Is it time for wrestling to ditch the singlet?

By Matt Krumrie | Sept. 29, 2016, 8:48 a.m. (ET)

Jordan Decatur battles Gavin Teasdale at the 2016 Who's #1 event, created by Flowrestling, which the singlet is not used as the uniform for the wrestlers. Photo by Juan Garcia.

Imagine this: A youth wrestler heads to a Ohio State University wrestling match and sees Kyle Snyder competing in a wrestling uniform. After the match, his dad takes him to an apparel stand, and he buys a youth Kyle Snyder replica uniform top. The next week, he wears it at school. A classmate then asks "Who is Kyle Snyder?" The youth wrestler responds: "He's an Olympic champion college wrestler."

Suddenly the two are talking about Snyder, and wrestling. Imagine a world where today's youth are walking around wearing replica uniform tops of their favorite wrestler. A young girl in a replica USA Helen Maroulis uniform. A Jordan Burroughs uniform. A J'den Cox replica top. Think about people talking at the NCAA tournament in 15 years: "Check out that guy wearing an old school Penn State Nico Megaludis jersey."

All of that already happens today with NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, WNBA, and MLS jerseys/uniform tops. Go out to the park, the mall, the grocery store, or the airport—almost anywhere and you’ll see boys, girls, men, and women showing off their support for their favorite teams and players.

Wrestling fans are passionate about their favorite teams and wrestlers too. But they have no easy way to show it in public.

Why not?

"We need to help the sport of wrestling promote what we are passionate about," says Tony Black, Director of State Services for USA Wrestling. "We need to allow our fans to be passionate and promote the sport. Why not do it through some sort of wrestling jersey or uniform top?”

There's more to it though, says Black, echoing other wrestling leaders. While switching over to wrestling two-piece uniforms may seem like it only promotes apparel companies, there a more fundamental reason wrestling needs to make a uniform change: The singlet is hurting wrestling. Traditionalists don't like to hear it. But it's true.

"The majority of parents I talk to who are new to the sport are not super excited about having their child wear a singlet," Black says. "In fact, some won't join the sport or are hesitant because they don't want to wear the singlet."

Last year, 8,500 coaches responded to a National Wrestling Coaches Association survey. In that survey, coaches were "overwhelmingly in support" of moving to an alternative uniform option, citing the importance of retaining wrestlers and growing wrestling, said Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

"What we found was that the singlet was definitely a barrier to entry into the sport," Moyer explains. "This was especially an issue with first-year wrestlers, and at the middle school level.”

Moyer is all for an alternative option, and feels it would help move the sport forward. "We've heard enough perspective from coaches across the country that they absolutely believe an alternative option would enhance recruitment and retention."

It’s important to recognize that the wrestling uniform has evolved over the years. In the 1930s and 1940s wrestlers often wore tights and nothing on top. Concerns about "revealing too much" helped fuel NCAA rule changes in the mid-1960s that ultimately led to adopting singlets later in that decade. An article by wrestling historian Mark Palmer about the history of the wrestling uniform notes: "The 1963 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Kent State University in Ohio was the last to allow wrestlers to compete stripped to the waist."

Danny Struck, head coach Indiana's Jeffersonville High School, says "we need to knock out reasons that kids come up with not to wrestle." He adds: "Let’s be honest, singlets aren't flattering.”

This is especially true for that youth or teen wrestler who is still maturing or who is concerned with their body image. "We recruit 260-pound football players to wrestle and they get in that singlet for the first time…and they don’t want do it,” Struck says.

Wrestling traditionalists may still oppose the idea of switching, but even among this group, an awareness of the disadvantages of singlets is growing. "I wore them for 17 years and never thought anything of it," says Jim Harshaw, a former DI wrestler and coach who now helps train wrestlers at the Charlottesville Wrestling Club in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Now that I am a club coach and trying to recruit teenage kids to the sport, I realize that singlets are the single biggest obstacle to kids who have already demonstrated interest. Even moms and dads crack jokes and poke fun.”

Harshaw also works in athletics administration at a Power 5 Conference school (University of Virginia). More than once, there have been opportunities to put images of wrestlers in publications but that didn't happen because there wasn't a picture that was "appropriate" due to the revealing nature of the singlet.

Harshaw asks this: "What teenage boy wants to try a new sport where he has to walk to the center of a gymnasium with all eyes on him wearing a tight-fitting single piece of Lycra and potentially be beaten by another boy?" Wrestling is humbling enough, he notes. "Let's make it slightly more comfortable—psychologically, not physically—and lower the barrier for those who want to give it a try."

Troy Nickerson, head coach at the University of Northern Colorado, wrestled at Cornell in the mid-2000s when teams like the Big Red, Missouri, and Hofstra, among others, wore a two-piece uniform. They looked great, Nickerson said, but he was not a fan of the feel once competing. But since then, compression garments have made great strides in both comfort and performance. That’s why he’s now in favor of giving wrestlers the choice between a two-piece or singlet for competition.

Tim Flynn, longtime head coach of perennial DI power Edinboro University, admits he's a fan of the traditional singlet. But he also says that this year, for the first time, the Scots are going to try and wear compression shirts and shorts, versus the traditional singlets. "To non-wrestling people, singlets looks funny," Flynn acknowledges.

"I know in the four major professional sports, the jerseys sell like hot cakes," says August Manz is a coach with the COBRA Optimists Wrestling Club of Council Bluffs, Iowa. "If kids or adults are wearing a Kyle Snyder replica jersey or uniform in public it can be a walking advertisement for the sport of wrestling and that wrestler. This can help get the common person interested in the sport of wrestling."

Wrestlers are good at making adjustments. In time, they would also adjust to this, Manz says.

Moyer also likes the idea of a wrestling jersey. "Those are the kinds of innovative things we need to be doing,” he says. “Anything that we can do to get youth wrestlers to look up to our iconic wrestlers is a good thing."

Ultimately, it’s about retaining wrestlers and growing the sport, on and off the mat.

"We want more people to enter our sport," Black points out. "We need to remove barriers to entry, and one of those barriers is the singlet. If we see our heroes of the sport wearing a jersey, or different style of uniform, wrestling will become more popular and socially acceptable. Let's start at the top, and let it filter down to the youth level."