Having Fun, Growing Tough: Playing games also teaches kids skills

Updated: December 2, 2020

Photo: Trying to remove an “Attack Bandz” teaches young wrestlers how to change levels and penetrate defense in a takedown attempt.

(This story appeared in the recent issue of WIN and is a “Kid’s Corner” feature. WIN welcomes ideas for future stories that can benefit young wrestlers, their parents and their coaches. Please send your suggestions to WIN Editor Mike Finn, MikeF@WIN-magazine.com.)


By Mike Finn

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There is no doubt wrestling can be a tough sport. But does that mean that young wrestlers have to be tough before they take to the mat?

Mike Clayton, who serves as USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Manager, says no. Instead, he believes like anything a child does, that child can grow into toughness.

“Kids absolutely grow into toughness,” said Clayton, the former college coach who now helps today’s wrestling coaches develop their young athletes. “Kids grow into resiliency and awareness. We do that as kids and as coaches.  There is a reason it’s easier to teach a foreign language to a kid because they are able to retain things better because their brains are growing at a faster rate.

“We need to introduce the ideas to them when they are young and let them develop the toughness for whatever their goals are.

“It’s not about pushing them at age 7 on whether they are tough enough. Even if a kid appears to be tough enough at age 7, kids might catch up to him when he gets to age 15.  And if a kid does not have the skills at age 7, he might by the time he gets to age 15 and he might still love the sport.

“Early success is not a prediction of future success and early failure is not a prediction of future failure. Looking at kids in 12 and under, we don’t know what these kids are capable of. So trying to make a decision on their future and how much to push them is not a certain thing.”

Mike Clayton (left), a former college coach, serves as USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Manager.

Before that happens, Clayton believes coaches — many of whom are parents of first-year wrestlers — need to focus on at least three things: when a child should start wrestling, talking to the child about their goals … and making it fun while achieving those goals.

“If we are not talking to athletes in the discussion of their goals, we are setting a direction and goal for a young person when we don’t even know if they want to do that,” Clayton said. “We need to involve the athlete into goal-setting, especially with those 12 and under.”

Clayton likes to give the example of brothers Bill (the current USA Wrestling National Freestyle coach) and Mike Zadick and how their parents — including their father Bob Zadick, who passed away on Nov. 10 — helped the future World medalists from Montana excel on the mat even if they had different young approaches to wrestling.

“Bill was the type of kid who could go to a tournament and focus on wrestling and have a great time. Mike was the type of athlete who his parents had to bring a bag of cars that he could play with between matches at a tournament or he’d be bored.

“One of the best things you could say about the Zadick parents was that they let Bill be Bill and they let Mike be Mike and they both were able to grow in the sport. It doesn’t mean they didn’t have someone being tough with them from time to time because growth requires some degree of discomfort.  But that discomfort should not include physical or emotional abuse.”

Clayton said the starting age of a young wrestler depends on the young person.

“It’s got to be the right time for that athlete and this is where we ask if coaching is a science,” he said. “If they are only coaching with a scientific mindset, they are not giving it justice.”

Clayton believes kids are kids and needed to be treated as such, even those with bigger-than-life dreams.

“Maybe they may not be good enough to be Olympic wrestlers, but how many kids are?” quizzed Clayton, who refers to Amanda Visek, PhD, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“She has shown the No. 1 reason kids play sports is to have fun. If we haven’t designed something into our practices that is fun and makes them want to come back tomorrow, then shame on us.

“So let’s take the pressure off the kids. Let them have fun. Let the adults do the adulting, which means to prepare good practices. If a kid is involved with wrestling for three years and is having fun without a lot of success, he might at least say when he started off that he couldn’t do a cartwheel, but now he can. You want to look at what can they do and have they grown … and are we talking to them about that.”

Clayton believes it’s good for coaches to introduce some type of game within practices to teach young wrestlers the skills of wrestling while adjusting to the physical nature of wrestling. He points to games that can be played with “The Attack Bandz”, which are similar to those worn in flag football, but on a young wrestler’s ankle.

“In a wrestling stance, wrestlers have to be able to level change and extend and grab the opponent’s band and rip it off while not letting the opponent rip off the one on his ankle,” Clayton said.

“If a kid is doing an ankle-band competition, they are working on stance and motion, level change and penetration and not getting clubbed in the head or picked up and slammed on their face, which could make a young wrestler uncomfortable and scared.

“We need to understand that a kid who is uncomfortable or scared coming into wrestling … we need to give them the time and patience to overcome their fear at their own time.”

Clayton said the retention rate of young wrestlers is more important to the sport than how quickly they learn wrestling.

“We need more people in the sport and not less because if we get more kids involved for a long time, we will have more kids to fill those empty high school weights,” he said.  “And if we fill those high school weights, we will have more demand for kids to wrestle in college, which means more colleges will keep or start more programs.”