Carter Young of Stillwater, Oklahoma, was a 106-pound wrestler as a freshman. Now, heading into his junior year of wrestling, his natural weight is around 137 pounds.
That’s not uncommon for most growing teenage boys and girls. But the growing pains of growth spurts are real, says his mom, Christina Young, former membership director for Oklahoma USA Wrestling. She’s watched her son go from a short child to a longer, lanky teen, who has had to make adjustments on and off the mat.
“Carter literally lost his sprawl and had to find different ways to generate offense, and relearn how to defend,” Young says. “It also affected his ability to lose weight. He was growing so quickly and got so skinny. It became harder to drop any weight.”
But Christina and Carter had a plan. That plan wasn’t a short-term Band-Aid to simply win wrestling matches. Instead, they focused on doing what was needed to continue to grow and develop naturally, such as eating right, while focusing on competing as close to his natural weight as possible to reach his full size and potential.
“Carter has grown so much each year simply by letting his body grow,” Young says. “When his body started to grow, we decided to let him take his lumps and bruises. In fact, he even bumped up to the next weight class a couple times to challenge himself even more. He took his fair share of beatings, but ultimately, he would let himself grow and learned to wrestle bigger kids.”
Kyle Dake is a two time 79 kg/174 pound World Champion (2018/2019). At Cornell University from 2010–2013, Dake became the only wrestler to ever win four NCAA titles at four different weight classes (141, 149, 157, 165).
Dealing with growth spurts and physical changes is part of developing as a wrestler, Dake says. Use the change to learn, test, fail, and try again.
“Going up weight classes is something everyone goes through at different times,” Dake says. “Effort and learning-based wrestling is the best place to put a child to prepare them for life, not making them miss meals and cut weight. Remember this is about growth and learning what your body is capable of learning. New skills and learnt body control are incredibly valuable for both now and much later in life.”
Youth and adolescent athletes go through various growth and development changes at different ages and at different rates. That’s why parents and coaches should always try to focus on fun in sports and athletic skill development, says Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute.
From the medical standpoint, Dr. Rivadeneyra says the biggest obstacle when dealing with growth spurts is the central nervous system’s response, or coordination.
“Your brain has to adapt to new length, angles, levers, strength, speed,” says Rivadeneyra. “There’s a steep learning curve with that, and it’s frustrating.”
Athletes going through growth spurts should continue to focus on controlling what they can control—technique/drilling, conditioning, and strength training, says Rivadeneyra. Parents, meanwhile, should always listen to their athletes.
“Truly listen, and affirm the athlete’s concerns, but also encourage them to remain a part of the team, to keep their commitment to their teammates and coaches,” Rivadeneyra says. “Parents went through growth spurts also, and can try to provide their own experiences to their child.”
Carter Young is now a junior in high school and weighs around 137 pounds. That’s a big jump from his freshman year, which is not uncommon for most teen wrestlers.
“He’s still growing and learning, and he continues to make strides,” Young says. “If there is one thing I have learned through this journey with Carter it’s that it’s important to continue to push through and work at your craft. We believe the growing pains he is going through now will lead him to be a stronger wrestler as he continues to develop and progress in his wrestling career.”
Even though wrestlers may compete at the same weight, growth spurts can occur at any age and time in a developing child, which can lead to size and strength discrepancies among children of the same age, points out Alexander Tejani, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine with Healthcare Associates in Medicine, PC in New York.
“It’s important to remind young athletes to focus on their own strength, conditioning and technique, and not on others, as these discrepancies will balance out,” Tejani says. “Everyone’s growth rate is different.”
Growths spurts can also have physical and mental effects on the young athlete, Tejani says. Pain can be associated with growth spurts, as bones can grow faster than muscles. These “growing pains” will be temporary and can be treated with stretching, ice, anti-inflammatory medications and rest. “It is important to remind athletes to nurture and be kind to their growing bodies in order to avoid injury,” Tejani says.
Jamie Honiss knows that the physical and mental aspects of dealing with growth spurts took a toll on her son, Max Honiss. Max is a member of the Michigan Matcats Wrestling Club and a junior at South Lyon High School in South Lyon, Michigan. At age 11 he lost weight due to a flu bug. When recovered, he weighed in for regionals much lighter than his regular weight, but took fourth and qualified for state. But a now healthy Max had to hold that lower weight for a week. And he was miserable.
“That next week watching him manage his weight leading up to states showed us that too much focus on weight/weight classes would eventually take its toll on his love for the sport,” Honiss says.
Ever since that experience, conversations never focus on weight or weight classes, especially before the start of the season. They try to avoid comments questioning what weight class he’ll be in or how he might perform in a particular class.
“We instead focus on his work ethic, following his coaches’ plans, putting in his best effort, learning from each match, enjoying his teammates, eating healthy, and putting his all into his season,” Honiss says. “We want to stay away from giving him the idea that he can only be successful at one weight class per season, and avoid implying there is a magic weight class for success.”
Zach Johnson is a junior at Michigan’s Brighton High School, and a 2019 All-State wrestler who placed fifth at 135 pounds for the Bulldogs. He also helped his team finish second in state in Division I in 2018 and 2019. His father, Jim Johnson, said they may not have recognized the challenges Zach faced as a younger wrestler going through growth spurts, admitting, the experience was miserable for Zach at times.
“We learned that we should have embraced the spurt, and focused on agility and coordination,” Johnson says. “When kids go through a growth spurt, they need to relearn everything, from level changes to how to react to specific situations.”
Strength training is also important, Johnson says. One can’t control when they may go through a growth spurt, but through strength training, they can develop strength that can help them compete with bigger or more experienced wrestlers as they move up.
Good coaches will notice these changes and help them adapt by changing their drilling and training habits, says Steve Richardson, director of the Michigan Matcats Wrestling Club in South Lyon, Michigan. Parents can help by having conversations about the changes with their child—letting them know it takes time to grow into their new bodies.
“As adults, we could never imagine waking up one day with longer arms,” Richardson says. “Now imagine wrestling someone using another body you’re unfamiliar with. Having those conversations and managing expectations can go a long way towards keeping the wrestler interested and motivated.”
Always take a long-term approach, Dake says.
“Remember the goal when you are growing is to be better than you were yesterday, last week, and last year,” Dake says. “Don’t compare yourself to other kids you may have wrestled in the past because they are on a different trajectory. They may fizzle out in a few years while you go on to be a State Champion, National Champion, or World Champion. Stay the course, get better, and have fun.”
Through change, keep things in perspective.
“No one remembers what you won as a 10-year-old, but the lessons learned and the memories made with your family will last forever, don’t spoil it by making it all about winning and losing.”