Coaches building wrestlers from young ages
When practices for the Lancaster Youth Wrestling program get under way Nov. 12, the first- through sixth-grade wrestlers might not know it, but they're building for the future.
"It gets kids interested young and lets them know that there's an alternative to playing basketball," Lancaster High School wrestling coach Eric Pennycuff said. "It can light a fire in them for the sport early on."
Lighting that fire is the job of youth wrestling coaches, like Sean Gunther, who head up the programs that are a part of various peewee wrestling leagues in Fairfield County and beyond.
Sometimes the youngest of participants have to work through the frustration of learning a new sport that can be difficult to master.
'The first year, it's trying to get them to understand that wrestling is different than a lot of the other biddy sports," Gunther said. "A lot of times they can get very emotional."
The Lancaster Youth Wrestling program is less than 10 years old, but the youngsters that have stuck with the sport after sixth grade are now starting to make their mark at the later levels.
"Of the juniors and seniors we've got, I would say probably seven or eight of them came from our peewee program," Pennycuff said. "With the freshmen and sophomores, a majority of them come from the peewee program."
The numbers are typically strong at near 50 to 60 kids at the six grade levels for Gunther. The size of the practice squad can sometimes be challenging to manage.
"It can be difficult when you have that many kids at different skill levels," Gunther said. "What's nice is there are so many different styles."
Those styles are put to the test against eight other teams that make up Lancaster's youth league, the Southeast Ohio Youth Wrestling League.
Fairfield County peewee teams from Amanda-Clearcreek, Bloom-Carroll and Fairfield Union also compete in the SEOYWL.
Giving constructive criticism along with positive reinforcement is a delicate balance that youth coaches have to master.
"When they get done wrestling, I try to tell them something they need to work on and something they did well," Gunther said. "They learn a lot through drilling, and depending on the age of the kids, you have to know when to pull back."
Though taking charge of a sizeable group of young wrestlers can be daunting, Gunther said he is in it for some simple but very powerful reasons.
"Seeing the smiles on kids' faces when they win," Gunther said. "When they get their first win, their expression of emotion speaks volumes for the sport,"
"We had a wrestler last year who didn't win a match all season, but he got a win in the tournament, and he just went crazy. You love to see that."
Pennycuff said that hopefully the junior high and high school programs in Lancaster can schedule meets that include peewee competitions as well.
"It's important that we stay in touch, because what they do is important to us, and they're doing it on a volunteer basis," Pennycuff said.
Even if the children who participate in the peewee wrestling program don't stick with the sport, the skills they learn on the mats could prove useful elsewhere.
"It will help them if they play football or soccer or other sports," Gunther said. "It teaches them how to control their body as far as footwork, and they start to understand leverage and body position."
Gunther said the percentage who stay with the program after their first year is typically 75 or 80 percent.
"Some kids try it and find it's a little more difficult than they expected and they go and try a different sport," Gunther said.
The idea of programs like Lancaster Youth Wrestling and other area teams is to prepare the young grapplers for the tough competition they will face down the road.
Pennycuff said he believes the peewee program that gives Lancaster High School many of its wrestlers has done just that.
"I think they know more of what the sport's about," Pennycuff said. We had kids come in years ago and think this was like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Now they have the basics down and they're ready to go."