Warner: Make wrestling habit-forming, but in the right way

Updated: November 2, 2023

Photo: Tristan Warner is a former PIAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier for Old Dominion. The two-time Elite 89 Award recipient and CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American lives in Shippensburg, Pa., where he also coaches young wrestlers.

By Tristan Warner

Wrestling is not an easy sport. That is an obvious statement. 

From a technical perspective alone, wrestling is very complex. 

Especially as higher levels of the sport are reached, the subtle nuances of technique instruction and coaching make all the difference. 

As I progressed throughout the various levels of wrestling and came out the other side as a coach and media member, one thing that still befuddles me about the sport is how certain processes and aspects of it are inconsistent and incongruent from one level to the next.

This column appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover to subscribe.

In more simplified terms, it feels as though bad habits are too often taught at the lower levels of the sport. Then, when an athlete reaches the collegiate level, a great amount of time and effort is required to break those bad habits and condition the mind and muscle memory to undo what has been done for over a decade and be replaced with the proper techniques. 

In other words, a sport that is already very challenging is being made even more difficult by adding an extra layer of unnecessary obstacles. 

The old adage is to work smarter not harder, but I am afraid wrestlers are often forced to do the opposite, working harder, not smarter. 

Let me back track and draw on my own personal experience to elaborate on this observation. 

I remember the first few months of college wrestling being brutal. 

Sure, the practices were rigorous, and the conditioning was physically and mentally trying, but most problematic for me were the adjustments that were necessary to adapt to college wrestling. 

Countless times I remember thinking “Why did nobody teach me this until now?” despite having wrestled for 14 years at that point. 

Now, looking at the sport from more of a critical coaching and media-member lens, I still find myself repeating the phrase “once you get in a college room…” or “it took me until college to learn…” to the younger athletes I interact with. 

Granted, the level of coaching expertise is typically higher and higher at the more advanced levels of the sport. Coaches at younger levels don’t need to be experts, but showing the fundamentals properly and abstaining from teaching bad habits is important. 

It is the bad habits, both technically and procedurally, that cause headaches for college athletes and coaches alike later down the road.

In terms of technique, there are countless examples, but I am talking about things like hand fighting, finishing a high crotch, sprawling with constant hip pressure, executing a butt drag, leading with the proper shooting leg, hip pressure while riding legs, back pressure on a stand-up, pulling an opponent down in a front headlock, and the list goes on and on. 

Why wait until college to learn how to hand fight with proper mechanics and intensity? Or why not show a young kid how to sprawl and use his/her hip pressure to break an opponent’s lock and score off a butt drag? So many young wrestlers simply stop sprawling and just try to spin behind, negating the proper steps to ensure that takedown will be secured. 

Why teach a kid to finish off a high crotch to a double by breaking his/her lock too early and driving to a double with unlocked hands and poor posture only to get sprawled on and squashed with nothing to show for an otherwise nice shot?

For me personally, I thought I was an effective leg rider in high school, but when I got to college, I realized my butt was way up in the air with no hip pressure on my opponents. As soon as I went to power half, I would get too high and get reversed repeatedly. It took the better part of two seasons to fully correct this issue. 

I also would stand up off the whistle, bend over and focus all my attention on breaking the lock around my waist while negating the proper back pressure needed to disengage that lock. So many young wrestlers I observe have these same shortcomings, or others like them. 

From an approach standpoint, why do so many high school kids wake up and “make weight” before a school day and then hold their weight all day for a 7 PM dual meet? 

I recall telling one of the high school athletes I work with that in college, often you show up for a pre-dual meet drill/warm-up three to four pounds overweight just a few hours before weigh-ins and you lose the weight right then and there during the drill. That way, you didn’t dehydrate yourself all day and deprive your body of necessary calories it will use during the match. He was dumbfounded, just as I was when I learned the high school starvation method was a no-go. 

Also, in high school, it was the norm for wrestlers to hop off the scale and head straight to a foot-long sub on a one-hour weigh in. Only in college did I learn the proper nutritional advice of what would benefit me on the mat and what would slow me down. 

While there are far more specific examples, the overarching concept is that wrestlers would benefit from the sport being coached and approached more consistently across all age levels. 

This is not to say beginners need to be inundated with technique concepts too advanced for them to handle. Sticking to fundamentals is a great plan with novice wrestlers. But sticking to fundamentals that are taught correctly is pivotal. 

And to add to all these elements, many of which I did not have room to delve into, the scoring and rule discrepancies across age levels only add to the impediments. 

Teaching a kid to ride an opponent effectively enough to secure a riding-time point once they get to college is behind the eight ball. But there is no riding-time point in high school, so riding is secondary or tertiary. 

Or, coaching college kids to wrestle through positions on the edge of the mat where they would have been called out of bounds in high school complicates things. 

Now, a three-point takedown in college but a two-point takedown across all other levels… Well, you see where I am going with this. 

For the benefit of athletes, coaches, and even fans, I would like to see more consistency across all age levels of wrestling.