The Value of Off-Season Wrestling
By Bruce Gabrielson
Head Coach Southern Maryland Wrestling Club
Reprinted here with permission
Each spring numerous off-season wrestling programs are formed at clubs throughout the US. These clubs are primarily freestyle oriented, but occasionally a spring club will maintain a traditional folkstyle program. Beginning around March, and often extending through early summer, the clubs are intended to offer wrestlers a chance to practice or compete in a much less intense and also more weight relaxed environment. Wrestling is not an easy sport, and there are few natural winners. Paying your dues with sweat and some disappointments are to be expected. Like any other sport, success requires a commitment from both the athlete, and, in the case of younger wrestlers, plenty of active support from their parents. No rides to practice or competitions, no money for shoes, dues, or entry fees, and parental pressure to devote 100% to a different spring sport (such as baseball or track) will guarantee failure. Personal commitment is also a must. A wrestler must realize that it will be very difficult to achieve his competitive goals if he isn't willing to make the personal sacrifices required, including committing himself to his wrestling objectives. Wrestlers must ask themselves first if they want wrestling to be one of their best sports (or maybe their primary sport). If their answer is yes, and if they are committed, then they probably have the necessary determination to maximize their potential for success.
What is Spring Wrestling?
There are five wrestling styles practiced in the United States. Folkstyle is the traditional US style practiced in schools and universities. Of the five styles, Judo, Sombo, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman are competed internationally. Judo, the oriental style of wrestling, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman are also Olympic sports. While Judo is a year around sport and Sombo is primarily a spring, summer, and early fall sport, Freestyle and Greco-Roman are historically spring sports. Since Freestyle is similar to Folkstyle, its techniques and rules can be easily learned in a short time. Also, since it not a recognized HS sport, HS eligibility rules for competitions and coaching are usually not a problem in most states. With plenty of local and national competitions, coaches, work-out partners, and practice sites available, it is the most popular spring style in the US. In order to be accommodating to other spring sports, Freestyle activities are often very flexible. Clubs generally arrange non- mandatory practices two or three evenings a week, often late enough so as not to conflict with baseball or soccer. Work-outs are not oriented towards conditioning or weight loss, but towards mat work and live wrestling. This format allows the wrestler to get plenty of work into the 1 1/2 to 2 hour sessions a practice usually lasts. For spring competitions, club teams have no need for full roosters. Fun scrimmages are just "get togethers." Wrestlers compete in age groups and weight pools. Tournaments are usually held with "Madison" weight classes. The Madison system allows pools to be formed where wrestlers can be within 2 years and 10% weight of other members of their pools. Dieting is therefore ineffective for locals events, and is seldom seen except at major open competitions. Local late spring tournaments are small, often less than 100 entries. Two mats are frequently all that is needed, with most events over by about 2 pm. Local tournaments are held on either Saturday or Sunday every few weeks. Entry fees are low since the emphasis at these spring events is more on matches than making money and awards. Some local events, such as Challenge Cups, don't even have an entry fee. While there are major tournaments held all over the US, most clubs attend local tournaments, within a one hour drive of where the club is located.
What Can a Wrestler Gain From Summer Programs?
Summer participation allows a wrestler the chance to greatly accelerate the training program without the normal pressures and hassles of the winter folkstyle environment. A small sacrifice on the wrestlers part will pay major dividends during the seasons ahead. In addition to direct advanced training and high level coaching, spring programs offer other benefits not available in winter programs. Probably the greatest advantage to spring clubs is the level of workout partners. Finding coaches and practice partners of quality is a difficult task, especially when top wrestlers are spread out at various schools and clubs during the winter season. Spring clubs are widely separated with members made up of the best wrestlers in a larger area. Wrestlers would never have the opportunity to work with and learn from very good peers if they stayed only within their local Folkstyle environment.
Many ex-college wrestlers who now coach in school programs know enough Freestyle to get by. However, most spring clubs have an abundance of quality coaches with experience in all the international styles. In-addition, the majority of famous past and present wrestlers that live in an area usually belong to a local spring club. Since these individuals mostly work outside the school environment and don't have the time to coach or work with local folkstyle teams, their only alternative is freestyle. Some also have their own kids in a program, and this activity gives them a good opportunity to help both their own sons and also everyone else around. Special clinics by many prominent wrestling figures are a common event at spring club practice activities. Many famous wrestlers and coaches travel to other areas during the spring, and during these travels they always manage to visit an area club. The clinics they put on help wrestlers observe a variety of different successful wrestling styles and techniques in an informal environment.
One other important advantage of off-season wrestling often overlooked in the mental conditioning. When you become part of a group with many champions working together, your mental orientation starts to change. The "Champions Philosophy" in psychology basically says that a champion never looses, only gets beat sometimes. Conditioning your mind to be a winner is the first major step in becoming a winner. With all those around you working to become the best, it won't take long for you to think the same way. There are some family benefits to spring wrestling as well. Different age brothers can work together and help each other. Parents can get down on the mat to coach or cheer, plus action photos and video taping is easy for anyone at spring events. Since crowds are small, photographers, spectators, and parents can get right up to the match if they wish. Professional wrestling photographers also frequent spring events, often taking action photos of matches at no cost.
The Old Folkstyle vs Freestyle Controversy
Surprisingly, there are still a number of old time high school wrestling coaches who promote the philosophy that somehow Freestyle wrestling will effect the performance of a Folkstyle wrestler. This opinion is usually offered by coaches who either don't understand Freestyle, or who don't want their wrestlers to be exposed to more progressive wrestling programs and techniques. Rest assured virtually no modern NCAA champions, or for that matter local high school state champions, restrict themselves by only competing in Folkstyle. In fact (at least in Maryland), there are very few recent high school state champions that don't belong to a spring Freestyle club. Freestyle is close enough to Folkstyle that it can be learned sufficiently to participate in a couple of practices. Many wrestlers learn Freestyle simply by entering a tournament. Also, since the emphasis in Freestyle is on action rather than control, many Folkstyle wrestlers find they prefer the faster pace of Freestyle once they get used to it. Freestyle helps develop footwork, aggressiveness, balance, takedowns, and low attack techniques. It also incorporates a number of moves which are easily modified for Folkstyle use. In addition, if the wrestler also learns the Greco-Roman style, his throws and hip motion will drastically improve as well. Any coach who doesn't recognize the these benefits and won't endorse off-season Freestyle participation is holding his wrestlers back in the dark ages.
If you are a small wrestler and would like to become a national contender someday, you really need to go wherever the quality competition and a variety of talent is located. If you are a high school age wrestler looking for a scholarship, you will have a much better chance with a spring club than on your own. A great many college coaches use the spring season to look for talented and committed wrestlers for their programs. The results of spring program involvement has been very visible over the years. A great many wrestlers have progressed from average to contenders in just one off-season of work. Looking at those who have been the most successful at the state or national level, I would be willing to bet that every one of them is an active freestyle wrestler during the spring. Certainly those who have the top state rankings are also those who compete off- season in most states.