From The Coach
By Bruce Gabrielson
Head Coach - SMWC
October, 1999
Line
Running Productive Kids Programs

A number of kid's coaches in recent years have asked me "How can you keep kids motivated and prevent playing at practice?" Unfortunately, wrestling involves both drills and practice, much of which can strain the attention span of younger athletes. This article addresses some concepts and suggestions that can help keep youth age practices on track and focussed on successful learning environments.

General Problems

Having a select team of many great young wrestlers is the dream of most youth coaches. However, such a condition is seldom achievable because of location, community support, and available skill levels of your kids. Most coaches simply take whomever they can get, and hope to develop the skills sufficient to be successful in as many kids from this random mix as possible.

Because of the random mix, some major problems face all youth coaches:

1. The skill level of the group will vary widely.
2. Motivations will range dramatically. Some kids want to be super wrestlers, others simply want to have something to do in the winter months, while still others don't want to be there at all.
3. Because of the difference in age and maturity levels in the group, each child has a drastically different attention span.
4. Parental support for their kid's participation ranges dramatically.

Regardless of the coach's wrestling skills, dealing with each of these issues is the real key to developing a successful youth program. In this article I'll suggest some approaches that have worked for me in my kids teams.

Understand and Identify the Natural Ability of Each Wrestler

Kids have inherent natural wrestling skills based on their overall athletic ability. Any coach can identify natural athletic skills in the first few minutes of practice, even before one formal move is taught. During warm-up and reaction drills, those who continually want to do exercises improperly, (such as push-ups with a greatly bent back, bridging from the shoulders rather than the neck, or turn to the side during leg-lifts) are likely those with limited athletic exposure.

Drilling and exercises have traditionally been used when developing missing athletic skills. Simply pointing out on an individual basis what someone is doing incorrectly should help remedy the problems in kids who really want to "do it right". However, those who continually do the exercise incorrectly are likely the same kids who will have even more difficult problems learning simple wrestling moves.

If a coach determines he has a significant number of kids in the room with few natural skills, initial practices should move slowly with a concentration on exercises and drilling until such time as the majority of the group is ready to move on to more advanced training. This doesn't imply that there won't be much initial training, just that you must go slowly if you want to be successful.

The First Major Practice Problem

Going slowly also produces the first major practice problem. The available practice group usually consists of kids at various skill levels. What do you do with the kids who are real athletes and who already have mastered the basic skills when you teach basics? This problem could be addressed two ways depending on the coach's philosophy. Here I suggest breaking up the group into two smaller groups for part of the practice. Those with advanced skills can move quicker into the technique part of a practice while those with less natural skills should work towards improving these skills as well as basic wrestling skills a few minutes longer.

There are probably many youth coaches who would disagree with this approach. It certainly helps to have the more experienced kids work with the less experienced kids at practice. However, I believe this does a disservice to the more experienced wrestler and tends to hold them back some. Having the practice split for a short period keeps the kids happier and the parents of kids from both levels somewhat satisfied, plus the short "advanced" type practice gives the better kids both the chance to focus more, plus it also gives them a "special feeling" of importance.

If good kids practice with beginners too much, you will soon have less skilled kids trying to get out of their practice group, or worse, their parents complaining that "little Johnny" gets hurt too easily from so-and-so. I've seen parents of less skilled kids get upset with better kids so severely that the better kid doesn't want to work out any more. I've also seen parents insist that their kid gets more practice time with the better kids, even though both kids complain constantly. Have a rule that someone starts crying they have to move down with the smaller or less experienced kids. That cures a lot of problems and complaints real quick in my practice room.

Motivation

This is a though nut to crack.. I personally spend a lot of time with my new kids to help them become self motivated. Obviously having the coach spend personal time is a strong motivator, but the coach can't neglect his other charges too much or the entire team will suffer.

One tool I strongly recommend and use to help motivate is peer pressure. Have some of your best kids build up the confidence of your weaker kids, not necessarily by saying they should have beaten so-in-so, but by saying that they are getting better and should be able to beat them one of these days. Take your best kids to the side, explain that you need their help, and then let the group take care of itself.

Another motivator is to have a personal meeting with each kid and their parent. Ask each kid what his wrestling goals are. Those who want to go far should get more direct coaching support than those who don't. If you don't expect the wrestler to advance quickly, let him know. Explain what it will take to become a champion and how long. Our biggest motto at practice is that "every champion pays their dues". I should mention here that the coach better know what it will take or be prepared to find out they were mistaken at some time in the future. By the way, I do this with nearly all my beginner wrestlers, and also did it with my own sons.

A bad motivating situation exists with a real troublemaker or poor sport regardless of how well he wrestles. Even if your team needs the person to win, I recommend you drop him if he continues to cause problems. This might be a callus approach, but remember that one bad apple can spoil the basket. Your team is much better off if you let him go, especially if then goes and joins an opponents team. Otherwise, you will have to put up with other teams bad-mouthing your team and kids for several seasons to come regardless of how they do. By the way, I think most older youth league coaches, at least those around here, have learned this lesson already.

Attention Span - Keeping Interest Up

Another problem associated with running a kids practice is keeping them focused and under control. Kids have a very short concentration span compared to high school and older age groups. For this reason, practicing the same move over and over, or showing the same move too often will create serious distractions. The kids who know it will start to play around and the kids who don't will follow right along rather than learn.

To keep their attention, show three or four moves, at least one complex enough that no one will learn it first time. Show the moves, spend only a few minutes on each, then go to some other related activity like getting into the move and then live wrestle out. After about 5 minutes you can go show the move again followed by a second live session.

Twice through the move is all you need at any one time. Don't expect anyone to learn it first time, only to get used to it. A quick repeat the next practice will serve to reinforce the learning, then go back to the move for a reminder a week or so later. Most should learn the basics of any move after the third review.

Situation Wrestling

Speaking of situation wrestling used as a reinforcement tool, this technique works with all age groups to keep attention high. Wrestlers seem to never use a move unless they practice it "live" a few times. If you plan to show a new move, also plan to have a few short live drills while using the move, preferably soon after the move is shown the first time. Each subsequent showing of the move can then be accompanied by some live wrestling after a much shorter period.

If you have showed three new moves and you have four wrestlers in the group, you can change partners after each action, turning the move practice into a formal drill.

Watch for Boredom

A big problem constantly faced by youth league coaches and those who present clinics is boredom. If nothing else, I have learned to read when my kids are bored and want to burn off some energy. If more than a couple kids start to wrestle rather than practice moves, or if conversations start to pick up, you need to recognize that it's time for live wrestling. If kids are tired, don't let up unless they start to complain. If there are complaints, take a short water break then bring them back for more.

The entire practice should be tailored around short training sessions followed by short drills and wrestling. Even two-hour practices are a little too long for young kids or even for many older experienced kids.

A final attention span worry is hyper activity. In case you haven't noticed, there are a large number of kids now days taking hyper active inhibitors. Find out who on the team is taking medication early on. You are going to face problems maintaining control of your practice unless you have a firm hand with these kids. I suggest you make the parents stay at practice to help say something when their kid gets excited. It doesn't look good for the coach to continually get down on a young wrestler for being disruptive. This gives the impression that the "coach is picking" on them. You're much better off to have the parent do it. You aren't a babysitter, so expect the parent's support accordingly.

Parental Support

Unfortunately for most coaches, this is one area that can't be easily addressed without some difficult decisions. Most coaches don't have enough kids to start with, and those that do can'' afford to get parents upset at them. If the program is new, the coach will have to live with whatever he can get. However, for established programs, I'm going to offer a few suggestions to deal with this issue.

Before a kid can join the program, make sure his parents are willing to support tournament costs, dues, rides, travel, etc. I've been guilty of letting this slide in the past to get some good kids, but not any more. In this area there are junior league programs directed towards local participation. If you're coaching this type of team, send lots of written flyers home so there won't be any "I didn't know" problems arise later on. Also, expect to miss the problem kids on a regular basis. That way you won't be disappointed.

A different way of addressing the issue is to train the parents. Always start practice on time, and then devise some special drill, such as 50 extra push-ups, for those who arrive late. Let the kid get down on his parent. If they want to comply, they will correct the problem themselves.

Another suggestion I have is to give all announcements at the beginning of practice only, then leave immediately after practice is over. Parents will soon learn to keep up once they find out their son has missed a few events. Finally, don't worry if you loose a couple of kids. Life isn't perfect and it's best to deal with your immediate problems. I should mention that my own kid's team is considered a "select" team, so it doesn't have these types of problems too often. All our kids want to be there and have supportive parents.

About Older "Kids"

Once my regular youth league season is over, larger numbers of older "kids," high school age through adults start showing up for practice on a regular basis. Motivation and skill levels aren't as big an issue, but boredom is still a problem. You also have to deal with disruptions and the potential for injuries. When you have a large number of wrestlers in the room (a very large room in our case), it's very difficult to keep everyone focused and working at the same intensity.

Training can advance much quicker if you run structured practices rather than open mats, plus there is a risk of serious risk of injury if you don't keep the heavyweights and the 55 lb. kids away from each other. As a suggestion for coaches who want to run structured practices in this situation, keep a firm grip on what everyone is doing or your practice will quickly turn into chaos.

We average around 50 wrestlers in all sizes at a normal spring practice. To prevent coaching liability problems, insist that everyone shows up on time and warms up together. In some states there are liability laws that ensure an athlete's coach has adequately prepared them for rigorous activities. A very visible group warm up, even if it's just stretching, will go a long way in the legal arena.

Disruptions from the older wrestlers have a little different focus. I have many older wrestlers, particularly college age wrestlers, who try show up after our group warm-up and then socialize for 30 minutes before walking on the mat. Insist that if they want to practice with your club, they need to show up on time and warm up with everyone else. You can give some leeway, but if they insist on disrupting practice, you are better off telling them to go someplace else. I've done this to "kids" who were NCAA All-Americans before, and, surprisingly, every one of them decided to get with the program rather then go elsewhere. The younger kids at practice see this, and I seldom have any problems with them either.

When you have many kids practicing live in the same room, injuries absolutely must be controlled. I put my small kids at one of the room and the big kids at the other end. While not practical for most clubs, we also normally have at least one medic at all practices. Any injury, no matter how minor, is immediately looked at.

To prevent boredom, a good idea is to continually vary practices. We have various wrestlers and area coaches come in for short 30 minute clinics every couple of weeks. We are fortunate to have a number of recognized wrestlers in our club that are always around, but I've also found that area college coaches really want to stay in touch with their local wrestling community. They are always willing to drop by for a short clinic, particularly so they can meet face to face and get a good idea who the top local high school wrestlers are.

For regular practices, I try to show a couple of moves nearly every night, have about 20 minutes of intense drills (both Greco and Freestyle), and then try to have at least 30 minutes of live wrestling. We use the breaks in live wrestling to show moves. I also constantly move around the room to keep kids in their area and try to help anyone who is having a problem.

SMWC spring practices are large, structured, have kids of all sizes and skill levels, are very intense, and are far from being boring.