Ask a coach in any sport and they will say they want young athletes participating in numerous sports.
Ask a wrestling coach and they will also likely say they want young athletes to participate in multiple sports.
Ask an Olympic wrestler? You get the same answer.
We reached out to five Olympic wrestlers and asked for their thoughts on early specialization in youth sports. There is one common thread for all: They all participated in several sports during their formative youth sports years and credit the skills and lessons learned in those sports as helping them develop as a wrestler and athlete.
Here is what these five had to say about the benefits of competing in multiple sports and avoiding early specialization:
2012 bronze medalist in women's freestyle, 105.5 pounds; 2008 fifth place in women’s freestyle, 105.5 pounds; current assistant coach, USA Wrestling Women’s National Team
I grew up participating in swimming, gymnastics, and judo. When I was 14 years old, I started bowling and playing water polo, and when I was 16 I started wrestling. Each sport I played taught me skills that could be used in other sports and in life. Playing multiple sports also made me realize what my greatest passion was. I enjoyed the social aspect of each sport, and the friendships made with teammates, coaches, senseis and their families.
Swimming taught me the physical and mental endurance in sport and training.
Gymnastics taught me balance, strength, flexibility, athletic agility, and focus. I believe every kid should do gymnastics because it provides a great foundation for every sport. It taught me body control and awareness and focusing on body positions.
Judo, a martial art, has taught me great discipline. I grew up learning about the culture of judo and judo etiquette. I appreciate the respect for others, the dojo, and the mat you train and fight on, which judo teaches.
Bowling and water polo taught me hand and eye coordination. This was an area I knew I needed more work on. I enjoyed participating in both sports, even though they're very different from each other.
Water polo was the only team sport I played. It taught me teamwork and communication skills on the playing field.
The last sport I got into was also the last sport I retired from. Although each sport has taught me discipline, hard work, dedication, perseverance, humility, and happiness, it was wrestling that fueled my passion to create on the playing field. I definitely used judo techniques and gymnastics in my wrestling. And swimming was a great cross training and conditioning workout as part of my training.
I believe there are many benefits of participating in multiple youth sports.
1984 Greco-Roman gold medalist, 198 pounds; current Chief of Donor and Alumni Relations for USA Wrestling
I believe young kids should play more than one sport, if they have the desire to. Specializing too early doesn’t necessarily mean they will excel in the sport. Playing multiple sports can keep the young athlete fresh and hungry.
I played baseball, football, and participated in track and field, running the half mile. They all helped me in many ways. For example, running (and training) for the 800 meter got me in great cardiovascular shape for football and wrestling. The 800-meter race was one of the most difficult sports I participated in. Pushing my cardiovascular limit, day in, day out, made me extremely mentally tough and got me in outstanding shape.
2012 Olympic freestyle qualifier, 121 pounds; current head coach Oklahoma City University wrestling
I somewhat understand the ideas behind specializing and I have a few thoughts. I think it is good to remember why sports exist at the youth level. It is not to see who is the best. It is not to get a college scholarship. At least, I don’t believe it should be for these reasons. I think we all know the correct answer: humility, confidence, controlled aggression, teamwork, how to learn from a coach, how to take a loss, learn work ethic, and on and on. That is the battle though isn’t it? We all know the right answer but if we are being honest, we want to win!
Make no mistake, winning is important, earning scholarships, and being the best are goals to strive for, but they shouldn’t be the end game. Of course every coach wants to recruit the champ. Everyone wants their kid to be Dave Schultz; odds are your kid isn’t him. But there is good news for parents—we have no shortage of spots to fill in wrestling.
I’ll tell you a horribly kept secret: Coaches do not look for the kid that specialized since second grade. They do not look for the four-time state champ. They do not care if your kid beat a kid who beat an all-American from last season in 10th grade. What coaches do look for: a kid who has a good work ethic, who takes winning and losing well, who is thankful to his parents and coaches, and has good grades.
Teach your kid what will help them have the best chance for success. If you push for being the best wrestler, odds are they won’t make it. Teach them to give their best in everything they do regardless of what it is, odds are they find success and winning and scholarships. I believe what my two-time Olympian father (Dave Hazewinkel) taught me: Do lots of sports. It develops athleticism, it allows different coaches to influence your kid. It will teach your superstar athlete child how to lose, and that not all sports fit them.
1996 Greco-Roman Silver Medalist, 114.5 pounds, current co-director of Pinnacle Wrestling School, Shoreview, MN
I tried many different sports growing up - football, hockey, soccer, baseball, tennis, wrestling. For me, I always loved to play, and loved to compete. While hockey and soccer didn't last very long, I played four sports all the way through elementary school. Team sports were fun, less pressure, and you got to be with your buddies. For me, I loved the individual sports, so I stuck with tennis and the 3 styles of wrestling (folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman) through my middle school years. I used tennis as a training tool for wrestling, and even played during the season. It was good for conditioning, and great for my footwork.
2016 Olympic freestyle gold medalist, 213 pounds; current USA Wrestling Senior Men's World Team member, ranked No. 1 at 213 pounds
I participated in a lot of different sports growing up. I played baseball, lacrosse, soccer, boxing, football, and wrestling at different times throughout my childhood. The sports that stuck with me were football and wrestling. I played both of these sports at a competitive level until my junior year of high school.
I stopped playing football my junior year so I could focus more on wrestling. This was not my parents’ choice or because a coach influenced me to make this decision. I loved the sport of wrestling and wanted to spend as much time as I could to improve myself. I believe this is the way the process should be for all athletes.
If they want to continue to play multiple sports because they enjoy playing, then it is a good idea. If they want to focus on one sport because it is their favorite by far, then that’s what they should do. I think the process should be more organic and less of an equation for how to get the best results. We have seen many wrestlers who played multiple sports their whole life and went on to achieve great things. We have also seen wrestlers who only wrestled and achieved great things. It depends on the kid.