In wrestling, there’s often a belief that simply outworking your opponent is what will lead to success. Spend more hours training, sweating, and pushing limits and you will be able to overcome the less dedicated opponent.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that the key to mastering any endeavor involved practicing a specific task for roughly 10,000 hours. But for parents, coaches, and—especially—youth wrestlers, finding the balance between working hard and working too much can be a difficult challenge.
That's why it's important for parents to read the cues sent by the child, says Joe Russell, head wrestling coach at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Push, but don't force, he says. That’s not always as easy as it sounds, acknowledges Russell, who has also served as a coach for USA Wrestling and the Minnesota Storm in Cadet, Junior, and Senior level competition during his career. As a youth wrestler, Russell worked year round with a USA Wrestling club in Oregon. However, he notes that his dad would occasionally pull him out of some practices, or counsel him to skip a tournament to avoid burnout.
With a three-year-old son who will likely one day wrestle, Russell will soon confront the same questions his father and many parents have already faced: How much training is enough? How much is too much?
Look at the big picture, Russell says. The odds are slim for a wrestler to get a college scholarship, so fixating on a goal like that can set kids up to fail, while distracting them from the other attributes the sport teaches.
"I hope to steer my son toward wrestling because of intrinsic values it teaches," says Russell. "I want the focus to be on what he learns, not results. I want an elite man developed. Results in wrestling need to be secondary. The focus should be on learning discipline, dedication, sacrifice, goal setting, humility and service—not on titles.”
As for Gladwell's theory, Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist who is also director of Competitive Advantage, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based performance consulting firm, says there could be some truth to that.
"In retrospect, if you look back at those who are successful, they've probably put in the time," says Goldberg. "You can't get anywhere unless you pay your dues, unless you work at something." But he offers a big caveat when it comes to youth competition. "If parents use that mentality as a starting point to drive kids, it's insanity,” he notes.
Every youth athlete can burn out if they are overtraining or facing too much pressure to win from coaches or parents. Spending extra time (and money) practicing at a club, with a personal coach or at a wrestling camp during the off-season doesn’t always equal success, adds Goldberg.
“It's not always how hard you work, but where you are mentally and emotionally when doing the work,” Goldberg explains. “Parents should keep a close eye on their child and calibrate his or her training. Don't push too much too soon.”
Several years ago, a USA Swimming study found that when youth swimmers excel at an early age it’s not necessarily a good predictor of later success. For example, only 21 percent of 11 and 12-year-olds ranked in the top 16 nationally were still in the rankings by ages 17–18; for 13 and 14-year-olds, the figure was 36 percent, for those 15 and 16-year-olds, nearly half were still ranked in the top 16 at ages 17-18. The moral of the story? A 10-and-under swimmer can survive and thrive, but 50 percent of the top swimmers develop after their junior year in high school.
From the findings, USA Swimming built a list of recommendations for youth swim programs: Make sure you emphasize fun, encourage participation in other sports and activities,and focus on having a long-term developmental progression plan.
That study echoes what Adam Koballa, head wrestling coach at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, says. Every athlete develops differently—both physically and mentally. A number of factors beyond simply working harder and training longer also go into a wrestler’s ability to improve and enjoy the sport. Better coaching, better training partners, and access to tougher competition can be of greater benefit than simply logging of practice without a plan or purpose. A more light-hearted environment at practice can keep those who aren’t having success interested and coming back because they simply like being part of the group. It can’t just be all out, all the time.
Break training into phases says Koballa. Wrestlers should train to peak for events and matches, but focus on improving tactically and technically to achieve those goals. "I always tell my guys, win or lose, that they cannot lose sight of the overall vision and that it's about progression and development," says Koballa. Develop their passion for the sport is first and foremost, he adds
“Too often we put the emphasis on winning versus progression and learning,” says Koballa. “It’s important that parents and coaches are made aware that these kids want to be there and want to be great.” Wrestling can be a grind and offers plenty of highs and lows, Koballa points out, so everybody’s learning curve will be different. So be open to all, and don’t get too worried about how many hours it takes to find the right fit.