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What do you tell a five-year-old … and parents … learning the sport?

By
Updated: February 27, 2021

Photo: Calahan Cornelius, age 5, (putting in a half-nelson) and Maxwell Schmitz, 6, are learning the sport at wrestling club in Bellevue, Iowa.

Editor’s Note: The following appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of WIN Magazine. Mike Clayton serves as manager of USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program, which helps wrestlers set goals, focus, gain confidence, organize and prioritize their training to help them reach their goals. He recently spoke with WIN Editor Mike Finn about how parents should introduce their children to the sport.

WIN: If a parent decides to introduce wrestling to their five-year-old child, what would you tell them?

Clayton: It’s got to be fun because it’s got to be long term. If Timmy goes out today and if it’s not fun or it’s not a positive experience, why does Timmy come back tomorrow?

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Don’t tell me that your kid has to start at four or five to be a successful wrestler. Your kid’s not going to fall behind because he’s not winning national titles at age five. And even if he’s winning national titles at age five, it doesn’t mean he’ll still be winning at age 20. Early success is not a predictor of future success. So you might see your kid winning a lot right now. That doesn’t mean they’ll even be wrestling in high school. 

WIN: When should winning and losing matter?

Clayton: It’s really up to each child and what’s important to each athlete. If a young child goes out and loses, he’s probably going to cry. And he may be crying because he thinks he’s letting mom and dad down because of the things mom and dad may say. Mom and Dad don’t intend to be that way. But they may say something, they may do something, they may say something that makes the child think I don’t get the same positive reaction from my mom and dad, when I lose, as I do when I win. Now, the kids associate winning with love for mom and dad. And that’s the problem. 

Children think they have to win to make their mom and dad proud. We don’t need to add emotional anxiety onto these kids to think the only way that mom and dad love them is if they’re wrestling.

WIN: Some parents have never wrestled and may not know what to tell a child that is wrestling; that it’s more than just learning how to control another child. How do these parents educate themselves enough to help their child?

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

Clayton: It’s very important that a parent find an initial club, where their kid can go in at the child’s level. Let’s pretend you are age five and walk into a club that is pretty intense because the coaches are thinking maybe a little bit old school and think they have to weed out young kids.

Maybe you’ve raised your kid to be strong, tough, and they’ve had to learn a lot of resilience in life. You walk into the club, and that’s great for you because it’s a good environment. Because they might walk into the club and say, ‘Whoa, this is too intense for me. Maybe I don’t want my head to get punched by this kid three times. And if I’m five and I walk into a practice, and I’m getting clubbed in the neck on day one, I don’t understand.’ They’re thinking, ‘Why are these people so aggressive towards me’? 

If a child is not an aggressive person at age five, it doesn’t mean that child can’t be a great wrestler. It just means they’re not ready for that level yet. 

WIN: Weight cutting is always an issue in youth wrestling. What are your thoughts?

Clayton: Jordan Burroughs had a great interview with us and he said, “I don’t think kids should cut weight at all. He was like, “I’m a grown man (wrestling) and (weight management) is the toughest part of our sport. So why would I do that to my kid. It’s tough enough without the weight cutting at a young age.” 

I remember youth baseball, where I’d play a game and win or lose, we’d jump in the car and get some ice cream. That’s what I remember about youth baseball as much as what I learned on the baseball field.

To grow wrestling and to grow humans, it’s not so much about winning. It needs to be about the process of developing the human. And I think that’s the type of wrestling club where I would take my kid.

WIN: Parents want the best for their kids and want them to be competitive, including on a mat where they want them be better than another child. What if a child does not show a competitive nature?

Clayton: It kind of goes back to one of our cardinal rules of communication: don’t compare your child with another child. If my kid gets beat, it doesn’t mean my kid is a bad kid. It just means my kid is at the level of wrestling that may be different from other children.

  We will understand that that 15-0 loss today includes focusing on the process of getting better and making it a fun. Focus on the positives. For every piece of criticism you want to give your child, find four things they did well, and then give them the piece of criticism. Those four pieces of positive (feedback) build the child up and it lets the child know you’re focused on the good. Tell them you love their attitude and sportsmanship when they went out there.

Say to them, “You stayed there, and you shook hands at the end, even though it was tough buddy. I’m glad you came off the corner and you gave me a hug. Because wrestling doesn’t define you, you’re my child, and I love you, no matter what you do. Thank you for coming out today and having a great day. 

“And you know, if you want to work on that single leg, we’ll get coach on Monday. And you know, we’ll get in there and we’ll start working on that, okay? But don’t worry, you’re going to grow into this sport, we’re going to have a good time.”

That’s all you need. Let the kids go through the emotions they need to feel. Don’t be there telling them that have to feel a certain way. It’s just really being aware of where your kids are in the sport. And why you want them in the sport.”

WIN: There are some parents who want wrestling to toughen their child. What do you say to them?

Clayton: That’s OK if they have the focus that it may take more than one or two seasons for your child to get to a level where you feel that toughness is really where you want it to be. This is why knowing your values and why you send your kid out for wrestling is important.

But if you want them to learn some toughness, and you take them into a wrestling club and coaches start pounding it in them saying, “I’m going to show you tough and you’re either going sink or swim,” that’s not good. 

You don’t take a five-year-old kid and throw him into the middle of the swimming pool and say, “He’s either going to make it to the edge or drown.” That’s not how you train a kid to swim. So why would we train a kid to wrestle the same way? It’s not a sink or swim sport. It’s a long-term growth sport. 

Because of wrestling, I’m learning how to control my emotions better. Wrestling gives us all the ability to grow throughout our life. If we push kids too early, then they get out of wrestling too early and they lose those benefits.

Wrestling might have might have saved someone later in life. That someone might say, “I was in a down place and I was struggling, but a wrestling person picked me up and helped me and that’s why I am where I am today.”

(Mike Clayton will take a look at what kids and parents go through once they decide to start entering youth tournaments in the next issue of WIN Magazine.) n

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