Things Every Wrestling Team Leader Should Know - Part One
Wrestling in the middle grades means aligning your program with the goals and principles of Middle School education and sticking to your guns when the going gets tough. Understanding that balance means understanding those principles and how they guide its approach to interscholastic athletics.
Teams Should Be Open to Everyone
First and foremost, school teams are mean to be egalitarian, not elitist. Not everyone lasted the whole season, but I never cut anyone who was willing to work, regardless of his talent level. We're supposed to create a safe environment for choices and experimentation. School-sponsored sport is the diametric opposite of the increasingly popular "traveling team" concept, which attempt to create ever-smaller and more elite groups. Some other examples include unlimited enrollment tournaments, dual and tri-matches where no team score is kept, and wrestling other Middle Schools in a true interscholastic approach.
Goals and Practices Should Be Age-Appropriate
That means the breadth and scope of everything you do should have deliberate limits. You're not supposed to train a twelve year-old like you train an eighteen year-old. School-sponsored sports are not intended to be exact mirrors of varsity competition. The practice plan of a middle grades coach should be geared to the fundamental needs of the beginning wrestler and revolve around developmentally appropriate practices. Teach them all they can learn, but keep the practice length under two hours and the intensity level somewhat less that the Olympic training center.
Varsity match ups are governed strictly by weight, but that is not appropriate where Middle School age boys are concerned. The equal weight means next to nothing, and a responsible coach should take age and experience level into consideration as well as weight in doing the pairings. There should also be limits on the amount of time spent in practice in a day and the number of matches a kid should wrestle in a day. It's not merely a matter of superior conditioning. The bodies of adolescent kids are surprisingly delicate, and they are not ready yet to take relentless poundings. And aren't we forgetting that growing boys need food, rest, and homework time to succeed in school?
The Approach Should Be Developmental
School-sponsored wrestling is intended to be a developmental league where kids are there to get matches, period. School coaches are supposed to match up their kids according to age and ability level and let them wrestle and learn. That's why there are no official weight classes in Middle School wrestling, and no team score is supposed to be kept in a dual or tri match. Scheming to get a "W" is supposed to be deliberately subtracted from the equation. The often puzzling unwritten traditions of Middle school wrestling all revolve around the fact that there is a part of our sport that doesn't exist in any other: the shameful practice of weight cutting. These traditions are intended to remove the incentive to cut weight. Without weight classes, no weight need be cut. Without score, mismatches need not be sought.
In the old days, if a kid missed a weigh in, we probably let him in the tournament anyway. It was more important that he wrestle than he be scratched for eating breakfast. In the end, Middle School is supposed to promote team spirit and be developmental.