High School Wrestling: The Importance of Skills Training and Drilling

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Laying a good foundation of proper skills and technique is paramount to any sporting endeavor including wrestling. In order to build this foundation of skills an athlete needs to engage in a considerable amount of practice.

You may have heard the expression “practice makes perfect.”

Football coaching legend Vince Lombardi said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

Soccer legend Bobby Robson said, “Practice makes permanent.”

According to the philosopher Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

Technical Ability is Key

In the sport of wrestling superior skill and technique almost always trumps superior strength. Strength work and conditioning can certainly be a vital supplement to your training but technique should be the primary focus of any wrestler.

It’s interesting how many exceptional athletes including wrestlers started building and honing their skills at a young age.

Retired speed skating champion Bonnie Blair, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, began skating at the age of two. Three-time NCAA wrestling champion Lincoln McIlravy began wrestling at age five. Four-time state champion Greg Randall began wrestling in second grade. Two-time NCAA champion Cary Kolat won an AAU nationals tournament in freestyle wrestling at the age of seven.

So, experience and the amount of practice time an individual amasses can have a huge impact on their level of performance.

However, Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz didn’t begin wrestling until he was a junior in high school. How did he become such an accomplished wrestler? Well, he already had a considerable amount of athleticism having competed as a gymnast. And, his older brother Dave Schultz (also an Olympic gold medalist) was there to practice with and motivate him. Moreover, Mark Schultz practiced in a particular way that allowed him to accelerate his learning. I believe he utilized what Matthew Syed (author of Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success) would call purposeful practice. Others call it deep practice.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is synonymous with what Matthew Syed calls purposeful practice. Syed states, “Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure. That is the essential paradox of expert performance.”

In a study entitled The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, Ericsson et al. (1993) found that to reach the highest level of performance, individuals must engage in 10,000 hours or 10 years of deliberate practice in their chosen field. Deliberate practice can be defined as high quality, high concentration practice that is not usually inherently enjoyable. In other words, deliberate practice requires a significant amount of effort and is not fun.

Deliberate practice involves repetition, but also feedback and reflection. Simply repeating a task (e.g. mindlessly repeating a wrestling move over and over) will not necessarily improve performance. A better approach may be focusing on a very specific section of a skill. For example, if you were practicing a stand-up you might go through the move slowly focusing on pushing back into your opponent while at the same time gaining hand control. You might pay close attention to detail and consider whether you did it correctly. In addition, your coach or teammates may study your technique and give you valuable feedback. You may find that you aren’t pushing your weight back into your opponent enough or you may find a more effective way of gaining hand control if you rehearse the move slowly several times and study your technique.

You might choose to only use deliberate practice during the preseason, if you’re learning a new move, or if you’re having trouble with a move. Obviously, you need to practice moves at full speed as well. But, sometimes slowing down and really focusing on improving your performance is beneficial. Doing hundreds of stand-ups with bad technique won’t improve your stand-ups. But, some careful study and feedback may help you find ways to improve.

I read some research that specifically involved deliberate practice in the sport of wrestling. In a study entitled Wrestling with the nature of expertise: A sport specific test of Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer’s (1993) theory of deliberate practice, Hodges and Starkes (1996) found that expert wrestlers (e.g. international level wrestlers) practiced their skills significantly more often than non-experts (e.g. university level wrestlers). At 20 years of age the international wrestlers had accumulated over 1000 more hours of practice with others compared to the non-expert wrestlers. International level wrestlers (e.g. Olympic participants) increased their weekly amount of practice per week as they advanced into their wrestling careers.

Interestingly, wrestling related activities that were judged by the wrestlers in both groups to be relevant to improvement were also rated high with regards to enjoyment. So, practice doesn’t have to be drudgery. It’s just that practice takes effort and isn’t usually fun in and of itself. The improvement, however, that you see over time can be rewarding and enjoyable. If you only practice your favorite moves in order to make practice enjoyable then you may not continue learning and improving. Personally, I think learning new moves and practicing can be fun but it takes discipline and hard work to become really proficient in your skills. So, practice isn’t usually fun in the conventional sense. You may get tired of drilling moves at times but it’s important.

Some research has shown that wrestlers of various levels (e.g. Olympic wrestlers and high school wrestlers) spend a small amount of practice time engaged in full sparring. Even at an elite level more time is spent on instruction and drilling than wrestling full out. Of course, some practices involve more live wrestling than others depending upon what phase of the season wrestlers are in but instruction and drilling are always the backbone of an optimal wrestling practice.

Perfect Repetitions

We see from our discussion above it’s not just the quantity but the quality of practice that matters. Personal fitness trainer Brian Copeland has written about the importance of perfect reps. Anyone training in wrestling long enough will accumulate hundreds of thousands of repetitions of different moves and skills. But, are they perfect repetitions or is the wrestler just going through the motions? Repeating a given skill over and over again does not in and of itself make perfect. Copeland states, “Deep practice literally means developing your technique to an absolutely amazing level and working on every single aspect of it… really owning it.”

The key to reaching elite levels, therefore, is to practice correctly. Make sure you have learned the proper technique. The constant repetition of incorrect wrestling techniques will only make you perfect at incorrect techniques.

I enjoy watching the videos put out by the Granby School of Wrestling. They break each move down into steps and show the completed move slowly and at full speed. I mentioned earlier that sometimes it’s good to slow down when learning a new move or skill.

Elite athletes from a variety of sports can attest to the importance of practice. Athletes like Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, David Beckham, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods all believe in the power of practice.

For example, golf legend Jack Nicklaus states, “Nobody – but nobody – has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without doing a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots. It isn’t so much a lack of talent; it’s a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.”

Soccer legend David Beckham states simply, “My secret is practice.”

Great Wrestlers Drill

Four-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion John Smith made drilling a regular part of his training. In fact, drilling was the mainstay of his training. He states, “I probably hit a million low single legs in my lifetime. I probably drilled a leg lace 40 or 50 times a day. I earned the right to be able to hit sharp techniques. It had nothing to do with talent.”

The former Iowa Hawkeye wrestler Mark Ironside (a two-time state champion and two-time NCAA champion) often stayed after high school wrestling practice to continue drilling.

John Smith and Ken Chertow are both advocates of shadow wrestling (i.e. shadow drilling). The good thing about shadow drilling is that you don’t need a workout partner. You can simply rehearse the moves and skills you want to improve upon for as long as you want.

Great Wrestlers Know Many Techniques

I mentioned earlier how Olympian Mark Schultz didn’t begin wrestling until he was a junior in high school. So, how did he turbo charge his learning? Schultz made what he called a technique book.

Schultz states, “Anytime I learned anything, I’d write it down. I made my technique notebook and I divided my techniques by tie up. I’d make a page like front headlock on the top of the page and write down all of the different techniques I could finish with. I’d have all the counters to the front headlock on the back page. I’d have another page and write high crotch and write all of the finishes from there, lift, trip, spin, go behind, run the pipe, switch to another move, backing down to hip, go out the back door, etc.”

Schultz also attended camps and learned a lot by watching and then copying good wrestlers. I think he was able to accelerate his learning by spending a vast amount of time engaged in purposeful practice.

Elite wrestlers have a vast arsenal of moves and techniques. They have mastered the small details that determine whether a technique works well or not. They know how to deal with any situation they may encounter on the mat. Listen to your coach, watch videos, read books, go to clinics and camps, practice diligently, and compete to become the best wrestler you can be.

Studying Videos

Watching both technique videos and videos of matches can help you improve your wrestling skills.

Ken Chertow, a successful wrestler in both folkstyle and freestyle wrestling states, “If a move works at the highest levels of competition, it would probably work for you. Take the time to acquire and study footage of our nation’s and world’s best wrestlers. I videotaped the 1984 Olympics on my home VCR and copied and bought tape of world class competition ever since.”

He also writes, “I wish I knew the different techniques I know now during my competitive career. I started to realize how valuable of a learning tool video could be early in college.”

Mark Ironside used to analyze videos of his high school matches shot by his mother. He had his mother tape each match so he could later evaluate his technique.

I enjoy reading an anecdote by former Wisconsin high school wrestling standout Steve Hoffman in which he describes obtaining a video on the half-nelson series before his junior year in high school. That’s right; he got a video tape on a basic move that every wrestler learns. But, from this video he learned to apply the half-nelson from new angles and pinned many opponents using this newfound knowledge.

Lincoln McIlravy and Cary Kolat watched instructional videotapes as kids to help them develop their wrestling skills.

Practicing Skills in Your Mind

Corky Fowler was a ski-instructor superstar and one of the first Americans to create the sport of aerial acrobatics on skis. He has often been credited with being the first American to master an aerial trick called a full-layout forward flip. He and Christopher Smith coauthored a book entitled The Hidden Skier (1977) that contains many visualization exercises for skiers.

Fowler states, “I’ve been mentally practicing my skiing during the summers for years. On the first day of each ski season, I ski as well as I did on the last day of the past season. Before I began mentally skiing, it would usually take me several days to be able to ski as well as I had the year before.”

Mental rehearsal can potentially enhance your skill development. If you can’t drill with a partner or don’t feel like shadow wrestling, you can always mentally practice your wrestling skills. You can practice in study hall at school or while lying in bed before falling asleep. Visualization or mental rehearsal allows you to practice anytime.

How to Drill

Drilling is not the same as live wrestling. You don’t need to give your partner 100% resistance. He needs to be able to perfect his technique. On the other hand, you need to give some resistance and not simply act like a rag doll for him to throw around. Simply give your drilling partner a reasonable amount of resistance. You need to slow down when drilling a move or technique you’ve just learned. As you begin to feel comfortable with it then you can speed it up. You can also communicate with your drilling partner and let him know if you’re trying a new technique and want his opinion on your execution of it. You can also ask him to respond a certain way to moves so you can practice a situation like when an opponent sprawls and uses a whizzer.

You can also use drilling as a form of conditioning while still improving your wrestling skills. Two-time NCAA wrestling champion Royce Alger credits his success to a training concept introduced to him by Dan Gable called hard drilling. Alger states, “I had to lift, penetrate and keep going through the full range of the move while guys were giving me 30 to 40 percent resistance.” Alger claims that hard drilling is even better than hard wrestling for conditioning purposes.

Similarly, I’ve read that John Smith also incorporated some form of lifting in many of his takedown drills while pushing himself intensely. I’ve also read that world champion Russian wrestlers use high intensity drilling.

So, when learning new skills you may want to slow down. On the other hand, when practicing skills you’ve mastered sometimes it’s good to speed things up a bit and perform high intensity drilling.

Resources to Consider:

Bounce by Matthew Syed
Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Wrestling Tough by Mike Chapman
Granby School of Wrestling Technique Videos
Key Points:

Technical skill is of paramount importance to wrestling success
Innate talent helps but purposeful practice can greatly improve your performance level
Quantity and quality of practice are both important
The number of perfect repetitions is more important the total number of repetitions
Great wrestlers make drilling an important component of their training
Be sure to know a great number of moves and techniques and how to do them correctly
Watching instructional videos and videos of matches can help improve your techniques
Mental rehearsal can enhance your skills
Drilling is not the same as hard wrestling; drilling is mainly an opportunity to perfect technique
Hard drilling can improve your skills and your conditioning
Conclusion

All things considered, it is your technical ability that will determine your outcome on the wrestling mat. Of course, attaining a high level of strength and conditioning will help you to execute those skills more successfully. However, technical prowess is paramount. So, be sure to practice your skills and use drilling to be the best wrestler you can be.