Another youth wrestling season is upon us.
And some parents, coaches, and wrestlers are preparing to head into a season basing success on wrestling—and winning—as many matches as possible. Others are going to focus on developing skills through practicing, drilling, positioning, games, and mastering technique.
The latter is not nearly as exciting, but when it comes to long-term athlete development, it is often the more successful approach. Because more matches and less practice at the youth level can equal more time learning bad habits. Even when winning.
“If we are asking youth athletes (12 and under) to wrestle 50+ matches each season, the bad habits they all have will start to become ingrained into their style,” says Mike Clayton, Manager of USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program. “College and international coaches spend tons of time correcting bad habits that may have worked at youth levels, but that don’t work at elite levels.”
Pete Jacobson is the head coach of the Edgemont Panthers (Scarsdale, NY) High School wrestling program. He also runs the school’s youth program for wrestlers in grades 2–6. That eight-week program includes 16 winter sessions and zero matches or competitions.
“It’s all about fun, wrestling-based games and athletic development,” says Jacobson, who also runs the website WinSmarter.com, where he consults on a variety of topics, including building a culture of excellence within any sports program. “We have them wrestle matches in practice and will sometimes have another team come to practice with us.”
For kids who are more skilled, Jacobson funnels them into an outside club for advanced training. Parents, especially those new to the sport, are often surprised that their young wrestler won’t compete in any matches.
“Quite frankly, most of our kids are not emotionally equipped to handle losing, and our goal is to keep them in the sport,” Jacobson says. “We used to have our kids compete in several area youth tournaments and found that it hurt our retention rates. Kids would lose a few bouts, start crying and not want to come back. We wouldn’t see a lot of those kids the next year.”
Some parents question it, Jacobson says, but the high school programs long-term success—producing numerous New York all-state wrestlers, state champions and collegiate wrestlers—helps parents understand the logic behind that decision. And this year, the Edgemont High School program will have the programs largest high school roster ever. Most wrestlers in the program started in the youth club and didn't compete until middle school.
“I don’t believe this ‘later’ introduction to competition is hurting us,” Jacobson says.
Coaches like Jacobson understand the importance of practice time for long-term athlete development. Creating age appropriate practice, match and training ratios is a key component of the USA Wrestling long-term development plan.
“Coaches need to have several sets of glasses they can look through as they work to develop athletes,” Clayton says. “One set of glasses shows what we want to accomplish today. It’s good to have a short-term vision of today’s training and what we hope to accomplish. Another set of glasses would allow the coach to see what skills athletes need to start working on now so that they can grow as wrestlers and learn proper positioning and technique. This set of glasses requires the coach to have patience and a longer-term vision for how the athlete can be successful at future levels of our sport.”
Clayton says research recommends athletes ages 12 and under spend no more hours each week in organized sports than their age. That means if your athlete is 7 years old, you have no more than seven hours per week for all organized sports they are involved in, and that time includes both practice and competition.
“Think of competition (matches) as tests,” Clayton says. “If we test too often or too early, we don’t commit the right amount of time to preparing our athletes with the training and instruction they’ll need now to learn to love our sport and they’ll lack the necessary basic skills they will certainly need in the future to be successful.”
In this article discussing long-term development in youth hockey (12 and under), Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson points out that the most important component for skill development is a heavy dose of practice. In hockey, that includes an emphasis on skating, creating in small spaces, and making quick decisions. Even at the collegiate level, Jackson believes in the 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio. That means for every three practices, there is one competition.
In youth wrestling (ages 5 to 12), that shouldn’t always mean three practices per week equals competing every weekend. Instead, one to two practices per week should mean the wrestler then competes every other weekend. USA Hockey’s American Development Model emphasizes competitive play in small spaces. USA Wrestling’s Long Term Development Model for wrestlers ages 5–12 focuses on these elements:
- Fun, games and activities
- Daily agility, balance and coordination drills
- 5–12 hours/week physical activity (including wrestling)
- No weight loss other than for health
- Focus on long-term learning over winning
- Learn wrestling rules and basic techniques
- Learn respect for opponents, coaches and officials
At some point, it’s inevitable, wrestlers are going to head to a tournament and compete. When doing so, be sure you know what you expect to get out of the competition other than just being at another big event, Clayton says. Do you want your athlete to develop the ability to cope with losing? Take them to an event with great competition. Want them to learn to be a gracious winner? Take them where they can have success.
“It’s up to us as coaches, and most importantly as parents, to ensure we create the right environments for our athletes to become great people, not just great on the mat,” Clayton says.
Alex Tsirtsis was a four-time Indiana state high school champion and All-American at the University of Iowa. He is now the coach of the Mount Carmel (IN) High School wrestling program. He has a detailed preseason, in-season, and out-of-season practice and competition plan that works for his high school wrestlers. But for youth wrestlers, he too believes in practice over competition.
“I believe practicing three to four times per week and one day of competition is a good ratio during the season,” Tsirtsis says.
He also admits there is no perfect ratio, but focusing on more practice time versus just competing is necessary for long-term development. At the high school level, Tsirtsis focuses the first few days of the week on development, and making adjustments to technique. As competitions approach, the focus is on repetition/drilling, and executing the technique adjustments learned earlier in the week.
“We will attempt to follow this schedule throughout the season, but we will adjust the duration of practices depending on what time of the year, or what competitions are coming up,” Tsirtsis says.
Remember, Clayton says, every athlete is different and that is what all great coaches understand. One athlete may thrive in a competition environment and another athlete may lose a love for the sport by over-competing.
So this year, be willing to try new things, including focusing on implementing the USAW Long-Term Athlete Development Model, and incorporating age appropriate practice, match and training ratios versus a goal of simply competing every weekend.
“Be open-minded,” Clayton says. “There are many ways to create positive learning environments and what we did 20, 30, or 40 years ago may not be the best way to do it anymore. We should all grow as our sport has grown. Take USA Wrestling’s copper or bronze certification courses. Visit TheMat.com and select Coaches and Educational Resources to dig through tons of great (and free) information that can help you make your coaching philosophy all that it can be with today’s quality resources.”