Changing the Culture of Weight Management

By Matt Krumrie | March 02, 2016, 10:03 p.m. (ET)

The sport of wrestling is always evolving. Especially when it comes to weight management. The days of using saunas, diuretics, plastic suits, and dehydration methods to cut to the lowest weight possible are now banned. New weight management policies and regulations have been implemented and with these rule changes have come changes in attitudes of coaches, parents, wrestlers, and even fans.

And it's a welcome change, says Pat Tocci, director of administration at the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA)."We needed to get away from people thinking our wrestlers are the crazy guys who wear garbage bags and sit in class spitting," says Tocci. "I can’t tell you how many times I hear that when they talk about wrestlers."

It was back in the late 1980's when leaders with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) knew it was time for a change. There was too much emphasis on maximum weight cutting. And it was getting risky for youth athletes.

Using science to develop minimum weights for wrestlers

"There was serious weight reduction issues, which had long range physiological ramifications," says Don Herrmann, a former Assistant Director with the WIAA who was in charge of wrestling. Hermann was also a member of the WIAA Sport Medical Advisory Committee that was instrumental in the change. The WIAA project included skinfold estimates of body fat percentage to determine a minimum competitive weight, a limit on weekly weight loss, and presentation of nutrition education information to help wrestlers effectively manage weight. Wisconsin high schools implemented the program on a volunteer basis in 1989 and 1990 and by the 1991-92 season, the WIAA adopted a statewide minimal weight program.

Like almost any change, it met initial resistance. But over time, people adapted.

"Coaches and wrestlers have adjusted and we no longer hear any complaining," says Hermann. "Our leaders in the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association have been outstanding in promoting healthy wrestling." Wade Labecki, Deputy Director of the WIAA who now oversees wrestling in the same role previously held by Herrmann, agrees.

"We have recognized that the health and safety of the wrestlers trumps competition," says Labecki. "The culture has changed significantly in our wrestling community. We do still run into situations where people have tried to circumvent the rule, but that’s rare.”

High school wrestlers are now required to annually go through an initial weight assessment prior to either the first practice or competition (depending on the state association) to determine that wrestler’s minimum weight class, Tocci points out. Wrestlers must also pass a hydration test, then have their weight measured and body fat calculated. After the measurements are taken, the data is calculated to provide a minimum weight class at either 7-percent body fat for males or 12 percent for females.

Why wrestling at your ‘natural weight’ is an advantage

One example of how these new rules are affecting wrestlers can by seen in Peter Isais of Pine Creek High School in Colorado. In mid-February, Isais won the Colorado Class 5A 160-pound state championship. Notably, he achieved this success while competing at the same natural weight that he carried over from playing football, where he was a standout wide receiver on one of the top teams in the state.

"I believe that wrestling at my natural weight gave me a dramatic advantage because it allowed me to stay hydrated and energized," Isais explains. "When matches were close or went into overtime, I had more energy than my opponent.”

Former collegiate and senior level standouts, like Kyle Dake, influenced his decision, Isais says. Recently, Dake gained recognition for winning four NCAA titles at Cornell at four different weight classes (141, 149, 157, and 165 pounds) – an unprecedented feat. However, Isais acknowledges that the weight cutting stereotypes about wrestling still exist for those outside the sport.

"Too many people assume you have to cut [weight] in order to be successful," Isais says. "Wrestling isn't about who's the biggest. It's about who's going to out-work their opponent, put in the time, and who has the biggest heart in order to complete the ultimate goal of being a champion."

Smart weight management—using education and technology—starts early

This culture change is taking place at the youth level too. As one parent of a 9-year-old USA Wrestling member recently noted, her son’s weight fluctuates between 78 and 83 pounds, but he wrestles at the high-end weight. “Why make him cut weight?” she says, noting “the coach of the youth program encourages moving wrestlers to the next weight class if they are close on their weight."

Many high school state associations now also require a nutrition education program as part of the weight management program. This is to keep the wrestler, parents, and coaches educated on the nutritional aspects of the weight management program. Recently, the NWCA partnered with a company called My Sports Dietitian to provide a nutrition program for all wrestlers who use the Optimal Performance Calculator (OPC) system.

The advancement of technology has also been instrumental in the evolution. Trackwrestling.com partners with the NWCA to provide tools that help student-athletes maximize their performance through the use of proven weight management/sport nutrition practices. Over 240,000 middle school, high school, and college student-wrestlers use the NWCA’s Optimal Performance Calculator (OPC) to establish an ideal competition weight. In addition, over 7,000 coaches and 8,000 athletic trainers participate in the program each year.

Essentially, the OPC evaluates an athlete's body fat, weight, and hydration levels to determine a ‘goal competition weight’ and a safe weight loss plan, says Trackwresling’s president and CEO, Justin Tritz.

"As a former wrestler and now as a parent to young wrestlers, I’m proud to be part of the strides the wrestling community is taking to empower our athletes to make healthy decisions regarding their weight management," Tritz says. "The old methods of cutting weight deterred some parents from encouraging their children to enter the sport. Wrestling does so much to promote a healthy lifestyle for athletes, so it’s rewarding to see new generations of wrestlers entering the sport supported by a culture that wants them to be healthy and successful.”

Tocci agrees.

"We believe that we are taking away this black eye from the sport," he says. "I think it has clearly made our athletes safer and provided coaches and parents with a scientific approach to what weight class the wrestler should be competing at. We believe that our athletes are safer and more prepared than ever."