RIVERSIDE — Tony Mena has found a way to merge technology and youth wrestling.
All it took was taking a few losses against his son in a video game.
Mena took his son to an arcade and lost multiple times when he tried to keep up on Dance Dance Revolution.
He used that experience — the ability for kids to memorize combinations — and took it to the wrestling mat.
Last summer, Mena started working with what he called virtual training and debuted it for his Team Hammer Academy wrestling program that now practices at Park Hill South High School.
“We are trying to push training into the future and into your own living rooms by using technology,” Mena posted on the team’s website, www.teamhammeracademy.com.
Mena is a veteran wrestling coach but this is a new approach to the sport that he has been involved in for years.
The former teacher spent 11 years coaching at the high school ranks at Moberly, Oak Park and Columbia Hickman — when Olympian J’Den Cox was rolling his way to four straight state championships.
“This is the first time I used a large amount of technology,” said Mena, who initially started this program out of a garage last year. “I wrestled in high school and went into the military and using technology there, that is where this idea came from.”
A group of seven wrestlers grew to 40 this season. At the state championship earlier this year, Team Hammer sent eight and five came back with medals.
Cameron Graham won a state championship and Landen McDowell was a runner-up. Gunner Dahms and Amari Stewart Lopez each placed third, while Cy Wilmes took fifth. Isaiah Harris, Colton Christian and Colton Fast were qualifiers.
The success from the team can be tied to the kids using the muscle memory to learn combinations. Wrestling meets video games.
“We have been experimenting with this for a year and it is quite interesting,” Mena said.
Practices feature a computer hooked up into a projector. A first-person view shows a series of moves — or combos — to get takedowns and get points.
The wrestlers sit and watch the screen. They see it in action on the screen before seeing a demonstration by the coaching staff.
A teacher in the past, Mena realized children are wired to absorb information.
Some of the clips show matches from the NCAA Division I tournament. The moves are broken down to show the younger wrestlers how it happened.
“We are only getting a few that have the body mastery and with videos you are hitting more and explaining,” said Mena, who helped with Greater Heights Wrestling for three years before branching off on his own two years ago. “We always preach watch on your own time and putting in more work.”
In a way, Mena assigns ‘homework’ to the wrestlers. They have to load videos on a television or a computer, but the additional practice turns into the same muscle memory on getting a takedown as it was when Mena was losing to his son in DDR.
“We noticed over the past few years, especially with beginning wrestlers, is that they know the moves or defense that should be applied to their opponent but their reaction time is slow as they process what is happening,” he said. “Well, quick reaction times are built up over years of practice with good training partners, but we’ve found a way to ‘hack’ that traditional process and speed it up by putting a digital opponent in front of them on the TV or computer screen.”
In the weeks that followed the state meet, the practice room was still full of wrestlers getting in more work. Some took part in the Greco and Freestyle State Tournament in Sedalia in May. Dahms was third in the greco event, while Harris placed fourth. In freestyle, Ross Davis and McDowell each won a title. Harris was a runner-up and Logan Jackson was fourth
Two went to Hillsboro for the Kids of Chaos Tournament. McDowell took first place and Graham was a runner-up in the folkstyle event.
Next month, the group will compete at the Show Me Games on July 20 in Columbia.
“We are changing the culture, there wasn’t a big offseason culture,” Mena said. “The big tournament grind is getting kids in the weight room and building the community experience is our big task right now.”