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.