By Evan Bishop
Wrestling is an amazing sport for many reasons.
Superficially, the sport’s physically demanding nature makes it an incredibly effective activity for developing fitness and contributing to a healthy and active lifestyle for youth athletes.
But beneath the surface, wrestling’s notoriously grueling practices, paired with the frequency and intensity of competition, maybe what seems to breed a different type of athlete: one who is exceptionally driven, hard-working, humble, disciplined, and confident.
The outstanding resilience, grit, and character required to be a wrestler have tremendous carryover to life off the mats – once the singlet and ear guards come off – as a student, family member, friend, employee, and as a contributing member of society.
Sport can serve as a fantastic vehicle for character development among youth athletes. It’s time parents started looking at wrestling like the BMW of sports (only much more affordable).
Here to prove the point is a real-life example of wrestling’s crossover:
Dorothy Yeats can attest to the multitude of benefits from years of youth and senior level wrestling. The former Olympian, Yeats retired from the sport shortly after a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio in women’s 69kg freestyle. She is currently playing varsity rugby for McGill University while pursuing graduate studies in engineering.
Yeats credits gymnastics for the early development of her physical and athletic abilities but points out the stark difference between wrestling and gymnastics in terms of personal development and character building.
“In gymnastics you perfect a routine, and then you just have to make sure that when you do it in competition it’s exactly like how you did it [in practice], so there aren’t too many unknowns…but in wrestling there are a lot of unknowns, and you are basically going to war. You’re going to go fight, and even though you have coaches and people supporting you, you’re by yourself out there at the end of the day.”
Indeed, the nature of training and competition may make wrestling a more efficient vehicle for developing young athletes’ characters, compared to some other sports. Traits like grit, resilience, and discipline are commonplace among athletes in general but seem to appear more frequently and more intensely in wrestlers.
When asked about the biggest takeaways from her time as a wrestler, the Olympian credits mental toughness as having the most crossover to life, outside of sports. Not only toughness, but Yeats also adds that an ability to calm her mind in the face of challenging times has helped her significantly on and off the mats.
“I found ways to cope with stress and anxiety really well… exam periods have never been a stressful time for me.”
Yeats goes on to say that many of her peers struggle with school and the stress of exams and assignment deadlines. Although she believes that playing any sport early on could help youth athletes learn to deal with stress, she specifies a unique feature of individual sports that she believes has a huge crossover to school and life in general.
“The thing about wrestling is that you are out there by yourself, so you have to make it work for yourself.”
A Teacher’s Point of View:
Chris Kinsella agrees with Yeats’ evaluation of the strengths of wrestling for youth athletes.
A French, History, and Geography teacher at John Rennie High School in Montreal, Kinsella also leads the wrestling program (as well as several other sports, depending on the season). As a competitor, Kinsella most recently earned himself a bronze medal at the 2016 Canadian Senior Men’s Freestyle Wrestling Championships at 70kg.
“I think one of the biggest things is self-discipline,” Chris answered when asked about his main takeaway from a life of wrestling.
Kinsella can see how skills developed in wrestling crossover to how kids behave in the classroom, within the school, and around their community. His perspective is unique, as his experience comes from years as an athlete and coach, but now as a teacher as well.
Being exposed to difficult situations, and using them to grow instead of avoiding them because they are uncomfortable, is a fantastic way for kids to learn to deal with stress.
“Being in those situations, [where you’re under pressure]… really allows you to calm your nerves.”
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s a phrase that’s been thrown around for years in a variety of contexts, but it really does seem to apply here – in the case of learning to wrestle. Parents may be doing their children good by enrolling them in a sport that’s just plain difficult.
“I think that aspect of sports is sometimes overlooked – the importance of dealing and coping with stress.”
Maybe this is what kids need?
Yeats spoke of wrestling teaching her how to deal with stress, and how she sees many of her peers continue to experience anxiety during exam periods.
An emphasis on youth sports, particularly ones that are challenging like wrestling, may help kids deal with the inevitable stresses that come along with the evaluation-based nature of the education system, as well as help them navigate new social environments as a young, developing individuals.
Kinsella shares from his personal experience as an athlete in saying, “I remember as a wrestler, I was really anxious – lots of nerves. I developed breathing techniques, visualization techniques, and everything like that to settle myself before matches, to get comfortable so I could perform at my best.”
Preparation and attention to detail, internalizing successes and failures, taking responsibility and accountability for outcomes – these are all things that Kinsella expects and sees regularly from his athletes, both on and off the wrestling mats. These are also things that helped Kinsella himself when he returned to Concordia University in 2005 to obtain his degree in education.
“I went back to school when I was older, and I used those same techniques [from wrestling] to relax myself, to get ready, and to know that I had done everything I could possibly do, and it was really up to me and putting forth my best effort at that point.”
Wrestling gets you used to doing things you don’t necessarily want to do, but will contribute to a larger goal in the future. Wrestling gets you comfortable with being uncomfortable. Wrestling hardens the character and develops the body, mind, and spirit.
Every youth athlete should have an opportunity to experience this amazing sport. Sure, wrestling probably isn’t going to take over for hockey and soccer any time soon, but young athletes might benefit from lacing up a pair of wrestling shoes for a season or two, instead of alternating between skates and cleats season after season, year after year.