Child Abuse or Child Development

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.

Regarding Events

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 wschalles@cfl.rr.com 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.

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11 thoughts on “Child Abuse or Child Development

  1. Reading some of the comments and rereading your article causes me to see things in a different light.

    May I suggest one of the most important things in a good dojo is not the physical aspects, but rather the moral, spiritual teaching.

    The stronger you are, the more sympathy and caring you need to show for others. The weaker you are, the more selfish you must be to survive. This is the exact opposite of what happens when the strong are selfish and take from the weak. The former is the glue that holds packs together. The latter is the cracks that cause the pack to break apart.

    Humans are social animals. We are more intelligent than wolves, but we form into packs like wolves. In agrarian societies, where families were large, brothers became the pack so they could work the farm and get all the chores done.

    In inner cities, gangs become our packs.

    In business, we form into packs we call companies and corporations.

    In society, we are part of the nation state pack.

    In packs, we establish pecking order. We have dominant members and subordinate members.

    What’s in it for the dominant members? The dominant members can get more done when they have subordinate members working with them (for them). They can accumulate more power and resources.

    What’s in it for the subordinate members? The subordinate members can get protection and support and training, and if the dominant members are not selfish, can share in the power and resources. Why would subordinate members want to stay with a pack if they don’t get protection and support or access to power or resources?

    Do you teach morality in your wrestling rooms?

    Do you teach the dominate members of your wrestling room to mentor and care for and share with the subordinate members as would an older brother do for a younger brother?

    Do you teach dominant members to know when they are playing too rough, and need to back off, just as an older brother would do when playing with a younger brother. Dominant members need to show sympathy for the subordinate members and not tease or drive away the subordinate members when subordinate members fail. Dominant members need to be the mentors and big brothers who actually care for subordinate members.

    Who best can compete with strangers at meets and tournaments?

    Aren’t dominant members better equipped and more likely to stay with the team if they get beat at meets and tournaments, as long as the team shows them sympathy and support?

    Are subordinate members really ready for meets or tournaments?

    Perhaps the coaches should do a better job recognizing and acknowledging dominance and subordination, and not try to push the subordinates into meets and tournaments? Let the subordinates move up the pecking order to the point where they can face strangers, and lose, and recover from the loss with the help of the sympathy and support from the team.

    Do you have better retention of your wrestlers, both beginner as well as seasoned, when your mat room feels more like a family, than a bunch of strangers coming together to learn moves?

    What is the glue that holds a gang of humans or a pack of wolves together? Is this glue missing in your wrestling rooms?

    • Interesting thought. I’ve found that more experienced kids often enjoy being asked to be ‘asst coaches’ and help teach the newer ones, helps creates the bonds you describe with each other and deepen their engagement to the sport. Who doesn’t like to feel smart and accomplished?

      Another pitfall of young competition (that’s been mentioned here before but warrants re-emphasis) is making coaches feel pressured to teach for immediate results. E.g. kids can compile a nice record by not shooting and focusing on half nelsons and headlocks. But I can hardly imagine a plan that’s worse for their longer term development

  2. I think there’s some truth in the cultural stuff, which makes it even more important that we rethink how to retain the kids we get. We’ve been burning out promising kids for decades, the numbers just used to provide more cover. Now while we’re training everyone for junior nationals the high schools can’t fill their lineups. I do see demand still from both moms and dads for the “life skills” wrestling offers, but most won’t keep dragging their kids to something that’s no fun either. A friend of mine sent his 8-yr old to a summer camp at a nationally-ranked HS, and after the first ten minutes his kid was puking. Another high-profile camp advertises for kids as young as 5 with the motto “embrace the grind”. As someone said, how stupid. Let the kids develop into competition on their timetables, even if it takes years. Take the anxiety off the table if necessary and keep them learning while they grow into their bodies and gain confidence. There are a lot of late bloomers and we need to hang onto them more than ever. At a minimum, the longer we keep them and their parents engaged the more we’re *growing the fan base*

  3. I agree with some of what you’ve said and I enjoy your articles. However, I think that the true elephant in the room, and what people within wrestling sometimes don’t want to think about, is that wrestling, as a sport and a culture has a lot less influence on the number of participants than we would like to admit. I believe there has been a significant cultural shift over the past 50 years in the way in which we as a society believe children (particularly boys) should be taught and raised. We are becoming less and less a male-dominated factory worker and agrarian culture and more and more an office worker culture, and the man-to-man toughness that wrestling represents to many people and parents is viewed by the general public as something shameful or a spectacle, particularly for children. That’s just an observation, and I’m not going to debate anyone about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think that change permeates every group of people at some level from the US olympic committee on down. The wrestling family often just refuses to accept it, brands it sissification, and continues to debate singlets v. fight shorts and appropriate practice length for 8 year olds. I also think you’re going to see more and more of this cultural attitude shift affect football at all levels in the coming years (I hear it from parents at the youth level now), and it’s not just about the concussion numbers. Globally I think wrestling flourishes in certain other countries because of a cultural appreciation among parents and society for toughness and its virtues, and our culture is going the wrong direction for what wrestling has traditionally represented.

    To me, wrestling should not be promoted to kids as “fun” but should be promoted to parents as teaching qualities that their children NEED TO HAVE and can’t get any other place. Everyone understands the esprit de corps wrestlers have for each other, but we really can’t compete with the team sports when it comes to “fun with friends.” In my experience, youth wrestlers, those who are not natural born killers who need an aggressive outlet, stay in wrestling because of parents who are legacies or parents who see the positive impact it has on their children. At the youth level for sure and high school level as well, if you win the parents, you’ve won much of the battle.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying, but in light of what I believe is a cultural shift in societal attitudes towards toughness and physicality, it feels a lot like moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. I think a more substantial effort to promote wrestling’s uniquely American brand of hard work and toughness to conscientious parents who want their children to be well-prepared for life might be a better approach for the sport in the long run.

    Sorry for the length and keep up the good work.

  4. Another comment if I may.

    What exactly is the basic goal of Kata?

    May I copy/paste part of the wiki definition?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kata
    “The basic goal of kata is to preserve and transmit proven techniques and to practice self-defence. By practicing in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner. Systematic practice does not mean permanently rigid. The goal is to internalize the movements and techniques of a kata so they can be executed and adapted under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation. A novice’s actions will look uneven and difficult, while a master’s appear simple and smooth.”

    May I suggest, for some students, a few years of kata and they can perform enough techniques without thought or hesitation to compete, while other students may need more years.

    May I suggest students emotionally mature at a similar rate to their mastery of kata, and when they are emotionally mature enough, they may be able to handle the stresses of competition.

    I wouldn’t base when a student starts competing based on years, but rather on the beauty and grace and smoothness with which they show mastery of their actions.

  5. Martial arts is a lifelong affair. It doesn’t stop at high school graduation.

    Teach the parents Kata too.

    Have parents’ Kata demonstrations at tournaments for willing parents.

  6. I have been involved in sports as an athlete, official, coach, and now parent. I think your article is very well thought of in regards to wrestling. Unfortunately, the drop out rate for children from youth sports is very high as they reach adolescence. I know sports such as hockey and lacrosse have worked to develop athlete development models to encourage kids to remain in their respective sports and decrease dropout rates. In these models, the ages of 11-14 are when children decide to continue participation in sports. The younger ages are for leaning basic skills and development not competition. Society is dictating youth sports to put undue pressure on kids to win and not encourage the other benefits that youth sports provide.

  7. Excellent article. Competitive sports youth are not good. Keep the fun in it. Let them learn the basics.

  8. This should be read by everybody involved in coaching young children. Wade Schalles is widely regarded as the greatest grappler to ever step on the mat. He is a national champion in wrestling, judo and sambo. He is also in the Guinness Book Of World Records for winning over a thousand matches via pin. I was fortunate to be coached by him a few months ago. I have to ask this question. Have any parents ever witnessed child abuse on the grappling mats? For example national champions bouncing beginners who are four years younger than them,bad conditioning sessions without warm ups etc? If so did you complain or did you ignore this? Be vigilant fellow parents and coaches. All children deserve provision, protection and participation.

  9. A brilliant article, insightful and well written. And while I’m here can I add my recommendation to your coaching. Get Wade to your gym, you won’t regret it.

  10. Excellent article Coach and right on!!

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