Van Kley: Wrestling needs to serve both elite and beginners

Updated: July 5, 2022

Photo: Kids learn so much from wrestling under the watchful eye of good coaches.

By Bryan Van Kley

Leave no man, or woman, behind.

It’s a famous saying, one that I think originated in the military. However, as I was thinking about our great sport in terms of where wrestling is now and where it is headed, I felt it was a good lead for this column.

Like basically every sport, wrestling is more and more being customized for the elite competitor. This is great for the kids with the athletic ability, drive, maturity and goal-setting ability to be really good who are also blessed with the resources around them to excel.

But, what about the “rest” of the kids? Many young people, from elementary-aged kids up through high school, try a sport for the first time only to be paired up against a teammate or opponent during that first season who has years more experience.

They get completely overwhelmed in every way and the beginner can quickly feel like, ‘I’ll never catch up, I’ll just quit.’ And often unfortunately, they do just that and are never seen again on a wrestling mat.

I don’t know what our current retention numbers are on the youth and high school levels, but I would suspect they aren’t great. And they’re probably getting worse.

Last year, I just started coaching youth wrestling again as my 12-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) are both out for the sport. I would guess that our club practices are like most around the country.

This column appeared in the recent issue of WIN Magazine that was printed on June 16. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN.

There are number of kids in the room who are really good, love it, wrestle plenty of matches each year and want to learn higher-level technique. Then, 10 feet away, you have two kids who are first-year wrestlers who don’t even know how to correctly get into the referee’s position on the mat in folkstyle.

Can those practices “work” for both groups of kids together? Can the sport serve both groups? It must!

Young people need wrestling and what it teaches more than ever before. I’ve written about it in other columns. The lessons wrestling teaches like work ethic, how to be “confidently humble” showing respect for others, and how to be a great teammate are things kids desperately need in life. Those skills will set them up for a lifetime of success.

Here’s the point: those young kids, up through high school, who lack those skills and somehow end up in a wrestling room need enough time to get comfortable in the sport to stick it out. To do that, while also pushing the high achievers, takes a wise coach and a true system that doesn’t leave kids behind or let them slip through the cracks.

A couple keys to helping prevent beginners from quitting too early is making sure practices teach fundamentals repetitively. As hard as it is to find coaches, often times who are volunteers, this is easier said than done with high achievers in the same practice room.

A simple solution to that is to create more of a “split practice” where some high school wrestlers help with one of the groups during youth practices. The main coach can take one group while the prep coaches the other group at their own pace. It’s also a great way to get some good role models in front of the younger kids.

Coaches also need to think about the beginners when putting together competition schedules. This is true on both the youth and junior high levels, but also in high school. Nationwide, you’re seeing fewer and fewer junior varsity matches at the high school level. This is not a good thing as that’s the development stage. More and more it seems, it’s either high-level varsity or nothing at all. This leads to kids quitting.

Whatever the age level, coaches need to make sure that developmental kids have the opportunity to be in competitions where they can do just that, develop against competition that is somewhat similar to them.

Getting more kids out for wrestling and keeping them out also takes coaches who are always actively recruiting kids to come out for the sport. And, then encouraging them to stay with it. This takes work. I get that. It’s also harder now because so many high school and youth coaches don’t work in the school system so aren’t around the kids as much. But it can be done, it just takes some effort and for it to be a priority.

The race to the top, so to speak, has never been faster and more intense at every level. It’s the reason wrestling is now a year-round sport with so many tournaments, camps and high-level clubs with exceptional coaches. Obviously, these aren’t bad things. It’s a huge part of why wrestling is poised to grow long into the future. However, on this rapid sprint to the top, let’s all make sure no one gets left behind because our sport is simply too good for any person who wants to try it to not have the opportunity.

(WIN Publisher Bryan Van Kley can be reached at