How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 12

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Chapter 12

12. Protect our youth. Athlete retention must be a priority. We have to work at growing our numbers while expanding our revenue if we expect to survive as a sport but what a challenge that is when half of those we attract leave in the first year.

The main challenge we have here is a majority of youth coaches define success by the number of medals earned and championships won, which is the same way their coaches handled the sport when they wrestled. But things that have always been done a certain way don’t always mean they were done correctly; especially when we’re talking about early childhood.

What worked when kids climbed trees and swam in creeks for fun doesn’t fly in today’s technology driven lifestyle. There are too many things for children to choose from to remain endeared to wrestling; at least in its current form which sadly, is also its past form. There are hundreds of diversions for kids to choose from and at the same time myriads of options which involve fun and excitement; so why would any of them want to wrestle?

For us to keep up with the interests of today’s children we have to change the way programs handle sports generally, wrestling specifically. That means finding ways to make our sport engaging, enjoyable and achievement based; at least in their inaugural year of involvement.

That means three things if we want our current recruiting class to be part of the sport next year:

  1. Practices need to be structured in a way that’s fun and enjoyable.
  2. Our current tournament structure has to be altered for 1st year wrestlers.
  3. Limits need to be set on the difficulty of events that 2nd year wrestlers attend.

But first we need to adjust the thought processes of well-meaning parents (and coaches) who put winning ahead of retention. What worked decades ago are just as many years past its shelf live today.

All wrestling seems to do each season is duplicate what it did in previous years; but with an eye toward increased intensity. Granted the Iowa system of “get in your face wrestling” works well when you want to develop tough wrestlers but for youth programs all it does is teach the top 10% how to successfully prey on the bottom 50%.

Scheduling more competition, practicing longer hours and pushing kids to work harder has been cataclysmic to the sports elementary programs.

Our problem begins each fall with the number of new parents and young adults that just retired from competition who volunteer to coach programs.

It seems when this happens, these coaches who have yet to learn how to handle youth programming, approach their responsibilities in one of three ways:

  1. They seek guidance from experienced coaches. (5%)
  2. They duplicate what they were taught when they wrestled. (75%)
  3. Or wing it and cross their fingers. (20%)

Youth programming shouldn’t be judged by the number of championships won but by the number of athletes retained from one season to the next.

Lose over 50% of your athletes and the program is a gigantic failure regardless of the color or quantity of any hardware won. This is the price the sport pays when coaches focus on the top 10% at the expense of the bottom 50%.

Lose 25% of the athletes and the program is average because that’s generally considered the national average for children dropping out of any program, sport or activity.

Lose 0% of your athletes and you’re in a very small pool of Gold Medal coaches. 100% retention should be the standard by which everyone strives to achieve.

End with more wrestlers than a program began with and the coach belongs in Stillwater at the Hall of Fame.

Now I’m not opposed to youth programing taking home championships, someone has to win but to be willing to accept the loss of athletes all in the quest of gaining hardware is wrong!

If we were to parallel this to business, which I’ve done quite a bit in these blogs, a company that loses over 50% of its customer base each year is:

  1. Already out of business or on the verge of it.
  2. Or in the process of firing every executive they have.

Fortunately for wrestling we’re not out of business because every child on this planet, if they have a neighbor across the street has already tried wrestling. It’s the most natural of activities and it’s the #1 sport in percentages of children giving it a try. So the pool we have to draw from is wide and deep. The problem is the sport itself poisons the water by the way we handle our athletes.

What others are saying:

“This is a wonderful read – totally engrossing; it’s a must for anyone who cares about the direction of wrestling. The most important presentation I’ve seen for wrestling in years.”

Joanna Kielb, Washington, DC

In the last 50 years we’ve gone from something just shy of 1000 collegiate programs to 30% of that number of which only 79 of them are Division I programs. Now no one individual is at fault here as we’ve had quite a few leaders come and go during that time but the mentality that each carried with them has remained the same. This is proof positive that if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten.

The overarching theme for our youth coaches seem to be work hard, stay focused and wrestle in as many events as you can get to.

No one can argue that competition isn’t the key component to success but as every sword has two edges, competition also shaves our numbers.

“Okay Wade I got it, the horse is dead, so now what?”

Well, let’s first address the practice outline. During the first two years of a young person’s wrestling career, it’s critical that he or she be immersed in practices that center around wrestling’s 3F’s; Fun, Friends and Fundamentals.

  1. When athletes are having Fun in practice, retention numbers soar.
  2. If the wrestlers aren’t making new Friends which they can play with outside of wrestling, there’s something wrong with the way the program is structured.
  3. As to the Fundamentals, they’re definitely the building blocks of winning. Are they important, you bet they are but not at the expense of the first two. Wrestlers will learn the fundamentals just by being involved, even if it doesn’t appear they’re paying attention. But if they’re not in the room because they’ve already quit, it’s kind of tough being an absentee learner.

Youth programming needs to be a two year process of starting in the shallow end and working ever so slowly toward the deep end. To accomplish our goal of retention, if we have to legislate a new way of thinking for the sport, so be it and here’s the direction I’d head.

For the elementary grades and younger, there should be no tournaments or formal scrimmages during an athlete’s first year of wrestling; at least in the way we currently know them.

Instead we should employ Kata’s or Forms as the way we test our newest students. It’s the way it’s done in most of the martial arts and it’s been a proven winner for them.

As a brief history, Kata’s (pronounced caught-a’s) is a Japanese word for detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. The term Form is used for the corresponding demonstrations in non-Japanese martial arts. Both are teaching methods that leads to a systematic approach to learning. By practicing in a non-competitive setting, the child learns how to naturally develop the ability to execute techniques without thought or hesitation.

The idea is everyone still goes to tournaments but for the first year athlete, pre-K to say 5th grade, they don’t wrestle live matches. Instead they must demonstrate techniques with a passive partner in all three positions and then answer questions about the sports history, rules, starting positions, decorum and sportsmanship.

For this effort every athlete will receive either a white, red or blue ribbon based on their performance and responses to questions. Evaluations should be rather liberal and the total experience supportive and positive. The individual particulars how this would be actually handled should be based on the opinions of our best coaches. But regardless of how it’s conducted or managed, the concept is a winning one and the costs associated with it are almost negligible.

The main issue I have with tournaments, at least in the early stages of a child’s development, is the way we split up combatants based on age and weight. This is so unfair and devastating to our population because we overlook the most important phase of a child’s development; that being his years of experience!

Putting a child on the mat that’s been wrestling for 2 weeks against someone whose weight and age are the same but has been wrestling for 2 years is nothing short of child abuse. This is why kids quit and parents walkaway. Age and weight is not a fair way of pairing anyone when the combatants are novices. It never has been, never will be but we keep doing it the same way and hoping for a different outcome?

Kata’s are the answer if retaining athletes is the goal. Who gets hurt if we nurture our young by bringing them along slowly? They’re still practicing. They’re attending events. They’re still supporting their teammates. They get to learn about competition without having to go through the sting of lopsided outcomes. Tournament operators still receive their entry fee revenue which is important to the sport. Every child goes home with a ribbon and as a much larger benefit; parents are on their way home before noon with their achiever child in tow.

Logistically, set aside two mats for the Kata’s and tape each one into four smaller wrestling sections. That way we can have 8 Kata stations handling 16 beginners all at the same time.

As a secondary thought, maybe what we should consider is one calendar year without live fire events and the completion of 6 levels of Kata’s; each one building on the previous one. It can be 4 or 8, you decide, but what we should be working toward is a better way of preparing our wrestler’s for success when they actually enter competition. Maybe develop a report card for the sport where the athlete has to have 80% of the boxes checked off before being allowed to enter competition. I think you see where I’m trying to go here.

In the second year of a wrestler’s development, after finishing the Kata’s, they should be restricted to local competition only; regional and national events should be off limits. It’s wrong to define having ones ass kicked as a means of developing character. That’s the prevailing attitude that all too many coaches have about events. Parents hear, “Don’t worry; your son will be okay, I’ll watch over him.” But sitting in the corner and watching the carnage isn’t what the parents had in mind when they heard, “I’ll watch over him.”

Would doing things this way have hurt the Cary Kolat’s and David Taylor’s of the world during their developmental years? I don’t think so. Great will be great regardless of how we handle them. You can’t screw up greatness although Johnny Manziel is working hard at screwing up his. Champions win in spite of the leadership they receive or the structure they’re in. But that’s definitely not true for the lower 50% who simply aren’t prepared for the rigors of competition.

Setting program precedent for the top 10% and the expense of the lower half just demonstrates how backward our thinking has always been. And no, I’m not dummying down a tough sport; just the opposite. I just wonder how many World and Olympic champions we’ve actually run out of the sport during their first year through our indifference. And if you think about it, doesn’t baseball start their youth in T-ball? I wonder why they don’t have kids throwing at that age or trying to hit a pitched ball? Hmmm. Why did the NFL start their own flag football program for youngsters? What, no tackling? Hmmm. See any parallels here?

The sports goal must be retention; we must find a way to make sure that every child who comes out for wrestling is going to be with us three years later. If we can see our way clear to make the changes we have to make, then the percentages of each athlete becoming a high school wrestler goes up exponentially.

In conclusion, putting a young man out in front of his parents and friends when he hasn’t learned the rules, doesn’t know the starting positions and hasn’t even begun to master the sports basic techniques is wrestling’s equivalent of bullying. Tournaments should offer report cards for Novices, not physical and emotional bruises.

It’s all about Slurpee’s. As a note for parents, when it’s time for your child to participate in sports, above all, don’t rush home after practices or meets. I know, you have work to do and things to finish, and they have homework. I’ve heard all the (excuses) reasons. But please find time to bond with God’s little creature that’s buckled into the seat next to you. Stop at a Dairy Queen, a convenience store, somewhere on the way home and together share a treat. Personally I’d recommend Slurpee’s.

Then just sit in the car and enjoy the time you have together. It’s what my children remember most about youth sports; the time we spent sitting in parking lots sharing stories and laughing at one another’s purple colored tongues. It’s never just about sports; it’s about the creation of a lifetime of friendships that too many parents never create with their children because they’re in a hurry to get home.

Chapter 13 next Sunday.


  • Stan Dziedzic says:

    On the point and articulated well. As an example: “Does the sport of gymnastics expect its newcomers to perform a routine on the horizontal bars, floor exercise or rings before they’ve mastered the core maneuvers? Of course not! Only after having developed the requisite skills does a gymnast perform a routine in competition.
    Why then does wrestling–whose skills are as diverse and challenging to learn–expect its athletes to compete before mastering a sufficient # of holds? As Wade notes, wrestling needs to be more creative if it’s going to retain a larger # of its athletes. Throwing its wrestlers into competition before they’re ready isn’t the answer.

  • Rick S. says:

    Why isn’t there a belt color system in wrestling?

    Perhaps white and yellow are limited to kata.

    Perhaps orange belts can start gaining combat experience with wrestlers outside their team, but they would only face orange belts or, if they are getting good, some green belts.

    I would suggest a wrestler only wrestle another wrestler of the same belt unless they are good enough for advancement and ready to start facing belts at the next higher level until they reach a certain belt level.

    You limit your focus to getting young athletes into the sport and retaining young athletes.

    Perhaps the child will stay in the sport if his/her parents enter the sport, learn the kata, and start to participate in an adult division against other adults with similar skill levels.

    Why do people only start the sport of wrestling when they are young while people can and do start Judo or Karate or Aikido or other martial arts as adults?

    Granted an adult may not have the time, because of work and family obligations, to advance as quickly as a child. What matters is not the speed of advancement, but the participation of the parent. Parents will better understand what the child is doing if the parent never wrestled before.

    Wrestlers don’t wear belts. Perhaps the wrestler can wear colored shoes. Perhaps the wrestler can have a colored mark on the arm or shoulder. The fact wrestlers don’t wear belts that can be colored is a solvable problem.

    I will point out a few possible outcomes/problems if you limit wrestlers to the same belt or one belt higher. Perhaps, at some higher belt level, a wrestler should be expected to face all-comers.

    I would expect scoring to be more difficult against opponents of the same belt level which will affect scoring. Many comments seem focused on increasing scoring. Matching the skill level of the participants works against this focus.

    A problem might exist putting together matches for dual meets:

    1) One school might have a lightweight wrestler with a black belt. Another school might not have a lightweight wrestler with a blue belt. Would the school without a black belt forfeit the weight or would the black belt not participate in the dual meet, and instead the school with the black belt send out a blue belt opponent?

    2 Matches for dual meets can have more wrestling matches at the same weight if, for example, both schools have a black belt at the same weight and a brown belt at that weight.

    You can decide, at what belt level, a wrestler can be expected to face all-comers. If you go the route of having belt levels, you must decide what each belt color means skill-wise and competition-wise.

    • Rick S. says:

      I wish I could edit my comments when I see something I said that is not clear or not the way I want it expressed.

      I said, above, “Parents will better understand what the child is doing if the parent never wrestled before.”.

      What I meant to say, “Parents that have never wrestled before will better understand what the child is doing if the parents can enter the sport of wrestling.”

    • Rick S. says:

      And another error in the above, I said, “Another school might not have a lightweight wrestler with a blue belt.”.

      I meant to say, “Another school might only have a lightweight wrestler with a blue belt.”

  • wondering says:

    Hey Wade
    You make some great points in these posts. I can’t believe that in the kids divisions there isn’t a move towards “experience” level grouping of athletes. I mean this is the norm in other grappling arts and those disciplines (specifically bjj) are certainly growing. I am not sure that “katas” are the answer as they are for other traditional martial arts but is there no one looking at those events for ideas at all?

    • Wade Schalles says:

      No, I’m sorry to say. Wrestling is backwards in that way. We fight any idea that isn’t our own. Here’s my take on it from being in the sport for over 50 years.

      If you were in a war, and your platoon was made up of wrestling’s leadership who were caught in the middle of a mind field, what would happen? Regular military would have someone work there way across the field and out of danger. Then each of the others would follow being very careful to step exactly in the tracts the first man made.

      But not in wrestling. Our leadership doesn’t think that way. Regardless of how smart it might be to take direction from someone else, or in this case follow the guy who made it to safety, they’d each go in different directions regardless of the danger. Their thinking is that independent. An explosion is preferred if it happens while they’re doing it their way.

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