We are approaching the start of the competition season and there is always interest from parents and athletes in criteria for determining when their son or daughter is ready for competition. I have spent over 40 years involved in this sport as an athlete, coach, and now as a father, and I have formed my opinions based on best practices for creating a lifelong love of the sport in a young athlete. In my opinion, most beginners jump into competition far too soon, and this early start significantly reduces their enjoyment of the sport, and in many cases their ability to learn, develop, and progress as a competitor in the sport later in life.
My competition recommendations for true beginners in wrestling starts here. I believe all beginners should have at least 80 hours of practice /instruction before considering their first competition. In a standard two practice per week club schedule, that would almost equate to a full season of practice before first competition somewhere early in year two. Many parents don’t like to wait that long, and in a second-best scenario I would recommend that beginner athletes should get 20 practices in before competition, and that schedule continues for up to four events. In this method, an athlete would get 20 practices in, wrestle their first event, and would not enter their second event until they have completed another 20 practices. This cycle would continue for four total events.
As an additional lead into competition, I advise all athletes and parents of young wrestlers to watch some college, high school, and youth wrestling events before their first competition. There is a ton of college wrestling on television and the internet that beginners can watch to develop a baseline understanding of the sport. Parents and athletes should attend at least one youth event as a spectator, before signing up for their first competition as well. New parents and athletes need to see the unique environment that is youth wrestling, to get a full picture of competition. This will significantly help with nerves of the wrestler, and parents, when the first competition is decided on.
Parents and coaches must also evaluate a few motivation and behavioral factors in a beginner before allowing them to compete. First is motivation: Does the athlete want to get out there, or are they just competing because of peer or parental pressure? In my opinion – kids should be asking / begging to compete before they get placed into their first event. When your child looks ready, simply ask if they want to compete. Any hesitancy would indicate you should probably wait and remain on the practice schedule.
The second behavioral factor is aggressiveness on the mat. Most beginner wrestlers tend to shy away from contact during learning, drilling, sparring, and live activities on the mat. This is very evident during practice as you will see beginner wrestlers only lightly touching their partner, and their posture, footwork, and reaction to contact is very defensive in nature. These behavioral patterns change quickly as young athletes realize what is normal allowable contact in the sport, and their skills improve. It is important that athletes demonstrate a minimum level of comfort to wrestling contact before they enter their first competition.
The other factors that I use to determine readiness for competition are divided into motor development and technical / tactical categories.
Motor Development and Body Awareness:
- Length of mat bear crawl and crab walk – this shows basic core and head and neck strength.
- Proficiency at forward and backward rolls – this shows proper body mechanics regarding an athlete’s upper body control on the mat. Athletes must be able to control and stabilize their head in varying positions in space, and these basic gymnastics skills can show minimum levels of competency.
- Proficiency at dive forward roll to feet– kinesthetic awareness.
- Front and Back Bridging (with and without hands) – 30 seconds. This shows prerequisite neck and core strength as well as a minimal competence in motor skills required in wrestling.
- Forward and backward lunge – length of mat. This shows minimal leg strength required for competition. Many beginners struggle with getting their back knee to the mat or repeated reps of these activities. In an average match, wrestlers will work to get from their knee to their feet around 30-40 times, between attacks, finishes, sprawls, or escapes. If an athlete does not have the required strength and endurance to meet these numbers, they are probably not prepared for competition.
- Push-ups / pull ups – This demonstrates some level of upper body muscular strength and endurance. If a beginner cannot perform at least 10 strict form push-ups and 2-3 pull-ups, they are probably not strong enough to perform many of the techniques required in this sport during live competition.
- Defensive “Cat Reactions” – This demonstrates proper falling and landing mechanics (toward belly with intent to land on arms and hands). This is a must have skill before allowing an athlete to compete. Beginner wrestlers usually look like rodeo cowboys before they learn how to land. When lifted, arms and hands extend away from the body, often accompanied with limited head and neck control. Athletes in this learning level often fall directly to their back or side on a leg tackle with their arms near their own head. When lifted from behind, wrestlers in this learning phase often flail their arms up and land very extended on the mat when returned. Athletes must learn and demonstrate “cat reactions” before entering competition. When falling or being returned to the mat, arms and elbows (and sometimes knees) should move toward the body and the head and neck should “brace”. Kinesthetically the athlete should be able to turn toward the ground like a cat when landing. If an athlete does not demonstrate this movement pattern consistently in practice, they risk injury in competition.
Technical Proficiency: Athletes should demonstrate competence in the following areas.
- Demonstrate proper starting positions for all three options without coaching.
- Proficiency in leg tackle (especially landing mechanics – head on one side / body on other).
- Proficiency in sprawl and go behind.
- Proficiency in stand up and escape from bottom (base building with opponents’ weight on top).
- Proficiency in top breakdown and simple half from the top position.
- Proficiency in defending when opponent is behind (standing lift position).
- Proficiency in basic rules and scoring.
Most of this information is based on considering athletes getting started in the sport between 4-8 years old. For beginners starting at an older age, I would change my recommendations slightly, because most older athletes will be able to demonstrate the baseline motor development requirements immediately, and therefore safety concerns of competition would go down significantly.
I know most coaches and parents want the best for their sons or daughters and want them to learn the lessons that are taught through this great sport. Preparation, confidence, technical and tactical proficiency, learning how to win and lose gracefully, are all things that we want our kids to learn through wrestling. In my opinion, we don’t need outside competition to teach these lessons to young wrestlers. I lean to a martial arts model for establishing a foundation of love and learning in beginner athletes. White belts in most martial arts train hard, learn skills, develop a love for the sport, and advance through ranks in their first 2 years without ever competing outside of their dojo. Only after they have developed the fundamental skills and built the foundation required, will they enter outside competition.
The subject of entering competition and overall sport development in wrestling are fundamental to my core beliefs about club wrestling:
- Wrestling should be fun.
- Inclusive (Everybody can wrestle).
- Strive for retention (target retention rate year over year – 75%).
- Wrestling teaches transferable athletic and life skills.
- Demonstration of Sportsmanship / honor / humility / self-control is foundational.
- Mastery of the sport is through systematic progression.
- Enforce minimum requirements for competition.
It is my goal to help wrestlers enjoy the sport and use wrestling to teach transferable life lessons. Competition is an essential part of these goals and should be considered carefully at all phase of an athlete’s development cycle, if we are to maximize the value to the participant.
I do not mean this post to dissuade wrestlers from competing or inferring that an athlete must hit all the prerequisites before competition. These prerequisites represent a range of skills that I use in making educated recommendations for competition. Every wrestler is unique, and every situation is different, and I believe these decisions are never black and white. Beginner tournaments can be a good place for many athletes to test themselves in a more controlled environment, but I still believe that best use of time in the first couple of years is within the practice room. Comments are always appreciated.