Tom Kuisle has watched a lot of wrestling matches in his 44-year career as an official.
Kuisle, who also coached high school wrestling for 35 years and is the current Mat Officials Director for Minnesota USA Wrestling, knows teams and traditions well. He's officiated some of the top tournaments, dual meets, and individual matches for years.
When he heads to a tournament, enters the gym or gets on the mat, there are other patterns he sees too.
Some much more serious.
"In general most teams seem put this as a priority, but there seems to be a few teams, the same teams, that don’t put as much priority on controlling skin issues," says Kuisle, who is also a member of the United States Wrestling Officials Committee Board of Directors.
As pointed out in the USA Wrestling MRSA and Other Infection Facts Guide, the best cure for skin infections is prevention. Coaches, wrestlers, and parents focus on smart training, but all that hard work, time, and effort goes to waste if preventing skin infections is not taken seriously. Staph infection, MRSA, impetigo, ringworm. These terms can make wrestlers, coaches, and parents cringe.
"Direct skin-to-skin contact is the most common means of spreading of infectious diseases in athletes," says Jessalynn Adam, M.D., a fellowship-trained, board-certified sports medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. "In a sport like wrestling in which there is significant skin-to-skin contact, athletes are at a risk for these infections and the proper precautions must be taken to protect them."
And in much the same way that a last-second mental lapse can result in a heartbreaking defeat during a match, without proper education, awareness, and a strict plan of action, skin infections can also negatively impact a wrestler’s performance—and the sport of wrestling.
"The sport of wrestling has suffered over the years with the stigmas of skin infections, weight-loss practices, concussions, uniforms," says Steve Costanzo, head coach at St. Cloud State University, home of the reigning NCAA DII national champions and current No. 1 ranked team in the nation. "With all of the potential mat diseases that exist within our sport, it can be detrimental to not only the health of the individuals competing, but the sport itself. Hygiene in the sport of wrestling is one of the many things we can control, so why would we ignore this?”
Working to prevent skin infections starts at the youth level. Coaches, and parents—especially parents new to the sport, need to understand the seriousness and importance of maintaining good hygiene.
Unfortunately, that isn't always the case, says Kuisle.
"Most coaches are keenly aware of the negative effects of skin issues on the sport, and their program," says Kuisle.
"It seems that youth programs don’t emphasize skin hygiene as much as upper level coaches do," says Kuisle. "I think there is a real disturbing thought process among parents and coaches of younger kids that ‘ringworm is not that bad’ and a general unawareness of what impetigo and herpes really looks like."
Getting knocked out of a tournament before getting a chance to step on the mat because of a skin infection leaves a sour taste in the mouth of athletes—and parents—who invest time (think of those long car rides and full days at a Saturday tournament) and money in their child's wrestling career. What's more, parents new to the sport may simply take their child out of the sport if skin infections becomes an issue for their child.
"Anyone who doesn’t think that proper hygiene and not getting a skin infection is not important to the average mom who sends her child to the sport of wrestling has his/her head buried in the sand," says Kuisle. "Every wrestling program at every level needs someone trained to recognize skin issues and the tools to deal with them at the practice room level.”
Again, taking precautionary steps is important. Start with skin checks before every practice, says Kuisle.
"The idea of giving up practice time to do this mundane chore will pay dividends," says Kuisle.
“In order for our sport to survive, it is and will be the responsibility of all coaches, athletes, parents, and administrators to assure the basic hygiene principles are in place for every wrestling program or club," says Costanzo. "Without the seriousness of these issues, our sport will not only decline in numbers, but will be non-existent.”
Joe Stabilito, Associate Head Coach at Upper Dublin High School (Fort Washington, PA), says using common sense and taking precautionary measures to eliminate skin infections goes a long way. Stabilito emphasizes these tips and shares them with parents at the start of every season, and repeats this message often with wrestlers throughout a season:
Wrestling Health and Hygiene Tips
- Use a product before wrestling that provides a barrier against infection.
- Change shirts frequently during practice and wipe off before putting on new shirt.
- Wipe off after practice or competition with anti-bacterial wipes.
- Shower immediately after practice or competition. The best way to prevent wrestling skin diseases is by taking a shower immediately after wrestling practice. If a wrestler doesn’t shower right after practice, they should as soon as the get home.
- Do not share soap or towels with your teammates.
- Keep finger nails trimmed. Having your fingernails untrimmed is a quick way to spread skin infections. You can pass skin infections by scratching other people with long nails. Long nails allow you to harbor skin infections under your nails and break the skin of your workout partner or an opponent. An open wound is a quick way to get MRSA, ringworm, or any skin-related infection.
- Do not wear your wrestling shoes on the street. Wearing your shoes on the dirt or the street can transmit diseases from your shoes to the mat. The best wrestling shoes can be expensive, wearing them off the mat can cause them to wear out quicker.
- Wash wrestling workout clothes frequently. Do not leave workout clothes in lockers. Take them home and wash them.
- Disinfect wrestling equipment. Disinfect wrestling shoes, headgear, and wrestling bags frequently.
- Sick? Stay off the mat.
- Know when to see a doctor: Wrestling coaches and parents should be extra vigilant when looking for signs of a skin infection. If a wrestler is showing any symptoms of a skin disease, have him/her go to a doctor and get cleared by the doctor before returning to the wrestling room.
Adam offers these additional, evidence-based recommendations for personal and team hygiene:
- Coaches and athletic staff should be informed of the infection-control policies and procedures.
- All practice and match gear should be laundered daily.
- Correct and frequent hand-washing should be performed whenever hands are visibly soiled.
- Shower with hot water and soap after all practices and competitions. Wear flip flops in public showers.
- Discourage body shaving as it can predispose to infection and folliculitis.
- Affected athletes should avoid whirlpools, cold tubs, and pools to prevent spread of infection.
- Affected athletes should inform coaches and medical staff promptly of any illnesses and skin lesions. Athletes should be excluded from competition until they have met return to play guidelines for the specific condition.
Remember, prevention and common sense can go a long way towards preventing skin infections.
“For further information regarding sport hygiene, I would recommend consulting with experienced doctors and trainers within the sport of wrestling," says Costanzo. "Let’s attack the diseases before it attacks us!”