USA Wrestling, "How to Use Fall Sports to Prepare for Wrestling Season"

Published August 30, 2018

By Matt Krumrie

August Manz, head wrestling coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, expects all his wrestlers to participate in multiple sports and activities throughout the school year. In the fall, several Thomas Jefferson wrestlers participate in cross country, golf, and football.

Just being in a school activity has benefits that go beyond preparing for the wrestling season, Manz says.

“Participating in a fall sport is a great way for the wrestler to be involved within the school,” says Manz, who also serves as Southwest Region representative for Iowa-USA Wrestling. “They get a feeling of what it’s like being a contributor to a team and involved in an activity with other student-athletes from the start of the school year.”

While student athletes are physically active during a fall sport, it’s still a break from wrestling, and that's important.

“Participating in a fall sport gives the body the rest it needs from the wrestling all winter and spring,” Manz says. “It also allows the wrestler to learn how to compete outside their comfort zone. What I mean by this is our elite wrestlers feel comfortable on the mat, they carry confidence when they take the mat and know and expect to win the majority of the time.

“Now, take that same wrestler and put them on a cross-country course and see what they do when they are not the top dog. Does this wrestler give up and say ‘well those guys are distance runners so it’s okay that they beat me’ or does that wrestler go out and work at keeping up with that great distance runner? I am not saying win, but compete. Competing out of your comfort zone can help you take the next step in your wrestling goals for that season and beyond. As a coach I want wrestlers who are competitors, that's what life is all about.”

It’s no secret that football can benefit wrestlers, especially offensive and defensive linemen, who rely on footwork, balance, stance/technique, positioning, strength, and hand fighting to succeed. Those are all important skills crucial to success in wrestling.

“I want football players wrestling so we can fill our upper weights, but these larger guys bring in technique that they used all fall into the wrestling room and carry on these skills to perfection,” Manz says. “No other sport complements football more than wrestling.”

Over the years, Ty Swarm, head coach at Kearney High School in Kearney, Nebraska, has coached football players who participate in football, tennis, and cross country.

“Being involved in multiple sports and activities keeps your mind in a competitive state,” Swarm says. “We have many multi-sport athletes on our wrestling team and our school thrives on this concept.”

Like most coaches, Swarm prefers athletes participate in a fall and spring sport. He also thinks participating in other sports helps energize students and prevent burnout.

“Athletes that are involved in multiple sports will typically see less burn out because they change skill sets from season to season,” Swarm says. “As coaches we want what is best for our athletes. They have to be engaged and love what they are doing in each particular season. Changing sports up is definitely a healthy thing for an athlete.” 

James Leath is the founder of Unleash the Athlete and the former head of Leadership Development at IMG Academy. He works with athletes and coaches to help promote a positive team culture through interactive lectures and team building activities. Leath also has over 20 years of experience coaching athletes ages 8 to 21. Every single athlete he coached participated in at least three sports in grade school, and at least two sports in high school. Leath is also a former wrestler who played football in the fall. In fact, football was his “primary” sport, and he used wrestling to supplement his football development.

“When I was in high school, once football was over for me, I chose to wrestle because the skills I learned on the mat (balance, explosive movement, and deliberate practice) transferred to my primary sport, football,” Leath says. “As a sophomore, I took a year off of wrestling after football to play basketball. I wasn’t the best on the team, in fact, I was pretty terrible, but I learned how to move efficiently in a small area and how to time a jump to grab a rebound over someone taller than me—both skills I used in football. I have similar stories for why I participated in track and baseball.”

Leath has heard a consistent message from college recruiters throughout his time in sports. Recruiters consistently deliver the same message to coaches:

“I am looking for athletes, not specialists.”

In 2017, 87 percent of NFL draft picks were multi-sport athletes.

“Whether it is wrestling, football, soccer, lacrosse, cross country, volleyball, or any other sport, there are a lot of great reasons why a high school athlete should consider participation in other sports when their primary sport is out of season,” Leath says.

Leath offered three benefits of participating in a fall sport before wrestling season:

1. Develops mental toughness gained through adversity

The mental edge an athlete gains while acquiring skills from another sport can in-turn give an athlete an advantage over their competition, whether it be an opponent or someone in their same weight class, says Leath. For example, when an athlete goes from being the best on a team in one sport to a role or support player in another sport, that athlete must learn to adapt to their new position on the team and figure out where they can add value, that is, if athletic ability is lacking in that sport.

“Adversity, or overcoming a lack of ability, creates a sense of accomplishment that translates into confidence,” Leath says. “Adversity is the mother of mental toughness, and learning new skills develops a more creative and less mechanical athlete. Not only is a creative athlete a more effective athlete, but learning new skills is a habit that transcends sport and translates very well in the adult world.

2. Become a complete athlete

One becomes a well-rounded athlete through years of learning how to accelerate, decelerate, read and react, improving rotational power, and many other skills only developed by participating in multiple sports, says Leath. Sports like baseball, lacrosse, and golf create strong rotation in the torso. Football and rugby develop aggressive, full body movements. Basketball and volleyball build quickness and jumping ability. Baseball, golf, and tennis promote patience and hand-eye coordination.

“Sure, an athlete can get some of these skills from wrestling, but no one sport develops the whole body,” says Leath.

3. Prevent burnout

Athletes experience burnout through the endless cycle of tournaments, showcases, club practices, and events, Leath says.

“With the pressure to always be the best, these young athletes end up missing out on childhood,” he says. “Not only does the athlete get burned out, but the parents exhaust themselves physically and financially, only to find themselves miserable and burnt out. To prevent this, maintain an athlete’s passion for wrestling by creating breaks and time-off, preferably with another sport to acquire new skills to bring back to wrestling.” 

Participating in fall sports that compliment or mimic some of the skills/technique required in wrestling is another way student-athletes benefit, says Dr. Michael Chiu, a Sports fellowship-trained orthopaedic surgeon at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute and a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and Arthroscopy Association of North America. Chiu has worked directly with members of the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, and played on and later coached an Illinois state championship high school varsity soccer team.

Playing soccer in the fall (keep in mind different states offer different fall sports across the country), helps develop stamina, speed, balance, and footwork, Chiu says. Football helps enhance explosive power in tight spaces, core strength, coordination, and the ability to adapt, and cross-country promotes cardiorespiratory capacity, endurance, and mental toughness, Chiu adds.

Taking a break from wrestling also helps with what Chiu calls “sport-specific relative rest and mental rejuvenation.”

“Fall sports can provide an outlet to escape the mental strain of ‘the grind’ of wrestling, and promote recharging,” Chiu says. “Fall sports can provide the needed relative rest from monotony of sport specialization, minimizing the risks of sport specific overuse injuries and fatigue induced acute injuries seen on the mat, while encouraging physical training and fitness. While all sports may require physical fitness, a diverse skill set, or willpower, fall sports can provide specific benefits to help prepare athletes for the upcoming wrestling season.”

Participating in a fall sport is also an excellent way to attain the benefits of cross training, says Dr. James Gilbert, a sports medicine surgeon and concussions expert with the Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, the largest provider of orthopaedic care in the country.

“Cross training is a very important concept in exercise physiology and wrestling,” Gilbert says. “All athletes should do some form of cross training.”

He says cross training helps with injury prevention and recovery; aerobic, anaerobic and creative kinase energy systems; neuromuscular function and other muscle memory systems.

Participating in a sport other than wrestling requires the body to use “different muscles, energy systems, movements and mental components,” Gilbert says. “The goal is to continue to develop muscle mass, strength, and endurance through participation in another sport that provides enjoyment and enhances motivation to continue to develop as a wrestler."

Cross country for example, helps build aerobic energy, Gilbert says. Football players meanwhile, also include strength training and weight lifting in their practice routine. This can build muscle mass and Type II muscle that is helpful for explosiveness and power.

“Football and sports that require short sprints and quick bursts of energy help develop anaerobic energy systems that are essential in wrestling,” Gilbert says.

Participating in a fall sport also adds two other critical factors, he says. The athlete continues to emphasize the importance of taking care of the body—rest, recover, stretch, ice, and strengthen. And the athlete is more likely to continue to focus on nutrition, eating healthy, and making good food choices. This is especially important come wrestling season.

“An offseason nutrition program is as important as an in-season program,” Gilbert says. “It’s important to continue to maintain lean body mass by eating appropriate diets rich in green, unprocessed vegetables and low in processed sugar."

Participating in a fall sport keeps student-athletes active and involved—and this is usually the only opportunity one has in life to participate in multiple organized sports.

Take advantage of it. Enjoy it.

“The most important benefit of participation in a fall sport is the positive psychological benefit,” Gilbert says. “Variety and doing something new and different seems to enhance motivation and exercise tolerance. Athletes report an increased ability to train and endure. The result is a better athlete and student.”