With most youth and high school wrestling seasons now complete, it's the time of year where many wrestlers will transition from competing in folkstyle to freestyle. "Freestyle wrestling really teaches the fundamentals of the sport," says University of Iowa Head Assistant Coach Terry Brands, a two-time Freestyle World Champion and 2000 Olympic Bronze Medalist. "The more skills you master in any style of wrestling, the better wrestler you can become."
That's what Teague Moore learned in his wrestling career at Oklahoma State University, competing for legendary head coach John Smith, a six-time freestyle World Champion and a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist. Smith’s ability to teach freestyle skills—and incorporate how they crossover into folkstyle—played a huge role in Moore becoming an NCAA champion and three-time All-America wrestler.
Now the head coach at American University in Washington, D.C., Moore said: "My freestyle experience and exposure are the only reasons why I succeeded in folkstyle. Without freestyle, I would have been mediocre at best."
Understanding the Differences
Folkstyle wrestling puts more emphasis on controlling your opponent, while freestyle puts more emphasis on exposure points. The goal from the bottom position in folkstyle wrestling is to get away. The goal from the bottom position in freestyle is to avoid being turned/exposed. In freestyle, the goal is to pin or expose your opponent’s shoulders to the mat. Learning each discipline provides crossover opportunities that can help a wrestler become as complete as possible.
"When training in freestyle, an athlete must have total body awareness and control," says Moore. "With proper positioning, a wrestler can execute with minimized exposure to defense. The best executed offense eliminates an opponent’s defense. The best example in wrestling right now is the (Jordan) Burroughs double, it secures a takedown and potentially secures back exposure while eliminating the opponents' quick front headlock defense or crotch lock defense.” Although this is only one example, it can be applied to many other scoring positions. The athlete that trains to execute an offense that completely eliminates their opponents defense will excel in folkstyle because of this laser-like precision offense."
What’s more, freestyle wrestling teaches you things you can't get from training folkstyle only, says Dan Tramontozzi, head coach of the New Jersey Wrestling Academy, a wrestling club and training facility that serves wrestlers and teams throughout northern and central parts of the state.
Exploiting the Similarities
"Training freestyle in the offseason benefits your folkstyle game in many ways," says Tramontozzi. "Wrestling is changing and evolving everyday. I think freestyle training has a lot to do with that. You look at guys like Ben Askren and watch him "funk" and toss guys around after getting shot on. You normally don't learn that in folkstyle wrestling but that is what wrestling has become today. You have to train your body to be comfortable and know what to do in scramble positions and freestyle is a great tool to use. In order to keep up you have to learn freestyle, because that's what the best are doing."
And that's what the best have been doing. Moore rattles off a list of names: Cael Sanderson, Jake Varner, Jordan Burroughs, Henry Cejudo, Brandon Slay, Kurt Angle, Tom Brands, Kendall Cross, Kenny Monday, Bruce Baumgartner. These men were all Olympic Gold Medalists. In addition, says Moore: They all wrestled folkstyle, but became legends because of freestyle."
"Folkstyle is the style that captures more media attention in our country,” Moore acknowledges, “but moving forward, the champions of folkstyle will be well versed in freestyle wrestling. Learn freestyle and you will learn the best fundamentals for folkstyle."
When Brands was wrestling, his focus was on being the best he could during that specific season. During folkstyle season he wanted to be the best folkstyle wrestler. During the offseason, he wanted to be the best freestyler or Greco-Roman wrestler. He advises coaches and wrestlers to take advantage of the opportunity to learn new styles and combine them to be successful. The sport is always evolving and so should a wrestlers training and practice habits.
"Training and competing in freestyle wrestling puts you in positions and in experiences you are not in during the folkstyle season," Brands explains. "It helps you deal with different kinds of pressures. It helps develop a new set of skills that maybe your opponent doesn't have. And if he does, it will teach you how to counter different skills that opponent may be using. This is the time of year to work on something new. Freestyle is a great way to advance as a wrestler, become a more complete wrestler."
Five tactical benefits freestyle wrestling can provide folkstyle wrestlers
-from Teague Moore, head coach at American University
1. Front Head Lock Offense: This position is crucial to a successful freestyle career, if you can score every time you control your opponent’s head, your scoring potential becomes much better. This position is usually taken after defending an opponent’s leg attack (defensive FHL position). The Russians have mastered the offensive FHL by snapping wrists to clear inside ties and snapping collar ties from neutral.
2. Head inside single, from contact: Most youth wrestlers in the U.S. learn from collar and elbow position so it’s a natural offensive leg attack to attempt while clearing the collar. In the freestyle setting the finish to this offense forces a clean and “backside” finish that transitions easily to a leg lace offense. Young wrestlers that learn a quick “swing single to lace” offense will naturally develop a solid folkstyle technique because by it’s very nature the swing single to lace forces you to control an opponent’s hips, which eliminates the typical “funk” defense that is popular in folkstyle. The learned freestyle skill helps to develop a very proficient folkstyle takedown artist.
3. The backstep and backarch: It’s a basic technique for freestyle athletes to learn and should be one of the seven basic skills that every wrestler learns. The headlock, lateral drop, and body lock throws all utilize its skillset but folkstyle doesn’t appear to be emphasizing it with younger wrestlers. An athlete that learns to properly backstep and backarch usually adds a deadly element to their offense in folkstyle, with a five-point move.
4. Bottom offense: Bottom offense in freestyle doesn’t seem to offer much to a folkstyle wrestler, surface, but, in fact, the freestyle bottom position teaches a vital element to the folkstyle wrestler. Bottom freestyle demands a wrestler to learn a position to maintain a strong base. Positioning is not one dimensional in freestyle. A wrestler must learn how to position to defend a gut wrench, which is very similar to defending a tight waist in folkstyle. Defending and moving from an ankle lace attack can quickly teach a folkstyle wrestler how to reposition to defend an ankle ride in folkstyle. Although the bottom position in freestyle appears to happen with little movement, the reality is that it teaches a folkstyle wrestler how to reposition themselves and hold a strong base, which is a key element for younger wrestlers to learn.
5. The top position: Freestyle top position offense teaches a wrestler the importance of hip control. The wrestler on top in freestyle has to expose their opponent’s shoulders to the mat for points, but most of these scoring opportunities are presented after you open the bottom wrestlers hips. In a gut wrench, you must learn to properly lock and drive, but without popping the bottom wrestler’s hips, exposure can remain futile. Another common freestyle technique is the figure-four leg ride, or bent leg turk that allows you to hip your opponent over for exposure. This turn can be done exactly identical in folkstyle so this technique is a great way to transition the technique between both. If a wrestler properly learns how to control an opponent’s hips, cheap tilts, leg rides, and dominance in top position become easily transitioned.