These are my thoughts on growth and retention in youth wrestling and some of the reasons why I think we don’t have it.
I have posted a link to one of my favorite websites at the start of this article, yes it mostly refers to soccer, but similar principles apply. I remember going to a weekend wrestling tournament in DeForest when I was five years old and the minute I walked into the gymnasium the combination of parents and coaches screaming and yelling at their athletes from the side of the mat made my entire 39lb body anxious and nauseous. The whole scene left quite an impression on me I thought to myself this is not fun. It led to my brief retirement in 3rd grade from the sport. Thankfully my parents never screamed at me, but I have witnessed lots of parents engaging in this behavior; this truly sours young athletes on the entire wrestling experience and drives them out of the sport quicker than Jordan Burroughs double leg. This also gives our sport a black eye for anyone new thinking of getting their child involved and is the main reason why I encourage all of my youth wrestlers to wait to compete until roughly 6th grade depending on the maturity of the child. At an older age they are better equipped to handle and process the chaos that can be some of these tournaments.
Another area that truly burns out young athletes regardless of the sport is the ride home from competition when parents are lecturing and grilling the child on their performance. This conversation is thin ice because even if you are praising the athlete for winning you are sending a message that you love seeing winning and this could lead to the athlete feeling more pressure to win and please their parents in the future rather than compete to their fullest potential simply because they love the sport and always want to give their best effort no matter the endeavor. Obviously lecturing on what the athlete needs to improve upon will generally not be well received as children truly need parents to be parents and coaches to do the coaching. Very few parents can balance the parent/coach role well in my opinion, emotions get involved and logic and can be thrown by the wayside. The only thing parents need to say to their athletes on the ride home is “I love watching you play and give your best effort!”. Keeping comments positive and effort based reinforces to the child that the focus is on striving for your best effort and that you are supportive and love them regardless of results. We want our athletes to put their pride and identity in how much effort they give not in their results. We want the athletes used to taking coaching from the coaches not being confused by multiple sources of advice.
Lastly, the wrestling singlet in my opinion for youth through high school needs to go. Some young people are simply not comfortable having their bodies exposed as much as a singlet does and new wrestling fans may find it a turnoff as well. It’s a no brainer, no one will give up the sport if we take singlets away and if one more athlete joins the sport because they compete in shorts and spandex shirt now it was all worth it. Lets remove any possible barrier to entry.
What is our plan to improve? When EZ Wrestling runs a youth tournament there will be no scale or weigh ins, save a couple hours of people’s time by not needing to show up until 30 minutes before the tournament starts, if someone is challenged as lying about their weight they get a three pound allowance anything over that and they will be disqualified. Parents will be asked to stay in the stands and not scream at their athlete, there will be a novice division for young wrestlers with less than two seasons of experience. Shorts and shirt are the approved uniform. As for practice, more dodgeball, less live wrestling. Any other ideas?