Something that almost every parent and young athlete must confront: How much is too much when it comes to youth sports? It’s something the father-son duo of T.J. and Jake Ruberg struggled with early on in Jake’s wrestling career.
"When Jake was younger I pushed too hard," acknowledges T.J., a long-time coach at the Lawrenceburg (Indiana) Youth Wrestling Club. Back when he was four years old, Jake had started tagging along with his dad to practices and quickly took to the sport, enjoying early success with his father as coach. This wasn’t surprising for a Ruberg family that has produced state champions and collegiate All-Americans. "But that was what I wanted,” says T.J. now, looking back. “By age nine, my son was so aggravated with me pushing and yelling at him that he wanted to quit.”
Recognizing the warning signs of burnout, Ruberg eased off, stopped coaching his son, and let him rediscover the fun of wrestling on his own. It’s paid off, as Jake, now 15, wrestles for the Lawrenceburg High School team and has become a state and national standout in the process.
There are varying opinions on how much of a break any youth athlete should take away from their primary sport. But one thing that is universally agreed upon: time off is a great opportunity to help boys and girls recharge, recover, and rekindle the passion to participate.
Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey's American Development Model (ADM), agrees. In an era where more young kids are specializing in and training year-round for one sport, USA Hockey’s ADM philosophy encourages its hockey players to get off the ice during the summer and participate in different sports, if possible. This model, Martel notes, is backed by a 2002 United States Olympic Committee study that found a majority of Olympians from the 1980s and 1990s played multiple sports in their youth and through the teenage years.
One of the ADM’s main goals is to place a stronger emphasis on athletic skill development. At the younger ages especially, kids are acquiring new movement and motor skills at a rapid rate. USA Hockey is trying to take advantage of this precious time period by encouraging participation in multiple sports. Improving hand-eye coordination in baseball, endurance in soccer, and footwork in lacrosse are just a few examples of how kids can increase their skills repertoire and fitness capacities.
“This helps build a strong foundation for a complete athlete and it will allow them to learn more specific and advanced skills as they get older,” says Martel. USA Wrestling also believes the skills, movements, strategy and fitness components gained in other sports will directly translate into a better wrestler down the road.
It also provides the all-important mental break. No matter how dedicated and passionate an athlete is about his or her favorite sport, time away is crucial, Martel says. "To learn and be good at anything, you have to have mental engagement and focus,” he explains. “No one can grow and develop year round the way they should in just one sport. With time away, kids come back refocused and hungry to learn."
Trent McCormick, head coach of Indiana's Yorktown High School wrestling team, has seen the payoff. "Kids of all ages need time away from the mat to clear their mind, physically heal, and to experience other opportunities that life has to offer," he adds. The hard part, however, is getting parents, coaches and wrestlers to all agree on what is appropriate in terms of balancing competition and taking the right amount of time off.
Understanding when a wrestler needs a break begins with having open lines of communication, says Les Lieurance of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. His son, Trenton, is looking to compete with an Oklahoma freestyle Cadet National team, so this summer will include some intense training in preparation. "Those are big commitments and he was excited to go and really wanted to, so he made it happen," says Les. “But if he seems like he is ready for a break, he will take a break."
For John Norris, competing in multiple sports is the break that helps his kids maintain their interest in wrestling. Norris has three boys—10-year-old twins and an 8-year-old—competing in Washington, D.C.'s Hustle and Muscle Mat Club. They focus on wrestling in January and February and attend additional wrestling practices at various times throughout the spring, summer and fall. But they also play baseball and soccer and are involved in a combination of other athletic pursuits like cross-country, track, basketball and swimming.
"They never really take time off from playing sports, but time off from each sport gives them a needed break from that sport and enables them to try other sports or pursue other non-athletic interests," says Norris. "We are focused on raising well-rounded young men, not star athletes."
Mike DeRoehn trains high school wrestlers year-round at his World Class Wrestling School in Fond du Lac, WI. He says the spring and summer months are great times to shift the focus away from live competition. For example, a high school athlete could focus on strength training three days per week while wrestling freestyle or Greco-Roman two days per week. Another option: taking several weeks off, but during that time period, read wrestling books or watch videos of current or all-time wrestling greats.
"This can be mentally inspiring and encouraging to a young wrestler," says DeRoehn. "He or she is still preparing for next year and improving in some aspects, but not grinding on the mats."
At the start of each summer, DeRoehn sends his wrestlers a list of skills/drills they can do on their own, encouraging them to work on technique versus intense drilling or competitive matches. "This is when I really start to see guys improve because they are taking ownership for their wrestling," says DeRoehn. "They are like young scientists in the lab and it’s usually a good sign that they are preparing for a breakout season the following year."
For his part, Jake Ruberg now wrestles year-round, but focuses on football in the fall and works as a lifeguard in the summer. Those activities help him mentally decompress, while still keeping him physically prepared for wrestling.
His dad, T.J., has incorporated the lessons learned with Jake in his coaching. He now recommends that youth wrestlers should not practice more than twice a week and only compete on weekends if they can handle the mental stress of being on a mat in front of a gym full of people. In the off season, the focus should be more on technique and resistance training exercises.
But what works for one wrestler may be different for another wrestler. So first and foremost, Ruberg says, make wrestling enjoyable. "Remember, they are kids, and they need to have fun.”