The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Well, if that statement is true, there isn’t too much hurt in store for some of Utah County’s youngest athletes — and it also helps that they’ll be falling on padded ground.
The Westlake Wrestling Club youth program allows children as early as preschool to get acclimated to the sport of wrestling. However, with some of the children being as young as 3 years old, learning the ropes of wrestling is much more focused on growing an appreciation for the sport through games rather than takedowns and titles.
“Our main focus is to have fun and to ensure that they leave happy and they want to come back,” said Jeff Newby, head coach of the Westlake Wrestling Club and executive director of USA Wrestling Utah. “The longer they stick with it, generally the better they’re going to be.”
However, Newby stressed that starting young doesn’t necessarily mean a child will be a successful wrestler. “Kids can start wrestling at any age, really,” said Newby. “Some of the best wrestlers in the world started out wrestling in junior high.”
According to Newby, the Westlake Wrestling Club is the second largest youth club of its kind in the United States.
The club has several different age groups and levels of skill, including: three pre-kindergarten and kindergarten groups, an elementary group (first through fourth grades), a junior high group (fifth through ninth grade), and an advanced group comprised of higher-skilled second through eighth graders.
Newby estimates that the youngest group has about 70 children in it, who are divided into three different classes. One class comprised of older and more experienced youths is slightly more geared toward competing in competitions, whereas the two other classes don’t compete.
Newby is a wrestler himself, and he too started as soon as he was able.
“I actually started when I was 3½,” said Newby. He grew up in Iowa, but moved to Utah when he began high school, and wrestled at Box Elder High School. After graduating, Newby then continued his wrestling career at Boise State University for two years, and then Utah Valley University for three years.
After moving to Saratoga Springs from Lindon five years ago, Newby began the Westlake Wrestling Club as a way to introduce his two sons, one 5½ years old and the other 2½ years old, to the sport he loves. The older of the two boys wrestles in the more competitive pre-kindergarten group, whereas the younger brother is already trying to follow in his brother’s and father’s footsteps.
“It’s fun to watch because he enjoys it,” said Newby. “He enjoys being with the kids and running around, playing games with them. But, he doesn’t understand exactly how to wrestle, but he’s starting to get it by just watching. You’ll see that with a lot of these kids that have bigger brothers, they see their older brothers do it, and they start doing it.”
Newby explained that having siblings or parents involved in the club can help younger children feel more comfortable learning the basic moves of wrestling. Although, as any parent knows, little kids can have big emotions, and sooner or later, those are likely to come out while wrestling.
“They’re eventually going to fall over, hit their head, they’re going to cry, or bump heads with another kid,” said Newby. “The hardest thing is dealing with emotions at that age. It’s that balance of teaching toughness versus understanding that they’re just 5 years old. You’ve got to be caring, and you’ve got to love them too.”
In terms of competitions, there are tournaments most weekends during the wrestling season even for the youngest of children, according to Newby. Wrestling clubs such as Newby’s are also commonplace.
“If the kids want to go they can go, but if they don’t, we don’t push it,” said Newby. He explained that children seldom break the rules in competitions, despite not being taught too much about rules at their earliest stages since they’re hard to retain for children. Weight classes also aren’t too defined at the earliest stages of the sport. Newby explained that for the youngest kids, tournaments are more about building a desire to keep at wrestling and positive memories.
“It’s not about winning and losing right now, just go have fun,” said Newby. “As a kid, that’s what I remember. I don’t remember my matches, but I remember going out to eat with my dad afterward. And so those are the good things we want the kids to remember. The most enjoyable part of coaching is seeing these kids have successes, even if they’re super small ones.”
Such a success is still present in the mind of Viliami Rarick, a 5-year-old wrestler in the club from Saratoga Springs who goes by the nickname Bubba.
“He had a kid that beat him at the Turkey Tussle who’s really good,” explained Bubba’s father, Chase Rarick. “What did you tell me after you lost?” asked Chase of his son. “You said next time…” “I’ll pin him,” said Bubba, finishing his father’s sentence. Chase went on, “He’s wrestled him twice more after that, and Bubba’s beaten him both times.”
Chase is not a wrestler himself, but fostered a great appreciation for the sport watching his best friends, members of the Lofthouse family of wrestlers, achieve several titles at Mountain Crest High School, as well as seeing betterment in other members of his own family, including his wife’s brothers, through the sport.
Now, of Chase’s seven children, five girls and two boys, four of them wrestle, and the others plan on it, too.
“You take an average kid in first grade and they just can’t handle themselves; wrestling teaches them discipline and self-respect,” said Chase. “Win or lose, it’s on them. So, it teaches them accountability and how to be able to handle pressure and do hard things.”
However, Chase knows that, especially at a young age, success in wrestling takes time and consistent effort.
“I think that’s key to what Jeff does,” said Chase. “He helps the kids not just enjoy the successes of the sport, but to really be able to enjoy the process by knowing — and again, when they’re young, they look for instant gratification — that if they work hard, even if they lose, they can still go get a treat.”
After a practice, which ended in every child getting a treat for their efforts, Bubba stated that his favorite thing about the club was simply, “We always have fun.”