Let’s Get Organized-Early Specialization Considerations

Let’s Get Organized-Early Specialization Considerations

by Dennis A. Johnson, EdD

Last week I discussed research on the long term talent development (TD) and the implications that it has on youth wrestling programs.  Many parents and coaches simply believe that the earlier a child begins wrestling and specialize the better they will be in later stages of their careers.  Across the country we see wrestlers ages 5-12 competing in tournaments on a weekly basis.  And who are the children who are most successful during those competitions-those who are the most physically and emotionally mature.  (Ever hear this-“my kid will be really tough this year he is at the top of his age group”)  Is this good or bad?  Let’s look at the research on early sport specialization

If guidelines for sport specialization submitted by the International Society of Sport Psychology (1) are followed youth wrestling can be a positive experience which in turn could lead our young wrestlers to return to the mats year after year (thus a higher retention rate).

They suggest the following:

  • Early sampling of sports (i.e., engaging in a lot of different sports) does not hinder elite participation for sports where peak performance is reached after maturation (which is where wrestling falls.).
  • Early sampling of sports is linked to longer careers and long-term sport involvement.
  • Early sampling allows for participation in a range of contexts that favorably affect positive youth development.
  • High amounts of deliberate play early on help to build a solid foundation intrinsic motivation.
  • High amounts of deliberate play early on helps to establish a range of motor (movements) and cognitive (thinking) experiences that children ultimately bring to their principle sport (in this case wrestling).
  • Around the end of primary school (about age 13) children should have the opportunity for choose to begin to specialize.
  • Finally, late adolescents (around age 16) have developed the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional and motor skills needed to invest in highly specialized training.

In 1982 I spent 17 days in Moscow (Russia) studying the sport of wrestling, three hours on the mats and four hours in lecture daily.  The old Soviet Union at that time was by far the superior wrestling program in the world.  In our lecture classes the USSR long term talent development plan which was based on four-year Olympic cycles was chronicled.  In their program, no wrestler specialized, but rather engaged in a variety of sports until about the age of 16.  And in four years after the age of 16, our Soviet instructors related that wrestlers who did specialize at that time could compete for a world championship. Get the message?

Finally, I believe the message is clear, let’s have our children experience many different sports and keep their time in wrestling FUN so they keep coming back to it year after year. Check out theYouth Coaches Resource Manual at NWCA for more information.

“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.    Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D.  (2009)  ISSP position stand: To sample or specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance.  International Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, 7-17.


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