There are many characteristics of wrestlers who step on the mat for the first time.
A loose singlet, a headgear covering their face, or perhaps the choice of a pair of tennis shoes instead of wrestling shoes.
It’s something that crops up in elementary school-level competition as young kids try to learn the art of wrestling.
Those same students face a tougher challenge, finding their way in a sport that can be demanding.
Developing wrestlers and figuring out the best time to start them is a concern for an area that would like to build high school programs to an even higher level.
Columbus East coach Chris Cooper, who mainly runs practices for middle and high school wrestlers on Thursdays at Columbus East High School, praised elementary students who join the sport but said they should want to do it.
“You don’t want to burn wrestlers out right when they start,” Cooper said. “At a young age it is easier to be pushed out of a sport like wrestling because of its intensity, so you want to slowly train them.”
“Kids should come out and wrestle when they are ready,” he said. “If they can understand and learn the moves that are being taught in practice, they will be fine. I usually tell parents that their kids should sit out their first year to get a glimpse of what wrestling is about.”
While area wrestling coaches love the thought of the athletes being seasoned for years before they enter high school, they know that the sport can take its toll over time as well. Thus, much of the emphasis at the elementary level is on having fun.
Jennings County has 200-plus elementary wrestlers in its program, those kids competing in weekly dual meets against each other and facing off in individual tournaments. The focus is more on getting a taste of the sport.
“This is such a great experience for these kids,” Jennings County elementary club coach Leonard Collett said. “A lot of our kids are new to the sport, and to get a feel of what competition will be like when they get older will help them prepare for middle and high school.”
He added, “To have over 200 kids involved speaks volumes about our program. These kids want to make the effort to get involved with the sport and progress early. We don’t try to pressure them into it, and that makes it a lot more fun for them.”
Some wrestlers in the program start as early as first grade.
Michael Madden has two sons, Xavier, 10, and Zander, 7, in Jennings County’s program. He said he got his kids started as early as possible.
“I got my kids started before they entered school,” Madden said. “I didn’t pressure them into it at all, and they thought it was fun.
“These kids learn early on the value of working as a team and as an individual. It is what makes this sport so great. It leaves a physical and emotional impact on them.”
Madden, who wrestled for Jennings County and graduated in 1999, said the best way to get a child started in the sport is by sticking to the basics.
“When you start a kid out in wrestling, you have to make it simple for them,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean to teach them the basic moves. They need to learn how to fall, how to maneuver themselves the right way and how to have the right form.”
Columbus North wrestling coach Nick Skinner said those younger wrestlers are still green to the sport and need to take time to adjust to its complexities.
“I have some kids as young as 3 come to practice and get exposed to wrestling,” Skinner said. “They are still getting used to the sport in elementary school and are adjusting to the fundamentals. Some kids grow up to be studs, but a lot of them don’t. You see some kids driven away from the sport.”
Madden knows young wrestlers, their parents and coaches can get caught up in the competitiveness of wrestling.
“It is a grueling sport,” he said. “At an early age, they have to learn that it is a fun sport, whether it is by playing games or just watching older wrestlers compete, and that’s how you keep them involved for a long time.”
The competitive aspect of the sport is available for those families and programs willing to travel to tournaments. However, Jennings County wrestling coach Howard Jones said the cost of tournaments has turned elementary-aged wrestlers away.
“A lot of kids just want to do club wrestling practices and worry less about the travel aspect of it,” Jones said. “It is a costly sport when you go to tournaments or if you are part of the national teams.”
“Tournaments can cost around the range of $10 to $40,” Jones said. “If you are on a national team, it’s in the hundreds to thousands, so a lot of people struggle to round up the money to participate.”
For elementary level kids, Jones is more concerned about turning them into athletes, rather than wrestlers.
“I always teach my wrestlers to become good athletes,” Jones said. “There are kids that as soon as they are done with club practice, they go to baseball practice or Boys and Girls Clubs, and there is nothing wrong with that. They need to get involved with the things they like to do.”