USA Wrestling Competition: How muc...

Competition: How much is too much?

By Matt Krumrie Special to USA Wrestling | May 13, 2015, 7:29 p.m. (ET)

For parents and coaches of youth and high school wrestlers, knowing the right limit to set on annual competition might not seem that important. But in an era where there are seemingly countless opportunities to compete, recognizing where honing a competition edge ends and fostering competitive burnout begins is crucial to the long-term health and success of the youth athlete.

“I think we forget that we are supposed to be developing the whole child," says Joe Block, head coach at Prior Lake (Minn.). "While wrestling has been a huge part of my life, it isn't what defines me or what should define any of my student-athletes.”

Block sets an annual limit of 35 matches for his high school athletes, but he’s wary of young wrestlers who come into his program with a lot of competition time. "I’ve been around long enough to have seen those kids come through the high school program. While they have had a lot of success at the youth level, they are missing skills that are needed to be successful at the high school level," he says.

He’s not along in seeing this. In some corners of the sport, there is an unmistakable trend in toward more competition and younger ages. At the high school level, many states have set annual-match limits—which can vary greatly by state–to try to prevent student-athletes from being pushed too far in a season. But youth wrestling clubs aren’t bound by these rules. And if you add in offseason freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments, the amount of matches a youth or high school wrestler participates in can easily total more than 100.

"When prizes continue to increase, the incentive is there, especially for youth, to compete for the biggest trophy," says Troy Nickerson, head wrestling coach at the University of Northern Colorado. Nickerson was one of the best wrestlers of his generation, having won six national high school championships in the early 2000s. He went on to Cornell University where he was a four-time All-American and the 2009 NCAA 125-pound national champion.

Nickerson thinks today's youth wrestlers are competing far too much. Focusing on competition over practice time at a young age hinders development and growth, he says. In addition, many coaches and physicians are concerned about the risk of injuries to still-growing bodies due to overtraining and excessive repetitive motions.

Nickerson instead recommends youth wrestlers focus on fundamentals, technique, and executing the basics of the sport. "As a college coach, one of my biggest struggles is correcting bad technique that has been developed over 10-plus years in the sport,” he explains. If he had his way, there would be no match competition for wrestlers under eight years old and a strict match limit for those between ages eight and 11.

This may seem counter-intuitive, until you look at the training and competition regimen of world-class wrestlers. As those athletes mature and advance to the top national and international tournaments, they actually wrestle less. In fact, a wrestler on the U.S. national or Olympic team may compete only in a few matches in an entire year. Recently, Aaron Pico, the USA Wrestling teen phenom from California, decided to forego a college wrestling career precisely because of the amount of matches he would have been expected to compete in.

Competing in dozens of matches means there is little time left for practice or mastering the craft. Competition is like a test in school. You can't expect to take a test every day and still get better in that subject area. Plenty of practice lessons are necessary to fully grasp and retain the information before you’re ready to test your knowledge. Wrestlers need to spend time perfecting technique, drilling, working through situations, and asking questions. And they also need time to recover mentally and physically.

"We’re seeing a large number of kids quitting the sport by the time they’re teenagers," says Nate Naasz, assistant wrestling coach at Beloit (Kansas) High School. "The sport has to be fun. Kids have to work hard, but if it’s not fun, they will not stick it out.” Though nowhere near as glorious as competition, Naasz emphasizes that practice is where true champions are made.

"As a coach, I really push the importance of practice and the journey," Naasz says. "We tell our wrestlers that competitions are a chance for us to show our improvements, but our real improvements happen in the confines of the practice room."

Steve Costanzo, head coach of the 2015 NCAA Division II national champion St. Cloud State University wrestling team, says when it comes to analyzing how much competition is enough, it all comes down to what is best for the particular student-athlete. “I feel the most important factor when it comes to the student-wrestler is his or her ability to master being a competitor versus mastering the craft of competing with skills," he says.

Naasz agrees. "We talk about working the process with our kids,” he notes. “We are big on being goal-oriented and do not let our athletes set win/loss goals. Their goals have to be about improvement in their personal life and in their wrestling."

Not the number of matches one wins or competes in.