Research Based Argument
How To Be or Not To Be Elite: Finding a Passion
About two weeks after beginning the sport of wrestling, I was not prepared for my first competition ever. I didn’t own any wrestling equipment, that is, I wore street shoes on the wrestling mat (as opposed to wrestling shoes) and shorts and a tshirt (as opposed to the traditional singlet). The interesting thing about my first tournament ever was not about how I did but how I comprehended my experience. I can remember it like it was yesterday. During my first match, my opponent scored on me at will, defeating me. I walked off the mat, excited, leaving my dad confused. As my dad opened up his mouth to express words of encouragement because he felt bad for me, I cut him off, exclaiming “I gave that kid a bloody nose!” He laughed and gave me a hug. From my first competition, I was excited. I had not thought about my loss from that match. The only thought that flooded my mind was how much I had enjoyed my first
competition ever, prepared or not. I had seen the sport of wrestling from a different angle than those of my two weeks training. I had discovered a passion for a sport that I now consider my life and what I identify myself most with. From this experience, I also gained a sense of what it takes to become elite. Wrestling requires intense training and focus, however, it is not fully necessary in the beginning stages. Rather, the initial enjoyment of the sport, which I received from my first competition but more commonly found in the practice room, allows a child to want to focus on the sport of wrestling and want to become an elite wrestler.
Athletic competition plays an extremely important role in the development of the lives of today’s youth. In the 21st century, children idolize professional athletes as role models, allowing them to strive to be their best and instill a positive characteristic for their future—goal chasing. However, kids cannot develop and become an elite athlete solely by having a dream. They need guidance from parents and coaches to begin their journey in the realm of sports. During childhood, adolescents do not have the knowledge or capacity to construct their own schedule. It is through their mentors that these children are exposed to the idea of elite sport and competition. Some argue that to become elite athletes at a young age, these kids must begin early specialization. Others argue that diversification in others sports and types of play allow for better development to produce elite athletes. However, in the sport of wrestling, a balance between diversification and specialization yields more elite athletes because it allows for a child to be a better fundamentally sound athlete, allows for a child to gain an interest and passion for the sport themselves, and it keeps wrestling fun and lighthearted because the training is so tough in later stages of the sport. I must further define specialization and diversification in sport before I look at this issue through the lens of the toughest sport on the planet—wrestling. My case study of youth wrestling in Russia, the wrestling superpower, versus youth wrestling in the United States coupled with an interview with Jake Herbert, 2012 Olympian, 2009 World Silver Medalist and Northwestern graduate, will provide insight as to how we in the United States can create a better youth wrestling system in order to produce higher level wrestlers within the country.
Early specialization refers to the process by which an individual limits him/herself to one specific sport on a year round basis, to focus on intense training and development (Baker). Studies show that there is a positive relationship between the amount of time spent practicing and the level of achievement which one reaches. However, some of these studies neglect to reveal how this intense training affects a child’s developing skills: physically, psychologically, and socially. Early specialization embeds itself in the idea of “deliberate practice,” a training regiment that focuses on practices in full effort, low in enjoyment, targeting areas of weakness (Baker). These ideas contribute to the main goal of specialization—to reach high levels of success. The conflict surrounding early specialization is the concept that it is not the child’s decision to specialize, because they do not have a full understanding for the time commitment and sacrifices needed to be made in the process. Instead, most cases of specialization are parent or coach driven. To understand why parents and coaches promote this, it is important to look at
the roots of why people specialize.
Parents only want what is best for their kids, trying to give as many opportunities possible for a child to take advantage of. Robert Malina suggests that “driven for success of their children, parents often perceive an early start as necessary to obtain an edge” (Malina). Here, Malina comments on parents’ thoughts for their child’s future endeavors. This does not only apply to the realm of athletics. It is apparent in rigorous academic involvement at a young age and musical interests as well. Two married Yale grads might enroll their daughter in early learning opportunities with hope that she will follow in their footsteps and also attend Yale. A former Division I football player for Ohio State might choose to expose his son to Ohio State football with hope that he will pursue the sport and follow the same path. With the future of their child in mind, parents make decisions on the child’s behalf for their potential success. For athletics specifically, underlying factors for specialization include getting ahead, labeling children as “gifted” or “talented,” pursuit of college scholarships and a professional career (Malina). Stories of young success turning into elite success also influences parents. Robert Malina notes one story in particular: “The Tiger Woods story – early introduction to golf, deliberate practice at a very early age, a dominating parent, a highly regulated life through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, and eventual success is well documented.” Parents see examples like Tiger Woods and Lebron James and do what they can for their child to follow
a similar path. However, these parents fail to realize that their “involvement often becomes excessive” and can even be detrimental to a child’s athletic career (Wiersma).
While examing youth athletics, we overlook the overwhelming majority of youth who participate but are not attaining high goals. Instead, studies and media highlight the opposing visible minority. In former communist countries of Eastern Europe, the media underlines the young ages of competitors and their approach to sport systems (systematic training and yearround participation) to reinforce the widely spread idea of early specialization as a requisite for success (Malina). During the late 20th century, Eastern European countries led the world in athletic success, indirectly recommending that our future elite athletes lead the same lifestyle. However, because of the minority and majority split, early specialization is not a proven science. Seen through trial and error, a balance between specialization and diversification allows for a more systematic approach in training young athletes. Children have the potential to have fun, train hard, and be the best athlete they can be.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, early diversification offers another means by which our society believes that elite athletes can be groomed. In certain studies, elite athletes recount their fundamental development of sport and athleticism through playlike games and even other sports (Baker). Some accounts identify backyard games that resemble sport but lack formal organization and rules, allowing for the stimulation of further interest. Youth soccer coaches might have their team pick up the soccer ball and play handball instead, with a goal to teach the athletes to see the field, pass the ball, and work on teamwork. Everyone knows that you cannot touch the ball with your hands in soccer, however, before an athlete can see the field and pass with their feet, they must do so with their hands.
With fun games being meshed together with the fundamentals of sports, children intrinsically learn to appreciate physical activity and athletics. The fundamentals of sports refer to an array of topics: rules, positions, athleticism, understanding, etc. Once understood, it is in the athlete’s hands.
Early diversification allows adolescents to take interest on their own because of the enjoyment they receive and the motivation they gain. Although this issue is controversial at a young age, later in life, it is important and necessary to specialize. However, early diversification aids in later specialization because athletic movements and positions carry over in sports: “It has also been suggested that the skills and physiological conditioning through diversified childhood sport involvement may be transferable to athletes’ later sport of specialization” (Baker). As a child, I grew up playing lacrosse, football, and wrestling—three physical contact sports. The physicality and conditioning are very similar in lacrosse and football as is body positioning. It is important to be in a good athletic stance, low and compact, to be in the best position as well as to prevent injury. The first thing I learned in the sport of wrestling was how to “get in a stance.” Being in a stance requires knees bent, head up, back straight and hips in. Without knowing it, lacrosse and football taught me how to be in a good athletic position (or a good wrestling stance), which carried over directly to the wrestling mat. As I began to pursue wrestling, I gave up my two other sports, though never forgetting what I learned and what applied to my sport of choice. To become an elite athlete in a specific sport, one must specialize in that sport towards their latter years of childhood and early adulthood. Baker suggests that through diversification, athletes can apply skills learned from other sports and games into their branch of athletics.
Wrestling is an individual sport where there is no one to take credit for a win or a loss except yourself. Getting your hand raised is one of the best feelings in the world. Watching
your opponent get his does not feel good. However, it isn’t about winning or losing. It is about how the parents perceive these feelings. No parent wants to see their child fail, therefore, they will try to find a way for their kid to be more successful. Parents believe “that simply outworking your opponent is what will lead to success” (Krumrie “10,000”). It is commonly
mislead in wrestling that if you focus more, spend more hours working out, and push yourself then you will beat your opponent. This is not always true but in theory, it does sound like it would work. The problem is that the child is never taken into account. Where is “the balance between working hard and working too much?” (Krumrie “10,000”). There is no direct answer to this question because wrestling is individualized and each wrestler has different needs but, after looking at a case study and research, I will propose a recommendation for which working hard versus working too much is not an issue.
Succeeding at an early age is not a good indicator for future success. There is room for error between the years of childhood to early adulthood, where most elite wrestlers range from 2030 years old. A few years ago, USA Swimming did a study to see the correlation of success in the early teens to late teens. They found that 21% of 11 and 12 yearolds who were ranked in the top 16 in the nation were still ranked nationally by the time they reached 17 and 18years old. The point is that 50% of the elite swimmers developed in their latter years of childhood (Krumrie
“10,000”). Wrestling and swimming are similar in the fact that most people believe early success translates later and because they are both individual sports. USA Swimming’s recommendations for youth swimmers carry over to wrestling: “Make sure you emphasize fun, encourage participation in other sports and activities, and focus on having a longterm developmental progression plan” (Krumie “10,000”). In sports like wrestling and swimming, as you start to reach elite levels, you must specialize. However, having fun through the process of learning the sport is important for children to engage in a sport of choice and run with it.
Before we look at youth wrestling in Russia and the United States, I will introduce wrestling vocabulary to help better understand the sport. For sports like football and basketball, an athlete’s pinnacle is playing in the NFL or NBA. However, there is no proleague for wrestling. The highest credentials that wrestlers strive for are World and Olympic titles. The World championships contain 8 weight classes while the Olympic games that occur every four years only contain 6. Each country can only send that number of athletes to compete. Hence, you can see that achieving at this high of a level is extremely competitive. To compete, wrestlers must make weight, that is must be under a certain weight class to be eligible. During this past college wrestling season, I wrestled in the 141pound weight class, however, I do not naturally weigh 141 pounds. To make weight, we have to cut weight—diet first then dehydrate. Before the season began, I weighed 155 pounds. I had to diet to lower my walk around weight in order to be in striking distance of my weight class. The last step is to dehydrate the day prior to weighins, that is, lose strictly water weight where some wrestlers lose anywhere from 38 pounds in a workout. Wrestling is commonly known for the fact that you must lose, or cut, weight to compete. This is a brutal process, which is another reason for why children do not succeed when they engage with it at an early age. Their bodies are still growing and losing weight during childhood is not right. Although weight cutting is tough, it does not define the sport. The highs are better than the lows and I think any wrestler would agree that the process is worth it.
As with a lot of things in life, people look for examples as to what works and what does not. Coaches and wrestlers in the wrestling community look towards Russia and their wrestling system to determine how we can better our program. Although Russia’s system exemplifies effective training styles and focus, the countries have different goals at the youth level. As I mentioned before, wrestlers strive to become World and Olympic champs, except the United States does not focus on that enough. In the US, we have 50 states where kids in each state strive to be youth state champions. Therefore, children begin wrestling earlier and competing earlier which may deter their liking for the sport. The Russian Wrestling System aims to produce World and Olympic champions. Most Russian wrestlers begin wrestling at ages 1012 while most children in the US begin at ages 57 (Vlady). At this age, Russia grooms their athletes, focusing on wrestling technique and athletic development, while in the US, we shove our youth into competitions because we want them to win and become state champions (Herbert “Comparing”). These children in Russia compete between 48 times per year, cutting minimal weight (46lbs), preventing mental and physical burnout. In the US, at age 1013, almost all wrestlers cut weight: “I saw 12 yr. old who cut 14 lbs. for a State tournament to wrestle in the 74 lb. category” (Vlady). The problem in the US is that coaches and parents want immediate results, hence, they push these kids to cut weight to be successful. About 50% of wrestlers burn out because of this and do not make it to the college level. The Russian system allows young wrestlers to hold off on competing and cutting weight, the two most stressful factors in a wrestler’s life, in order to build a passion for the sport.
Besides starting age and goals, another main difference between the youth Russian Wrestling System and the US is the style of practice and the responsibility of the coaches. Jake Herbert lived and trained in Russia for 4 months, studying the Russian system to create a similar system that we can implement in US youth wrestling which he calls Base Wrestling. In our interview, he noted that for ages 10 and under “there is not much structure during the practice. It’s a lot more open room feel, integrated with tons of sports games and gymnastics to teach athletic development” (Herbert “Youth”). Jake explained that these young Russian wrestlers are essentially diversifying at their beginning stages in the sport of wrestling. Their coaches are honing in on skills that will help them be better athletes/wrestlers in the future. Because of the practice style, Jake commented in his comparison of the US and Russian youth that these kids are excited to be at practice and come because they want to be there, not because their mom or dad wants them to be like in the US (Herbert “Comparing”). Parents in the US take too much responsibility for their children and their success while in Russia, they have a different view. There is a saying that the parents in Russia say to their child’s wrestling coach: “Кости мои , но мясо твое,” translating to “bones are mine but the meat is yours,” which means it is up to the coach to mold the child into an athlete and wrestler but the parents job is to provide the structure and support (Herbert “Comparing”). The coaches know these children as athletes better than their parents do. Because Russian parents put full trust into the coaches, these children are more likely to succeed because they are being mentored by someone who has lived it and knows exactly what it takes. The Russian Wrestling System relies on diversification in the early years of wrestling before they specialize and intensify their training. If the United States could emulate a similar system, then I believe our success will increase.
Jake Herbert, a 2012 Olympian, and Andy Hrovat, a 2008 Olympian, both lived in Russia for a period of time to study their system. Together they have introduced the Base Wrestling System which is designed to “help communities recruit more kids to their program, retain more of the kids that join, and improve everyone’s physical literacy” (Hrovat). The focus of Base Wrestling is to teach athletic development and help kids find a passion in the sport. It is aimed for the kids to have fun and learn wrestling the best and most natural way one should learn the sport. The practice is broken down into 3 different areas during practice: physical, technical, and mental. Wrestling is about 70% mental, therefore focusing on the mental side of things is important. The mental aspect is concentrated on at the beginning and end of every practice in the Base Wrestling System. Jake recited in his interview the Base pledge which these youth wrestlers recite before every practice: “I pledge to learn one thing today, to end practice better than when I started, and encourage my teammates to do the same thing” (Herbert “Youth”). This pledge allows the child to be conscious of the goals of practice and their own transformation in the sport of wrestling. After practice, they then ask each kid what they learned and what they can improve on. The children and the coaches both can keep track of mental progression this way. After the initial base pledge, 35% of the practice is geared toward physical development which includes speed, strength, flexibility, and athleticism. Each practice then has a specific goal for physical development which is more fun and engaging, for example, walking on your hands or gymnastics movement (cartwheels, front handsprings, back bridges, etc). The physical development diversifies the practice before teaching basic technique and ending with a wrestling “street” game (Herbert “Youth”). The immediate goal in wrestling is to attack your opponent’s legs and bring him to the mat. Since the most important part is getting to his leg, a game would be a competition where the goal is to wrap two arms (lock) around their leg. Children enjoy games like “first one to a lock” because it is a minicompetition where they can put the skills they learn to use. Kids enjoy games and because these are wrestling specific, youth wrestlers intrinsically adopt a competitive attitude while demonstrating what they know. It is this diversification that appeals to children.
“Wrestling builds character. It teaches your child how to develop discipline and a work ethic that is difficult to find in any other sport. It is a sport that leaves a permanent chapter on one’s soul” (Krumrie “Why”). In an article titled “Why Your Child Should Consider Wrestling,” Lennie Zalesky, a threetime AllAmerican at the University of Iowa, expresses characteristics that are instilled upon young men and women through the sport of wrestling. Young wrestlers, girls and boys, benefit from a practice program like Base Wrestling. It forces them to be conscious of important aspects of the sport that carry over to daily life. The mental aspect gives a child a sense of independence and selfcriticism which will help them grow. The physical aspect teaches children athletic fluency and movements that will carry over to other sports if they choose to pursue one other than wrestling. The technical aspect engages children to focus on details. Most importantly, the diversification throughout the process gives children the means to find enjoyment in something and pursue a passion if it reveals itself.
“Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” –Dan Gable, Olympic Champion. Young wrestlers will learn valuable lessons in the sport of wrestling whether they are the minority and succeed or if they are the majority and do not pursue the sport at an elite level. “Discipline, dedication, delayed gratification, work ethic, ability to overcome obstacles, humility, persistence, courage, confidence, respect: these are the attributes that become enhanced in wrestlers, and those traits are valuable in day to day life long after participation in the sport has ceased” (Krumrie “Why”). Childhood is meant to be the period in a person’s life where they find out who they are and grow and find what they like. Once it becomes serious enough, wrestling is a lifestyle. It teaches kids a lot about themselves that they would not recognize until later in life. On a smaller scale, Base Wrestling and the idea of diversification in early wrestling careers guides children in that direction. It allows them to find a passion in the sport of wrestling, just like I have, pursue dreams of becoming World and Olympic champions, just like I am (making two Junior World Teams and taking Silver at the 2014 Junior World Championships), and be the best wrestler they can be.
Baker, Joseph, Stephen Cobley, and Jessica FraserThomas. “What Do We Know About Early Sport Specialization? Not Much!.” High Ability Studies20.1 (2009) 7789. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr. 2016
Herbert, Jake. Comparing and contrasting the Russian youth training model to the US youth training model. N.d. TS courtesy of Jake Herbert.
Herbert, Jake. “Youth in Wrestling and the “Base Wrestling” System.” Telephone Interview. 16 May 2016. Jake Herbert is a graduate of Northwestern University. He is a 2009 World Silver Medalist and a 2012 Olympian in the sport of wrestling.
Hrovat, Andy, and Jake Herbert. “1.A) Introduction.” Double Leg Ninja. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2016.
Krumrie, Matt. “10,000 Hours.” Team USA. N.p., 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 May 2016.
Krumrie, Matt. “Why Your Child Should Consider Wrestling.” Team USA. N.p., 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 May 2016.
Malina, Robert M. “Early Sport Specialization.” Current Sports Medicine Reports 9.6 (2010): 36471. Web.
Vlady. “Russian Wrestling System vs US.” Russian Wrestling Techniques. N.P., 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 30 May 2016.
Wiersma, Lenny D. Risks and Benefits of Youth Sport Specialization: Perspectives andRecommendations (n.d.): pag. Review Articles. Human Kinetics Publishers, 2000. Web. 17 May