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.
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.
What Parents Can Do
This internal conflict may turn to external conflict as the wrestler feels that parents do not understand his sport or that they are against the coach. If you find yourself in this position, there are several things you can do:
- Listen. It is important to listen to your child's concerns. He may be having a difficult time resolving the conflict between the coach's expectations (make weight by starving himself) and what he is hearing from you, his parents (eat right). If an athlete knows his parents are listening to his concerns, and appreciates the challenges he faces, he will feel supported in this conflict. Often having a parent listen and engage in a dialog will help the athlete determine what they want the parent to do, if anything, to help resolve the problem.
Seek professional advice. Talking to a sport nutritionist trainer or doctor may be helpful. These professionals will have ideas that can be helpful in resolving the conflict and can help the parent and child understand and hopefully find the right balance between nutrition and weight.
Talk to the coach. Your child's coach may not be aware of the conflict that he is struggling with and, once it is brought to his attention, may be receptive to your observation that he is expecting too much of the child in resolving that conflict in a healthy way. If, on the other hand, the coach has no understanding of or appreciation for the problem, he may be the type of coach who is focused only on winning and feels that if you don't like it, too bad. The sooner you learn that, the better.
Act. If everything else fails to bring a successful resolution to the problem, you have no choice but to act. It may be that the coaching environment is not the right one for your child, in which case you will need to pull the child out of the program before he is subjected to any further physical or psychological abuse. It may be that you can wait until the end of the season and then, if your child wants to continue wrestling, find a different coach with a coaching style more to your liking.
In the end, the thing to keep first and foremost in mind in wrestling, as in all youth sports, is your child's safety, physical as well as psychological. If your child is suffering emotional or physical abuse, you, as the parent, must act swiftly. If the problem is simply one of preference, then listening to your child, seeking nutritional counseling, and talking to the coach may be enough to address the concerns you and your child have.
Wrestling is a great sport because it helps develop self-esteem and self-confidence. However, it is also like every youth sport in that coaches who do not pay attention to the physical and emotional needs of their wrestlers can lose sight of what is important. As a parent, you can help make sure that your child's wrestling experience is a fun one by being involved in a positive way.