When I wrestled in our youth sanctioning organization the IKWF or Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation in the 70’s I had the pleasure of wrestling on one of the States powerhouse wrestling programs–the Chicago Ridge Park District Wrestling Wildcats. Our Head Coach and the person that started the program was Jim Kelly. Father to Oklahoma All American Jerry Kelly and University of Iowa All American Billy Kelly and Grandfather to female wrestling great Mary Kelly.
I remember wrestling in duals and triangular meets all the time and only wrestling in tournaments a couple times a season. The rivalry’s that we had developed were just awesome. The Burbank Panthers, the Tinley Park Bulldogs and Harvey are just a couple of the teams that we looked forward to battling with. These meets were always close in score and usually came down to the final match or two to decide the winner. Those of us that have had the pleasure of participating in a dual meet know the excitement of hanging on every single match, the excruciating pain of an upset in your line up or the great thrill when your guy pulls off the unexpected pin. Especially when it was one of the matches you weren’t counting on winning. The strategy of switching wrestlers weight classes to “surprise” the opposing team just before their match. Competitive dual meets are an art all their own, and I’m afraid at the youth level they are highly underutilized. I’m speaking in general terms and there are still some Head Coaches that try to put as many duals in their schedule as possible but this seems to be making way to the mega tournament. Of course with winning a competitive dual came the bragging rights at the few tournaments that we had to be around all the other teams of our area. To this day when I see people that we wrestled with or against our conversations usually always turn to the great days of wrestling in those duals and the excitement they brought. We never talk about tournament wrestling unless it involves the State or National tournaments. There just is no team or community buy in to individual tournaments.
Man do I miss that for my kids. I’m not sure when it happened, I was busy with my career and didn’t have children in wrestling until the 2000’s but when I finally returned to the IKWF, now as a coach, the competition was totally different. I don’t care for it, the way it’s done. Instead of the barn burner, sitting on the edge of your seat excitement you sit in a gym every single weekend. Most of the time you have to get to the venue at around 6-7AM for weigh in. From there the day is down hill, for the fan. My parents have stopped going to most tournaments to watch my nephews wrestle because by the time the tournament is suppose to start, the handful of ADA dedicated parking stalls are taken up. After speaking with many older fans, this is a common occurrence–many grandparents have given up on trying to attend the events due to no parking or even if they are one of the lucky ones to park in a ADA stall they just can’t sit in an overcrowded gym all day. This is unfortunate because many times these are the fans that will most likely be blasting the social networks with their grand kids pictures of their matches. These are the fans that we want at the events, they will highlight the Internet waves with digital pictures all week until the next event. Many have groups that they belong to or at least an arsenal of friends they have developed over the years. They have the time, knowledge of wrestling and money to really help a program.
The newcomer to wrestling gets there welcome into the sport in a similar way by getting to the tournament at 6-7AM and spending all day on Sunday or until about 3-5PM stuck in a gym eating crappy concession food and having to deal with the teams clicks of established parent partnerships (many clubs actually have agreements that parents sign to avoid this). You may know these groups, had personal experience with this or at least heard of it. These groups of parents can be harder to break into their circle than the Pentagon. After sitting in this overcrowded gym for 8-10 hours they may have watched their child wrestle 3 times. That’s about one match per 3 hours. As a coach that becomes hard to justify giving up one of their only free days of the week for 3 matches. This type of inefficiency is a death sentence for the new parent to our sport. Us die hard wrestlers may have a hard time relating to this because of our strong bias but we have to take into consideration the effects on the new parents to wrestling. If this is our target membership–we better start thinking of how we make it a better experience for them. Of course there are the occasional better run tournaments than others but what I’ve laid out here happens pretty consistently in Illinois. It’s not all bad though. Sometimes you will have the stud wrestler that a lot of other parents know and will get excited to watch wrestle. This is the one wrestler that will garner much support and everyone will jockey for position around the side of the mat with smart phones and iPads in hand.
What is lost here in this age of the mega tournament is the true feeling of wrestling on a team that many of us older wrestlers grew up with. Some of the downsides I notice are that most teams break up and attend different events based on age each weekend so the younger kids get no mentoring from the older kids. Keeping all the younger kids separated and isolated from the older kids is a huge negative and a missed opportunity to have the younger, beginner wrestler learn from the older wrestlers. Let’s face it, the 5-9 year olds will often listen better and want to emulate the 13-14 year olds more so than the coach. As it is now, the clubs split the practices up so much and the different level wrestlers (levels of age and experience) that the younger wrestlers never even see the older wrestlers. These older wrestlers can have such a positive influence on the younger wrestlers I’m afraid this is a huge missed opportunity.
Some of the negative effects that these current mega tournaments have are;
– parent support for the team just isn’t the same as in the days of the dual (of course the new parents don’t know any different because they weren’t around wrestling in the dual days). Parents don’t know and can’t watch all the other wrestlers on the team so there is little buy in from the new parents or parents of the different age groups.
– the team mates cheering each other on just isn’t the same. The tournament environment is by its nature a selfish and isolating event. It’s every wrestler for themselves, for the most part. You may get a couple of your team mates at the side of your mat but nothing like an entire team yelling for you in a dual.
– there is no community support for the teams. When I was younger it was common to see some elected city officials at our meets or local small business owners. Many city officials and local business owners had kids on the team and everybody new what local businesses to support because of their participation in the team.
– there is minimal healthy, competitive rivalry’s anymore. All the wrestlers go to these mega tournaments and everything is about the individual. There isn’t the team spirit by the wrestlers, parents, local businesses or even the city officials. When you have a strong, healthy rivalry everybody gets involved. Everybody puts their weight behind “their” team. “Their” team just doesn’t exist anymore. Our team highlights years ago would contain the local teams that we beat in dual matches. These days the team highlights are either state place winners or individual wrestler achievements. Some teams will have their place winning as a team in the state tournament but that’s about the extent of the team. When you think about our local high school rivalry’s, Marist, Sandburg, Oak Park River Forest, Montini and others, it makes me think that I hope these continue. If we lose the high school dual meets I’m afraid that will be the end of any sustainable growth for wrestling.
– I also believe that we are pushing kids too early too hard. Wrestling this type of schedule at 6, 7, 9 years old and sustaining it for the next 8, 7 or 5 years is a recipe for failure. I see three possible outcomes to this schedule; 1- Olympic champ, 2- injury, 3- burn out. The odds are not conducive to growth if these are in fact the three possibilities. When I have mentioned this to people in the past they point to Jordan Burroughs. That’s a great point, and how many Jordan Burrough’s are there competing right now. One. I am more interested in having several Jordan’s. I just think that we are driving the kids to exhaustion or at least to not be the hungriest for the sport when they need to be the most hungry.
So what do we do about it. I believe we need to find a way for clubs to fundraise in a different way than putting on these mega tournaments. It’s my opinion that the driving force behind these tournaments is money. I understand the need for this I just think we need to devise other ways of fundraising and get back to the days of healthy rivalry’s created by the dual meet. It’s my personal opinion this could be the single largest contributing factor to building wrestler participation, growing our fan base and in the long term developing better quality of wrestlers.
Why not have duals that are sponsored by local businesses. You can have professional banners made for as little as $30. The clubs can invite local businesses to sponsor the meet. Put their business and/or logo on a banner. Invite them onto the mat halfway through the meet for acknowledgment of their contribution (I actually got this idea from Coach Michael Porcelli). These businesses can market these meets in there business so the local community can be aware of them and support them. I would develop a way for the crowd to get involved in the meet. Create an app that everyone can load on their smartphone or tablet. Maybe ask the local high school computer classes to get involved, create a stronger coalition of support. During the meet, the fans can vote on best takedown, best pinning combination, best escape, MVP, or ? This will get the fans involved like never before. Or maybe do this on Facebook or Twitter and you can build a social media presence. The winner can be acknowledged at the next meet. This will entice everyone to return because nobody will know the winner and the winner must be present at the next event to claim their prize. One of the businesses sponsoring the meet can offer the prize for winning, a coupon or discount off of their merchandise or a free service. Anything that your fans will view as having value and worth winning. In my personal opinion these are all steps that can be taken right now or at least on a limited basis while you develop alternative ways to raise funds. Many will disagree with this, and that’s ok. But before you blast these ideas, where are yours. I welcome open debate on how to make wrestling better. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best wrestler, coach or idea man. But I’m putting it out there. Your turn……..
Mike Houston, Contributor True Wrestling Insider.