High School Wrestling Coaches: Scholastic Wrestling: Balancing Fun and Competiveness

by Dennis A. Johnson, EdD

Long term athletic development research indicates that during the high school scholastic wrestling experience is a time when parents, coaches, and the wrestlers themselves should focus more intently on the aspect of being competitive. Coaches design workouts that include technique drilling, tactical situation wrestling drills, and live combative scrimmage sessions. The practice sessions are intermixed with a number of competitive events that culminate with some type of a post season championship. The rigor of practice and a competitive schedule especially in a “win at all cost” total focus on winning can be detrimental in terms of having fun and bring on competitive anxiety which can lead to a number of physical and/or psychological issues (e.g., burnout, staleness, loss of confidence, etc.).

Therefore, it is essential to maintain the balance between having fun and being super competitive. Coaches should keep winning in perspective and implement the American Sport Education’s “athlete first-winning second” philosophy (1). Coaches might also note former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s thoughts on success versus winning; “I tried to convince my players that they could never be truly successful or attain peace of mind unless they had the self-satisfaction of knowing that they had done their best. Although I wanted them to work to win, I tried to convince them that they had always won when they had done their best (2-p. 95).

These philosophies combine to allow for a more productive setting in which competition can thrive. Coaches should also to listen to their wrestlers and get to know the individual differences for each of their athletes. For instance, at the NWCA convention, I listened to Pat Popolizio the North Carolina State head coach state that his wrestlers didn’t like the daily warmup routine. So he had them come up with 4-5 different warmup activities that they liked and a different one was picked at random for each day’s practice. Although he didn’t care for one of the activities; which was playing dodgeball, it proved to be fun for the wrestlers and the game provided lots of movement to prepare their bodies for practice! Not only are the warm-ups more fun, but the wrestlers who had input are more energized for practice. Realizing the importance of individual differences, Coach Popolizio also disclosed that he gives certain wrestler’s a day off from practice from time to time so they can better maintain their competitive edge and better enjoy the competitive experience. And I would bet an occasional day of helps to keep the sport of wrestling more fun.

In closing, I offer three suggestions to help balance fun and competition in scholastic wrestling:
1. Develop a success-oriented “athlete first–winning second” coaching philosophy.
2. Implement a games approach to technique drills (i.e., make the drills as match-like as possible).
3. Mix up the daily practice routine by incorporating wrestling-related games that are fun!
4. Know the individual differences of each of your athletes and schedule competitive practices/matches accordingly.
Check out the NWCA’s Wrestling Coaches Resource Manual for more information on the topic of balancing fun with competition.

“Find a way and make it happen”….dj

1. Martens, R, (2012). Successful coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
2. Wooden, J. (1988). They call me coach. Chicago IL; Contemporary Books.
NWCA Sport Blog
High School Wrestling Coaches: Scholastic Wrestling: Balancing Fun and Competiveness
Dennis A. Johnson, EdD
Associate Professor-Jamestown Community College (SUNY)
Former wrestling coach & author of Wrestling Drills for the Mat and Mind

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