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ICYMI: Sally Roberts column: The power of engagement in State-Sanctioning efforts for Girls Wrestling

By Sally Roberts, CEO of Wrestle Like A Girl | July 02, 2020, 12 p.m. (ET)

Social distancing has forced us to rethink how we approach our everyday interactions- from how we work, to how we school and definitely for how we participate in wrestling. Removing any physical contact from a sport built on that very premise is particularly challenging.

Although our current climate has presented some sincere disappointments for our sport, it has also highlighted some real opportunities and moments of praise.

The latter is particularly true for those working diligently to get girls wrestling recognized in their state. Those that are advocating from the trenches, albeit from the safety of their homes, have not ceased their participation in the sport of wrestling. Instead they have increased their engagement and interactions around their efforts. They participate by using their voices to provide advocacy for girls wrestling.

Oklahoma become the 22nd state in the United States to officially recognize girls wrestling and approve the addition of a girls wrestling division at their state championships for the 2020-21 season at the high school level. (Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, six more states added girls wrestling, bringing the total to 28 states).

Girls wrestling continues to be the fastest growing sport in the country, with participation numbers growing for 29 consecutive years. Adding additional states that sanction the sport is a victory that will help to grow opportunities for girls to wrestle, enhance competition, increase collegiate wrestling programs and scholarships, help earn credibility for girls wrestling and ultimately garner more attention for wrestling as a whole.

Momentum is in our favor to get more states on board to recognize girls wrestling. And as more states officially take on the effort, we are discovering best practices that are proving to be lessons for everyone in our sport. A great case study has come out of the efforts in Pennsylvania, a state that arguably has one of the strongest wrestling legacies in the country.

Like many states, girls wrestling is not new for Pennsylvania. Girls have wrestled with boys for decades and conversations about recognizing a separate sport for the girls have been ongoing for years. But advocates in the Keystone State have admittedly recognized that minimal traction had been made to reach the ultimate goal. However, in the past five years the state has experienced 100% growth of girls on high school boys wrestling teams. The participation of girls wrestling extends across the entire great state, with girls wrestling in all their athletic districts.

Additionally, the interest of younger girls in the state has exploded, with girls wrestling in youth and junior high programs. These younger girls are wrestling with the boys but are also being exposed to an increased amount of girls-only competition opportunities.

Opportunities breed excitement and interest - and this is certainly true in Pennsylvania. This enthusiasm has spread throughout the girls wrestling community in the state, from coaches, school administrators, parents, wrestlers and to the local media. Energized and ready for action (and most certainly ready for more opportunities for girls wrestling), a statewide taskforce was formed with the goal to move girls wrestling programs forward in the state. The taskforce includes cross sector multi stakeholder coalitions that include interorganizational cooperation, input from the statewide athletic association and representation from schools, clubs and local community advocates.

As part of the organized effort, the SanctionPA campaign was launched. The intent of the campaign is to help 100 schools in Pennsylvania to officially recognize and approve a girls wrestling program at the high school level, which is the requirement of the statewide athletic association to sanction a sport.

SanctionPA was launched right on the heels of the state high school wrestling championships and before social distancing practices were put in place . The same weekend the campaign was launched, almost 400 girls gathered in the gymnasium of a local high school in the center of the state to hit the mat for the PA Girls Folkstyle Wrestling Championship. Since the girls don’t have a sanctioned statewide championship (yet), the annual event has been sponsored by PA USA Wrestling since 2014, when only a dozen girls showed up. And just two weeks after the campaign launch, a school in Lancaster (JP McCaskey) voted to officially start a girls wrestling program, becoming the first school on the road to the 100 school threshold.

Much of the success around Pennsylvania’s efforts have been attributed to authentic engagement of the vested stakeholders in the conversation around sanctioning girls wrestling in the state. This was first accomplished by ensuring there was a coordinated effort around the goal of the campaign. Everyone was welcomed with a seat at the table to discuss how their roles were uniquely beneficial for a successful outcome. Wrestling organizational leaders, coaches, school administrators, college programs, parents, wrestlers and advocates all were encouraged to lend their voices to the mission.

A grassroots approach, with organized communication and a clearly defined plan of action, was implemented. The campaign was branded around the SanctionPA name and image, which was used on informational materials that was handed out at the state championship tournaments. Numerous resources were created to educate and empower local programs to begin conversations around growing girls wrestling programs at their schools. The resources include a lengthy informational packet with statistics and research about girls wrestling, a template school board proposal and presentation, informational flyers, advocacy letters and more. Ensuring the campaign was properly executed and communicated earned the attention of media outlets across the state, garnering dozens of positive news articles about the efforts.

Now, during a time of uncertainty, SanctionPA is not slowing down. In fact, they have only ramped up their engagement efforts by offering multiple virtual educational sessions to educate and empower key stakeholders about the effort. Hundreds of coaches, athletic directors, parents and girl wrestlers participated in these sessions over a number of weeks. Dozens of schools have expressed an interest in starting girls wresting programs. This is a clear signal that there is a strong appetite to embrace the movement.

During this moment when we’ve been forced to hit the pause button on almost all of our activities that have defined the world’s oldest sport, we are presented with a real opportunity to explore how we can improve our foundational base. And for a sport that was founded on the very idea of athletic access for all, we are now presented a break from a regularly scheduled activities to discuss how we can widen that access by giving girls more opportunities- especially at a high school level. And although we have all been benched in our physical wrestling activities, we don’t have to stop our participation in the sport. Instead, like any great athlete, we can use this obstacle as a moment to push us to get better and to explore ways in which we can excel.

We should take the lesson from others who are increasing their social engagements around sanctioning girls wrestling- we need to use this quieter moment to explore the space for girls wrestling, to mobilize efforts in states and advocate for more opportunities to help our great sport thrive.

Sally Roberts is the Founder and CEO of Wrestle Like A Girl, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower girls and women through the sport of wrestling to become leaders in life. Roberts was a two-time World bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling, a former combat veteran and sports psychology consultant. For more information, visit WrestleLikeAGirl.org.

Editor's Note: This column by Sally Roberts was featured in the May 2020 USA Wrestler bonus digital edition, a 60-page publication with expanded content.

Click for USA Wrestler May 2020 bonus digital edition