratch wasn’t a tough enough challenge, Pirozhkova now had to do it during a national pandemic. Recruiting went from in-person school visits to zoom calls, college visits were canceled and she still doesn’t know when or if her first meet will take place this season. To counteract the lack of in-person recruiting, she’s in the process of putting together practice footage to send to potential recruits to give them a feel of the program and what the training is like, finding creative ways to sell her program. 

On top of all that, she has to focus on the 11 girls on campus who are preparing as if they will be participating in tournaments at some point this season. During the first team meeting, there was a lot of staring at walls and not a lot of conversation. None of the wrestlers knew each other, and none of the coaches besides Pirozhkova knew the girls on the squad which represented another hurdle to leap over.

“One of my assistant coaches was frustrated we didn’t have that team vibe,” Pirozhkova said, “but I told him it’s our first day getting together. That’s definitely a challenge, the girls aren’t stepping into a place where there is a culture, an attitude or a team vibe set. Getting the girls on campus was great. We have the team, we have the coaches, now it’s setting that atmosphere and those human relationships between the athletes and between the coaches and athletes. That’s our toughest challenge to overcome right now.”

Growing up as one of the oldest in a family with eight siblings, coaching comes easy to Pirozhkova. Whether it was teaching a sibling how to eat, how to get dressed or making sure they were doing their test right, she feels she’s been coaching her whole life instead of just one season.

That attitude, as well as having a problem-solving mentality, has allowed her to steer the ship right during wild times and keep everything afloat despite everything that’s trying to sink her. 

“Being a coach is at the heart of who I am,” Pirozhkova said. “I think I was raised in that environment so it comes naturally to me. I love passing on knowledge and I love seeing somebody grow. I love projects, I love building stuff. Being a head coach, you have a lot of ability to develop stuff. You have to be a graphic design artist figuring out how your team is going to look, the coaches you’re going to hire, the tournaments you’re going to go to. It’s a very multi-faceted project. It definitely doesn’t bore you.”

A big part of building a culture starts with the first group of athletes brought in. If you start on the right foot, that culture gets passed down from team to team. Thus, Pirozhkova has put a premium on not just bringing in talented wrestlers to NJCU, but bringing in wrestlers who can set a team vibe for years to come. 

“If somebody has a good attitude and is hard working, they're going to be successful regardless, whether that’s in wrestling or in life,” Pirozhkova said. “Working with that type of athlete is a pleasure because you’re never going to have to fight their attitude, you’re never going to have to ask why they’re late to practice. They’re going to show up on time, they’re always going to work hard and they’re always going to bring a positive energy to the team. When you’re building that first year, nobody is there to come in and say ‘This is how this team does it.’ To have a good group of girls is essential and I think we have that.” 

It’s easy to draw on one’s own experience in coaching. While her athletes are restless to get out there and actually compete, knowing it won’t be until after the new year at the earliest, she is ecstatic to have the extra time to work with them. She feels she has a few girls already who can eventually make it to Junior Nationals, but still need continued development to reach that goal. Once she gets a few girls to make it to that next level, she feels recruiting will go up as more girls will want to come learn from her.

Pirozhkova knows what it’s like to have to sit and train for a long period of time before actually putting it to show on the mats. When she first arrived at the Olympic Training Center, her coach, Vladislav Izboinikov, told her he didn’t care about her technique. Pirozhkova says she couldn’t do a pull-up when she got there, and Izboinikov told her she needed to become an athlete first, as her technique meant nothing if she wasn’t strong enough to hold herself in certain positions. 

She then spent the next year doing rigorous physical training without competing in any tournaments. The year of development paid off, as she made the World Team shortly after and was ranked No. 1 in her weight class for the next 10 years.

One assistant she is happy to have on the staff, Lukasz Zogowalko, has a master’s degree in coaching from Poland. He brings that same mentality of building an athlete from zero-to-nothing, and will help with implementing those coaching techniques to the athletes.

“Most of the girls have been practicing for two to three years and you can see their fundamentals are nowhere close to where they need to be,” Pirozhkova said. “For them to say they’re ready to be thrown into a competition is not really true. To have a little bit of extra time to do development is great. I told them I’m not upset you aren’t competing, I’m actually happy because now we don't have to do conditioning sessions to make sure you’re in shape to compete. Now, we can just focus on lifting technique, technique on the mat. We’re starting from the bottom up. My year of development was the best thing to happen to me.”

Though NJCU hasn’t been able to show its progress in competition yet, it’s clear Pirozhkova is doing everything the right way behind the scenes, taking steps forward to build the program she envisions.

If her wrestlers take notes and can learn from her personal story, watch out for what they might be able to accomplish once the matches start back up again.


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