Like many parents new to wrestling, Kelly Stettner of Springfield, Vermont once had questions and concerns about her then eight-year-old daughter, Moira, competing in a sport she literally knew nothing about. Would she be too weak to compete? Too small? Would she get injured? How would she handle competing against boys?
Fast forward seven years to 2014 and all those worries are gone. Her daughter, who likes to be called “Mo,” just finished fifth at the Vermont JV State Tournament. And as for Kelly, she went from anxious mom to a supportive team manager who loved getting on the edge of the mat to film her daughter’s matches.
"Wrestling has been just incredible for Mo on many levels," says Stettner. "She tried soccer, softball, even field hockey and basketball before giving wrestling a shot. Wrestling is Mo's stress release and an opportunity for her to challenge herself physically as well as mentally, while having fun.”
Lennie Zalesky has watched and coached a lot of wrestling and wrestlers during his career. Zalesky was a three-time All-American under head coach Dan Gable at the University of Iowa and has coached at the high school and college level in Iowa, Alaska, Indiana and California. Some had great success, others not as much. But most all have one thing that really stands out. And that's strong character.
"Wrestling builds character," says Zalesky, who is now the head coach of the California Baptist University wrestling team. "It teaches your child how to develop discipline and a work ethic that is difficult to find in any other sport. It is a sport that leaves a permanent chapter on one’s soul."
"I've coached for a long time and I have met so many people that, though successful in their professions, would rather talk about their wrestling days than what they are doing or other successes they have made. The sport makes even the average wrestler proud of his accomplishments, proud that he made it through practices, took down one of the best kids in the room and made the weight for the weight class which he wrestles. The list of these self-accomplishments can be very long. I rarely meet a man that does not cherish his days competing as a wrestler."
Joe Reasbeck, who wrestled at the University of Minnesota and now coaches youth wrestling in Superior, Wisc., says one of the most important things parents should understand about wrestling is that it is a “base” sport— meaning it makes you a better athlete across all sports. "It provides mental toughness for the times you have to dig deep,” he says. “Balance, quickness, body positioning, body awareness, strength, flexibility: the benefits are numerous.”
"Discipline, dedication, delayed gratification, work ethic, ability to overcome obstacles, humility, persistence, courage, confidence, respect: these are the attributes that become enhanced in wrestlers, and those traits are valuable in day-to-day life long after participation in the sport has ceased,” Reasbeck adds.
Safety is often a concern of parents unfamiliar with the sport, says Clarence Long, Head Coach of the Hustle & Muscle Mat Club, a USA Wrestling certified youth wrestling club and nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. "Wrestling coaches and referees understand that there are risks to a child's physical safety and are constantly monitoring practices or matches for situations that could harm a wrestler," he points out.
To get started all you need are wrestling shoes, headgear, a singlet, and some workout attire such as shorts and a t-shirt. There may be club and membership fees, but Long says many youth wrestlers can compete a whole season for $200 or less. His club has 40 members that spent a combined $6,500 to compete this past season. That's just a little over $160 per person, a fairly low figure compared to many other equipment-intensive sports.
Long encourages parents who are unsure about their child wrestling to attend a local club or school practice to observe and ask questions. He emphasizes having fun and lets kids and families decide when they are ready to compete.
"More often than not, their child is eager to join before the end of practice," says Long. "I've had parents who were concerned about their child being able to handle competition at a young age. While I encourage competition, I don't try to mandate it. I've had children practice with the club for months or even a year before joining our club team. I think it's important for each family to be fully committed to competition before they start. Rushing a child into competition can backfire."
Those involved with wrestling often talk about the sport as a metaphor for life—teaching lessons that will be used off the mat. Reasbeck compares stepping out on to the mat as a chance to overcome the kind of fear some feel when public speaking, or going on an audition, or a job interview. It's the type of fear you have when you’re pushing out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself , he says. “But each time you face it, each time you step on the mat, you build your capacity to face other fears and that's something invaluable that kids garner from wrestling. “
Wrestling was what helped Jacque Davis through some tough times while growing up in San Francisco, Calif. Surrounded by an unstable family environment, she tried and liked ballet, jazz, tap dancing and gymnastics, but nothing gave her the satisfaction of wrestling. She even gave up gymnastics, a sport she competed in for eight years, to compete in wrestling full-time at the age of 14. She liked how wrestling was a sport where the individual controls his or her success or failure, whereas in gymnastics, judges decided the outcome. Davis went on to wrestle at Menlo College and is now the head coach of the Beat The Streets girls program in New York City.
"Wrestling was my escape, an environment where I finally had control," says Davis. "It allowed for me to judge what was truly important; it was incentive to keep my grades up, so that I wouldn’t lose eligibility in the one thing that I loved the most. Wrestling teaches a person how to be humble and hardworking, how to lose with grace and more importantly how to win with grace. Wrestling is respect."
Myth: Wrestling is unsafe
Wrestling rules are very clear on safety. Illegal moves and potentially dangerous situations can result in penalty points and even disqualification. Coaches and referees work very hard to keep wrestling safe for all participants.
Myth: Wrestling is a brute sport
Wrestling is not a sport that demands brute strength. Technique and conditioning are more important to succeed in wrestling than the ability to push someone around the mat for 30 seconds.
Myth: Wrestlers engage in unhealthy weight loss
Youth wrestling discourages so-called weight cutting. High school and collegiate athletes' weight loss is now closely monitored by a tracking system developed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), which prevents a wrestler from dropping below 7% body fat or losing too much weight too quickly.