Working his way through a good but not great framework for wrestling development in Sudbury in his youth, Sheldon Burton still managed to rise above, medaling at OFSAA and representing the country in international competition.
With roughly a decade of coaching experience now under his belt, and having recently celebrated his 30th birthday, Burton has teamed up with an interesting mix of wrestling enthusiasts, looking to establish a better pathway for local athletes with his work as part of Troop Wrestling.
"We've adapted the model of pretty much any high-performance wrestling program in the province," said Burton recently. "Our approach now, with Troop, is more about consistent development, using a longer-term model based on technical and tactical excellence."
"Just grinding kids for a very short term in order to have some short-term success doesn't help retention, doesn't help the culture of our sport."
Working alongside a whole variety of Sudbury wrestling folk, over the years, Burton undertook the genesis of this latest initiative some three years ago, first approached by MMA veteran Mitch Gagnon, the pair having trained together in their youth.
"Mitch was looking at expanding his gym and basically offered me a location and the mats if I would commit to at least one season of coaching," said Burton. "He comes from the Deschatelets tutelage in Sturgeon Falls (home of Olympic wrestler Richard Deschatelets). Mitch has a real soft spot for wrestling. His roots are in wrestling."
Gagnon would let Burton take the lead in terms of establishing a wrestling program, one which incorporated elements of the training that many a local talent enjoyed under coach Andy Lalonde in Chelmsford, and subsequently with the Sudbury Regional Wrestling Club, but that also expanded upon the knowledge that Burton has built up over the years.
"Yes, we still want our wrestlers to go hard at it for those four to six months that they are, currently, but now we have a pre-season, and the pre-season is all about fitness and planning, and a post-season, which is when all of the technique is built up," said Burton.
Troop Wrestling is presently sub-divided into two large groupings, falling in line, in a very general sense, with the Long-Term Athlete Development model that has become the base for athletic progression in most sports in Canada. Burton oversees the high-school and older component, with the help of a few others, while former Sudbury Secondary OFSAA medal winner Erica Turcotte takes care of the 12 and under component.
"At that age, it's all about just getting the heart rate up and having fun - but by the time you hit 14 years old in wrestling, it starts to get pretty intense," said Burton.
While Turcotte admits that she likes to introduce a component of competition towards the end of each practice - "instead of calling it wrestling, we call it smashing, and that seems to get the kids to buy in" - she also stressed that working with the very young has proven to be right up her alley, even if there were some initial fears.
"When Sheldon asked me, I was a little bit skeptical at first," said the 22-year-old former North Star who has been part of the Sudbury Secondary coaching staff for the past three years. "I did well when I was in high school, but to move on and compete at a higher level just wasn't in the cards for me."
"But the chance to work with kids, I thought, was really cool, because I do have a really good understanding of the fundamentals - and I also really, really like kids. A lot of my practices are based around fun, different games that relate to wrestling, even if the kids might not know that it relates to wrestling."
In some ways, Turcotte may face an even more challenging group than Burton, partly because of the variety that she tackles in her class. "It's tricky, sometimes, because it's all different levels, with kids that are three and four, right up to ten or eleven. I have to really work with them and modify practices, maybe give the older kids some add-ons at practices, and keep it more basic for the younger ones."
"I'm kind of learning as I go."
Paramount to the learning that Burton has enjoyed lies the concept of the "grind", the notion of persistence that originates in the determination of the athlete. "I'm not sure I can adequately explain it, but you can sense the grind with the kids," he said. Burton points to Jacob Laquerre, who achieved the only SDSSAA podium placement at OFSAA in early March.
"This is a kid that really grinds," stated Burton. "He's in the gym five days a week, he's cycling before and after practice, he manages his weight, I don't have to tell him to manage it, and he performs well in practice. He's really intrinsically motivated."
The coach sees many of those same attributes in newcomer Miguel Pitre, a first year wrestler out of Ecole secondaire catholique l'Horizon. "There was a big difference between school practices and Troop," suggested the 16-year-old grade 10 student. "School wrestling was mostly for people who were just starting in wrestling, learning the basics, but at Troop, it was grinding for two hours."
There it is again, the notion of the grind.
"It's working through, putting your blood, sweat and tears into your training, not stopping, even if it hurts," said Pitre. "When you are wrestling someone, having skill is good. But if you have the mentality of just giving up when it gets tough, you're never going to win."
And while winning certainly isn't everything for Sheldon Burton and the folks at Troop Wrestling, there is an expectation of a certain way of doings things, one which Burton believes will help the Sudbury wrestling community, in the long run.