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Youth Wrestling: keep it fun, retain more athletes


We had our first tournaments of the 2017-18 season for our youth wrestling club this past weekend. We took almost 20 kids to a beginners tournament. These tournaments are open to kids who are in their first or second year of wrestling. It is a great idea: give new or newer wrestlers a chance to compete in an environment where they can wrestle other kids who are very close in experience and skill levels. Done well it gives the kids a chance to get used to competition without a lot of stress, and it gives the kids a chance to have fun. I like seeing a new wrestler do his or her best and walk off the mat smiling even after a loss.

This is very important for wrestling in America. In order for this sport to be strong and to grow, and for kids to maximize the benefits it offers, we need to make sure kids coming through youth programs learn to love it so that they will stick with it at the high school level and beyond. Wrestling is a sport that just about every young person can participate in through high school, and it is a sport that can build grit in young student athletes like no other sport can.

So why push a kid so hard in his/her elementary and junior high school years that he/she becomes a youth wrestling champion only to walk away when he or she is poised to get the most out of it? We shouldn’t.

When my kids first started wrestling a few years ago I struggled watching them lose match after match. They started between 3 to 6 years after they first became eligible which meant they were often wrestling kids with more experience. I wanted to encourage them and keep their spirits up, but I also wanted to push them to work harder at practices so that they could experience the thrill of winning. At the time I felt winning was the only way to build self confidence.

I don’t think that way anymore, and thankfully for my sons my thinking evolved relatively early on. They’re still in youth wrestling, and now I try to focus on improvement and fun.

I understand the thinking that goes “winning is fun, and when you win more and more you’ll love the sport.” But if you push so hard early on before it’s fun, then there is a  chance youth wrestlers will choose to leave the sport long before they’ve developed a mastery of the techniques needed to give them the chance to win. Most folks believe that if you love what you do, then you will become good at it. That same logic ought to work with youth wrestling too.

Ideally I would have started my kids in wrestling when they were 5 or 6 years old. If I could do it over again, I would also keep them out of competitions until they had 2 years of wrestling practices under their belts. Not every youth wrestler will benefit from this approach. Some kids need the excitement of competition to stay excited. Other kids will pick up the skills quicker than others. But for those that do not fall into these two categories a brief delay in competition may be helpful in the longer run.

Instead of competitions I would have more practices, and those practices would feature more games to keep it fun, and fitness competitions to encourage them to take their conditioning and body weight exercises more seriously.

In America, at a time when wrestlers have the resources they need to compete at the international level consistently well, the attrition rates from youth wrestling to high school wrestling are reportedly around 70%. That means 7 out of 10 youth wrestlers choose not to go on!

We can do better than that by a lot. If we keep more kids in wrestling in high school, then those kids will learn lessons that will serve them well through out their lives even if they never step foot into a college wrestling room after high school. But some of those kids whom we otherwise would lose to attrition may go on to wrestle in college, and some of them will go on to even bigger stages around the world!