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Grappling with decline in area youth athletics

Dr. Dennis Johnson with Sergei Beloglazov former two-time Olympic wrestling champion (1980 & 1988) and six-time World Champion from Russia at the University of Michigan’s Regional Training Center. Wrestling Development at the Youth Level

The scholastic and collegiate wrestling season is fast approaching and our sons and daughters in Warren County will soon begin training.

Participant numbers for wrestling at middle-high schools in Warren County and across northwest Pennsylvania are in continual decline. This decrease in the number of participants has led to individual forfeits in many high school dual meets. I recently had an opportunity to interview Sergei Beloglazov former two-time Olympic champion (1980 & 1988) and six-time World Champion from Russia regarding the youth development program for wrestling in the USA. He currently coaches our high-level international wrestlers at the University of Michigan’s Regional Training Center.

“Terrible!” That is the one-word descriptor Sergei Belogazof’s used to describe the youth development programming for wrestling in this country. “They (i.e., youth wrestlers) not learn how to move…stretch…to be an athlete. In Soviet Union we played lots of soccer and handball at wrestling practice and learn to be an athlete in the younger ages. We don’t worry about competition but rather to be an athlete.” He went on to also note, “coaching is not good, especially at the younger levels and even at many high schools…In Soviet Union I go to college to study to be coach.”

I am a career educator working as a consultant for the NWCA conducting sport leadership seminars for high school and college coaches and would like to share research-based information for our local coaches and parents of youth wrestlers; primarily those in the U10 age groups. Most parents/coaches will agree with the information I am providing. However, many of those same parents and coaches who agree with the research will one day see a spark of talent in their child and adopt a thought process that “my little one is special” and fall into the trap of over competition.

Once that happens, it becomes a matter of too much, too hard, and for too long for those who are in youth programs. Parents who notice success by their offspring (often due to a child’s superior physical, social, and psychological development) become enamored with what’s called the “Tiger Woods effect.” Subsequently they push their child to work hard to become an 8- or 10-year old regional/national champion.

Thad Turner, director of the Warren YMCA and a former collegiate wrestler recently pointed out that “there are very few Carry Kolats in the world” and most kids need a wider sport experience. Thus, the question facing parents is do they want the child to grow and gain sport literacy, thus becoming a competent mover set up for a lifetime enjoying physical activity? Or is it worth the gamble and remote possibility of them becoming a collegiate or Olympic champion to go all in?

The sport research is clear that U10’s need only to learn to move, play, have fun, and explore a wide variety of sport and movement activities with limited competition. Our youth sport programming for wrestling has become somewhat of a professionalized model where adults run the show and make money on the backs of children as evidenced by the personal coaches, travel teams, and so-called national championships in every corner of the country for kids of all ages (even U6). Why are there so many youth and novice wrestling tournaments in our area? Because they make money for the high school varsity programs.

Reflecting on Belogazof’s statement on youth sport, in 1982 I spent two weeks in the Soviet Union studying wrestling and sport training. The Soviets indicated at that time many of their wrestlers did not specialize until they were age 16, with the thought that some could become world champions in four years. Imagine, the best wrestlers in the world did not specialize until late adolescence! However, they had spent the years prior engaged in “developmentally appropriate” organized sport training learning to be an athlete (i.e., agility, balance, coordination, speed, etc.).

We in this country must understand that children are not “mini adults” and should not be coached in that manner. Has the early emphasis on novice/youth wrestling in our county programs had a detrimental effect on the number of wrestling participants in our middle and senior high schools? Could it be that this early specialization with the year-round training/competition mindset has led to an increase in burnout, overuse injuries, and/or dropouts from wrestling training and competition. Do youth coaches have any understanding of the developmental readiness in children? Do they, as coaches, employ coaching methods they experienced in their last stage of competition (usually a high school practice format)? Do we continue to hope that more and more emphasis on youth wrestling tournaments with articles and pictures in the local newspaper will result in more participants in the higher grades? Why?

Parents and coaches who want their children to become competent movers and physically literate sportspersons should become familiar with the Long Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD) when approaching youth sports. The LTAD is a seven-stage framework that guides the participation, training, competition and recovery pathways in sport and physical activity. Of particular importance for youth wrestling programs are the Active Start stage (U6) and the Fundamental stage (U6-9) which emphasize physical literacy with very limited or no formal competition (see https://sportforlife.ca/long-term-development/).

Warren County’s Kinzua Wrestling Club endorses the LTAD model for youth development in sport. For example, the KWC recently conducted two four-day summer camps for the U10 age group focusing not on wrestling but solely on educational movement (e.g., locomotor skills, tumbling, game play). We also attempt to increase the quality of coaching by presenting coaching development seminars and are currently working with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) to develop a work-place certificate in Sport Coaching. These efforts are being developed to increase the knowledge base and pedagogy practices of our area wrestling coaches.

In closing, it is my hope that parents will follow the research and provide a wide range of movement activities for their children, especially in the U10 age group. Soccer and other ball sports like team handball along with educational gymnastics, tumbling, martial arts, rock climbing, and dance are ideal activities for creating a base for youngsters to become athletes. As for youth wrestling programs, parents please resist the urge to have your children specialize and emphasize competition at this young age.

Hopefully, coaches and program administrators in youth wrestling will remain focused on the LTAD model so our youth can grow and develop the movement confidence to be physically active for life. Then maybe more children will continue with the sport of wrestling and remain in the sport to populate our high school wrestling rosters.

Dennis A. Johnson Ed.D, is a sport leadership consultant for the National Wrestling Coaches Association and secretary for the Kinzua Wrestling Club.

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