Wrestling is still wearing its shirt inside out, and our leadership seems to be okay with the look. Somehow they feel it’s fashionable to show everyone ragged seams and a wrinkled tag when it comes to the sport in general, and specifically for this blog; youth wrestling.
So as I attempt to turn everything right side out, welcome to another partisan and I hope thought provoking installment of How Wrestling Wins.
Protecting Our Youth
It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone when I mention how catastrophically abysmal our annual retention rates are for youth wrestling. When we retain in many regions of the country less than 50% of our newcomers, we become the #1 sport in America for chewing up and spitting out little guys. In some years that percentage might be a bit higher, in other years a bit lower but either way, the problem is obvious and it’s not going away.
And regardless of your position, the fact is numbers don’t lie.
Now if any company in America had those statistics, and wrestling had better start figuring out it‘s a company, they would immediately fire the entire management team for incompetence. No organization can continually lose half of its customer base year in and year out and expect to remain viable. So I guess I should ask, why do we allow it? Aren’t we the sports majority stock holders?
Think about what’s happening, is it too much of a stretch to refer to how we handle the sports youth as bullying at a minimum or child abuse to the extreme. It’s actually quite amazing how many kids actually survive our sports culture of cruelty.
Now I’ll give you that what I just typed might seem a little over-the-top and brand me as you’re a mean one Mr. Grinch but bullying is bullying which is defined as; a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. As for child abuse, it’s; any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child that includes mental or emotional cruelty or physical harm? So based on Webster, and knowing what happens in many of our wrestling rooms, where am I off base here?
To be clear, it’s not the sport that drives children out of wrestling rooms; it’s their absolute aversion to humiliation and being subjected to repetitive thumping’s. Whether it comes by way of practice or competition, no one likes to train at Olympic levels during their first week of practice or be embarrassed in competition a month after buying their first pair of wrestling shoes. And the idea that all this is somehow fair because we pair children by age and weight is so far removed from reality when experience is the sports trump card and deciding factor. It’s the first thing a coach should consider when pairing athletes.
Just as troubling for me is the speed at which we tend to forget the names of those we’ve lost as we lump all of them into a category that isn’t appropriate to type here.
I’ve also wondered how many potential World and Olympic champions we’ve run out of our wrestling rooms because they weren’t ready for the sports culture of total emersion? Or the number of adults who are a little less than they could have been because the sport decided they were expendable. And of those we might call the discarded many, how often do you think they go out of their way to support any of their children when they ask, “Dad, can I try wrestling?”
Don’t be confused, it’s not that children don’t enjoy wrestling; they do. What back yard, in any neighborhood in America hasn’t doubled as a wrestling mat at one time or another? What child hasn’t wrestled his brother or tussled with the kid next door? But the difference between organized programs and neighborhood play is, when it’s up to the children, they instinctively understand two things that many of our coaches don’t: 1) If it’s not fun, they aren’t going to do it for long, and 2) They know who to take on and who they should leave alone.
So if the sport’s to grow which it won’t and if wrestling wishes to expand its base and it can’t, we have to change. So instead I write for the pleasure of writing, not for the hope that something miraculous will happen.
As to Practices
In a report recently released by the Aspen Institute on reimagining sports for today’s youth it recommended that specialization should be delayed until adolescence and practices need to be geared to the children’s ability.
I guess that means we’re still on the wrong road because pairing youngsters in practice with others who are of the same age and weight but with considerably more experience borders on the criminal. An eight year old 80 pounder with 4 years’ experience wrestling another 8 year old 80 pounder with 4 weeks experience isn’t a fair fight and it’s exactly how we deplete our ranks.
And no I’m not saying that we should buy a litter of therapy puppies and hand them out to every child along with crayons and coloring books but I do want to see coaches using their judgment centers more often.
As to the makeup of practices, every program should be centered on Fun, Friendship and Fundamentals; the 3-F’s of childhood development. If practices aren’t at least 50% fun, coaches need to rethink their lesson plans. If the students aren’t making new friends because of the sports adversarial mindset the program won’t reach its potential. If students aren’t encouraging the boy next door to give wrestling a try due to the programs lack of enjoyment; that should be a huge red flag.
As to fundamentals, sure we want every child to learn how to wrestle. But you can only achieve that when you have kids to coach. Losing half of those who come out for the sport each year isn’t a strong model for success. Coaches must remember what it was actually like when they started wrestling and how many of their teammates didn’t survive the experience, and not what they conveniently remember or choose to forget.
And don’t get me started on weight reduction at this age . . . that’s shouldn’t even be a consideration. And if you think all I’m trying to do here is make everyone feel good, you’re right. Our little guys can get competitive later.
But I get it; society does judge the success of a coach and his club in terms of medals garnished and championships won. But do we ever look at the costs of that success and could it be that more success would have been possible with larger club numbers? Isn’t the old adage true that if the object is to produce more cream, you have to produce more milk? Everything is a numbers game, and we need to start at the bottom to build the pyramid of winning – children win because they are having fun, therefore, the coaches’ win because they have children to coach, and finally, the sport wins because the wrestling rooms are filled with coaches coaching and children learning – make sense?
But none of that is as important as how the sport handles competition.
No child should be forced to endure the overwhelming experience of competition during his or her first year of participation. Period.
Have we all forgotten what it was like to walk onto a wrestling mat for the first time, all alone, no Mom or Dad to hold our hands; where every fiber of our beings begs to be back in the safety of our bedroom. To glance over at the other kid and suddenly realize that in a few minutes, or possibly seconds, one of us is going to be considered a loser. Gulp. And to hear your Mother say, “Just do your best” when the look on her face says something quite different is very unnerving. Then you think; when this is over I’m going to ask Dad if it’s too late to go out for soccer?
None of that can be the best way to grow a sport or treat God’s little creatures.
So I’m afraid it’s up to the parents to protect their offspring since the sport seems to be incapable of it. They shouldn’t have to say “no thank you,” to the coach, there should already be a rule in place that outlaws competition during an athlete’s first year.
What effects would this have? Well, the first thing we’d accomplish is reduce most of the anxiety children feel while trying to learn a sport that requires combative aggression when the last thing they learned to do along those lines was playing dodge ball at recess. No wait, that’s right, dodge ball isn’t allowed any longer. Schools have deemed it to be far too aggressive and belittling. So I wonder what the Department of Education would think about our sport if they put it under the same microscope.
Instead, children should learn the rules of the game, some basic techniques all the while learning body awareness skills, participating in drills that coaches have made into games, and learning how to protect oneself through gymnastic like tumbling routines. Finally, the children should be learning fun facts about the sports’ rich history and the tenets of sportsmanship.
Success at this stage should be measured by the number of children who return to the sport the next season.
But not us, most everything we do is backwards; we teach wrestlers how to throw someone before anyone learns how to tuck their head and roll. We scold them for locking hands before telling them when it’s legal and when it’s not. Coaches should be happy with athletes who can sprawl and circle back to their feet when two weeks earlier walking with gum in their mouth was a challenge. Coaches have to stop measuring success by the number of wins an athlete can accumulate. Instead, they should make a big deal out of their athletes being able to shake a person’s hand with a firm grip while looking them in the eye. That’s a skill worth learning and one we should be proud we were able to help them develop; or just being able to do 5 push-ups when 3 were impossible just a month earlier.
So are you saying that we shouldn’t take 1st year wrestlers to tournaments? No, I didn’t say that, I said they shouldn’t enter competition for a year. But they should go to events. They need to be a part of the team, they need to see how events are run and get familiar with their future surroundings. And yes, they’re there to participate . . . just not compete.
Here are two possible participation options. The first is to develop a series of Katas for wrestling and make them a part of tournaments for first year students, just like the martial arts community handles their events. For those who aren’t familiar with Katas, they’re individual exercises, drills or techniques that consist of specific movements that are demonstrated in harmony with a passive partner. It’s still competition, just not under live fire conditions. Employing this alternate type of competition assures that events still receive entry fees from the little guys while eliminating the ugliness of children collapsing into their mother’s arms in tears or having their warm-ups thrown in their faces by some south end of a horse going north.
A second option is to create a round robin scenario with let’s say 8 children in a weight class and divide the mats into 4 equal sized quadrants. Each child wrestles for a minute of running time before rotating to his or her next opponent. There’s no scoring whatsoever and the officials are only there to protect the wrestlers. At the end of four minutes with each child having wrestled 4 opponents, they shake hands and every child has his hand raised signifying the completion of effort, not because someone won by score. Instead each child overcame the unknown which defines winning.
Then if the numbers warrant it, time permitting, the tournament director could repeat the process so each child would receive another 4 sets of matches. The idea is to start each tournament with the little guys going first and a goal of having them at the local Dairy Queen within 3 hours after weigh-ins. Remember the first of the 3-F’s was having fun and nothing does that better than ice cream.
These are just two examples of what the sport might consider if the goal is to stop the bleeding. However it’s done, whoever decides it or takes the credit I don’t care but one thing’s for certain, what we’re doing now isn’t working.
And if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that the Russians won’t be hacking our sports database or interfering in our programming anytime soon; why would they want us to change anything we’re doing with our youth?
Circle America Tour; 2017
Once again this summer I’m planning on touring the country teaching the power of down wrestling. So I wanted to ask; would you be interested in me stopping by for a day or two? I’m finalizing my dates now so if you think this might interest you, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 407-616-4250.
Now for some shameful commercialism; you won’t find a better clinician. At least that’s what I’ve heard after every clinic I’ve ever done. Coaches enjoy my abilities to entertain and teach what they thought they knew about pinning and down wrestling.
As to my fee, I’m way below what today’s headliners receive. So what’s there to lose, let’s see what’s possible.