One of the uglier videos circulated last week with cell phone video of several parents fighting on the mats of a pee-wee wrestling tournament. The brawl, which lasted 20-30 seconds, spilled onto the mats and was watched by several of the young wrestlers participating in the day's activities. The motivation for the altercation wasn't really specified, but it was implied that something on the mat caused a comment from a parent, which inflamed some egos.
While women's wrestling is taking off, international styles are becoming easier to watch/follow, and college dual meets are seeing 15K-plus fans, there remains a cancer at the root of the sport.
The culture of youth wrestling is broken.
We see the system in tatters each time there is undue focus put onto these coaches and parents who seem more interested in their bragging rights than the growth of their children. There is no reason to ever watch children aged 5-10 years old competing at a national tournament with medal stands, pomp, and consequences. Pre-teens need to focus on developing physical fluency, creating bonds, and sharpening wrestling skills. They shouldn't be the vessel by which parents navigate discovery of lost glory.
But that might be too harsh. Parents are hard wired to protect their children, to cheer them on and enforce rules. When parents storm the mat they aren't guaranteed to be awful humans at the outlier of our sporting culture. In reality they are the symptom of the disease -- just one of the many visible failures in the culture of youth wrestling in America.
Other countries don't seem to drive their kids into highly visible, consequential wrestling events before their 10th birthday. From what I've seen, most don't leave the wrestling room in any meaningful way until they reach 12, or more often, puberty. They stay in the rooms, drill techniques, learn movement exercises, wrestling skills, and a whole heck of a lot of discipline. In the United States we seem to prioritize winning, and by any means necessary.
We are at a breaking point. The time has come to suspend all elimination-based wrestling competitions for children under the age of 10. A pre-pubescent child wrestling five times in a single day isn't building development, it's destroying joy. Parents and youth coaches dragging these babies across their home states, regions, and even the country, only to be pitted against each other in HIGH stakes physical competition, is absurd and should no longer be allowable.
There are alternatives. The United States has excellent, passionate coaches who would love to learn more about their craft and ways to improve the lives of their young wrestlers. The wrestling community needs to come together to devalue these tournaments, adopt skills-based tournaments that allow for kids to build their competitive spirit, and give coaches the tools and techniques to avoid creating a toxic culture of youth sports.
We need to take our foot off this pedal and come together to find solutions. A summit of top club coaches, officials, and leaders in the sport could be a great first step. Bring in educators and those familiar with creating positive conditions for improving physical literacy and see what they can recommend would also help wrestling be a leader in youth sports.
What we saw happen last weekend was only a sliver of what we all know goes on at these tournaments. It's time to make immediate and drastic changes to the way we approach teaching our kids about the world's oldest (and still greatest) sport.
To your questions …
Top-ranked wrestlers Sebastian Rivera and Stevan Micic wrestled last Sunday (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)
Q: What did you think of Sebastian Rivera bumping up a weight to take on Stevan Micic in a battle of No. 1's? Do you think it had anything to do with Micic being a former Northwestern wrestler? It seems like the match didn't get as much hype as when Seth Gross bumped up to take on Bryce Meredith. Is it because it didn't play out on social media? Or because it wasn't super competitive?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Nobody else will wrestle the guy, so he's forced to find some action!
As for the lack of hype for the match it would have been difficult to match Meredith and Gross because it wasn't as competitive. As to why it wasn't as competitive, I think the percentage of weight being ceded was a little higher, but also the styles weren't compatible for something as stimulating as the rollie-pollie, topsy-turvy affair from the year before.
Micic looked to be brutally strong, has discipline in neutral position, and generally limits mistakes. Same for Sea Bass, but when as he was outsized there wasn't much opportunity for him to find points.
Q: Here's a thought regarding ducking in dual meets: have the conference tournament seeding reflect the school's performance at that weight, not the individual's performance. In the Big Ten, at least, record in-conference duals as the first seeding criteria. So just seed "Iowa 125-pounders in the tournament.This clearly doesn't fix everything (it wouldn't even really impact 125 at Big Tens this year), but I think it would be an improvement.
-- Irv O.
Foley: A similar system was considered for the international ranking system but was ultimately canned. The theory for the international scene was to ensure that if your top point-scorer was injured or lost their wrestle-off the country could still see ROI for having traveled and participated. However, the downside was that the stronger countries might start wrestling-by-committee.
That could also be the issue here. Instead of being punitive for the school ducking, larger schools could take on weight classes with two or three top-level wrestlers. That means that the power schools would have another advantage over the lesser schools who might not be able to fill out their rosters in quite the same way.
Good idea, but I think a straightforward approach of valuing the dual meets might still be the answer we need! Simple solution to a complex problem.
Q: Do you think Missouri will beat Oklahoma State on Saturday and extend its winning streak to 36? Or do you like the Cowboys to pull out the victory?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I'm done making predictions. Did you see how bad I whiffed on the Michigan dual? The better way forward is to tell readers that I KNEW something was going to happen and write about it the week after. Can't take any more embarrassing misses.
The only thing about the Mizzou winning streak that jumped out to me was that I started hearing about it in the first place. Tends to be that once you hear these things they come undone. I'm not saying it's a jinx, but something about the streak being spotlighted makes me think there are rough waters ahead for the Tigers.
Q: Super impressed with Vito Arujau of Cornell. Am I crazy to think he could reach the finals in Pittsburgh (as long as he's not on the same side as Spencer Lee)?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Not sure you'd be crazy, but it would certainly be an unexpected result given Sea Bass is a pretty dominant No. 1 and the top five wrestlers have combined for only two losses. Vito's win over Pat Glory was pretty slick. Definite All-American.
Helen Maroulis wrestling at the 2017 World Championships (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Q: We haven't heard or seen much from Helen Maroulis lately. We hope she has recovered from her injuries. Do you know if she's wrestling now and/or planning to wrestle soon?
-- Vince M.
Foley: You should follow her on Instagram. She's around! As for her not competing, she's still recovering from a surgery to repair damage in her shoulder and needs rehab to get it back and ready for competition.
I don't know when she plans to come back to the mats, but I hope it's on a timeline that allows her to return for the World Championships and the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Helen is one-of-a-kind!
Q: Bo Nickal wrestles collegiate at 197 pounds. It seems like the non-Olympic weight class of 92 kilograms (202.4 pounds) could be a good freestyle weight class for him this year. But where would you project him in 2020? 86 kilograms (189 pounds) or 97 kilograms (213.4 pounds)? How do you see his style translating to the senior level?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I'd imagine that Bo tries to make the 2019 team at 92 kilograms. Not sure if J'den Cox is going up, down, or staying put this year. But it might not matter. Bo knows pinning.
He may have plans to compete in 2020, but if so I'd be almost certain that he'd go up to 97 kilograms and take on Kyle Snyder. While there isn't much indication he could take on that size right away, he is pretty nifty and tricky and has a more freestyle-friendly body than Snyder. That could mean tricky situations for Snyder and some positional advantages for Nickal.
Not predicating the upset, but I think that any pressure he gives Snyder will make the defending Olympic champion even more formidable come Tokyo.
DeSanto still firing up the readers!
By Ibra O.
I noticed that Austin DeSanto of Iowa has had several team points deducted this year. When the ref raises your hand there is no need to make derogatory comments to your opponent. I also remember the match that he had with Stevan Micic at the NCAAs last year when DeSanto was blatantly trying to break Micic's arm while wrestling in frustration. The great thing about wrestling is we are forced to shake hands before and after the matches. Unlike many sports wrestlers are supposed to be good sports win, lose or draw. Then DeSanto gets suspended by Brands for only one match. Are you kidding? Both DeSanto and Brands are setting bad examples. This hot head needs to be kicked out of the entire league.