Monday, November 23, 2020

A reality check on the proper relationship between wrestling coaches, and wrestling parents...

Article by Neil Kiernan

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Don't tell parents to "trust the process" make them part of the process. 

There has been a consistent trend in the conversations surrounding youth sports. There is a lot of talk of what is considered to be a crisis of burnout and lack of interest in youth sports. The coaching community seems to of decided the best way to handle the issue is to place the blame squarely on parents. 

According to Wade Schalles and Ben Askren wrestling retains about 40% of it's participants after two years of participation in wrestling. While I have never looked at any hard statistics my personal experience would give me a an inclination to believe it. 

The most prevalent theory as to why is generally that parents are over-pushing kids. And that they should sit back and "trust the process". This picture has been circulating from a lot of coaches recently and it compelled me to start this blog rather then having to type out my observations over and over again. 


There are several problems with this philosophy that don't really emerge as practical in youth wrestling in particular. But let me take a quick detour to address first why I think the burnout problem is happening. 

It is certainly true that over-pushing parents can burnout an athlete. I have come to understand though that simply scapegoating this as the issue is not intellectually honest. When I speak to a lot of former wrestlers I have known over the years they usually talked about frustration when it came to their success in the sport. They were not progressing as fast or effectively as their competition and as a result the sport simply stopped being fun. I won't go too deep into this topic on this particular blog, but I strongly believe that the real reason many kids burnout is that wrestling's competition model and the way pairing is handled is the true core of what is causing wrestling to have problems with retention. That will be a subject for another blog. But the short form is this. Wrestling is the only combat sport that I know of that kicks kids who have been doing it for ten years into matches with kids who have done it for one year and expects it to be "fun" for both parties. We effectively put "black belts" in wrestling in the same competition as "white belts" in wrestling.  And rather then addressing this issue, people in the wrestling community tend to romanticize the issue. Saying things like "Oh well wrestlers are a rare breed... not everyone can do this..." kind of implying that the reason kids can't hang with the competition pairing model is they are simply not tough enough. Well, considering how many former wrestlers who I have met who are now boxers, I would say that's nonsense. In conclusion, I believe the reason why wrestling loses 60% of participants within two years of participation has more correlation with the fact that in many states a new wrestlers eligibility for the "novice" or "beginner" divisions ends around that time. And they are thrown to the wolves afterward. 

So, coming back to the core issue, lets address the statements in this picture: 

To be blunt, not all coaches/programs are created equal. We say "trust the process" assuming that no matter what program your wrestler is in, no matter who their coach is, no matter what partners they have, that they are guaranteed success. 

It's just not true. At all. 

Before too many people get angry and stop reading, let me try and break some of this down with science. 

In my own quest to see what I could do to optimize my son and daughter's potential in wrestling I studied about sports genetics, and sports performance science. I learned a lot about what is genetic and what is trainable in any athletic endeavor. I recommend this book: 

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance Science

This book will help you understand in detail specifically what genetics plays a role in and what it does not. It details real world examples of athletes who performed well solely due to genetics and those who instead mastered the craft of their sport to have success. 

But it also spends a lot of time debating if athletics is genetics OR "10,000 hours" theory. The 10,000 hours theory is that if you practice anything for 10,000 hours you will master it. When I decided to look into this I came across scientific works about what is called "Deliberate Practice". 

The exact scientific study can be found here:  The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson, K. A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P. J., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). New York: Cambridge University Press

It will cost you money, so I have also provided this article that does a good job of summarizing the findings of the study: "The Making of an Expert" by Harvard Business Review

For the sake of this conversation, I will give a brief summary of my own. 

A group of scientists did a lengthy study to test the "10,000 hours" theory. They used extremely elite violin players. What they discovered was that it's not just 10,000 hours of repetition that takes a kid from making awkward noises with their instrument in the bedroom practicing alone to success in an orchestra. (If anything, this habit is why so many instruments are left in attics abandoned)  It takes 10,000 hours of repetition under direct supervision, with careful and meticulous correction. And full focus on the part of the practicing student. How does this play out in wrestling?

The simple scientific truth is that mastering any skill to a high level requires meticulous attention to detail on the part of the teacher, and proactive meticulous correction of mistakes. It is literally detrimental to allow an athlete to do anything incorrect in repetition. It is without question vital that an athlete repeat a movement correctly and it is vital that they not repeat it incorrectly without correction ever. If this means we only drill something ten times as opposed to one hundred? So be it. 

I once observed at a practice I had taken my son to where the coaches had communicated that they would prefer parents stay quiet that they had the entire room drilling the high crotch takedown for about forty five minutes. In that time I observed as a great number of the kids in the room were completely out of form. Butts sticking up in the air, failure to penetrate properly, heads down, etc. Takedowns require a sequence of movements that has to be done correctly or they become "low percentage" movements for wrestlers. (This is why many novice wrestlers gravitate towards the head &arm throw.)

The coaches even if they wanted to could not possibly correct all of the incorrect form that was taking place. The coach to student ratio at a lot of wrestling practices is often 20 to 1, or worse. 

I had a conversation with a Russian wrestling coach named Vougar Oroudjov, several conversations with Olympian Jake Herbert, and other independent reading on the differences between the methods the Russians use vs. the United States. 

So in the United States, typically two athletes and a coach demonstrate a movement, surrounded by maybe a dozen to three dozen athletes. After explaining it, and showing it everyone claps their hands and then partners wander off to hopefully practice what was just shown. 

The coaches then kind of lackadaisically "patrol" around the practice hoping to catch athletes when they need help or correct them when they are doing something wrong.  This process will continue for the whole practice. And several techniques are likely to of been shown. 

It is highly likely in that room the majority of the kids are not learning the technique shown. They are likely doing incorrect repetitions and therefore programming bad muscle memory that will trigger during competitions. 

Then live wrestling usually follows which is also allowed to proceed with very little effective supervision. Tactical and technical mistakes will be corrected sporadically if at all. 

The result is, bad habits are allowed to form. Retention of those techniques is minimal at best. And only the kids who are particularly gifted with focus and quick learning will actually take much of anything from the practice at all. (This is also why wrestling camps are rarely as effective as they could be for wrestlers, and why people instead gravitate towards volume of competitions to improve.) 

Then the following day at practice, this process is repeated. Though it is highly likely the coach is not reviewing anything from the previous practice effectively. No tests are being performed to see if the athletes mastered anything shown to them. Sometimes I would feel watching practices that it was like the coach picked a random technique out of a hat to work on that day.

This heavily contrasted from my kid's experience with the sport of boxing. As in a boxing gym typically all the coaches are watching the athletes. They focus the instruction on what a given athlete may need at that time. So if there is something wrong with their jab, it is corrected effectively and immediately. In contrast I know kids who have been wrestling for years who still don't know how to shoot properly some who have no idea how to get out of bottom, etc. 

In the martial arts sports, there is a syllabus of technique that is followed for a given "rank" and periodic testing wherein the coach has their athletes demonstrate all of the techniques they are supposed to of learned. If there is a deficiency, this is the time it is brought to the attention of the coach and can be corrected. As I pointed out above, this is rarely done in wrestling at all. 

The simple hard fact is this. If you cannot take the time to ensure all your athletes are repeating a movement properly? They are not learning anything, and you are not teaching anything.  

And do not move on until they have mastered it. If you cannot provide that correction and you allow your athletes to repeat something incorrectly for several minutes, an hour, or even weeks? You are literally hurting your athletes. They are spending time at your practice getting worse at the sport. Not better. 

To be frank, there is absolutely no value in forcing a parent to sit silently while their wrestler is drilling something incorrectly or making tactical mistakes repeatedly during live wrestling. 

And then at competitions maybe the coach catches something that needs to be corrected. Typically what happens is the coach will take the wrestler aside and briefly talk about what mistake they made. Often not recognizing that the mistake was literally learned behavior that came from their coaching at practice. Not because the coach demonstrated the movement improperly but because their student was allowed to practice it improperly.  The coach may then say "We will work on this at next practice..." and promptly forget they said that and run off to coach another wrestler. I have seen bad habits like this that can be formed in a single practice take months to fix after they are allowed to become habit. 

In police and military training they drill repeatedly skills that have to be operated under high stress, such as breaching and clearing a building. They do this over and over and over. Why? Because when an adrenaline dump happens science shows us that what someone repeated most will tend to be what their body will perform under stress. 

So when this happens during a tournament, and your athlete does what they drilled the most while you were not looking, is it the athletes fault? Is it the parents fault? No. It's your fault. Particularly if you closed your practice and insist that your athlete is only coached by you. 

When they lose a lot of matches and quit because they are not progressing, is it the athletes fault? Is it the parents fault? Or is it your fault? I know a lot of coaches like to live in a fantasy world that their athletes would not care about winning or losing if their parents didn't. This is again to be blunt, a myth. Neither kids, nor adults like losing. When we say we should make it about fun, we need to understand that winning is absolutely part of fun. Do they have to win all their matches? Absolutely not. But if they are not having a consistent amount of success they will quit. Now, some coaches (including the Russians I mentioned earlier) would say that maybe certain kids should not be competing yet. And I would say there is merit to that. But competition is also fun. So it falls on us to coaches to find the time to ensure that our athletes are ready to compete and have a reasonable amount of success. 

So where do parents come in? 

In my quest to try and find the optimal training situation for my kids we have been to a lot of clubs. Some allow parents in the room, some do not. While there are exceptions my consistent experience has been that the clubs that do not allow parents in the room frequently have a ratio of maybe 1 in 10 of those athletes is progressing. And who are those athletes? Almost always without exception they are the children of the few adults allowed in the room. If not, then they virtually always happen to be an athlete who was fortunate enough that a coach in the room took special interest in them. Why is that? 

Generally the parlance will be to suggest that those athletes are the most "talented" ones and that can sometimes be true. But the simple hard reality I have observed play out over and over again is thus: 

  1. Many coaches start clubs because they specifically want to coach their kids. Which is why you often see coaches just kind of vanish from programs when their kids stop participating. They have their kids and perhaps some talented kids that are fun to coach. Everyone else is there to pay the bills. 
  2. Many coaches are not really qualified to coach. They may be well intentioned but they don't understand how athletes learn. In Russia even youth coaches go to school to be coaches, operate on the same methods and the same syllabus. In the United States a coach may literally not of had any success but is the coach anyway. Or they may of had a lot of success as athletes themselves because they had athletic talent but do not have the very distinct and separate talent of teaching. Point of fact I have found in many cases that the most physically gifted athletes make terrible coaches. 
  3. Many coaches don't realize that in order for actual progression to take place they have to meticulously monitor their athletes and ensure they are actually learning what is being taught, and not introduce new techniques until the foundations are learned. 
  4. And the trickiest part? Many coaches need to recognize that certain athletes will not be physically capable of performing certain movements but may be very good at performing others. My daughter for example is not mechanically built for shooting. It was never going to happen. It is not a problem that can be drilled away. She is however very flexible, and very tactically minded. For this reason she naturally gravitated towards scrambling techniques as taught by Mitch Clark, Ben Askren, Wade Schalles, etc. She had multiple coaches who either hated these techniques or didn't understand them so we wasted years of her wrestling practice emphasizing techniques that she was never physically going to be successful with. A good coach has to assess the physical characteristics of all of their athletes as individuals. Boxing coaches already do this. A lanky and long boxer is not taught to fight inside. A short and stubby boxer is not taught to fight from the outside. For this reason having your entire wrestling room drill the same movements just doesn't work. Your heavyweight for example is never going to wrestle the same way your 106 does. And wasting their time during practice having them try to do so is ridiculous. 

How do coaches then deal with these problems? 

Instead of treating the parents as a detriment to your coaching, involve them in the process. 

I acknowledge that some parents are not going to be able to do this, and should not do this. For this to work a parent has to have humility and understand their weaknesses. You can address this by communicating with the parents and bringing them into the team, bring them into the process. Show them specifically what the athlete needs to be doing and ask them to watch their child. Develop a relationship of trust with the parent that if they are confused about something that they can come to you to help them understand. And then together, you will see the process work. 

Use the eyes of the parents in the room to your advantage. If you hear a parent saying something to the child instead of taking it as a personal slight to your coaching abilities, recognize that the parent cares about their child's performance and walk over to see what is going on. Then help the parent, and the child correct the issue, or help the parent understand their is no issue. 

When I moved my kids to a program where the coaches were not only very meticulous in correction and very aggressive in their scanning the practice to look for where correction was needed, and involved the parents in what was being taught so they could help the result was rapid improvement. A national championship for my daughter, and a state championship with victories over two national champions for my son. 

What techniques work for a given wrestler? What genetic factors are in play? The parents can be extremely helpful in giving you this information. I know for example where my daughter's inability to generate power below her hips comes from. I had the exact same problem. Involve the parent and the wrestler in developing a syllabus that works for that wrestler. Help them discover with you what kind of wrestler they should be. And recognize that this wrestler your student is becoming may not resemble the way you wrestled at all. Sometimes the parent will have to understand that they will not be wrestling the same way that they did either. 

At competitions a major factor that is often left off the table when discussing this issue is that coaches often literally cannot even be there anyway. Particularly if the tournament is out of state. So what is going to happen to your wrestler when the only person available to coach them is the parent you insisted should stay in the stands, not attend practice, etc? Suffice it to say, it's not going to go well. 

Coach the parents. It's that simple. Stop trying to remove the person who has the most access to your athlete from the equation, and help them become part of the solution. At the start of the season have a parent meeting not to discuss how parents need to sit down and shut up. Have a parent meeting asking for their help and explaining to them how they can help. When at practice ask the parents to pay attention to specifically what it is the athlete needs to be doing with a given drill and make sure you are approachable when they need help, helping you. What position should their wrestler be in during a takedown for example? Tell the parent if their head goes down to calmly correct them. 

If a parent is super toxic and should not be involved? Tell them that perhaps this is not the right program for them. You are going to find that there are far less of these parents then you probably believe. And that many parents will be thrilled that you asked them to help. 

One way or the other the parent is going to be involved. You can either be part of ensuring that this is a positive thing or you can try to shame parents into not being involved which is realistically just not effective. 

To conclude this first chapter I would point to some real world examples. 

J'Den Cox was fortunate enough to have a youth coach who took interest in helping him and now that coach is still with him. Coaching him even at the Olympics. Mike Eierman. It's important to recognize that this example is the exception. 

Meanwhile, Kyle Dake and David Taylor both have stated their parents had a huge involvement in their wrestling. It's just reality that a lot of elite athletes have high levels of parental involvement. There are certainly ways to do it wrong. Cary Kolat's father for example was nuts, but despite his abusive methods nobody can argue that Cary Kolat's success did not come in large part due to the involvement of his father. That same success could of come if his father was Kyle Dake's father. But he didn't know any better. 

As a coach, you have the ability to ensure that your athlete's relationship with their parents is a positive force not just for their enjoyment, but their success. You can literally help parents to ensure that not only will their athlete succeed, but that the process can be a positive experience. 

Virtually all of the bad sports parenting I have witnessed over the years came from parents who wanted very badly for their children to succeed and did not know how to properly do this. You as a coach can help them understand. 

The fact is the results don't lie. Involved parents are a key to high level success unless an athlete is lucky enough to find a coach who has the time and motivation to devote to their athlete that a J'Den Cox got. We have to stop pretending that we as coaches can effectively do this for all of our athletes. We have to stop pretending that parents are the only reason athletes don't have fun and quit. 

Coach the parents and make them an extension of your program. 

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