According to a Michigan State University study conducted by the Youth Sports Institute in the early 1990s, nearly 70 percent of young athletes in the United States stopped playing organized sports by age 13 because it just wasn’t fun anymore.
That’s why it’s important to educate, inform and implement strategies and developmental programs in youth sports that focus on long-term athlete development and not short-term success, especially up to the 12U level, says Mike Clayton, manager of the National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling.
“We want to help share valuable information on training athletes, and provide the right info at the right stage in their development so we can recruit more kids into our sport, keep them longer, and do this all in the best environment possible,” Clayton says.
In the National Association of Youth Sports article “Long-term athletic development: What coaches and parents need to know,” Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS, *D, explained the origin of the long-term athlete development concept.
“One way we can work together is to embrace long-term athletic development (LTAD),” Howard wrote. “LTAD was created in its most modern form by Istvan Balyi in Canada as a means to increase the Canadian Olympic medal count, with a ‘playground to the podium’ positioning. Balyi’s model included chronological stages (defined by the age of the youth) that established stages of sporting development. It was one of the first models that suggested that ‘peaking by Friday’ or ‘creating U-10 champs’ was not the primary goal. The goal was to provide the young athletes with the physical, technical, tactical, and strategic goals necessary to maximize their potential to play at a high level.”
USA Wrestling has identified these 10 factors as important to long-term athlete development:
1. Physical Literacy: At 12U, coaches need to ensure athletes are trained on how to understand and perform basic physical skills.
“The focus should be on skills that will help them throughout life, regardless if they stay with wrestling,” Clayton says.
Lucas Steldt, the 2018 USAW National Developmental Coach of the Year and head coach of Combat Wrestling Club (Blue River, WI), a wrestling academy that focuses on Greco-Roman wrestling, says physical literacy comes through the development of motor skills from simply being a kid, such as:
- Playing at the playground.
- Playing with neighborhood kids—tag, kickball, hopscotch, four square, pickup football, basketball, and other kid’s games.
- Running, bike riding, swimming.
- Physical outdoor work, such as working on a farm or doing chores.
However, as youth free time becomes more structured (think play dates versus simply “playing” with the neighborhood kids), Steldt is seeing kids who are less physically literate as they join his wrestling club while in middle school or high school.
“Basic motor skills are severely lacking in today’s youth in general, much less athletes,” says Steldt. “If the kid comes from a rural background that has required physical outdoor work or has experienced that play environment, they have proven to be motor-skill competent.”
To better develop physical literacy, all coaches should encourage young athletes to play and participate in multiple sports, where they can learn what later becomes the ABCs of wrestling—agility, balance, and coordination. “It’s important to develop the athlete first and wrestler second,” says Mike Hagerty, a Coaching Education Director with USA Wrestling and six-time USA World Team coach.
“It’s like putting a strong foundation under a house,” Hagerty says. “Having a great foundation will also allow for a much higher top end for wrestlers, or any athlete for that matter. Too many youth and some higher-level coaches teach kids to be one-trick ponies with quick-fix moves and never address the necessary skills that will assist wrestlers to be great wrestlers and athletes in the future. Learning and developing athletic skills of strength, balance and body control also builds confidence, which is often overlooked.”
2. Specialization: For athletes 12 and under, USA Wrestling and most sports governing organizations recommend that athletes do not specialize in just one sport. The reason is simple: The skills learned through other sports will help develop all-around athleticism and social skills. In one recent study, 70 percent of Olympic athletes said they were multiple-sport athletes through high school. Diversifying sports can also prevent burnout and overuse injuries.
The best way to learn proper movement and develop athletic skills is by playing multiple sports, while also ensuring proper rest from repetitive movements, like throwing, says Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a sports medicine specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California.
“One of the best things young athletes can do is learn to move correctly,” Rivadeneyra says. “Kids need to learn how to squat, lunge, sit and stand with correct posture, run, jump, step up and down, land from a jump, move their shoulder blades, tilt their pelvis, throw a ball, fall safely, and even to walk correctly. The best way for young kids to learn is with free play. Until their bodies are fully mature physically, specialization and extreme focus on bigger, faster, stronger is likely to do more harm than good.”
Steldt is a big promoter of Greco-Roman wrestling, but he’d much rather see kids participating in multiple sports. To develop athletic, motor and wrestling skills, he encourages athletes to participate in gymnastics at a young age and doesn't recommend specialization for any discipline of wrestling—or sport—until an athlete is about 15–16 years old.
3. Age: It is essential that coaches and parents understand the appropriate areas on which to focus training based on the age of the athlete.
This USA Wrestling Athlete Development Model poster highlights general info that can help coaches create age-appropriate training programs.
4. Trainability: “Your athlete will need to know how to be coached by others,” Clayton says. “Are they open-minded? Receptive to feedback? As a parent or coach, do you show support for other coaches’ ideas on training?”
A good goal: Don’t be a kid’s last coach!
5. Intellectual/Emotional/Moral Development: Sport is designed to be a tool that helps prepare kids for real life, not just life in sports or wrestling, Clayton says.
“Helping prepare young people to have a positive impact on society is key,” Clayton says. “Develop a set of core values and ensure kids live up to those expectations.”
6. Excellence Takes Time: Don’t judge your 12U athlete’s successes or failures as final. Success or failure at this age means very little. Some wrestlers blossom after age 12 and some that were very successful at 12U will not make it at 13-plus. Be patient with your child’s development and support them, regardless of success at younger ages, Clayton says.
Achieving excellence also shouldn’t be based solely on winning.
“I can’t explain this to parents enough,” adds Steldt. “I have this conversation all the time. Excellence could come in many forms. … The process holds true on and off the mat.”
7. Periodization: Periodization involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period with the aim of reaching the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. How you plan your athlete’s training is key. With periodization, you shouldn’t over-train because rest and recovery should be a part of your planning.
“The opportunity to peak at the right time and in the right condition is established by creating an evidence-based periodization plan,” says Michael Favre, Director of Olympic Sports Strength and Conditioning at the University of Michigan.
8. Competition: Since long-term success isn’t determined at 12U events, ensure your athletes are practicing enough to be able to maintain good position during competitions. Simply focusing on weekend tournaments as a way to develop as a wrestler isn’t the right approach. Time in the practice room mastering the basics is more important than traveling throughout the state or across the country to compete in local and national tournaments trying to become a youth wrestling age group legend.
“Competition is merely a tool of training,” Steldt says. “Misuse it and you will not get the work done. Used correctly, the job gets done. It falls into periodization. You train then compete. Some competitions are just merely testing grounds. Others you peak for, and look for a direct result of accomplishment.”
9. System Alignment: How does the training for your athlete fit into a system of development in your community? Does your 12U club support key developmental areas so that kids are ready to start 13-plus programs?
“We encourage high school coaches to work with feeder program so that younger age group coaches can focus training on skills that will help support success at the next level,” says Clayton, who asks, “Do your community coaches meet and discuss training flow and concepts?”
10. Continuous Improvement: We want to strive to improve on what we do daily,” Clayton says. “It is important to be open-minded and willing/able to accept positive criticism on ways to improve. This is key for athletes, parents, and coaches."
Continuous Improvement in wrestling is like the stock market, says Steldt. It's a roller coaster ride. But stick to it for the long haul and improvement happens over time.
“It is not a straight line up or even a comfortable angle,” Steldt says. “It’s a chaotic, white water rapids ride. But improvement does happen over time if the athlete finds the right coach or the coach finds the right athlete.”
Coaches, parents and wrestlers can all work together to focus on and implement strategies that focus on long-term athlete development, following these 10 factors for athlete development as a guide.
“We hope that as coaches develop and refine their coaching philosophy, they will implement these strategies to ensure we create the right environment for kids to not only learn the sport but learn to love it,” Clayton says.