Youth Wrestling . . . How Stupid

I just received a short note from a colleague who is well known as an icon in our sport. The gentleman is in his 70’s now and there’s not much he hasn’t seen or done. This was in response to a conversation we had regarding the way America handles its youth programing.

“I have coached for over 50 years I can honestly say that youth wrestling is destroying the sport!”

Now I realize this isn’t everyone’s opinion, but it should be when you step back and actually analyze what we’ve been doing, both with and to our little guys.

Initially the theme that leadership sold the wrestling community in the 1970’s when youth programming was in its infancy was the concept of the 3 F’s which stood for Fun, Friendship & Fundamentals. That was when cars got 8 miles to the gallon, Viet Nam had just ended and the New England Patriots seldom won more than 4 games a year.

But today, no one ever dreamt of seeing what we have, and as for wrestling, there are youth programs out there that are focusing practices around placing as many of their little guys on the next Olympic team as they can. The whole system has become Darwinistic; the strong get stronger and the weak get gone.

The problem is everyone goes to events regardless of their ability, maturity level or weeks of experience; all under the pretense of character development and the belief that cream always rises to the top. But at their ages, most of us realize that children can’t spell character development let alone understand the pain one has to go through to achieve it.

Then there’s those larger than life trophies that sometimes are just as tall as the athletes themselves and seem to gain in height as operators try and lure more and younger children to their tournaments. They’ve even come up with cumulative point systems for events that are used to dangle WWE-like championship belts in front of their noses.

All this is marketing at its best with the design of creating awe in the minds of parents and athletes and of course capital for event operators. This isn’t all bad and I’m not opposed to finding ways to fund the sport, God knows we need both a solid and increasing revenue stream but to do it through the demoralization of those we pretend to care about, there’s something wrong here.

Parents are simply being sold a bill of goods. They bought into the vision of their young children developing self-esteem and learning how to fine tune their kinesthetic senses in an environment of support, friendship and pleasurable experiences. Little did they know that the devouring nature of competition has driven many of our coaches to replace the word Fun with Drudgery, Friendship with Adversary and Fundamentals with Funding.

The damage this has caused to wrestling is staggering! Every year we lose approximately half of all our first and second year wrestlers. That’s 50% or 15 out of every 30 wrestlers who come out for the sport that disappear. And in some years that percentage might be a bit higher, in other years a bit lower but regardless, the problem is obvious.

Neither winning or events should ever be the end all, be all of youth wrestling.

Any company, and wrestling had better start figuring out it‘s a company, would immediately panic and fire its entire leadership team if every year it lost half of their customer base. So what do we do, keep embracing the same notions, doing the same sort of things and expecting a different outcome.

Now I’m not suggesting that we start handing out pink slips to coaches and administrators because they’re doing exactly what the parents and the rules allow. But the sports base had better start realizing where we’re headed, and the direction we’ve been going for quite some time.

Why would a sport, any sport, develop and then accept an environment that erodes self-esteem and assures a steady stream of tears from those we hold most dear? Not to mention the fracturing of relationships between coach and athlete and most troubling, parent and child? We’ve all witnessed those blowups and how ugly they can be.

Here’s an example of how wrestling arrived at where we are today; the #1 sport in America with the poorest athlete retention rate.

I received this note from a father regarding his son’s experiences in wrestling. As you read it, please understand this is far more the norm than anyone might think.

“I wanted to let you know how impressed I’ve been with all your blogs. Keep up the great work.

Since the birth of my son in 1996, I’ve stepped back and taken an objective look at the sport I love. I’ve been self-employed, an employer and a leader in a few startups since I left Cumberland Valley. And as I read my first “Schalles” blog I was ready to see what you had to say as short sighted, but it wasn’t. You were right on, our sport is far too isolated and our leadership has too little experience outside the sphere of state and NCAA level events. They need entrepreneurial and leadership skills that are prerequisites to success in life; humility; how to listen; make friends quickly; use influence like a scalpel, not a sledgehammer; serve on a board of directors and still make things happen; how to raise capital and the list continues.

My son got his black belt in Judo at age 11, mostly through Katas. Why Judo, because he learned to hate wrestling when I was talked into taking him to practice at age 10 and then a father-son camp. After the 1st competitive round, I dried his tears and took him fishing to heal his soul. He never walked back on a mat again. By the time he filled out athletically and got the hormones needed to be aggressive, the pace and intensity of the wrong-headed local youth program had left him in the dust. He found his competitive outlet in JROTC, where his Raider unit never lost. This year he scored 362 on a scale of 300 to win the award for the highest Army Physical Fitness Test score in his league. 106 pushups, 107 sit-ups each in 2 minutes, and then a 12:48 two-mile. 

He’s aggressive enough to have jumped over a desk and decked another student when that student insulted his nation and the army. Fortunately for him the teacher was an ex-Ranger. He runs 2 miles 5 days a week with 30 lbs. in a pack on his back and plays paintball in a kilt for fun. 

Unfortunately I just see my son as being emblematic of so many things wrong with wrestling. He had no interest because there was no fun, and the tone of the sport in the first day was attack or be attacked. The attitude of fans, parents and competitors wasn’t about friendship and it turned him away even before puberty.”

To be sure, there are thousands of stories out there like that and even more parents who are persuaded by coaches that say trophies won and individual champions developed is the way to gauge the quality of a program.

Success should not and cannot be measured by the number of athletes a child can defeat.

To the contrary, the only way a parent should, or could possibly judge the quality of a youth wrestling program is solely by its retention rate. What percentage of last year’s team is in the wrestling room this year? Now I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would expect to see a 90% retention rate, but something over 70% should be a minimum number.

Coaches have to learn to be happy with athletes who can now 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 their hand with a firm grip while looking them in the eye. That’s a skill worth teaching and one we should be proud we were able help them develop. Or just being able to do 5 pull-ups when 3 were impossible just a month earlier.

Programs have lost sight of allowing children to grow at their own pace in a supportive environment.

What does all this mean? I think you can answer that yourself by just looking at the trends. They’re not good. So here I go, this is what I’d do if I were King. I’d ask the parents of every child to take back the control they mistakenly relinquished to the coaches by saying “no” to competition in the first year of wrestling. Then at the same time pass legislation that says . . .

No child is allowed to enter competition for one calendar year from the date they begin wrestling.

What that would immediately do is substantially reduce the anxiety children feel trying to learn a sport that requires combative aggression when the last thing they learned to do that was physical with some level of aggression was playing dodge ball at recess. No wait; that’s not allowed anymore, schools have deemed that to be far too aggressive and belittling. So I wonder what they would think about youth wrestling if they put our sport under their microscope?

Instead, what should be taking place during their first full season is learning the rules of the game, some basic techniques, participate in drills that are masquerading as games, learn body awareness skills and how to protect oneself through gymnastic like tumbling routines and some fun facts about the sports rich history and of course focus on the tenets of sportsmanship.

However, most everything we do is backwards; we teach wrestlers how to throw someone down before anyone learns how to tuck their head and roll. We scold them for locking hands before telling them it’s not legal. I could go on here but you get the idea.

“So what are you saying Wade, that we shouldn’t take 1st year wrestlers to tournaments for a year?” 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 familiarized with their future surroundings. And yes, they’re there to participate . . . just not compete.

This is how that’s accomplished . . .

We need to develop a series of Katas for wrestling and make them apart of tournaments for first year students, just like many of the martial arts do all the time.

For those who aren’t familiar with Katas, they’re individual exercises, drills and/or techniques that consist of specific movements that are demonstrated in harmony with a passive partner.

We could accomplish this any one of several ways and this is just a suggestion that I’m not married to for those who wish to argue. If you don’t like what I’m proposing, change it, but the basic tenet of this is the way I believe we have to go.

Create a generic form that every athlete receives. On it list 10 takedowns; 8 reversals; 4 different escapes; several pinning combinations; 8 historical figures or eras of wrestling; 4 sportsmanship philosophies; 6 boxes for drilling that evaluators check off; the first one with 10 seconds next to it, the next consisting of 20 seconds and the third of 30 seconds etc. up to a minute in length and 10 boxes that get checked for correct answers to rules of the sport. And every time a young man or lady is evaluated, just like martial arts athletes have to bow to their Sensei, they have to shake hands with their evaluator and explain why that’s important or why they should stand at attention during the playing of our national anthem?

The athletes can pick any element they want from each category to be tested on. Then at the next event he or she must pick another set of skills and questions to answer and so on through out the season.

The idea is to have every box and technique checked off by the end of the year and in the process win up to 3 ribbons (Blue, Red or White) per weekend based upon how well he or she accomplishes what they’re being tested on. And the best part of this is no one can lose, it’s all about how well they can succeed and within 30 minutes from the time they start; they could be in the car and on their way home with proud parents in tow.

Now please don’t get caught up in the individual particulars that I just suggested such as who will do the testing and to what standards each athlete will be expected to achieve. We can change that any way you want, just focus on the concept.

And this isn’t to say that the current system hasn’t benefited its share of athletes, it has! But I’d like to think that those who are in this category would still succeed, would still grow and I believe would benefit even more from the postponement of gratification while they’re being forced to place a stronger emphasis on the basics and the human qualities it is so well known to develop.

With Katas everyone wins, the tournament operator still collects the entry fees these 1st year wrestlers generate, each child comes home a winner, the coach is happy his program has a far better chance of maintaining its numbers, the children love showing off without the pressure of actual competition and the parents are ecstatic they don’t have a disappointed child when it’s over. Then everyone goes home by way of Dairy Queen to celebrate.

As for increased revenue which is the life blood of businesses, as our numbers increase through improved retention percentages, the sports bottom line grows proportionally.

This is easy to set up and run on one or two mats at the end of the gym in far, far less time that it would take to eliminate all these athletes through regular competition. You just divide each mat into 4 equal parts and go to work testing 8 athletes at a time per mat.

In regards to who we select to be the evaluators, I would suggest the athletes older peers who are high school or college age. They certainly know enough to evaluate the sport’s most basic techniques and this level of responsibility would help in their development as well. Remember, this is all about retention rates and uplifting self-esteem. It’s worked extremely well for the martial arts just as I’m sure it will for us.

And just because it’s different from what we’re used to doing we shouldn’t dismiss the idea. Because in the end, it’s still all about winning.

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15 thoughts on “Youth Wrestling . . . How Stupid

  1. To grow the fan base I go back to your excellent thoughts – and responders’ comments — on youth wrestling from last year. As a youth coach I was gratified to see people like you saying things I’d been thinking for years as I watched retention rates suffer from adults taking the fun out of sports again. Teaching LT fundamentals and letting kids grow into competition on their timetable requires everyone to set their egos aside – but we’ll all have a lot more to brag about when the HS lineups are full.

  2. I agree, but would also like to emphasize that if we want to grow wrestling we need to grow its fan base and support. This could be done at the youth level by focusing on the 3Fs mentioned above to build ambassadors for the sport rather than the next olympic hopeful. Also eliminating long all day or 1/2 day tournaments that turn away wrestlers and their parents. From an efficiency standpoint, spending 4-5 hours in the gym to get 3-4 matches at 3-5 minutes a piece is not efficient. Joint practices, scrimmages, dual/tri meets would be more appropriate than an adult tournament styles of competition for youth sport.

  3. Some have lost their way.

  4. Anyone who has competed in youth tournaments realizes quickly that much of the Olympic reach is imposed by overbearing dads. I guess if anyone read the kary kolat story on flo, lst episode, you could see how overbearing a father could be with 10,000 punishing possible pushups after having practiced, at around 8 years old. Kolat managed to survive and thrive and build himself into one of the country’s top wrestlers — but how many others would? Very very few. Most are driven off by what amounts to madness and most likely suffer irreparable damage in their relationships with their fathers. I witnessed way too much of this when my own sons competed in youth tournies (we did 10-11 a year, prior to HS). The super studs from the pee wee tournies were too often no shows in highschools.

    • Those “super studs” are generally injured, have won enough hardware they no longer want to battle, or are just sick of the grind, and big enough to talk back to the old man. Our system now, for kids who start so young, is Darwinistic. Only the very gifted and highly motivated remain from the bottom of the ladder to the top…

      The idea that youth programs somehow contribute to State Championships is a myth. In too many cases, they build bad habits that are difficult to change, set expectations far beyond reality, and generally arrest good emotional and physical development. Those kids who start so young and stand on that 1st place stand in HS usually have it in their DNA, and it has nothing to do with the youth coaching they received. Their HS coaches are usually wise enough to get em in shape, refine em tactically and hold their warm ups while they wrestle.

      I love the idea of a standard list of basic moves, to be mastered as Katas. No practice for a young boy should last more than 30 min.

  5. Kata first year. Good idea. You teach the moves anyway or should.
    Measure their skill and reward them as they progress.

    They can’t demonstrate their skill against a competitive opponent blocking them in a match. They need to feel good about themselves and they need to feel they are making progress. Kata may do this.

    Second year, only second years compete against second years?
    Get them into competition, yes, but give them a chance to win/lose.
    Unless they are gifted, how beat up and frustrated will they get facing a far superior opponent?

    Could one argue the same for third years only against third years?

    Would they have the emotional state to take on anyone, and bounce back from losing, after the third year?

    Just realized, in all these discussions, nowhere do I read the coaches should work with the parents.

    Some parents will give no support, and need to be encouraged.

    Other parents are too competitive, and demand too much too quickly.

    Is there a write-up/recommendation for coaches working with parents?

    Regarding kata, it might be good to teach the parents the kata too.

    • Rick, the best way that I’ve learned to deal with parents, is to give them as much face time as possible by making yourself available immediately after practices. I would dismiss the kids after telling them to thank their parents for bringing them to practice and walk straight into the crowd and interact. Parents are busy and want to get home to begin their evenings, so give them that face time. The aggressive and very competitive parents will always challenge you for several reasons. 1. Their kid is a winner and your program is too “fun”. He/she needs to be a state/national champ at the age of eight. 2. They yell instructions into the room from the hallways and disrupt practices. 3. They get on all fours at the edge of the mat and scream so much that you can’t coach them. 4. They try to be a coach and critique their child instead of being a supporting parent. I deal with these types of parents by simply discussing their actions and the need for change. If they’re hell bent on junior being a state champ, I recommend a good club team in the area. If they disrupt practices, I close the door and move their kid to the opposite side of the room. If they’re at the edge of the mat, I call the official over and have them removed for safety reasons. As for number four, I tell the kids that I’m their coach and I’m there to keep them safe and help them improve and your moms and dads are there to hug you, win or lose. Now, If their parents don’t live up to that message the kids will see that failure and the onus is one them, not me. In the end, there is only so much you can do, and you pray that it all works out.

  6. There is no way to make traditional training for competitive wrestling “fun,” in the way most pre-adolescent kids think of the word. You can play horse in your driveway, even perfect your skills playing 1on1 there. You can play pick up football in the back yard. (A lost art these days, but nonetheless possible.) At play, in order to keep the game fun, most kids will find a way to keep it competitive and distribute the teams and abilities evenly. There is no way to make getting smacked around by an early maturing kid-if you are the late maturer-fun.

    In fact, the preparation to compete is supposed to make the competition fun. Granted, when we love the sport, we learn to love practice-but that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of 10year olds.

    Wade has it right. The future of the sport should be in better hands.

  7. My youngest joined his elementary program (I was a varsity coach in a neighboring school). While watching a Saturday practice, his coach (good guy) had the kids doing that “wheelbarrow drill” – something I used carefully and sparingly with my kids, as it requires significant upper-body strength for the bottom man. He had them “racing” the room – my son’s arms gave out and his partner drove his body up and over his head. I could hear the “pop” from the other side of the room. No harm done, unbelievably. I saw no point in confronting the coach, but we left… and didn’t come back. That was the end of wrestling for him. So add “using inappropriate drills for younger wrestlers” to the list. Sad.

  8. Great and timely piece, thanks!

    Just my opinions follow.

    One of the very top HS programs in the Midwest did something like the kata thing for many years, kids had to get so many “forms” complete before they could do various other things. It worked.

    A related problem happens when physically skilled kids compete way more than they practice. I’ve seen USAW regional kids/cadets champions who didn’t make their HS varsity teams because they were coached and got away with junk until others caught up and then they had no skills.

    Too many coaches almost only teach defense and counters, which will win really a lot when kids are small. We see the problem with this at all levels today. See the previous paragraph. Some of our so called top HS, cadet, junior, and college kids can barely buy a takedown these days, and that is hurting wrestling as much as any other thing.

    With little kids I always said, “Wrestling is perfect, you get to run around, get all sweaty and dirty, tussle with another kid, and everyone says, Great job!”

    We also taught the power of taking chances, saying, It absolutely doesn’t matter how it comes out, so get a set up, take a chance, and if you are going to go down, go down in flames.

    Fun.

  9. I think another mass exodus for kids not returning is the tournaments themselves. Having a young couple new to wrestling sir in a gym every Sunday for 8 hours to watch Jr wrestle 1 or 2 matches is a huge turn off.

    Get back to having duals, tris and quads. With exhibition matches on top you can watch Jr wrestle 2-4 matches in a couple hours. You can have much better control over the matches (keeping experience pretty equal). Of course the host doesn’t pocket thousands of dollars by cramming 500 wrestlers into a gym, stalling the event to sell more merchandise and concession and making a 5 hour event into an 8 hour event.

    I also agree with the crazy amount of competition we throw unprepared and unwilling kids into. And Summer work makes Winter champions shouldn’t apply to 6,7 and 9 year old kids that might also love baseball, soccer, lacrosse or softball.

    • Mike . . . the problem is the wrestling community seldom if ever stops to ask itself questions like how can we make this or that better. Events are easy to correct as far as having to sit through 12 hour days. Wave the 30 minute rest in between matches, which is a stupid rule that we’ve been forced to live with for decades and stagger weigh-ins and the times weight classes wrestle. Example, weigh-in the first 3 weights at 8am, start wrestling at 9am. They finish by 11am. Weigh the next 3 weight classes at 10am and start wrestling at 11am. Finish by 1pm. Weigh the next 3 weight classes at noon and start wrestling at 1pm. Finish by 3pm. Etc. Things can change here based upon the number of wrestlers pre-registered but you get the idea.

      It makes no sense to keep everyone glued to their seats for 12 hours unless the goal is to frustrate parents and discourage kids from being a part of our programming.

      Now some kids might only get 10 minutes rest between bouts using this system but as long as both athletes get the same amount of recovery time, what’s the big deal? Coaches make their kids wrestle back to back to back to back to back matches in the practice room without any breaks and no one has dropped over from that yet. We just think, because we’ve been conditioned to think this way that something bad is going to happen if they don’t get 30 minutes and preferably 45 minutes of rest. Hog wash. Either wrestlers are tough or they’re not, which is it?

      • Some great ideas, staggering start times for wrestlers by weight. Also assigning mats ahead of time for the bigger events will keep some of the mat side traffic down. Which mat side audiences could be an entirely new discussion.

        As far as parent/coach involvement, I have a member in my wrestling closed group that has a preseason parent night where they explain wrestling in detail to get parents more understanding and more involved.

        Sometimes wrestlers are our worst enemies, maintaining old habits instead of embracing change and incorporating technology as a more useful tool in all aspects of wrestling.

        Need more innovative thinkers that can actually implement some of the great ideas I see across blogs (like this) and wrestling char rooms.

        A private business would be embracing “idea makers” not distancing them.

        Great discussion–keep up the great work Wade and all.

        • All of this is so true. Wade has been a innovator and a true icon to all who wrestled in the 70’s. I have seen Wade compete and can truly say that he was dynamic and exciting. We should all take stock in his assessment because he has been involved at every level and knows what is going on. The sport is dying folks. We need folks like Wade to wake us up and heed their advice. No kid wants or should be subjected to what youth wrestling has become.

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