10 coaching fundamentals to help all young wrestlers

Updated: June 3, 2024

Photo: Tristan Warner has coached young wrestlers for the past four years near his Pennsylvania home.

By Tristan Warner

I recently made the transition from coaching at the collegiate level to primarily working with youth wrestlers in a club setting.

Coinciding with this transition, several months ago I wrote a column about some of the major differences between how wrestling technique is taught between levels. 

In a nutshell, the purpose of the column was not to disparage any coaches or coaching methods but more just to shed light on my own observations. 

Simply put, I know firsthand that wrestlers often experience a tough transition making the adjustment from high school to college wrestling and many hours are logged breaking bad habits and forming new ones. 

I have found that teaching young kids how to wrestle, especially those who are inexperienced, is like building a house. If the foundation is not sturdy or lacks basic fundamental principles, then anything taught (or built) on top of that is at risk of being exposed.

This column appeared in the May issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Therefore, the following list is a brief rundown of some of the most significant focal points I believe need to be emphasized for young wrestlers, both from a technical and tactical standpoint, to set them up for long-term success. 

1. Hand fighting

I almost have to laugh at this one. I spent the first few months of the fall trying to teach the club kids various hand-fighting concepts, only to later attend a youth tournament where nearly every competitor just shook hands and dove at the legs before even touching his or her opponent. 

Do kids need to know how to hand fight like college wrestlers? No, certainly not. However, emphasizing how to move an opponent to get angles is perhaps the most important thing. Instead of diving straight at a leg, coaching them to use set-ups to move an opponent and shoot at an angle is achievable. 

2. Down blocking 

Somewhere between a sprawl and getting taken down is the oft-neglected down block. I try to remind my kids to use their first lines of defense, their heads and hands, respectively, to stop an opponent from getting in on their legs. I watch a lot of film and when you break it down in slow motion, the defensive wrestler is often not even beginning to sprawl until the opponent is well underneath their level and already penetrating to the legs. Staying in good position and blocking with head and hands first is fundamental defense. 

3. Sprawling

Hand-in-hand with concept No. 2, many kids at all age levels, in fact, sprawl with their rears in the air and do not use the proper hip pressure to either break an opponent’s lock on the leg or at least prevent him or her from advancing to finish the shot. The “jam-shove-square,” as we called it in college, helps remind the defensive man to shove the opponent’s head down, jam with your hips to stop momentum, and square your hips to eventually break the lock and advance to a butt drag or counter-shot position. 

4. Front headlock 

There are many good finishes from a front headlock, but I have found our biggest focal point is staying on our toes, constant motion, and continuing to snap the opponent. Too many young wrestlers see the front headlock as a position to relax and take a breather as opposed to a golden scoring opportunity to pounce on. 

5. Clearing hips on bottom

I have found bottom to be the most perplexing position to coach at the youth level. It seems to me that coaching young athletes how to take their opponents down from neutral and turn them from the top position feels black and white and involves showing more technical moves. Meanwhile, coaching the bottom position feels more abstract, and I find myself focusing more on coaching positioning. 

Sure, you can show a stand-up, tripod, switch, Granby roll, etc. However, chain wrestling from bottom seems to come less naturally to kids, in my experience. I like to emphasize two major concepts: clearing hips and sealing off (see No. 6). Considering that the majority of the moves one can execute from bottom involves clearing hips as a pre-requisite, this is often neglected. 

6. Sealing off on bottom 

I’ve seen many kids explode off bottom with a stand-up, hit a sit-out, tripod, etc., but forget to seal off and keep their elbows in, allowing the top man to throw a leg in, secure a cross-wrist, deepen a tight-waist, etc. Long story short, sealing off goes a long way to keep the top wrestler from inflicting his or her will. 

7. Controlling hips on top

The exact opposite of No. 5 above. As the top wrestler, as soon as kids lose control of their opponent’s hips, the wheels start to come off, from what I witness. You can spend a lot of time showing kids a multitude of turns from top, but until they grasp the concept of a solid breakdown and controlling their opponent’s hips, those can be difficult to execute in live action. 

8. Practice mindset

I like to remind our kids before every live wrestling session in practice that zero trophies or awards will be handed out that night. I know from my own experience, even in high school and college, that focusing on winning in practice can really handicap an athlete’s growth and improvement if they fail to open up and take risks. 

Situational live wrestling has become a favorite of mine because it forces kids to wrestle in, or at least out of, the positions we cover during the technique portion. 

9. Competition mentality

Let’s face it: most kids get nervous before a wrestling match. Telling a kid who really cares about the sport to “just have fun” doesn’t always cut it. Re-shaping the goals and the purpose is really helpful, in my opinion. 

To quote Cael Sanderson, “Winning and losing is a lower standard than performance. You could win and not wrestle your best. Performance is a permanent mentality. It is hard for kids because there can be so much pressure and emphasis on results.” 

So, that being said, giving kids specific goals each match or each event is more of a performance-based approach (i.e. score off a leg attack, beat your opponent off the whistle on bottom, beat the opponent back to the center, etc.) while maintaining the overarching theme of focusing on scoring points and winning every position as opposed to winning every match. 

10. Practice partners 

Another one that makes me laugh. A lot of young wrestlers know in their minds who they want to practice with and, even more so, which kids in the room they want to avoid. We try to switch partners often and mix and match as much as possible. Just as importantly, though, every kid needs three different types of partners, in my opinion. 

Partner A is in the class of partners that you can beat consistently and is the perfect opponent to practice new skills and techniques on to gain confidence. 

Partner B is a more evenly-matched class of foe who will present a challenge and a great back-and-forth tussle. 

Lastly, Partner C will consistently beat you, for now, but will expose your weaknesses in the process, which allows the coaches to know what areas still need improvement. All three groups of partners are essential for growth. 

(Tristan Warner is a former PIAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier for Old Dominion. He is also a two-time Elite 89 Award recipient and CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American.)