Bring’em Back Next Season-Retention

Bring’em Back Next Season-Retention

by Dennis A. Johnson, EdD

In order to develop a plan to retain high school athletes in our wrestling programs, one must first determine why wrestlers don’t return year after for year for wrestling competition. There are a variety of reasons for this phenomenon: parent pressure, don’t get matches (due to forfeits), no “B” team or JV (i.e., emerging varsity athletes) tournaments, hazing or bulling in the wrestling rooms, they don’t like the coach for any variety of reasons (e.g., the coach only pays attention to the best wrestlers in the room), they find practice boring, they decide to concentrate on another sport and/or they simply develop other interests (e.g., clubs, jobs, or academic pursuits). Thus coaches must develop strategies which will impact those individuals who are on the fence in terms of returning the following season.

I always begin this retention discussion by discussing the culture of the wrestling room, which ultimately the coach is responsible for developing. First, I suggest that it is a “build up-don’t tear down” atmosphere in which all wrestlers are encouraged and no one is harassed or bullied. All wrestlers and assistant coaches need to be taught to how give both positive encouragement and positive constructive criticism (“we need to help each other”).

Next, a coach needs to organize creative and exciting practices for wrestlers of all ability levels. Too often a coaches place too much focus on the needs of the 3-4 best grapplers. Practice design should meet the needs of all wrestlers. Drilling technique is necessary, but there are methods for creating game-like activities that put excitement into the practice drills. Also, mix up the practice order and/or don’t be afraid to go off the rails and do some totally non-wrestling related activities in practice (e.g., play team handball, mat ball, or even basketball). And give wrestlers a day off every now and then to rest their mind and body. Finally, in areas of the country where emerging varsity wrestlers (jayvees) don’t get many matches, a coach should host a tournament for that caliber of wrestlers. They should attend several JV tournaments throughout the season in order to get competition.

Hopefully, a well-organized parent education seminar such as the one described two weeks ago will help to lighten the pressure from parent on their wrestlers. The parent education seminar goes a long way towards eliminating that as a potential dropout cause. The weight management issue should also be a major part of this parent session. My wife says “let them eat” and I’d point to Kyle Dake’s accomplishment of winning the NCAA at 4 different weights rather than Larry Owing’s drop down to beat Dan Gable as the model of choice.

Finally and with the exception of football players, we in the wrestling community can’t do much about student-athletes deciding to leave the sport for other activities-it is a part of life. However, football players are foolish to give up wrestling in order to “lift” and prepare for college football. Wrestling coaches in their quest to keep football players in the room should cite the path that Carlton Haselrig (6-time NCAA champion at Pitt-Johnstown) took in becoming an All-Pro offensive guard with the Pittsburgh Steelers after never even have played college football. His Steeler teammates at the time, all indicated that their sons were going to be wrestlers because of the abilities he learned on the mat!

The NWCA Wrestling Coaches Resource Manual (Scholastic Edition) (1) offers some additional tips for retaining high school wrestlers.

“Find a way and make it happen”….dj

Dennis A. Johnson, EdD
Associate Professor-Jamestown Community College (SUNY)
Former wrestling coach & author of Wrestling Drills for the Mat and Mind


  1. Caslow, D. (2008).Wrestling coaches resource manual. Manheim, PA: NWCA


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