Want to wrestle in college? It’s going to take more than success on the mat to get noticed.
But year after year, students make it happen. Below we identify some important strategies and tips to get noticed, get recruited, and get an opportunity to wrestle in college:
Take the First Step
Everyone has a story of how they came across their opportunity to wrestle in college. And Nick Stewart is no different.
As a high school wrestler at Jeffersonville High School (Jeffersonville, IN), Stewart never made it to the state tournament. But he still ended up with a wrestling scholarship, thanks to persistence, dedication, hard work, and a nice suit.
As a senior in high school, Stewart personally wrote letters to 40 different colleges expressing interest in wrestling for their programs. Of those 40, three offered Stewart some form of wrestling scholarship. He eventually decided to wrestle at Lindenwood-Belleville, an NAIA college in the St. Louis Metro Area, then coached by Paul Collum.
“It’s all about getting your name out there to as many colleges as possible, at all levels,” Stewart said.
Taking initiative is something college coaches value. Stewart sent a letter contacting the coach and drove four hours with his mom to visit Lindenwood-Belleville. Upon arrival, Stewart's mom asked Collum point blank, “Why would you want my son wrestling for you? You’ve never seen him wrestle in real life.”
Collum responded, pointing to Nick, saying, “He filled out the questionnaire, replied back to me promptly, and you guys traveled almost four hours to meet with me. It also helps you are wearing a suit.”
Stewart chose Lindenwood-Belleville that day.
Lee Pritts, assistant coach at Arizona State University, also encourages wrestlers and parents to be the aggressors. Even at the Division I level, collegiate wrestling programs have limited budgets. They can’t be everywhere, and/or see everyone. So, if there is a school one wants to wrestle at, take initiative.
“If you sit around and wait for people to come to you, chances are, you will stay waiting,” Pritts says. “You have to be proactive. Complete a recruiting questionnaire. Pick up the phone and call a coach, add them on social media, send them an email with your academic info, your desired major, your contact info, your graduation year. Add video links. Use all your resources. Keep it short and to the point.”
An introductory email is very important—it’s your first contact with that coach/team—so make the email personal to the coach you are emailing, says Bill Vasko, assistant softball coach with the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Do not send a cut-and-paste email that’s the same to every coach. Take time to personalize the email to those programs you are most interested in. Make sure that you use the correct coach’s name and the school’s name and spell them correctly.”
Take Academics Seriously
For some, success on the mat will get them noticed. Those who win major tournaments, such as Fargo (Cadet or Junior Nationals) are on the radar of college coaches. Winning state tournaments and placing high at prestigious national tournaments also helps. But it’s not the only way to get noticed—and it's not the only criteria college coaches look for when recruiting wrestlers.
Troy Nickerson was a highly-recruited high school wrestler out of New York, who wrestled at Cornell University. He’s now the head coach at the University of Northern Colorado, where he and his staff look at a student’s ACT, SAT, GPA and intended major when considering if a student-athlete will be the right fit for their program.
Bottom line is this: To increase chances of wrestling in college, focus on success in the classroom, and on the mat. One Jeffersonville High School wrestler competed on JV his entire career. But he even sent letters to colleges about wrestling for a program, and was such a good student he ended up with an academic scholarship.
Don’t Blow it on Social Media
Coaches research student-athletes online. And yes, they absolutely check social media profiles. This is an area where many aspiring athletes go wrong, like in this situation, where a football coach at Ottawa University in Arizona eliminated one recruit from consideration because of a profanity-laced social media rant:
“Be mindful of what you do away from the field—college coaches are watching your every move, on and off the field,” Vasko says. “They watch the way you warm up, how you interact with coaches and teammates, how you treat your parents, and how you act off the field. They also monitor your online activities—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. If all your social media accounts are locked, then a coach may wonder what you are hiding. So, keep them public, and keep them clean.”
The Right Fit Off the Mat
Getting recruited “is about much more than winning your state tournament,” Nickerson says. “We look for kids who are aggressive, who like to score points, who don’t give up in tough situations. I really like seeing how a kid reacts when he gets on the back side of a tournament,” Nickerson says. “Does he default out or wrestle back for third?”
Coaches also like the approach Stewart took and encourage wrestlers to reach out to them.
“Genuine and personal interest is always crucial,” Nickerson says. “If you are truly interested in my school and think we may be overlooking you, make a call or send a personal email.”
Start the Process Early
Want to wrestle in college? Start the process early. Stewart admits he waited too long.
“Don't wait until the end of your career,” Stewart says.
Those who are serious about competing in college wrestling should start the process as early as their freshman year. That’s when Joe Stabilito, President of Pennsylvania USA Wrestling, and the 2014 USA Wrestling Kids/Cadet Person of the Year, starts working with both parents and wrestlers to educate them on the college wrestling recruiting process. He works with kids to make video highlight reels, encourages them to start thinking about their major or areas of interests, potential schools, potential fit from a wrestling standpoint, and so on. He helps them contact schools, create the right message and make first contact. He also is realistic with parents, and discusses a student-athletes wrestling potential, and finding a fit that’s right for them. Not everyone is going DI—and not every wrestler is getting a scholarship. Then over the course of the next three to four years, all work together to modify the plan as the wrestler moves through high school. Some end up not wanting to wrestle in college, others do, and with the plan in place, they are putting themselves in a better position to succeed in their quest to wrestle in college because they started the process early.
“Learn as much as you can about the recruiting process and financial aid in your freshman year in high school,” Vasko says.
Choose a College for More than Wrestling
Finally, base your college decision on a combination of things, not just the wrestling program/opportunity, and the coach, Vasko says. Consider academics, financial aid package, location and fit, and the athletic program.
He says to ask yourself this: “If something happens—there is a coaching change, or you suffer a career-ending injury—will you still be happy that you chose that school? Think beyond sports, and think about what the school offers you in the terms of an education and affordability.”