Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports, dating back to at least the bronze age. There are good reasons that the sport is still practiced by athletes all over the world. Unfortunately, many parents hesitate to have their children participate in youth programs for a range of reasons. 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 some of the benefits of getting kids on the mat.
First, we should address the safety concerns. 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 prevalent among 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 other relatively minor problems. According to the CDC, even at the college level—where competition is the most intense—the risks of injury are only slightly greater than those of women’s gymnastics.
Yes of course, 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 case 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. Kids thrive on rough play—even girls—and many experts now acknowledge that this is a good thing. Parents need to see past their apprehensions and not instill undue fear in their kids because the benefits outweigh the hazards. Here are five ways that wrestling prepares your child for the road ahead:
Reduced Incidence of Depression and Anxiety
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. There is solid evidence that sheltered children are at a disadvantage and much more prone to psychological problems later in life. Overprotected kids become emotionally feeble adults (think trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses and you get the picture).
Unless you prefer to have your kids remain co-dependent on you forever, it is better to have them face adversity from day one and get some exercise along the way. Exercise—especially the kind that comes with competitive pressure—produces neurological rewards, boosting self-esteem, reducing anxiety, and providing minors with a more positive outlook. Regular exertion is a cornerstone of well-being.
Less Substance Abuse
Not a fan of vaping among grade schoolers? 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.” An exercise schedule seems to fill a psychological void for many kids. Get them on the mats! The charge of competition paired with the structure of regular practice helps otherwise restless minds resist the lure of self-medication.
The same lapses in integrity that lead to addiction give rise to excessive screen time, and antisocial habits. No, you can’t insulate your kids from all bad influences, but you can instill good ones and the conviction to adhere to them. Teammates, friends, and a positive peer group can help fill that void. Yes, that group plays rough; a wrestling team brings plenty of rough housing but never confuse this with bullying.
An Antidote to Bullying
The immediacy of grappling holds kids’ attention like nothing other. Where there is healthy competition, consensual aggression builds camaraderie, not conflict. Since wrestling is a combat sport it provides an emotional release that many other sports simply do not. Having trained in submission wrestling (BJJ) myself, I am always impressed by the diverse people that thrive on it as adults. I hear the same sentiment all the time. The practice continually challenges us with that most primal form of adversity (someone trying to crush/pin or submit you) yet there is never hostility or contempt in the experience, just a catharsis.
Wrestling does not make for bullies, but it does make kids less susceptible to bullying. It cultivates the self-confidence and physical prowess, which are natural antidotes to those who would thrive on intimidation. Most youth programs also instill solid principles among their athletes, and affiliate with school systems which maintain explicit ethical codes to discourage bullying.
Improved Academic Performance
The ties between wrestling programs and schools are a good synergy for academic reasons as well, since 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. Another study by Strathclyde and Dundee Universities of some 5,000 children and adolescents identified links between increased exercise and success in multiple subjects, such as English, math, and science. A survey by the division of Adolescent and School Health of the CDC, aggregated results from fifty research projects, all measuring the effect of school-based physical activity on some basis. The overall findings demonstrated that even relatively brief spans of physical activity still improved children’s concentration.
These results are not surprising, given the tight correlation between exercise and 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 their fitness levels.
I have had parents echo similar observations when it comes to their kids and the effects of “mat time”. While many sports can boast benefits, the immersive and exhaustive effects of wrestling serve as a constructive coping mechanism for otherwise fidgety youngsters. Instead of demanding that they sit still, wrestling practice compels action, and lots of it, which placates hyperactivity and opens kids up to learn when it comes time to sit in a classroom.
Training for Life
Fitness and academic performance are great, but I ultimately advocate for the sport because it makes for better citizens. Children can only grow through experiences that they overcome. You can watch them train, but your kids will find the grit to compete within themselves. So, it is in life. 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 risk of obesity, and immunization to bullying and depression. Taken together with improved self-confidence, self-discipline, and you have a formula for character development. I have been volunteering for years because I am convinced that wrestling makes for better citizens.
Scott J. Magin, M.Sc.
LYW, DBA, Tiger Wrestling