Emma Randall: The Problem with Specializing in Sport too Early

Why early specialization is happening

There is a lot of pressure for young athletes to be successful. Being successful on the playing field has education, career, and social implications. The better the athlete, the greater the scholarship amount to play a collegiate sport, the greater chance of continuing on a professional level. The better the result, the more recognition the athlete or the parent receive from those around them. The notion that sport is fun, which instills healthy active lifestyles and teaches life skills has been put on the back burner. The idea that multi-sport athletes produce whole athletes with better overall skills, is second to specialization. It is believed that single-sport sport specific skills produces the highest quality. Here's the danger with this mentality: it feeds the mindset that if specializing at 18 is good, then specializing at 13 is better. And if this is the case, then we should begin specializing our children in one sport at 8 to get an earlier start ahead of peers.

What are the consequences 

The overemphasis on being successful has been detrimental to sports. The need to be successful, as well as specialization, has lead to overtraining in which athletes are investing entirely too many hours for their age. The ten thousand hour rule (Malcom Gladwell's rule which insists investing 10,000 hours in anything makes you a master in that area) only reinforces this idea: “If I am going to be successful, I have to fully invest myself to the task with deliberate practice for at least ten years. The later I start my ten years, the later I achieve my goal.” The repeated motions of sport or even the amount of time in sport can lead to severe or career ending injuries at a younger age. The amount of pressure in the form of expectations of success from self, parents, coaches, and even social media can lead to anxiety, fear of failure, and even burnout. When we over identify in one role in life, such as the role of an wrestler, we limit our sources of joy, confidence, and support. If were to loose our identity as a wrestler because of injury, not making the team, or losing a state title, we start to wonder am I really a wrestler? If I am not, then who am I? Where do I fit into this world? What talents or skills do I have that I can be confident in? Who can I turn to for support? This is dangerous for anyone, let alone a young athlete when their mental health is at stake.

How to combat the problem

It starts with education to the stakeholders involved. Parents rarely choose to do something they know will hurt their children. Coaches rarely make choices that would set their athlete back. Providing coaches and parents with the pros and cons of specialization allows them to make an educated choice on how to act, instead of following today's social norms of youth sport. Believing early specialization means more success is a dangerous narrative.  As a parent, encourage your athlete to be diverse. Just because she wants participate in one sport, doesn’t mean you can’t encourage her to build hobbies and social activities around other positive areas of her life. If your athlete pushes back, make it a family event which provides a well needed break from sport. As a coach, encourage your athletes to try other sports and hobbies and provide down time if it’s a year round program. Value the whole person and not only the athlete's success on the mat or playing field. Shake up practices with warm-ups that include different sports and skills that are unusual for your sport. Utilize cross-over training sessions with other teams in which your team jumps into volleyball or basketball while the next week they jump to learn your sport's skills. If you see an athlete continually exhausted or injured, encourage them to take a mental and physical break. It's easy to believe that by allowing a week or two away from sport, they will easily walk away. In reality, the athlete will come back more motivated and healthy to do a sport they love.

Emma Randall is the head girls development director for Beat the Streets NY and was a member of Team USA’s coaching staff since 2012. She was a coach for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and has been coach of numerous world teams at all age levels.

Emma earned her B.A. and M.S. in Sports Psychology from Lock Haven University where she competed for the team and wrestled on the senior circuit. In 2016, Randall earned her USA Wrestling Gold level coaching certification. She is one of 68 coaches to hold that certification and the only woman. Through her own business, Evolve Leadership and Performance Training, she is dedicated to the growth and development of females and coaches in sports.


Preparing for Nationals

Preparing for a national tournament takes focus, and if you have more than one major tournament each year, you will have to have a good training plan. A training plan is comprised of phases that take you through increases and decreases in volume and intensity to help an athlete peak their conditioning. Each phase below is about two weeks, but allows you to customize the time. As individualized as preparing for a national tournament is, following a general principle helps create a rhythm your body can follow. Push past comfort zones to create physical and mental changes, build on those changes, and then recover for competition. This brief overview gives you the flexibility to work within your time frame to prepare you to compete at your best.

4-5 weeks out

Starting four to five weeks away from the competition, the training volume needs to increase. Repetitions in the weight room should be 8-10, and you should have a difficult time completing the last reps. Your runs or conditioning workouts should be longer, and occur 2-3 times per week. Conditioning in this phase is very important in order to create physiological changes and to increase intensity. Aim to better your times and use the clock as a way to challenge yourself, especially when working out on your own. This is often common, as national competitions are post-season and not everyone continues towards this endeavor. Wrestling room workouts should consist of longer combat goes, and a lot of focus on individual areas. This is the time to add in the extra repetitions and drills after practice. Make sure you have a plan of action for offense, defense, and on the mat wrestling. I recommend 2 techniques or positions to highlight in each area. You will be fatigued during this phase, so its important to be pushing fluids and eating right. Athletes are often more susceptible to illness and injury during this time due to the consistent breaking down of muscle tissues. Listen to your body and adjust as needed. 

2-3 weeks out

All workouts should begin tapering down in volume. Runs should be shorter, no more than 15 minutes. Focus on intervals and even short sprint workouts. In the weight room, reps should be 4-6 and focus on increasing strength and power. When you get to the wrestling room for training, it's time to treat each live go as if you are in competition. Keep score. Put yourself in the national finals mentally and make the match go your way. Practice should be hard and every drill you execute is a reflection of how you will make it happen at nationals. Technique focus areas should still be worked on, but be sure to have these areas built into drilling time. Extra work should be short and sweet. Since you are reducing volume, this is not the time to spend an extra hour after practices working on focus areas. Increase your recovery: cold or hot tub, icing, stretching, mental recovery, plenty of water (you should be pushing the water constantly in this phase) and good fueling foods. 

1 week out

When you get to that week before competition, be confident in the hard work you've put in. It's time to rest and put the finishing touches on your preparation. Your running pace should decrease, and little if any work in the weight room needs to occur. In the wrestling room, practices should be around an hour and focus on active movement, technique, and drills. In the beginning of the week, short (30 seconds- 1 minute) live goes will keep you sharp and ready. If you have weight to manage, be sure that you are drinking plenty of water up to 24 hour hours before weigh-ins. If you need further support, speak with your coach or make a plan with a nutritionist well in advance so weight is not an issue. Create a plan so you have the snacks you need for competition, your gear, and a journal to record your experiences. If you are traveling to competition, make sure you have your gear in your carry on. Get excited to compete! 

Tournament Analysis: Girls Folkstyle Nationals

Attending the US Marine Corps Folkstyle Nationals in Oklahoma City was the first time in quite a while I was able to watch a national high school wrestling event. It was a great opportunity to get the know the wrestlers, have them get to know me, and ask what kinds of content they would like to see on LuchaFIT. After all, this website is all about creating fun and valuable content for the wrestlers, coaches, and their supporters! As with most national tournaments, I saw a lot of excitement, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of desire to become better wrestlers. Here are a few key pointers I saw that those attending (and even those wrestlers not in attendance) could learn from. 


The girls who were able to hold off an attack and counter with their own offense were the wrestlers who were able to stay in the match. From there, these wrestlers were able to widen the gap in score. How? The little adjustments in defensive positioning, and the mentality to keep fighting with their defense. This allowed the defensive wrestler to see the right moment where they could re-attack, or allowing the match to go back to the feet by shutting down an opponents offense. This is what coaches are talking about when they say "don't give up easy points." Forgetting to stay in the moment (especially in defense) and starting to panic about the score, or potential score, creates those lapses in concentration. Create opportunities for yourself by focusing on defense. 


Recovering with technique even when you are in poor position is a great strategy to prevent getting behind in the score. Find your way back to your feet when you've taken a bad shot, in a front head lock, or when your opponent is trying to pressure you down in a tripod. Re-create these "bad position" scenarios in practice where you are at a disadvantage. The top level girls in the country are able to find creative ways back to their feet when they know their positioning is putting them at risk for getting scored upon.


This encompasses so much more than having the strongest collar tie at the tournament. In the post on improving the speed of your takedown, I discussed how wrestlers tend to cling with their collar ties because they think that is the way to distract their opponent. How often do you see matches where both wrestlers are tied up tight and locked in place either head-to-head or ear-to-ear? There's typically no action and someone is bound to be called for stalling. The top girls know how to create movement through fakes, and be in position (hands inside!) without getting distracted with so much tying up. They are able to create movement without clinging, and able to use fakes to distract and create an offense.

Go-to strategy

I noticed the wrestlers who were behind in a match but came back had 1 or 2 techniques from each position in their arsenal. They were able to use mis-direction to get to their strengths. Even if their go-to attack wasn't perfectly executed, they knew how to continue the pressure forward. That relentless pressure put their opponents back on their heels, and makes it hard to defend the attack. Narrow your focus in the wrestling room and perfect a few moves that work well for you. 

Emma Randall: Differences Between Coaching Boys and Girls in Wrestling

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It is a common misnomer that we need to treat athletes different based on their gender. Emma Randall, the first female in the U.S. to earn her gold-level coaching certification through USA Wrestling, has some insight and advice for those new to coaching females. Along with her M.S. in Sports Psychology, Emma is able to give perspective on a mindset that has been all too common in the wrestling and female sport world.  


How are male and female athletes different?

"If we place our athletes into a one size fits all coaching model, we do them a disservice."

Coaching is coaching. Instead of coaching the gender, coach the person in front of you in your sport. Each individual is so different in their level of talent, skills, effort, and resiliency. They are all motivated by different things, prefer different styles of communication, and learn through different processes. If we place our athletes into a one size fits all coaching model, we do them a disservice.You will always have complete outliers and even subtle differences regardless of age, gender, experience, sport, and so forth.     


Why do coaches feel like they need to coach girls and women differently?

Anything outside of our daily routine feels uncomfortable. When we feel discomfort, we naturally pull back and think twice. “Is this right?” “Why does this feel unnatural?” When you talk to coaches after their first couple seasons coaching women, they don’t mention it being unnatural anymore. It’s the same as teaching a new move to your athletes. Can you work with them to get through the awkward transition of first learning a new technique, to smoothly executing in a match?  Even with repetition, there will be days where it feels unnatural again or doesn’t flow well. That is how we learn and how we grow. Are we making coaching women a hard job by trying to assign meaning to our growing pains? If coaching women is such a specialty, why are over 50% of women’s NCAA teams coached by men?


Advice for coaches new to coaching girls

I can’t say this enough: focus on the person in front of you. Take time getting to know the athlete and the human being.

Why do they participate in sport? Is it for fun, to meet friends, or because of their drive to be the best? Is it a combination of the two? What do they enjoy doing with their free time? What do they expect from you as their coach? What are their goals? What would they like to learn? How do they learn best? How do they communicate best? Maybe the athlete doesn’t have all the answers yet, and that’s okay. Over time help the athlete understand themselves and you as a coach, and use that information to help them achieve their goals. Coaching is so much more than explaining a single leg. It’s about giving a person tools to be successful. As a coach, losing your ego and being selfless is the way to uncover how you can best serve your athletes. Maybe you discover the singular way you typically teach isn’t effective for an athlete. Male or female, as a coach it's your duty to learn how to be flexible and try a different tactic. It is certainly not the athletes fault, nor is gender the issue for not understanding an athlete's motives for competing in sport. Look for moments where you have to flex and think outside of your normal coaching toolbox. Those are valuable lessons that only strengthen your skills and abilities. Be excited for those tough or frustrating moments! Those are the moments you grow!


Emma Randall is the head girls development director for Beat the Streets NY and was a member of Team USA’s coaching staff since 2012. She was a coach for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and has been coach of numerous world teams at all age levels.

Emma earned her B.A. and M.S. in Sports Psychology from Lock Haven University where she competed for the team and wrestled on the senior circuit. In 2016, Randall earned her USA Wrestling Gold level coaching certification. She is one of 68 coaches to hold that certification and the only woman. Through her own business, Evolve Leadership and Performance Training, she is dedicated to the growth and development of females and coaches in sports.

How to Improve the Speed of Your Takedown

Our wrestling technique will take us far when we are working expanding our arsenal. But what about when we need to simplify our steps and create the most speed and efficiency with our movements? Surprisingly enough, in order to go fast, it means you need to start slow. By simplifying where your hands and feet need to go, you are providing yourself to be in position to quickly execute. 

Similar to the blog on breaking down technique, we break this down into its relative parts. All of your problem areas will be helped by slowing down and recognizing the highlighted areas. You should begin with just one of these areas and repeat it over and over. Only once an area begins to feel natural do you move on to the next. When you are able to put the steps together with minimal corrections, begin completing your takedown for timing and for speed.

Hands inside

This may seem like a simple concept, but only works when we discipline ourselves to do it before each shot. We can get to the legs faster when our hands are on the biceps. This is because I am not being blocked by a tie up. I guarantee that most of us are more focused on pulling the head, grabbing the hands, or getting a 2-on-1 (or a Russian tie for the half of the U.S. that uses that name). Sometimes we are trying to do all of these at once! But what happens when we grab our opponents? They grab back! When we hang, it makes it much easier for our opponent to telegraph our movements.

I didn't realize how focused I was on clinging to my opponent until my Japanese coach pointed it out. She directed me over and over again to get my hands inside. In order to make it stick, I practiced only putting my hands inside for the first part of my shot drills. The hand fight should be for insight position, and not to simply grab and pull. Moving your opponent is a means to distract in order to get your power position. 

Back foot first

Once our hand position is inside, how do we eliminate the space between ourselves and our opponents? Move your feet. With a staggered stance, moving our front foot first creates too much space between my feet. If my first step is with the wrong foot, I need to take extra steps which wastes precious seconds and causes a missed opportunity to shoot. Stepping with the front first first also means the weight is in that foot, and it is difficult if not nearly impossible to take a proper penetration step. Move that back foot first! I am actually putting my weight into my toes in order to take a big lunge step with my front foot towards my opponent. This is a temporary position. As soon as the back foot moves, I must take an immediate penetration step. I am simply reminding my body to shift the weight to my back foot so I can explode forward. 



Penetration step

The timing and body position in this step are made to look simple for a reason. When I teach this technique, it is rare that I see an athlete execute this step properly the first time. They try to pull their opponent over top of them, step too far away, take more than one step, head is too low on the body, or hands are too low on the legs. 

Since my weight is on the toe of my back foot, I can take a huge penetration step forward. My foot should come in line with my opponent's feet. Drill these movements back and forth how it is shown in the clip. This builds up leg strength and muscle memory. Every shot will not be perfect, and it's important to train your body how to take a step backwards and remain in your stance. This becomes valuable for when you need to change plans and get out of your takedown attempt. My head, chest, and arms need to be tight against my opponent. Ear lands on the hip, and there is no space between their legs and my chest. Arms should land high on the thighs and not behind the knees. The lower we are on the legs, the easier it is for our opponent to defend. 

Putting it together

We are often taught as wrestlers that we need to execute everything while in the most complicated and hardest of circumstances. For example, we should do all our take downs while someone is pounding on our head. This is like telling a sprinter they should only ever train facing into the wind and never without this added variable. Sprinting faster than everyone else is a difficult variable enough. Even though it certainly has it's place in training, it's not necessary every time. It is certainly not conducive to learning. We need to offer our bodies and our minds variation so we can learn and create muscle memory. So bear with me when I request that you continue to practice the entirety of the movement with minimal variables.

When you put the pieces together, you must work on moving your feet quickly, keeping the pressure into your opponent, and following through to the mat. I don't finish my takedown by lifting my partner because I am training my reactions to move fast and hard immediately after my hands leave her biceps.  Add a wrinkle when these movements become comfortable. Have your partner start with a change of reaction, or begin in a compromised position where you are tied up.

 I'll remind you what I said in step one about why we want inside position: We can get to the legs faster when our hands are on the biceps. After plenty of practice, the way you push and pull your opponent will become more fluid and be more conducive towards taking a shot. However, do not add this in until your natural reactions start bringing your hands inside to the biceps. I have always seen (and know from personal experience) that an athlete who is too afraid to shoot is only afraid because they are having trouble getting their body in the right position to be offensive. They can sense the danger and are not equipped with the right tools to attempt offensive technique. Learn how to work on leg strength in order to remain in your stance and take a penetration shot properly. Train your hands to over come the need to pull and cling onto too many options at once. This will give you confidence in your ability to execute offense by always being in the right place at the right time.