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Handling burnout in wrestling

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The sport of wrestling is said to be one of the most demanding sports. It requires hard work, dedication and discipline. It can be both physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. In addition, wrestlers must maintain their weight to compete in a specific weight class.

“Every human being only has a certain life span in wrestling,” said Jake Herbert, a 2009 world silver medalist and 2012 Olympian. “Wrestling is a brutal, hard sport.”

As the sport has evolved, the number of kids specializing in wrestling has increased with more and more year-round training opportunities available.

So much wrestling can lead to burnout, which is defined as “…a physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity. This withdrawal is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishments, and sport devaluation. Moreover, burnout occurs as a result of chronic stress (a perceived or actual imbalance between what is expected of an athlete physically, psychologically, and socially and his or her response capabilities) and motivational orientations and changes in the athlete.”

In a mailbag story for InterMat, Tim Foley wrote about burnout.

“Over-competitiveness and hyper-specialization isn’t a new trend,” wrote Foley. “American wrestlers having been burning out for decades, but never before has what led to that burnout — overexposure, high-stress, low-return on investment — been more prevalent. Today’s wrestler is living in his father’s car being toted around, their life a miserable go-round: Practice … cutting weight … Super 32; Practice … cutting weight … Fargo; Practice … cutting weight … Pop and Flo; Practice …”

While legendary wrestling coach Jeff Buxton does not use the term ‘burned out,’ he understands the importance of taking breaks from the sport when necessary.

“I think there are certain times when you need to take a break,” said Buxton, former coach at Blair Academy. “I don’t use the term ‘burned out.’ But I will use the term ‘It’s time to take a break’ … especially if there are situations where things aren’t coming together. Then it’s time to take a break. I’m not a big believer of burnout. Either you love the sport and you have a passion for the sport and you want to keep getting better in the sport, you’re going to keep working on it almost every day. But there are times where you need to step away and get off the mat for a few days, or even a month, sometimes to change your training up so it’s not as rigorous where it could be more play.”

Mike Krause, a nationally renowned youth wrestling coach, is also a strong believer in taking breaks and even getting involved in other activities.

“I think breaks from wrestling are important,” said Krause. “I was a three-sport athlete as a kid. I played football and baseball my whole life. They’re kids. You only live once. Play some other sports. Have some fun. I’m not a fan at all of cutting weight as a little kid. You need to take a three or four-month break when you just pig out and grow.”

Former Stanford wrestler Nick Amuchastegui, a two-time NCAA finalist, believes only wrestling a few months a year in high school prevented him from getting burned out on the sport.

“I never did anything that special in high school,” said Amuchastegui, who compiled a 66-5 record at Stanford. “I didn’t do anything nationally … I wrestled three months a year. I think that was ultimately a benefit for me, because I never got burned out, and was able to have time for my family and other things. (Amuchastegui also played baseball in high school.)

Tim Foley, a 2004 NCAA Division I All-American at the University of Virginia, described himself as a “casual high school wrestler.” He wrestled primarily from November until early March during his high school years. He would occasionally attend club practices, but spent most of his time in the offseason working a summer job, lifting weights and preparing for football. He never won a state championship in high school and walked on the wrestling team at the University of Virginia. He felt fresh when he entered college. 

“There was no stress about the upcoming season and I think that allowed me to be more dedicated and excited when it came time to walk on at the University of Virginia,” wrote Foley. “I wasn’t burned out by years of travel, stress and lost friendships. I felt fresh, excited and newly challenged.”

Buxton believes it’s important for coaches to vary the training cycles to help prevent burnout.

“If you try to grind, grind, grind, grind all the time, it’s sometimes hard to kick that engine over another time,” said Buxton. “That’s when kids will get tired of the sport because it’s a grind all the time. I think it’s important for coaches to put people through training cycles when they’re going to train really, really, really hard. And other times where they’re going to back off and work on technique. I think it’s important to make practice fun. If you’re grinding at a hundred percent all the time, it’s sometimes not as productive. I try to teach young kids how to play and put them in positions to learn how to play, which is hard to develop because they just love wrestling so much. I do it with the older athletes, especially with the senior level athletes. We will spar in situations all the time where it’s a learning situation, not a beat ’em up, grind it out all the time.”

Tony Purler, who owns and operates the Purler Wrestling Academy — a wildly successful year-round training program for wrestlers ages 8-18 — believes some parents who fear their kids might burn out are actually holding them back because of their own negative experiences with the sport.

“Wrestling is fun,” Purler said in an online video. “Just because maybe you didn’t have fun, don’t ruin it for someone else. Sure, kids burn out in all sports. But generally this, if they hate wrestling or baseball and you make them play baseball or wrestle, they are going to burn out, and they were probably burned out when they started, but you made them do it.”

His message to parents: get your kids involved in wrestling.

“If they try it and like it, keep them involved,” said Purler. “If they say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Fine. Or maybe they can take a couple months off and only wrestle during the season. But please don’t run around educating other parents about the severity of burnout in the sport wrestling, because I have not heard this in any other sport. I really think you’re doing a lot of damage.”

Alan Fried, a three-time All-American and 1994 NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, believes constantly learning can lessen the likelihood of suffering from burnout.

“I find that the burnout factor is oftentimes because the wrestler has taken his focus off sharpening the techniques of wrestling,” Fried told Justin Kerr. “To liken it to music, you have to play your major scales well after you think you know them, until it gets so smooth that the quickness and control begin to increase and the technique itself begins to take on a new form — going from the stringing together of somewhat unrelated movements to one sweeping, smooth execution.”

The term burnout has long had a negative connotation within wrestling. It’s a term Gordy Morgan, a 1996 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, despises. He talked about it on a Wrestling 411 podcast.

“I hate it when people use the term burnout,” Morgan said. “That term is unbelievable to me. I don’t like it. Even if they are wrestling 24-7 for 10 years, what a great life. What a great way to be a kid. They get to do stuff that most kids cannot do or strive to do. They learn goals. They learn how to win, how to lose, how to build their body up so they are in excellent physical condition. That’s a great way to be a kid.”

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