Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports for good reason, yet despite its benefits, many parents hesitate to have their kids participate in youth programs. You often hear that wrestling is either too dangerous, or that it will make kids violent. I want to share my thoughts on these concerns and highlight the overall benefits of getting kids on the mat.
We can start with the safety issue first. Yes, we are talking about a contact sport that does pose risks. You cherish your youngsters, but the younger the participant, the safer they are. Injuries become more common in the older age brackets, while youth wrestling is generally safer. According to a 2010 study, the incidence of injuries among youth wrestlers is less than 1%, or roughly six incidences per thousand wrestlers, per year. Most of these instances are for sprains and abrasions. According to the CDC, even at the college level—where competition is most intense—the risks of injury are only slightly greater than those of women’s gymnastics.
Yes, kids can and do sprain ankles, scrape their knees, and bump their chins. I have applied many an ice pack and consoled some bruises in my tenure, yet in nearly all cases, the child was back on the mat in a matter of minutes. The most serious injury we saw in Littleton in 2019 was a fifth grader who rolled his ankle during a game of freeze tag held as a warmup.
Kids are resilient; it’s the parental fragility that troubles me. Parents need to see past their apprehensions. If you want your child to have less screen time and get back engaged with life; here are the top five reasons wrestling is great for kids:
Reduced Incidence of Depression, Anxiety and Substance Abuse
With the rates of anxiety and depression at all-time highs among young people, parents might be tempted to sideline their youngsters the moment they appear anxious. It is easy to accept the counsel of our fears, but we know why this is a mistake. Enabling someone with anxiety to avoid the things they fear only deepens problems. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, remind us of how confronting things that make us uncomfortable is a cornerstone of personal development. They offer solid evidence that sheltered children are at a disadvantage and much more prone to psychological problems later in life. In a phrase, life begins outside your comfort zone!
Exercise—especially the kind that comes with competitive pressure—also produces neurological rewards, boosting self-esteem, reducing anxiety, and providing minors with a more positive outlook. Having an exercise schedule fills a psychological void, offering structure and routine. It can serve as a constructive coping mechanism that can decrease the lure of drugs. According to a study published in Frontiers of Psychiatry, “high school students who exercise regularly are less likely than sedentary teens to smoke cigarettes or abuse marijuana.” Kids who exercise tend to make healthier choices in general and benefit from the support of teammates and friends who comprise a positive peer group.
An Antidote to Bullying
As long as there is healthy competition within a peer group, consensual aggression builds camaraderie, not conflict. Having trained in submission wrestling (BJJ) myself, I am always impressed by the diverse people that thrive on it as adults. The sport continually challenges us, yet there is never hostility or contempt. The same principle holds when children compete. Kids thrive on the rough play—even girls—and many experts now acknowledge that this is a good thing.
Wrestling does not make kids into bullies, but it does make them less susceptible to bullying. Wrestling develops self-confidence and physical prowess, a natural antidote to the vulnerabilities that bullies target. Most youth programs also instill solid principles among their athletes, often having affiliations with school systems, and explicit ethical codes that discourage bullying.
Improved Academic Performance
The ties between wrestling teams and adjoining schools are a great synergy. Bouts of exercise are known to promote better sleep and improve cognitive function. A 2017 article on LiveStrong indicates that kids who take part in competitive sports show educational improvement. A study by Strathclyde and Dundee Universities of some 5,000 children and adolescents identified links between increased exercise and success in English, math, and science exams. Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the Centers for Disease Control, examined fifty studies that looked at the effect of school-based physical activity and noted that half the studies showed a positive impact on academic performance. The studies also demonstrated that after even relatively brief spans of physical activity, the children’s concentration’s duration and intensity tended to increase.
These results are not surprising, given that it has been repeatedly demonstrated that physical exercise is tightly correlated with mental acuity. Active people remain healthier and perform better on tests of cognitive ability in general. Psychiatrist John J. Ratey’s 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain describes MRI scans of sedentary people whose brain activities improved as they increased with their fitness levels. Healthy bodies foster healthy minds.
Training for Other Sports
If you are priming your young athlete for another sport, you probably require no convincing; the fitness dividends that come with wrestling are already apparent. It is no surprise that hundreds of stars from the NFL have come from a wrestling background, many having wrestled in the off-season, benefitting from the sheer athleticism. As coach Joe Reasbeck of Superior, Wisconsin, says, “wrestling is a ‘base’ sport—meaning it makes you a better athlete across all sports. It provides mental toughness for the times you have to dig deep. Balance, quickness, body positioning, body awareness, strength, flexibility; the benefits are numerous.”
Training for Life
Fitness is great, but ultimately, I advocate for wrestling because it makes for better citizens. Children can only grow through experiences that they overcome. You can watch them train, of course, but your kids will find the grit to compete in themselves. So, it is in life. As Hooman Tavakilian, a former coach at Hunter College, states, “Lessons learned on the mat are key to advancement in the real world.” As Lukianoff and Haidt say in their book on adolescent psychology, “it is better to prepare the child for the road, then prepare the road for the child.”
Yes, the sport brings the increased possibility of injury, but weigh that concern against the benefits: higher self-confidence, increased mental acuity, better sleep, improved academic achievement, lower the risk of obesity, and immunization to bullying and depression. Take those points together with improved self-confidence, self-discipline, and you have a formula for character development. Wrestling makes for better kids!
Scott J. Magin, M.Sc.
LYW, DBA, Tiger Wrestling