Home » Team of Experts Channel » Dr. Keith Wilson, MSW, D. Div. » Wrestling with Weight: The Challenge for Young Wrestlers

Wrestling with Weight: The Challenge for Young Wrestlers

Weighty Matters

Every sport has its rituals and culture. Wrestling is no different. The focus is, and always has been, on the weight of the athlete. Because athletes are grouped by weight, each team and coach decides which athlete fits best in a weight class. This should be no problem, except that the weight of young wrestlers fluctuates considerably, which may make it difficult to maintain a weight class throughout the season.

Common Sense Versus Competitiveness

Ideally, the coach helps the athlete learn about healthy eating habits and the role nutrition plays in maintaining weight. But wrestling is no different than most sports in that common sense often takes a back seat to the desire to win, prompting a request from the coach to an athlete to wrestle "up" or "down" a weight class from their natural weight.

There may be several different reasons that a coach wants an athlete to change weight classes. It may be that there are several wrestlers in the same weight class and the team needs to fill slots in other weight classes, or it may be due to the fact that a particular athlete might have a better chance to compete successfully in a different weight class.

Whatever the reason, wrestlers get caught up in the whole culture of losing weight, either to stay in a weight class or to drop down to a lower class. In older athletes it usually starts with a starvation diet and then progresses to wearing sweat suits and exercising excessively in order to make weight for weigh in. Unfortunately, as a result of these dangerous practices, young people die or are seriously injured every year. Yet the practices remain accepted within the wrestling community, where they are too often viewed as a necessary evil.

Even younger athletes (around the age of ten) who are just starting to wrestle are vulnerable to problems because of the focus on weight. They may be asked to skip meals and the intake of fluids, which may compromise their ability to perform on the mat, not to mention in the classroom.

Psychological Costs

The focus on weight may also exact a psychological toll on young wrestlers. At the same time that young athletes are striving to please their coaches, they are struggling to develop their self-esteem (which athletics should help, not harm). When a coach tells a young wrestler that he is the "wrong" weight, it creates an internal conflict. The athlete is not sure which is more important: to torture his body to make weight and please his coach, or eat right in order to feel well. Often what the parents say won't matter, because the coach is the one with the power to determine whether the athlete wrestles or sits on the bench.