When the words “parents” and “youth sports” are put together in the same sentence, it’s usually not a good thing.
The tales and stories of overbearing moms and dads in all youth sports—wrestling included—seem to always make the headlines.
What we don’t hear enough are stories of parents doing things the right way.
“I have been ‘that parent’ before,” says Steve Thorpe, head coach of the Sweet Home High School (Sweet Home, OR) wrestling program where Thorpe also coaches his son Travis Thorpe, a 2019 152 pound Oregon Class 4A high school state champion. “I have done things wrong, but at the end of the day, I realize I am going to be a dad a lot longer than I will be a coach. Parents need to remember this.”
A parent can be the greatest ally or worst enemy to a child’s sport experience, says Robert Schoner, coach and co-founder of the newly created St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy (Delafield, WI) Greco-Roman wrestling program, a program that focuses solely on Greco-Roman wrestling curriculum for high school students. In most cases, no one is more involved in a child’s life than mom, or dad, or both.
“They are right there through everything as they grow and develop,” Schoner says. “They help with homework and attend parent teacher conferences for school, they take them to sport practices and provide support, and they assist them in developing social contacts and family relationships. Not to mention they live with them each day. Parents play a significant role in a child’s development in nearly anything they participate in, especially sport.”
In the sport of wrestling, these are some of the most common traits of parents of successful wrestlers:
1. They are positive and encouraging: Parents are often the most influential people in their child's life, says Keith Donnelly, Cadet Director for Iowa USA Wrestling and assistant coach at Independence (IA) High School. Which is why he says “parents need to be the most supportive and positive figures in their athletes' lives. Encourage them to try their best, support their results regardless of how they do and love them regardless of their outcomes when competing. Wrestlers get critiqued enough by their coaches and peers and hear the things they need to do to improve from them. Parents can help their son/daughter succeed by encouraging them to continue to keep working hard and listen to the things their coaches are telling them to improve.”
2. They value process over results: They don't measure success in terms of wins and losses. “I can’t tell you how many times I see a youth coach/parent measure success and value in terms of wins and losses,” says Schoner. He was involved with a youth wrestling club where every time he would ask how the weekend of wrestling went or how practice was going all he heard was “great, five champs, two seconds, three fourths” or “awesome practice, we are ready to bring home a team trophy this weekend.”
“Most of those kids didn’t wrestle beyond sixth grade,” says Schoner.
But then he would run into a parent who when asked the same question would say, “the tournament was great, we were working on getting out of the bottom with our outside leg stand up all week, and in his first three matches he didn’t get one escape but kept trying and his fourth match he got away twice.”
“That was what I was looking for,” says Schoner. “Someone who valued the process and supported his child, loving the process and valuing that over the result.”
3. They focus on the long-term athlete development (LTAD): Pushing a child to win a state or national title at age eight doesn't guarantee future success or development. But focusing on continual improvement over time, having a long-term development plan, that’s what leads to future success. Many youth wrestling coaches encourage athletes to participate in multiple sports as part of that LTAD. Thorpe's son is a three-sport athlete with a 3.75 GPA. He's being recruited by junior college, NAIA and Division I coaches. “They all say that they love that he is a three-sport athlete, good student (3.75 GPA), and a great person,” says Thorpe. “And no coach has asked how many Freestyle and Greco State titles he won before he was 12 years old.”
4. They encourage living a healthy lifestyle: Wrestling often gets blamed for forcing kids to cut too much weight and not eat. “The truth is, wrestling can teach a person a lot about their body and how to eat healthy and feel good,” says Donnelly. Parents can help their son/daughter succeed by feeding them the proper foods to fuel their body and feel well. Cut out the junk food and sugary drinks and encourage healthy eating and staying hydrated. “The healthier you eat, the better you're going to feel and perform,” says Donnelly. Parents can encourage and support that by leading by example, and/or eliminating the opportunity to make poor food choices at home.
5. They encourage the proper amount of sleep every night: It is vital for anyone who is trying to compete at the highest level to have the proper amount of sleep each night, says Donnelly. Any athlete who is competing at a high level goes through tough workouts and times where your body is sore, tired, fatigued, beat down. Sleep is imperative for any athlete in helping your body feel rested and prepared for the next day’s workouts/competition.
6. They encourage different ways of learning: Get your kids in front of as many coaches and in as many rooms as possible, says Schoner. Get them to some camps, let me go to some clubs in the area outside your team, try to make your state national team to get exposure to that group of coaches. “The more diversity you have in your instruction, the better your development,” says Schoner. Too many young wrestlers and parents get locked into “we only wrestle here and for so and so” that is ego driven, and not growth driven. Schoner also encourages wrestlers to cross train in Judo or Sambo and other combat sports to break up monotony and learn a few new tricks along the way.
7. They view challenges as opportunities: “There is no denying that wrestling, more so than other sports, provides a significant amount of challenges—physically, mentally, and emotionally,” says Schoner. “Help your wrestler embrace these challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.”
8. They financially plan for each wrestling season: Each June, Thorpe and his family would have a garage sale to help raise funds for summer wrestling for his son and cheerleading for his daughter. “If you don’t have the money to just write a check, which most don't, save now,” says Thorpe. If finances are tight, don't use that against a child. Don't travel to a state, regional or national tournament and say things like “we paid a lot of money for this, you better do well.”
9. They make it about more than wrestling: If your child gets to the point where they are traveling to state or national competitions, make it an adventure. For the Thorpe family, traveling meant water parks, sightseeing, and socializing. “My son was a double All-American at Kids Nationals in Orem, Utah, when he was 11 years old,” says Thorpe. “He doesn't talk about the matches he won or lost, but he will talk about going fishing in Utah while we were there.”
10. They don’t use wrestling to discipline: They don't use wrestling successes or failures as a reward or discipline tool.
11. They make sure the child doesn’t take family problems into the wrestling room or to a match or tournament: Wrestling is often a place a child can escape from troubles at home, school or other. Let them focus on wrestling whether at practice or a tournament or match.
12. They respect others and all: They are supportive, encouraging, and respectful to all wrestlers, parents and coaches in a club or on a team.
13. They don’t coach from the stands: This often confuses wrestlers (who should they listen to?) and causes more harm than good.
14. They don’t relive their athletic career: They let their child live their own athletic career, and don't try to relive their own career (successes or failures) through their child. Your child's success as a wrestler does not define what kind of parent you are.
15. They enjoy it: Cherish every moment and opportunity. It won't last forever.