There are more opportunities than ever to train and compete in the sport of wrestling. Wrestling clubs, schools and academies are scattered all throughout the country and many offer year-round training.
Many boys and girls that participate in wrestling and at some point are faced with the dilemma of whether they should specialize in wrestling or be involved in multiple sports and activities. Brandon Paulson, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, says it depends on the kid and the age.
“Every kid is different,” said Brandon Paulson, who coaches PINnacle Wrestling School in Shoreview, Minnesota. “If you’re talking about high school kids who want to be a great in wrestling, I don’t see a problem with it. If you’re talking about elementary kids, I think they can play different sports, still wrestle and still be successful.”
Paulson says certain sports like gymnastics are different and may require kids to specialize at a younger age.
“My daughter is in gymnastics, and that’s what she loved to do,” says Paulson. “She wasn’t going to be a Division I athlete if she didn’t specialize.”
At PINnacle, Paulson’s wrestling school, eight of his wrestlers committed to Division I wrestling programs this year, and seven of those wrestlers competed only in wrestling by the time they were seniors.
“When they were in elementary school they all played different sports,” says Paulson. “They didn’t just wrestle. It depends on the age, it depends on the kid. I don’t suggest it for everybody. But if you’re doing something you love, why not do it?”
Paulson believes it’s important to expose kids to a variety of different sports and activities at a young age, and that it’s not necessarily good to specialize in wrestling at age 9 or 10 years old, but doesn’t see a problem with it once they get to high school if they are passionate about it.
Paulson participated in multiple sports growing up, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that he decided he wanted to focus exclusively on wrestling.
“I decided that’s what I wanted to do, so I specialized when I was in 10th grade,” says Paulson, a three-time state champion at Anoka (Minn.) High School. “I didn’t always like it. My first couple years of college I struggled, but the more I wrestled the more I liked it. Your body can handle a lot of things. Can your mind? Not if you don’t like what you’re doing. But if you love what you’re doing, if you have a passion for it, I don’t think there is a limit on it.”
Ed Giese, who has competed and coached at all levels of wrestling, including the highest levels, is a proponent of specialization.
“I do believe that in today’s day and age if you want to be really good at a sport you have to specialize in it because everyone else is,” says Giese, who wrestled at the University of Minnesota from 1982 to 1986 and is the all-time winningest Gopher wrestler. “There are very few chances to wrestle in college. You have to grab those few. So the only way to do it is to be the very best you can be at your sport.”
Giese, an Olympic team alternate in freestyle wrestling, started wrestling at the age of 6 in Illinois, but didn’t wrestle in his first competition until he was 8. The first couple years of his wrestling career were spent learning the sport.
“There was no competition for the first two or three years I wrestled,” says Giese. “All we did was go to the gym and play around. There was no pressure. All we did was learn how to wrestle. We were taught how to wrestle before we ever wanted to be competitors.”
It wasn’t until his third year of competing that he won his first tournament and decided winning was all he wanted to do.
“I just realized that winning was cool,” says Giese. “That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to wrestle. I wanted to train. I wanted to win. I loved it.”
Once Giese developed his passion for wrestling he immersed himself in the sport and surrounded himself with others who were passionate about wrestling.
“We had an advantage because we trained at an early age and we specialized in it,” says Giese. “So I can never say that it’s not good. The thing that screws everything up is the pressure, all the competitions. The problem we have in this day and age is all these tournaments.”
Jake Herbert, a 2009 World silver medalist and 2012 Olympian, along with 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat, developed a BASE Wrestling System to train wrestlers. The system focuses on physical, technical and mental development.
Herbert is opposed to young kids specializing in wrestling because of their physical limitations and how much they will change and develop physically and mentally.
“You shouldn’t just all of a sudden put yourself into one niche, one thing, one focus right away, especially that early when your mind, your body and everything else is still developing,” says Herbert, a 2015 U.S. World Team member. “You haven’t been completely developed for what you might be perfect for, or what you might be drawn to do.”
According to Herbert, many skills and techniques in wrestling cannot be executed correctly, or perfected, without first developing mentally and physically.
“Before you can train a 10-year-old to really participate and enjoy wrestling he has to know a lot of it and he has to be able to do a lot of it. If he can’t do a penetration step … if he doesn’t know what a sprawl is … if he doesn’t understand hand control and head position and how to defend himself, he’s not really going to really have a good time unless he’s one of those outliers who is overly aggressive and just really strong. You have those kids, but they’re not the norm in the sport of wrestling.”
Herbert believes specializing too young can be harmful and counterproductive.
“When you start to specialize in a sport you’re going to continue to hit that sport’s motion over and over,” says Herbert. “If it’s baseball you’re throwing a ball over and over and over. If it’s wrestling you’re taking that shot and your knee is hitting the mat over and over and over. This can actually lead to breaking the body down before it’s built up. Before your body hits puberty and is strong enough to do that repetition as many times as you can, you can actually harm it and do worse for it than good.”
So what is a good age to specialize in wrestling? Like Paulson, Herbert believes every kid is different, but sees after puberty is a good age.
“That’s different for everybody,” says Herbert. “Some kids hit puberty in seventh grade. Some kids don’t hit puberty until 12th grade. It really depends on the kid.”
How long a kid competes in wrestling is often times dependent on health and competitive fire, according to Herbert.
“Every human being only has a certain life span in wrestling,” says Herbert. “Wrestling is a brutal, hard sport. My life span in wrestling is coming to an end. I’ve been really blessed that I got through college with only two major surgeries. But just in the last three years I’ve had two other major surgeries. So my body is breaking down. It can’t do what I want it to do forever. The same thing goes for your competitive fire.”
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