Avoidable problems with youth wrestling
I just got home from a pretty major youth tournament in New Jersey. I watched close to 200 matches between some of the best youth wrestlers in the country… Figured I would talk a bit about my personal opinions on youth wrestling, both the positive and the negative.
I am a youth coach and I think youth wrestling is great for kids. It teaches them so much about themselves, about the way the world works, about discipline, learning, toughness, responsibility; I could go on… but it can also be destructive. This article is about the negative aspects of youth wrestling so that parents and coaches can do their best to give kids a positive experience.
Before I get into it I want to state my opinion on something: I do not think youth wrestling is effective for building college national champions; if the goal is to get your child into a great college and have a successful wrestling career at that level, youth wrestling will not be much of an advantage. Youth wrestling is good for learning about yourself, learning about the world, and introducing kids to the sport…
Common problems with youth wrestling:
Pressure to win:
Pressure to win is very confusing for little kids, especially at the younger end of the spectrum (5-8 years old). I often see young wrestlers in their first wrestling matches looking scared and confused; they don’t really know what is going on. From their young perspectives, they are in a FIGHT. Soccer, baseball, football… these sports are games, but wrestling is closer to a fight than a game (losing is painful, someone is throwing you down and beating you up. The same physical sensations you would get before a fight occur [fight or flight]; you become nervous, sweaty, uneasy, etc). To make things worse, their dad/mom is often in the corner screaming at them while the match is going on. To a little kid, their daddy is making them fight, and he wants them to win. In fact, they are so emphatic about them winning, that they are yelling at them during the match. Worse, some parents express disappointment when their little guy doesn’t perform well. Can you imagine the psychological repercussions of such experiences? A withdrawal of love from your parents because you didn’t win the fight (often against an opponent who is psychologically and/or physically dominant to them). It is very confusing for them; many of these little kids still play pretend, write letters to santa, and see the world as a magical place. They are not yet mature enough to benefit from this type of pressure.
This is completely different when kids get older. Somewhere around 12 boys start liking girls, they start to recognize that their is a fight for positioning in the dominance hierarchy, and they become much more socially intelligent. At this age, young men get into wrestling because it is a fight, not because it is a game. They get tougher, and stronger, and become men as a result. They want this because they see how important it is in the real world. They are autonomous in their decision to wrestle, and they push themselves because THEY want it (something we will get into more in a bit). This is the type of attitude that yields champions.
Another problem with youth wrestling is the level of competition. An overwhelming amount of moves that work well at the youth level are disastrous mistakes at the upper levels of wrestling. This is because the most common response to a position is often not the best. When a non-optimal-move yields positive results, the incorrect response is reinforced. One of the worst things that can happen to a wrestler’s development is to have success with a nonsense-move. It is very common to see a dominant high school wrestler get to college and find out that many of their favorite moves no longer work for them; this is why so many high school state champions fizzle out.
Additionally, since most youth coaches are concerned with winning at the youth level (and not building college national champions 10 years down the road), these are the exact moves that they teach… of course they work! I don’t blame the coaches for teaching like this, It is probably the best way to build a winning youth team.
Throughout my career, an overwhelming majority of moves that I’ve learned are garbage. They look cool, and may work against weaker opponents, but they are not positionally sound and will either lose or be ineffective against smarter wrestlers.
I should mention that this happens at every level of wrestling… Wrestling talent is shaped like pyramid with the best in the world at the top, and the majority of the people towards the bottom. At the bottom of the pyramid, a lot of moves will work… but as you go up and get to better wrestlers, fewer techniques work against their better positioning.
Techniques are not the only bad habits young wrestlers form… bad drilling habits are destructive as well. The entire point of drilling is to program your instincts. You teach yourself the smartest (as opposed to the most natural) ways to move/respond to specific positions, and you program yourself to execute these movements immediately and explosively. When a youth wrestler practices 2000 shots without their head up, it becomes a very difficult habit to reprogram. When they spend years practicing lackadaisically, it is very difficult to teach them the discipline and focus required during drilling to become a champion
The other bad habit I want to talk about is that kids get used to forgetting moves… They take what they are learning with a self-serve, you choose which moves you like attitude. They don’t understand that every single detail must be memorized and committed to memory, exactly as it is shown. So for years techniques go in one ear, and out the other. This becomes a habit; one which will greatly hinder there learning. Remember how I said that moves get more complicated when you get to the upper levels… because the best responses aren’t always the easiest or most natural responses… Well kids who have spent their lives learning like this never develop the fortitude to pickup these techniques. I like to use the analogy of learning to play a complex symphony on the piano; it’s going to take desperate deliberate work, day in day out, before it will sound perfect (wrestling moves will not work till they are perfect). A move might not make realistic sense until it has been drilled 500 times (why do so many kids not shoot?) Since this level of commitment is not needed to have success at the younger levels, but is needed at the upper levels, these bad habits can hinder many kid’s potential.
Weight cutting is really stupid at younger ages, it is a quick way to suck a kids passion right out of him. Some rare kids will want to do it themselves; but most kids who are forced to cut weight by their parents will resent the sport for it. I highly suggest staying away from weight cutting completely, at least till they are done growing and mature enough to handle it.
So you want to build your kid into a champion?
It doesn’t matter how hard you push them, how much you want it for them, how much they train, or who they are trained by. The kid being pushed will NEVER be able to reach the same level as the passionate kid who wants it for himself. Nothing can beat obsession. That’s why I think the most important thing youth wrestling can do is instill passion in them. If you get the psychology right, they will love it, and will want it on their own. They will push themselves harder than you ever would have been able to, and they will like how hard it is. You cannot build a child into a champion adult wrestler. You can only hope to instill the right mindset so that when they are autonomous adults they go out and get it FOR THEMSELVES.
Youth wrestling can be destructive for grooming adult champions… but who cares! No one gets involved in wrestling to become a champion, that’s a decision that they will make on their own long after they start wrestling. Keep it fun, keep it about learning, and just maybe they will decide to become champions on their own.