5 Ways to be a better wrestling Parent

It’s that time of the year. Parents across the country are getting excited for the upcoming wrestling season. After an offseason of camps and clinics, working out, and doing what one needs to do to improve, their child has put themselves in a position to have a great wrestling season because they prepared in the offseason.

But what about parents? They too, can take steps in advance of the season to be a better wrestling parent this upcoming season. How so?

We break it down via these five tips:

1. Ask Four Great Questions

Wayne B. Moss is the Executive Director of the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS), the largest known organization in America representing the youth sports industry. His son, Na’im, is a wrestler and a high school sophomore who advanced to the Georgia State High School Championship last year in the 106-pound weight class. Following his matches, the question he is asked most often is “did you win?” For many parents, whether their child won or lost is often the only barometer for success. So, once after a heart-breaking loss, Moss started asking his son several different questions—none associated with whether he won or not:

  1. Did you have fun? Says Moss: “I hear the words of legendary football coach Herm Edwards, ‘We play the game to win!’ That is so true. We encourage young people to compete as hard as they can. It’s also important to remember they started playing games because they were fun.” Why focus on the fun? Studies show 75 percent of young people drop out of sports by age 13 because it’s no longer fun.
  2. Did you do your best? “Winning or losing should not be the only success metric,” Moss says. Wrestlers need to ask themselves if they performed as well as they could. Did they practice and prepare as best they could? Did they listen to the coaches as best they could? Were they relentless in their approach? If so, they will develop the habit of excellence. “If your wrestler does their best and loses, be proud of the effort,” adds Moss. “If they don’t do their best and win, they’ve cheated themselves. Don’t be fooled by so-called success (because of a win).”
  3. What did you learn? Every experience, both in victory and defeat, can be embraced as a learning opportunity. “Life is one big opportunity to practice,” Moss says. Wrestling can be a humbling experience. After advancing to the state finals as a freshman in his first varsity season, Na’im did not place. “After the emotions died down, I asked him what he learned from the experience,” says Moss. During the season, Na’im would go for a big move and pin his opponent. In the finals, where wrestlers are usually more evenly matched, Na’im said he should have focused on earning points in smaller chunks—through takedowns, escapes—the one and two point moves, for example, which were the differences in the match. “What I heard was he learned to be more disciplined and thoughtful,” Moss says.
  4. What could you improve? Even if you did your best, there is something to improve on. Identifying areas to improve does not mean there is anything wrong. It just means being conscious, which is another critical skill. Beyond the benefits of getting better, improvement develops a sense of achievement. “It is rewarding and provides insights into one’s own character and capabilities,” says Moss. “Our post-match chats have provided richer conversations. Sometimes it’s difficult to get good answers from children. Maybe we need to ask better questions.”

2. Trust the Process

If you look up Joe Betterman’s USA Wrestling bio and scroll down to his high school accomplishments, you see two references: One is that he was a 2001 state tournament qualifier and the other is that he placed sixth in the 2002 state tournament for Lake View High School in Chicago, Illinois.

That’s a good career for most wrestlers. However, Joe Betterman is not like most wrestlers. After all, he spent nearly a decade as one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers in the country, winning four Senior national titles (60KG/132 pounds), and earning spots on the 2007 and 2011 U.S. Greco World Team, while also claiming a 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials championship.

That is not bad for someone who didn’t start wrestling until high school, and who was never a state champion.

The point?

Trust the process. Winning, or losing at a young age is no indicator of future success, or failure. There have been NCAA champions and All-Americans who never won a match their first year, or even second year. So as a wrestling parent this year, realize it is not just about winning, it’s about improving. Improving technique, mastering new moves, improving on top or bottom, overcoming mental obstacles, and becoming a better wrestler. Not just winning and losing. Even a wrestler goes on a long losing streak, trust the process, says Betterman, now State Chairman for Colorado USA Wrestling and co-owner of Betterman Elite Wrestling Club.

“Don’t focus on today’s trophies,” says Betterman, who runs his wrestling club with his wife Deanna (formerly Deanna Rix), one of the top women’s wrestlers in the United States. “If you want to get to the top, and that’s to become a college wrestler or Olympian, you can’t focus solely on winning. Each match is a lesson, win or lose. Take something from each match, and learn from it.”

How can parents trust the process, and not so much pressure on kids, or help get them out of a funk if losing? Start by keeping cool during matches and after those losses, says Betterman.

“Don’t lose your cool at tournaments, or during a match,” Betterman says. “I’ve seen kids wrestle who are so concerned about what their parents think they are looking into the stands the entire match, worried about what they think.”

Coaching from the stands is a sure way to make things miserable for your wrestler – and others around your team (parents and wrestlers included). If you are in the stands, try to sit out of the line of sight of your child while they are competing, says Tim O’Brien, a Pittsburgh-area resident who coached two sons in youth sports (baseball and basketball) at various points throughout their career. Those sons played baseball, basketball, football and participated in track and field. His oldest son went on to compete in field events for a Division I Atlantic 10 school, while his younger son played football for four years at a Division III school in the President’s Conference.

“They know you are there, trust me,” O’Brien says. “They’ve already looked for you. So, you don’t need to think being in their field of vision is an act of support. In the child’s eyes, it usually has the effect of putting undue pressure on them. They can see your facial expressions when they make mistakes and if you are closer, you may be tempted to coach from the stands, and that’s very demoralizing. Plus, other parents get very turned off by it, and so do coaches.”

Trust the coaches, believe in the plan they have in place, and if you have questions, ask it at the right time, not when emotions are high, such as after a loss.

“Be supportive, win or lose,” Betterman says. “Know that coaches have the best interests of your son or daughter and they want them to succeed for the long-term. Every wrestler loses. Every wrestler faces adversity or deals with challenges. Wrestling is not an easy sport. Jordan Burroughs lost. Kyle Snyder, he’s lost. What separates those guy’s from the rest is after they lose, they learn from those losses, go back, make corrections, and use that to motivate them the next match. It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about focusing on long-term development, not short-term success. It’s not about chasing trophies.”

3. Be a cheerleader parent

This year, focus on being the most supportive parent possible. And not just for your child either, says Dr. Nhu Nguyen, a physical education professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coach of the USA junior national volleyball team. As a multi-sport athlete, coach and parent, Dr. Nguyen has firsthand experience of what works on and off the court/field of play when it comes to student-athletes and parents.

“It’s important parents take on the role of a ‘cheerleader’ parent,” says Dr. Nguyen. “That is, parents should be offering only positive feedback in showing support for their child and the team. Cheer for the whole team, not just for your own child.”

Let the coaches coach, says Dr. Nguyen. Crossing roles and lines only complicates things and creates undue stress on the child.

“Whether it is the unwanted re-hashing of the play they missed during the car ride home, pitting them against the coach about playing time, comparing them to another kid on the team, or arguing that the official didn’t make the right call, these are all common scenarios that oppose the reasons kids play sports,” says Nguyen. “Research shows kids play sports for fun and friendships, especially at the younger ages, thus the parental goals often widely differ than their own kid’s goals. Be on the same page with your child about what they want to play, why they want to play it, and what they want to achieve. The page can always turn, but allow it to happen at your child’s pace.”

If as a parent you find yourself too often crossing over to a coach, or match side referee questioning every call, consider educating yourself and becoming an official/referee, or a coach. There are several coaching certifications and coursesavailable through USA Wrestling, and every state is always looking for more wrestling officials.

If not, sit back, enjoy the competition, and cheer and support your child – and the rest of the team, Dr. Nguyen says.

4. Don’t be THAT Parent

“We all want our children to be successful at athletics,” Moss says. “As parents, we realize all the benefits that can come from a quality sports experience.”

However, as you prepare for the upcoming season, Moss encourages parents to think about a few things. Recognize that the sport is not about you. You had your time (or maybe you didn’t) and now it’s time for your child to do their thing, he says.

“Let them make their choices and learn from the consequences, both good and bad,” Moss says. “Be the biggest cheerleader for your child. Be loud. Be enthusiastic! However, let the coaches do their jobs. Do not coach from the stands. Don’t make your child have to choose between listening to you or their coach. Besides, studies have shown that you are compromising your athlete’s performance with the constant instructions. Your children don’t come to your office and critique you while you’re in the middle of a presentation with your boss. Give them their space.” 

Also, let the officials do their jobs. Don’t YELL at them about what they’re doing wrong. They are doing the best they can. The yelling only makes it worse, Moss points out. “This type of interaction is teaching your child that it’s okay to disrespect others,” he says.

At a recent event, a parent was letting an official have it, Moss said. He calmly walked by and said, “You actually think yelling at me is going to make me change my call? Cut it out!” Awkward. Remember, the officials could be doing anything else. If you’ve ever been in a situation where the officials didn’t show up, you understand they’re providing a service. 

“Your young athletes are not professionals,” says Moss. “The chances of them turning pro in any sport is very remote. There are athletic skills and life lessons they can learn from their participation in sport. If they’re not making mistakes, they’re not learning. There are nine magical words we should all say to our kids – “I love watching you play. I’m proud of you.”

In wrestling, those words could be “I love watching you compete. I’m proud of you.”

Moss concludes: “Can you imagine the stress our kids feel? It’s non-stop correction. It’s no wonder that most athletes quit participating by age 13. Young people have the challenge of being perfect. It’s the challenge of living up to the huge expectations of their parents. Give your kids, and yourself, a break.”

5. Enjoy the Moments

Ask any parent who has kids in youth sports. It goes by fast. One day they are just learning how to roll around on the mat, struggling to put on a singlet, and eager and excited to join the sport. Soon they are in middle school, high school, and then for most, it’s over. They may have ups and downs, highs and lows. They will win some and lose some. Some will win state titles; some will be on teams that win state titles. Others will face setbacks – injuries, devastating losses, serve as a backup – and have to overcome obstacles at various points throughout their career.

So enjoy the opportunity to be involved in your child’s wrestling career. It won’t last forever, but the memories, will.

“I remember my son’s senior football banquet in college after they all played their last game of their careers,” O’Brien says. “Each senior gave a heartfelt speech. And while the comments and stories varied, the one thing every single senior mentioned was that there was at least one family member—a mom, a dad, maybe even a grandparent—who never missed a game. That told me that in the end it’s about relationships and support, and that the athletes may forget some things that happened in competition, but no one forgets who was there.”