Coaching Today

It's Elementary, My Young Wrestler


By Matt Berglund

Teaching the oldest sport to the youngest participants 

It's Elementary, My Young Wrestler_DBWhen studying high school athletic programs that have had consistent success over a long period of time, most have a strong feeder system. Thriving club, elementary and middle school programs usually establish the foundation for varsity level accomplishments, and quite often, head varsity coaches are directly involved with their own feeder system. While some sports reap the benefit of having excellent coaches who focus solely on feeder-level instruction, others are dependent on varsity head and assistant coaches to also coach athletes at a younger level. In the sport of wrestling, this is quite common.

To those not familiar with the sport of wrestling, a chicken wing, a single leg, and a side roll might sound like a light meal, but those are basic wrestling holds taught to rambunctious youngsters every spring by wrestling coaches after high school wrestling seasons conclude. How do coaches teach one of the world’s most complicated sports to a kindergartner? To be honest, there is no perfect recipe to teach a child how to wrestle, but a key ingredient is patience.

One of the first steps in teaching young children is to teach them what wrestling isn’t. Wrestling isn’t what they see on television where steroid monsters in their Speedos throw each other off ring ropes, hit each other with chairs, and choreograph their matches as a barbaric ballet. Most beginning wrestlers and their parents do realize this before they start, but there still is a certain stigma attached to the sport because well-known “wrestlers” such as Hulk Hogan, Sting and John Cena, receive massive exposure on television. Once youngsters realize that they won’t be jumping off a turnbuckle or delivering a frog splash, coaches can get to down to the basics of the sport.

One of the main goals of an elementary wrestling program is to teach youngsters that real wrestling – the sport that traces its origin back to ancient Greece – has a basic system of rules and fundamental concepts that young children can learn. It must also be engaging for them because, quite frankly, later on the sport becomes less and less fun. At the highest level, wrestling can be one of the most physically and mentally taxing sports, but for the youngest grapplers, it’s simply supposed to be fun.

During the first day of elementary wrestling practice, try to establish simple routines. Perhaps the most important is the half-circle assembly used for announcements and demonstrations. Outline what the group will be doing over the course of the practice each day and remind the kids that if everything gets done, there will be time for a fun game at the end. Dangle this carrot often over the course of the practice when the kids get off-task or are misbehaving.

I usually have about a dozen of my high school wrestlers help me lead warm-ups and coach the kids during the elementary practices. First, we have the kids jog in a large circle and then progress to shuffling in their stance and eventually tumbling before a short round of calisthenics. The high school wrestlers each stand at the front of a row of five wrestlers and we have them do jumping jacks, push-ups and sit-ups. Then, we switch into more wrestling-specific exercises.

The first exercise is called bridging. To avoid being pinned, wrestlers need to bridge off their back – meaning to arch their shoulders and backs off the mat. When we teach bridging to young wrestlers, we teach them to make a bridge with their body by arching up off their back on their heels, neck and hands so that their shoulders are not touching the mat. Then, the wrestlers should rotate on their head and heels to get off their back. If wrestlers cannot bridge off their back, we teach them is to “swim” off their backs. Wrestlers are taught to thrust their arms across their chest in an alternating American crawl swim-type motion while at the same time pushing off their heels until they can twist their bodies and turn to their stomachs. Learning to get off your back is a very important part of wrestling, but this is also a drill that young wrestlers consider to be fun.

After our warm-up and drills, I deliver a few announcements while the young wrestlers sit in a half circle. Then we start our technique lessons. On the first day we talk about the basic positioning. In the neutral position, the first thing that we teach is a proper stance. Wrestlers should stand with their feet about shoulder-width apart. They should bend their knees and elbows with their hands positioned in front of their body. Their heads should be up and their back should be straight in a slightly crouched position.

There are literally dozens of ways to score a takedown in wrestling through various moves, holds, positions and counters. Just like simple physics where every action has an equal and opposite reaction, every move, hold and position in wrestling has a counter. If they didn’t, then wrestlers could simply learn that indefensible move to win matches. So for every move or hold we teach, teach the counter for it. The main variable can sometimes be brute strength, but at the elementary level, that usually isn’t a huge factor – technique and experience usually is.

The first takedown taught is called the double leg. It’s one of the simplest takedowns to teach elementary aged kids, but it’s used at all levels of wrestling. As one might assume, wrestling is a demonstration sport that requires hands-on practice and isn’t something that can be easily learned in a manual.

The vital thing for young wrestlers is not to try to teach them too much too soon. Each day of practice, try to limit instruction to one new move and its counter from each of the three basic positions (top, bottom and neutral). Also, review moves that have been covered in the past for retention, and hold several “live” wrestling sessions where there is full resistance, much like a real match.

Try to conclude each day with a game that is not only fun, but also can improve their wrestling skills. Wrestling games such as “Sharks and Minnows,” “Chess,” “Sumo,” “Balance Drill,” “King of the Mat” and “Pin or Push-Out” help end practice sessions on a high note.

The elementary season begins immediately after my high school coaching season ends, so I often feel like a deep sea fisherman who has just returned from marlin fishing in the Gulf of Mexico who next decides to catch some small bass in a local lake. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s less challenging. Some varsity coaches even pull double duty if their elementary or club season runs simultaneously with their varsity season.

Coaching elementary wrestling can be very demanding, but incredibly rewarding at the same time. Having patience and compassion is very important for coaches, but wrestling also is a sport where youngsters learn some of their first lessons in toughness and accountability. There are no time-outs, no substitutions and no teammates. It’s a full-contact, one-on-one sport and tears are sometimes shed, but laughs and smiles are predominating. Even if the youngsters do not go on to wrestle when they are older, they will learn character-building lessons that will help them later in life.

Typical One Hour Elementary Wrestling Practice Schedule 

8-10-minute warm-up (usually consisting of jogging in a circle, shuffling in stance position and tumbling followed by jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, and neck bridging)

5 minutes of announcement and review of yesterday’s technique lessons

5-minute practice of yesterday’s techniques

2-3-minute introduction on new technique

5-minute practice of new technique

5 minutes of “live” wrestling

Water break

2-3-minute introduction of new technique

5-minute practice of new technique

2-3-minute introduction of new technique

5-minute practice of new technique

5 minutes of “live” wrestling

5 minutes of a wrestling based-game


About the Author: Matt Berglund is an English teacher and the head wrestling coach at Grand Forks Central High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Berglund also is the yearbook and newspaper adviser and a member of the NFHS Publications Committee.




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