Southern Minnesota Wrestling Club
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The Importance of a Style Switch

We are developing into a sport, at least in the state of Minnesota, where kids wrestle folkstyle literally from age 5 all the way through high school.  20 years ago there were few, if any opportunities to wrestle folkstyle for high school aged wrestlers in the off-season.  That has now changed.  There are pre-season folkstyle tournaments starting in September and post-season folkstyle tournaments that run into April.  Combined with the high school season, that is 9 months of the same thing.  Statistically it has not been good for the sport.  In 2001 the University of Minnesota won the Division I national team title, North Dakota State won the Division II title and Augsburg won Division III's.  The starting 30 from those three teams were 70% Minnesota high school graduates who had come through a high school cycle of wrestling folkstyle during the winter months and freestyle/Greco in the Spring and Summer.  Coincidence?  The switch to a folkstyle focus has made the sport weaker in the state of Minnesota, and I believe in the country in general.  We have had three weak Olympic cycles and in the state of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota can no longer compete at the highest level with its roster predominantly made up of Minnesota high school graduates.  Although these comments may anger some, it is hard to justify the statistics any other way.  I have also believed for years that we are burning our future with kids who are not ready to compete in our very unique sport, wrestling in tournaments as young as age four.  That topic is for another blog post. Below I make the case for freestyle and Greco roman in the post-season.  The state tournament ended last night.  Other than seniors competing in season  ending folkstyle tournaments, everyone else who is still pursuing their high school goals should be making the hard switch to freestyle/Greco.

Why Freestyle and Greco-Roman?

    The two most common international styles of wrestling are greco-roman and freestyle.  Techniques used in both styles are very important in the development of a school aged wrestler, especially as they become physically mature and can perform the more dynamic lifts and throws.  Freestyle wrestling will help an athlete become better from the neutral position (on their feet) and teach them how to defend against being put into danger positions (on their back).  Wrestling for a state high school title or at the collegiate level is becoming more and more rare for wrestlers who have not participated in these two most popular international styles.

Why SMWC Freestyle and Greco-Roman?

    For over 28 years, Dan Kurth has worked with the best wrestlers in the New Ulm area and has come to understand the benefits of a properly structured off-season program that includes freestyle and greco-roman.  Following a long, three and a half month high school folkstyle season, wrestlers need a trigger to re-energize the learning process.  The freestyle season offers new techniques that are more dynamic than what is typically shown in the high school room, and can be fun to learn.  We offer a low pressure, tournament optional atmosphere that promotes technical growth and a heightened interest in the sport of wrestling.  In addition, we have a room filled with the best wrestlers in the area to serve as workout partners.  Our simple teaching progression is easy to follow and beneficial for the beginning wrestler to the most accomplished champion.

We also offer a comprehensive program that flows from the Post-Season freestyle and greco-roman into a summer Off-Season program that trains serious wrestlers to take the next steps in their career.  In the fall of the year we then offer a Pre-Season program that brings all of the other training together and prepares the wrestler for the In-Season school program.  The entire process costs less than the typical 5 day wrestling camp, and offers 2-3 practices a week for nine months.


When Is It Too Much?

            In my last blog “Getting Athletes to Peak” I stated that a peak, by definition is the highest point.  Since writing that blog, I have been able to sit back and observe the final month of the high school wrestling season and the month following the high school state tournament.  The month of February in Minnesota is filled with end of the season tournaments, conference, team sections, individual sections and the state tournament itself.  I spent the month of March observing what the sport of wrestling has evolved into, and noticed some troublesome things.  March is the start of the freestyle season, or at least it used to be.  It is difficult to begin training for freestyle, and making the switch to a post-season routine, when you now have no less than three national tournaments in the month of March.  There is the NHSCA National High School (and now middle and grade school as well) Nationals in Virginia Beach, VA, USA Wrestling Folkstyle Nationals for all age groups in Waterloo, IA, and FloNationals (wherever that was held).  On top of that, there are “All-Star” events like the Dapper Dan Classic (Pennsylvania versus the world) and others across the country.

            For someone looking to engineer a peak in a high school athlete, the question needs to be answered, when should that peak occur?  Another question that needs to be addressed is simple.  Is all of this extra wrestling beneficial?  In an anecdotal sampling of wrestlers who have reached the higher levels of the sport, winning an individual state title still ranks as the most important achievement of their high school careers.  Part of the reason for that is because it is the crowning achievement of three and a half months of the high school season, and up to six years (in the state of Minnesota) of a high school wrestling career.  The milestones along the way, one hundred wins, conference titles, individual tournament championships, etc. are more of a byproduct of the journey to the top of the podium.  For the driven high school wrestler, the coveted state title is the reason for the season.  Hands down, that is when the peak should occur for those athletes.  Engineering a peak for something other than a state title is a dangerous game.  There are many stories of athletes with difficult brackets at their state qualifying tournaments who peak just to get to the state tournament, and then lose in the first round to someone who seems lesser than them on paper.  Unfortunately, there are also wrestlers who hold their weight all season and hit a physical peak in mid-January, before their body starts to break down, leaving them without the proper strength or stamina to perform when it really matters.  

            Getting back to the peak issue, if a wrestler truly peaks at the state high school tournament and then competes at one of the national tournaments three weeks later, either his performance will be somewhat less than his capabilities or a stagnation affect will set in.  This stagnation effect happens when everything is an emergency, which means that nothing is an emergency.  It would be the same effect as if you were to scream instructions at a kid all day long for even the most basic activities.  Eventually, that kid would write you off as being a raving lunatic and decide on his own which activities were truly important or not.  With athletes, this selection process of what is important and what is not is subconscious.  In the long term, you run the risk of burning out the mental skills that result in peak performance by trying to “peak” for two months straight.  All of the professional and world class athletes with whom I have had the opportunity to work have a unique ability to reach higher levels during workouts, but also are able to bring themselves back down when the physical event is complete.  During the course of a year or even a career, there are times when the best athletes know that they have to bring themselves down and treat certain competitions as training events and not do or die situations.

            So, is all of this extra national tournament wrestling beneficial?  Let me be blunt, the organizers of these events are not expanding and adding to them every year for the benefit of the sport.  There are financial considerations that override everything else.  These tournaments can be an opportunity to catch the eye of a college recruiter, although there are many more of these tournaments and far fewer colleges recruiting high school wrestlers than there were twenty years ago.  The other issue regarding college recruiting is that college coaches are looking at an athlete’s entire body of work, not a performance at one event.  On the positive side, more of these events give coaches and athletes more variety in terms of picking a weekend that works for them and fits into their training schedule and routine.  Testing yourself on the national stage is not a bad thing, however, testing yourself on the national stage all of the time will at some point become counterproductive.  The winter season culminates with the high school state tournament, followed by the spring with its national tournaments, summer has cadet and junior nationals for freestyle and greco roman, then the fall rolls around with pre-season nationals.

            Southern Minnesota Wrestling Club subscribes to a four season training approach that allows a recovery period following the high school season, a re-energizing period with freestyle and greco roman wrestling leading up to a mini-peak for cadet and junior nationals, then a pre-season regimen that ramps wrestlers up physically and mentally for the high school season.  Wrestlers who want to achieve the highest levels of the sport need to develop a schedule that is efficient and effective for them and works to eliminate their weaknesses, while enhancing their strengths.  More competition, added to an already busy schedule, is rarely the best alternative for getting better as a wrestler.  Let us help you design the ideal solution for your wrestler.  You won’t be disappointed.


Getting Athletes To Peak 

The definition of a "peak" is, in simple terms, the highest point.  Getting athletes to peak at the end of a season is simply getting them to reach the highest point of the season.  Physical, technical and mental peaks are separate issues, but can be trained within the same athlete by following some simple steps.  In wrestling, the season is long and can take a toll on the mind and body of a wrestler.  One of the traits of athlete training in the United States that is not so widely followed in European countries is the daily practice.  Most coaches understand the basic concept that you should not weight train the same muscle group every day, but have no problem training for the much more physically demanding activity of wrestling on a daily basis during the season.  Often times the competition schedule of a wrestling team will break up the daily grind of practices, but coaches need to be aware of both the short term and long term affects of workouts. 

The human body has a threshold for activity and training.  If that threshold is not reached on a regular basis through proper practices and training, then the athlete doesn't reach his/her full potential.  If that threshold is surpassed regularly, then the athlete breaks down and actually becomes weaker.  We hear about teams appearing "flat".  That can be a physical and/or a mental state of being.  When analyzed, a flat performance often comes after a period of a lot of activity either through training or a heavy competition schedule.  Or, it appears during a "big match" or competition.  The second example would be an indication that pressure or stress to perform is too great for the athlete, or the team.  In many cases, if the whole team is affected, the coach has placed too much emphasis on the importance of the competition and not enough on the performance of his team.  That is where the art of coaching comes into play. 

A mental and physical peak assumes that the athlete is more fresh mentally and more healthy physically than at any other point in the season.  Hitting an actual peak at the end of a long, tough season seems to contradict reality.  Using the basic concept of the workout/recovery rules that everyone understands about weight training, breaks need to be used toward the end of the season, and before the end of the year tournaments, to refresh athletes and maximize their potential.  Sometimes the hardest thing for a coach to do is to give his athletes a break.  However, scheduled or pre-planned breaks don't need to be just a day off.  Just the smell of the room by the end of the year gets to be a negative stimulus for wresters.  Getting out of the room and going for a long run, or organizing a practice at the local pool can serve to refresh the mind and the body. 

Technical peaks are engineered by making a list of positive and negative team tendencies and individual tendencies.  By the middle of January, techniques that are not a part of what you are doing in tough matches are very unlikely going to become a part of your wrestler's technique base for the conference, section and state tournaments.  Reinforcing the core techniques, core positions and core strategies of offensive and defensive positions will focus a wrestler more specifically and enhance the peak for important matches.

By definition, there can be only one peak.  Hitting higher levels of performance every week for the month of February for conference, team sections, individual sections and state can be tricky.  It is important to understand that engineering a peak follows the same rules as training in general.  For example, wrestlers respond positively to a break the Monday before the conference tournament.  Then they get another Monday break before the section team and individual tournaments.  By the week of the state tournament, the mind and body are becoming used to these Monday breaks, but are still getting the benefits of them.  It takes two weeks for the mind and body to respond positively and four to six weeks for the body to get bored with that training method or tactic.  Using the month of February for a peaking strategy scientifically makes sense.   

The final tip for getting teams and individuals to peak is the pre-peak period.  The middle of January to the first week in February is usually a grind for competition and practices anyway.  If wrestlers are coached to "find another gear" during this 3 week period, to them that means go harder than they have all season.  Coming out of this grind period, not only will they be ready for a break, they will respond physically, technically and mentally with a boomerang affect that will make the peak even that much higher.  Unfortunately, I have seen many wrestlers hit their season peak in the first few weeks of the freestyle season.  This indicates to me that they were being trained effectively, but were never able to physically or mentally catch up to themselves when it mattered most, at the end of the high school season.

Weight Training For Kids

There are more myths surrounding strength and conditioning for kids than any other age group.  Unfortunately in the United States, youth sport coaching has been dominated by misinformed parents and training methods that survive generation to generation without truly being analyzed for safety and effectiveness.  The thought process is "my coaches did it that way, so it must be safe".  When I started studying sports medicine in 1981, the horror stories of kids wrecking their elbows by throwing curve balls in 6th grade were becoming pretty universally known.  By the time I finished my master's degree in exercise science at Baylor University in 1987, the research into human growth and development and human movement in sports was truly becoming a science.  Twenty five years later, after preventing and rehabilitating sports injuries in young athletes, physically training every level from kindergarten to professional and Olympic athletes, and coaching kids through their rapid growth years, I have developed some basic rules for training maturing athletes. 

First of all, conditioning is achieved by doing an activity longer than normal or doing it against a higher resistance than normal.  There is a mythical story that the god Hercules lifted a calf every day from its birth to full maturity, and as a result became the strongest man ever.  Although there are obvious physical limits to the human body, the Hercules theory supposes that if you continue to increase resistance every time you workout, your body will become stronger in proportion.  But, as in the case of the 6th grader throwing curve balls, at some point too much resistance or too much repetition will cause the muscles, tendons and ligaments that support and move the skeletal structure of our bodies to break down.  Having said that, the mission for increased strength is simple (not easy, but simple).  You have to find the balance between adaptation and break down.  Adaptation is the bodies positive response to training that makes it become stronger.  Break down is the point at which the body becomes injured or actually gets weaker from overuse. 

Strength training, more properly known as resistance training, can be done using weights, a rubber strap, sandbags, buckets filled with cement, or virtually anything that is heavier than the normal load carried by the human body.   As young kids (ages 6-9) start to do resistance training, bodyweight activities serve two purposes.  One, the body in a push-up, sit-up or pull-up type activity, combined with the normal gravitational pull of the earth, provide resistance that the human body was designed to lift, pull or move.  This makes bodyweight activities safe as a general rule.  Two, in that age group, exploration of their bodies and their capabilities is happening at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives.  Full range of motion bodyweight resistance activities build strength, and more importantly, athleticism for later application in sports or demanding physical labor jobs.  Studies have shown that a focus on resistance training with machines and weights at that age can technically be "safe", but can also dramatically limit physical abilities and athleticism as the child matures. 

In the pre-teen group (ages 10-12) the training rule goes with child development.  They are not yet teens with the physical abilities to develop muscular size and strength, but they are more coordinated and physically wired for strength development than in the childhood years.  This age group should start with hand and free weights using strict form throughout the lift.  Overtraining will produce poor form and seriously risk injury when training, which should never happen.  The sport of wrestling is a strength building activity in and of itself.  This tween age group will develop poor position and poor form quicker than at any other time in their development, because the memory of activities is starting to take full affect as they are training.  There is a strong need to be trained and monitored very closely for form and technique when they are working out.  This strict attention to form needs to continue through the high school years to ensure proper habit development as the body matures and grows to full size and strength. 

Proper position in the 6-9 age group is easier to maintain and more natural than it is in the tween group because the muscle pattern memory is not as strong.  Missing this point is a significant factor in the dropout rate of wrestlers in grades 5, 6 and 7.  Physically demanding activities, like wrestling, can seem easy when young, then become more challenging in the pre-puberty stage.  This is due to hormonal changes and growth spurts that change the strength and angles of attachment of key muscles.  All the kid knows is that the sport seems harder than it was, and they lose interest.  Sometimes permanently.  Coaches need to pull back to the basics of proper position and core techniques during this stage. 

Like Hercules and the calf, wrestling can be a great physical developer as a child grows through the different stages.  Understanding the limitations of each stage can mean the difference between creating the next Olympian and developing the next quitter.

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