Gable: Keeping kids in the sport is critical today

Updated: May 18, 2017

Editor’s Note: Dan Gable built his name from his success as both a wrestler and coach, especially on the college and international level. Now a grandfather, Gable has gotten a chance to see what today’s kids go through in learning the sport and recently shared his thoughts with WIN editor Mike Finn.

WIN: How would you describe today’s youth and eventual junior high or middle school systems of wrestling?

GABLE: When I grew up, they did not have tournaments and competitions for kids like they do now. My first organized event did not happen until junior high school. I know kids start as young as five years old, but I’m more concerned about the junior high system. The current system for those kids is not what I went through, where you’d wrestle for three months.

Now when school starts, kids have the chance to go out for football, then swimming, then basketball, then wrestling, then track and field; all for about six weeks. When I was growing up, you could not go out for basketball and wrestling and swimming. You had to pick one of the three. I like the current option.

WIN: What are your concerns with today’s junior high system?

GABLE: What I noticed was that there were a lot more seventh graders out than eight graders, so I wondered what happened to the seventh grader from the previous year.

One thing that Mike Moyer of the NWCA has talked to me about in the past 10 years is that we are losing kids. Youth wrestling, basically kindergarten through eighth grade, there like a million kids who wrestle. But once ninth grade starts, we are down to 300 thousand kids wrestling. That is a big loss.

When you have a system like this, where they are going to offer many different sports to junior high kids, you are going to have a drop off of kids because they can’t do all the sports in high school. But what’s even worse is that the number of junior high kids wrestling is also dropping yearly. So how does wrestling retain the number of kids that we already have wrestling and keep them wanting to stay in our sport?

WIN: Is the retention of youth and junior high wrestlers critical for the sport?

GABLE: Yes. Retention within the sport should be even more important than winning at the youth level. Coaches should be coaching for the sake of the sport and now just for the elite young wrestlers.

As kids get older and it becomes more competitive, I understand the more emphasis on winning. Yes, there will be less numbers the older the kids get, but we need to do a better job of retaining more kids so that wrestling becomes a bigger sport on the map.

With coaches caring about the sport and keeping kids in the sport, I believe we can cut the numbers leaving in half. I believe most coaches care about helping all the young wrestlers but the current system is holding them back from helping the struggling kids. This whole protocol needs to be cleaned up.

WIN: Six weeks seems like a short time for coaches to teach the sport to kids.

GABLE: I really think because the length of a season and kids are simply matched up with others at events, based on the their size and experience, my suggestion is that you have all the kids fill out a form as the season starts that shows their name, age and year, weight and experience, including whether they have had any family members also involved in the sport.

But a big key is getting to know how much the kids show in practice compared to what they write down. Instead of always instructing, it’s important to just put the kids out in practice and let them wrestle. You want to find out in the first couple days what kids really know how to wrestle and even their abilities beyond wrestling.

When that happens, the kids on the sideline will be able to watch the more knowledgeable kid and they will learn more about wrestling by simply watching the more talented kid. This will also help the more knowledgeable kids learn leadership on how to help the kids who may not know as much. I believe the kids learn faster that way because they can see more what is involved.

The kids who just sit there and listen to a coach’s instruction don’t learn as fast as witnessing a teammate execute a hold. They have been in class all day long. Give them a break by not just giving them more instruction.

Weight is a big advantage for kids just learning to wrestle. When kids know when coaches are going to weigh them in, they may have a tendency to lose weight before the weigh-ins. With the no weigh-ins before matches, coaches should know the real weights of their kids.

WIN: By coaching kids for a short time, it seems like some coaches are going to be more worried about developing kids who know more than those who do not.

GABLE: It’s important that coaches are coaching for the sport and not just coaching for the elite kids. If you have 40 kids wrestling, you want 40 kids retaining what you’ve taught them and 40 staying in the sport.

I would match kids from different levels of experience and ability. Kids who have wrestled a lot should be considered “A” wrestlers. Those with just a little bit of experience should be a “B” wrestler. First-year wrestlers are usually a “C” wrestler. Coaches won’t really know how good a kid is until they see them in competition and they can alter what level of experience each kid is after that.

But there is also a problem here. Coaches usually send a breakdown of experience and knowledge of their kids to whatever school and coach is hosting an event so they can better match the kids. One thing that is important to include is a kid’s won-loss record because it will show how much success they are having. This sheet of won-loss records only goes to the coaches and not to the fans and athletes.

The kids who are struggling need to have a better chance at feeling success and should be matched with kids who have similar records. Otherwise, they are getting less from the sport. Of all the sports where someone who loses also feels humiliation, wrestling can be one of the worse … and no one knows that more than the kids who have enjoyed success and want to watch their teammates also feel success. Those are the kids who will be sitting near the match really cheering on their teammate and really get excited when that kid finally wins.

Just before their competition there should be a mandatory coaches meeting to review the match-ups. If there is a matchup that does not look good, they should not have it.

For the sake of retaining kids in the sport, coaches have to do a great job of making sure these kids enjoy some positive results. That doesn’t mean that they have to win but they need to know that they have a chance to win. Coaches do have a lot of control over retention of kids in this sport. Remember, our sport can give the most meaningful life experiences for today’s kids.