I’ve seen the nervousness before the whistle blows, the emotional rollercoaster during close matches, the disappointment of losing, and the immense pride of big wins. I’ve seen parents who freak out and those who hide their faces. I’ve seen parents who feel helpless, with no idea what to say after a loss or how to motivate their wrestler to stick with the sport. And I’ve felt all of these feelings myself, both as a coach and as a parent.
During my 28 years as a wrestling coach, there have been parents who got it right, many who got it wrong, and others who got it way wrong. I often tell parents that my job is not only to coach their kids, but also to coach them.
Having said that, I am not going to tell you how to parent your child. Every kid is different and it’s a hard job being a parent (I know—I have three kids myself). But I’ve seen a few things over the years that I feel are valuable to share. This book is written as a collection of the observations that I have made as a coach and the experiences I have gone through as a parent.
You will learn about the process it takes to succeed in wrestling and the role you should play in your wrestler’s journey. You will hear directly from wrestlers about their unique path, what it took to jump levels, and their parents’ involvement.
After reading this book, my goal is that you will be confident in any situation, reduce any nervousness or stress you may have about wrestling, and strengthen your relationship with your wrestler. Just as I coach each of my wrestlers to be their best, I also want to enable you to be the best wrestling parent you can be.
For your wrestler, my aim is to provide with you a resource that will help them reach their potential as well as learn the valuable lessons wrestling teaches about life.
My hope for you both is that you will grow to love the sport and all that it has to offer.
Section 1: The Process of Success
What is Success?
Winning, right? The goal of a match is to win so success means you win all the time… wrong. Winning is definitely more fun and the feeling of losing sucks, but that’s not the ONLY way you measure success. If winning was the most important thing, then you would find the easiest tournaments and just stick with those. The process of learning how to improve, overcoming adversity, and climbing the ladder to higher levels is ultimately what wrestlers take away from the sport into life. These lessons are the ultimate definition of success.
But in order to climb that ladder it means you have mastered a level by winning, then finding new challenges. Tougher matches, harder tournaments and the climb continues until you are at the top. And the great thing about wrestling is that the top is always moving. You can reach the pinnacle of winning Olympic gold and there is going to be another wrestler training to knock you off.
And let’s be honest, you are reading this book because you want to figure out the secret to your wrestler having success both in the short term and the long term. Both in how to win more matches and learning the valuable lessons the sport provides in order to become a better person and more successful adult.
I will give you all the secrets. But you have to do me a favor. When you read things you may not agree with, take a second and think about what I’m saying. Because some of what I tell you may be hard to hear.
Here it goes…the results of youth wrestling matches DO NOT MATTER. Yes, you can feel pride if your six-year-old wins state or even Tulsa Nationals, but in the long run those results don’t mean anything. College coaches are not recruiting at youth events. At the time, it matters to them and the work they put in to try and win does matter. I’m not discounting that at all. But as you will read in this book, most kids are losing wrestlers in the beginning and many still go on to achieve high level success when they are older. So if you are freaking out during your seven-year-old’s match because they are diving for shots or won’t get their head off the mat, just take a step back and relax. How they perform when they are young is not that big of a deal.
What does matter? The process. What is most important is that they learn how to succeed. That they learn how to handle wins and losses. Partially from an emotional standpoint, but more importantly from an action standpoint. If they learn these lessons now, they will develop a foundation for improving and thus win more matches in the long run. They will build confidence, not only in their wrestling abilities but also in the work they put into any task. They will see the direct relationship between deliberate effort and winning, reinforcing the importance of hard work.
Section 1: The Process of Success
What is the Process? – Factors that Influence the Process – Taking Ownership
This is arguably the most powerful of all factors that influence success. Once the wrestler decides for themselves that they want it and they start taking action on their own, they make massive gains.
Unfortunately, It’s also the most mysterious of all the factors. You can’t really make them take ownership, otherwise they are still doing it because you said so. It’s hard to pinpoint why it fully clicks and they have decided they are all in. It could be that a coach inspired them, their friends influenced them or they just got sick of losing. Sometimes it comes from attending a big event like the state tournament or a national event. But the most important thing is that they are the ones who are driving the ship, not you.
How can you foster the concept of taking ownership?
- Involve them in decision making – Even if you already know they answer, make them feel like they have a say. This could be the decision to attend a certain tournament, go to a camp, start strength training, or even deciding what type of healthy foods to buy.
- Help them set their own goals and create an action plan – When they are young, this can be really basic. But when they set the goals, you can now say “Are you good with me helping you stay accountable to reach these?”
- Have them determine their weekly training schedule, including both practices and extra work – Post it on the refrigerator calendar or a shared online calendar.
- Avoid being overly critical about their wrestling – If you are having a conversation about their wrestling, avoid telling them what they need to work on. Instead, ask them what positions they think need work or what actions they are taking this week to improve.
- Allow them to fail – As parents, watching your child struggle or get upset is hard. We want them to succeed and it’s a source of pride for us so we often give them the answers or put them in positions to avoid failing. But if we are there to constantly protect them from failure or are the ones pushing them without their buy-in, they will never learn on their own. Learning through their own experiences creates a long-lasting association with the consequences of action or inaction. More importantly, they are the ones in charge of figuring out a solution. They learn important problem solving skills instead of having a parent tell them where they messed up and what they should do to fix it. You have more life experience than them. You will likely have an answer. But you don’t need to be at the front of the class raising your hand vigorously for the teacher to see you. Hold the answer back sometimes and help them figure things out. You can be part of the conversion and help them think through it, but they need to be the ones to own solving the problem if you want them to learn how to succeed in wrestling and life.
- Don’t do everything for them – When you feel the urge to do something for them because “It’s just easier if I do it myself,” you probably need to have them do it. These little tasks and processes of taking ownership add up and build their confidence.
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Section II: The Journey
Perspectives from the Wrestler’s Journey – Caleb Henson
Any advice you would give to younger wrestlers?
When it gets hard, that’s when you have to be great. Everyone’s great when they aren’t tired. Make yourself uncomfortable every day (i.e. ice bath, bike workout, anything). Whatever workout you don’t want to do is the exact thing you should do. Doing hard things is the best way to get better because it builds your mind and body.
I tell myself that I’ve earned the right to be here because I’ve done the hard things and I can fully believe in my training. I trust that I’ve done what it takes to win and not have second guesses.
What has been your “secret” to success? How have you jumped levels above what others (who also work hard) have been able to?
I’ve always been able to learn from everyone. Kids less experienced than me, coaches, etc. Everyone who wrestles has one thing they do well and I like to take from that and make it my own. From kids who are 0-2 at a tournament to the champ.
You can work hard, but it’s also your lifestyle. Sleep, diet, etc. It all factors into the big picture. Practice is important, but it’s also everything you do outside. Doing a little more than everyone in the room and staying after practice always made me feel like it gave me a mental edge. In high school, I made it a thing to stay after every practice to do 200 pushups. I was willing to do more than everybody else.
I always had to find a new challenge. If I wasn’t getting taken down in practice, I had to keep finding new partners who could beat me. In middle school, I wrestled with high schoolers. In high school, we tried to bring in college guys to work with. Getting mauled on is humbling and shows you there are levels to this. But it’s also eye opening for knowing where you need to go. If someone beat me, I wouldn’t be mad. I would embrace it and then go outwork that person every day to close the gap. This was with training partners as well as against people I may have lost to at tournaments.
I also like to turn little things into competitions in my head to keep pushing myself. I always loved playing games. For example, if we did sprints in practice, I always wanted to win the sprints. If we were doing stance and motion drills, I always pretended to be competing with others and moving feet faster and better than everyone else. Now in college, if we have a morning lift, I want to be more awake than everyone to conquer the workout. I mean yeah, it’s easier to not be competitive…I just hate to lose at anything, even when I’m tired.
Section III: Your Role as a Wrestling Parent
How Parents Can Sabotage & Affect Confidence
…In fact, there are several things I’ve seen that parents do over the years that can undermine a wrestler’s confidence. Here are a few.
- Putting other kids on a pedestal — Don’t say things like, “Yeah, that Johnny is a hammer. He’ll probably win state this year.” When elevating another wrestler over your own, it’s like it’s permanent and they can never be beaten. It says to your wrestler “you aren’t as good as them and it’s not possible to beat them.” Even if your wrestler has less experience, the attitude should be, “I’m coming for you and I’m gonna close the gap each time we wrestle.”
- Comparing your kid’s skills to another wrestler — Telling someone, “You need to wrestle more like him. Watch how smooth he is.” or “That kid’s double leg is so explosive. You need to hit doubles like that.” To your wrestler, this subconsciously sounds like “you suck.”
This doesn’t mean not to watch other wrestlers to emulate them, but use people they would be inspired by like an older wrestler, college or Olympic wrestler. Plus, wrestlers have different personalities and natural skill sets. Your wrestler may not be naturally fast or explosive, so they may not be able to emulate that skill. They need to embrace who they are and build on that.
- Profile stalking opposing wrestlers before tournaments – Don’t look up the stats and the record of their opponent before a match. Does it really matter? Will it change how they wrestle? It just makes you feel more or less nervous. If you are going to compare online profiles, you might as well not wrestle the match. Just put the two profiles side by side and whoever has the most stars on Trackwrestling wins. There’s a reason you wrestle the matches. Heck, watch any NCAA wrestling tournament. Top seeds go down all the time. No. 15-seeds make the finals. Past records do not matter. All that matters is wrestling that one match.
- Having your wrestler scout another kid — Please do not say “Hey, you are gonna get the winner of this match. Watch them so you can see what they do.” For most kids, all this does is make them worry about that other kid. What if that kid destroys someone? Does that make them an amazing wrestler? They may have just beat a beginner. It’s not like you can really prepare for someone’s tendencies 5 minutes before your match. They should be focused on imposing their will on the other kid and being confident enough in their own abilities that it doesn’t matter what the other kid will try. This goes for scouting yourself as well and telling them “Watch out for their headlock.” They’ll spend the whole match worried about a headlock. If they do get headlocked, so what? Now they know what that feels like and can work on counters in practice.
- Worrying about their ability to take on challenges — It’s common for parents to worry that if their wrestler loses or gets “beat up” that it will hurt their confidence. But this is a fear-based mindset. This way of thinking can hurt their confidence in even more detrimental ways than losing a wrestling match can. If they think that you don’t believe in their ability to take on a challenge, there’s no way they will believe it for themselves. Challenges are how we grow as humans and kids need to feel empowered to take them on as early as possible. They need to know their parents believe in them. Wrestling specific examples may be:
- Afraid to start doing tournaments because you think they “are not ready yet”
- Afraid to move up from novice tournaments into the open division
- Afraid of other wrestlers and avoiding them in brackets by changing weight classes because they might lose
- Not thinking they are “good enough” to start traveling or attending tougher events
- Yelling at your kid during their match — I delve more into this later when we talk about your role during matches. But as it relates to undermining their confidence, yelling, and especially if your tone is panicked, basically tells your wrestler that you don’t think they are trying hard enough to win, that you don’t think they are wrestling well and that yelling instructions or “motivation” is necessary for them to win.
- Talking about problems as if they are permanent – Saying things like “He’s just not good at takedowns” or “He has confidence issues” sound like permanent conditions that the wrestler can’t overcome. Every wrestler has things they can improve on. Kids need to feel like they are making progress. That is what keeps them interested and improving in any sport, regardless if they are winning or losing. They want to feel they can master it and find success.
How you talk to them, and about them, will shape how they see themselves, so build them up instead of tearing them down. Instead, rephrase how you say things as if they are on a positive path of improving. Replace “He’s just not good at takedowns” with “He’s been working on his single leg and needs to keep getting reps on finishing.”