Turning the Mats

It can help with Title IX compliance, is inexpensive, and reaches a population not often involved in other sports. Ready or not, women’s wrestling is turning heads and making its move.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.6, October/November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1606/turningmats.htm

Last summer, Terry Steiner coached the United States Olympic Women’s Wrestling Team to bronze and silver medals in the sport’s first female Olympic competition. However, when Steiner was initially offered the opportunity to take a team to Athens, he had to think twice before answering. "I thought, women’s wrestling? I just don’t know about that," Steiner says.

When Donna Welch was given the chance to coach a handful of eager teenage female wrestlers at Tascosa (Texas) High School, she felt the same way. For several years, she’d been the passionate sponsor of a group of girls who served as a pep squad for the boys’ wrestling team, but the concept of girls grappling took her aback.

"I’ve been a tomboy all my life and I love boys’ wrestling," she says. "But when they first asked me to help start a girls’ team, I said, ‘Oh, my. I’m just not sure.’"

Steiner rethought his position, and so did Welch. "I asked myself why I coach wrestling, and the answer is because I believe in the sport and what it teaches," Steiner says. "I believe the characteristics wrestling builds in young people prepare them to succeed in their lives. And if that’s good for young men, why isn’t it good for young women?"

Steiner’s attitude is slowly catching on. During the 2003-04 season, 4,008 high school girls from 808 schools nationwide participated in wrestling, doubling the totals from five years before. Growth at the college level has been slower, but six NAIA schools currently field varsity teams offering scholarships, while several more are looking closely at the possibility. And with Steiner’s Olympic team bringing home two medals, interest in women’s wrestling is likely to surge.

Making the decision to sponsor a team in a nontraditional sport still undergoing growing pains offers unique challenges for high school and college administrators alike. However, those who’ve made the leap say the opportunities and rewards—both for their institutions and their student-athletes—are well worth the risks.

A SPORT IN TRANSITION
Women’s wrestling has a very short history, dating back only about 15 years. "I’ve refereed since 1968, and the first time I started seeing girls at high school matches was around 1989," says Kent Bailo, Founder and Director of the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association, an organization that holds girls’ wrestling tournaments in 35 states by contacting high schools and inviting them to participate. The girls Bailo saw in 1989 were members of high school boys’ teams, and they were there to wrestle primarily against boys. A decade and a half later, that’s still the most common scenario.

Bailo credits mixed-gender wrestling at the high school level with getting the sport off the ground for girls. "It had to start somewhere, and something is better than nothing," he says.

But the practice has pitfalls, and it has led to some difficult situations. Many people within the sport believe that mixing the genders doesn’t produce ideal results for either boys or girls.

To start, a high school boy can feel like he’s being put in an awkward spot when he faces a girl on the mat. "In my experience," Bailo says, "there are a lot of teenage boys who just don’t feel comfortable being in front of a crowd and being in close physical contact with a girl."

Plus, losing to a girl in a sport that they perceive as such a direct measure of their masculinity can be tough, and they can face some ridicule from their peers if it happens. "So when they face a girl, their awkwardness combined with fear of losing can either make boys reluctant to wrestle up to their potential, or it can make them overly aggressive," Bailo says.

Being tacked on to otherwise male teams can be challenging for girls as well. "It’s a rare girl who can win matches consistently wrestling against boys, even if their weights are the same," Bailo says. "In mixed-gender matches I’ve refereed, I would say the girl loses 95 percent of the time. There’s not a whole lot good about that."

Carl Murphree, Head Women’s Coach at Missouri Valley College, one of the six NAIA colleges to offer women’s wrestling as a varsity sport, adds that girls often bring different skills to the mat, so mixed-gender wrestling can result in a contest that simply isn’t a good comparison. "Women’s flexibility plays a much bigger part in wrestling, while with men, strength plays a bigger role," Murphree explains. "Women can’t do some of the things in wrestling that men can do, and men can’t do some of the things that women can do."

Social issues and won-loss records aside, Murphree has a broader objection to mixed-gender wrestling. "It’s simply not the best way to grow the sport," he says. "Young girls can compete with young boys, but as soon as they start to get older, girls’ participation drops dramatically because only the best older girls can compete with the older boys. For the sport to be successful, we need to make opportunities not only for elite athletes, but for average athletes. And that means girls at all levels need opportunities to wrestle other girls."

STATES OF INNOVATION
At the high school level, two state associations are creating competitive opportunities for girls to wrestle girls. Texas and Hawaii sanction girls’ wrestling, holding girls’ state championships at the same times and venues as the boys’ events. A third state, Washington, added a girls-only invitational tournament last year, held during the boys’ state championships.

In Texas, the University Interscholastic League began sanctioning girls’ wrestling in 1998, the same year it began sanctioning the boys, and according to Assistant Executive Director Mark Cousins, girls’ participation has tripled since then. Fifty schools offered girls’ teams the first year, and for 2004-05, there will be 160 schools with girls’ wrestling teams.

"At first, athletic directors at some of our schools told us they were concerned that if they fielded girls’ teams, they wouldn’t see a very high skill level, since many of the girls would be new to wrestling," Cousins says. "But the numbers keep increasing on the girls’ side as more and more athletic directors realize that this can be a viable program."

Having a separate, state-sanctioned girls’ program in Texas has been a huge benefit, according to Welch, now the Assistant Coach for Girls’ Wrestling at Tascosa, where the head coach oversees both the boys’ and girls’ teams. "Girls who may have been interested before but who would never have gone out for the boys’ team now have an opportunity," she says.

Bailo agrees. "This is one case where it’s appropriate to put the cart before the horse—provide the opportunities, and then you’ll see the interest," he says. "An athletic director might believe that girls aren’t interested in wrestling because only two have ever come out for the team, but that’s because they have to wrestle on boys’ teams. Texas is a model of what happens when you ask: ‘If we gave you your own program and your own competition schedule, would you want to wrestle?’"

For Dave Kuykendall, Athletic Director for the Frisco (Texas) Independent School District, having girls’ wrestling as a state sanctioned sport has been nothing but positive. It has given his two schools excellent shots at state-level success in an additional sport, and he was able to add the teams using resources already in place. At each school, the same head coach handles both the boys’ and girls’ teams. Each head coach has two assistants. The girls’ team practices before school and during first period, and the boys’ team practices last period and after school. UIL rules state that girls and boys can’t wrestle against each other, but the teams do come together for some technical skills work and conditioning, and they travel to meets on the same bus. "The teams work together wonderfully and it really is seen as one overall wrestling program," Kuykendall says.

In Washington, the state association has thus far stopped short of sanctioning girls’ wrestling, but it is taking steps in that direction. In 2003-04, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) invited all girls who compete on a high school wrestling team to attend a separate girls’ tournament during the boys’ state championships, and sixty-eight girls signed up.

The association placed the 68 entrants into four groups based on weight, and each athlete wrestled three matches. A special awards ceremony followed the competition. "Our wrestling tournament is held in the Tacoma Dome, and with 28 mats on the floor, it’s one of the largest venues in the nation," says Jim Meyerhoff, WIAA Assistant Executive Director. "The girls told us it was great to be able to compete there and to be a part of the state tournament. They also appreciated the chance to wrestle against other girls, because especially for girls who are at the size extremes, their chances of wrestling other girls during the regular season are slim to none."

The WIAA will offer the girls’ invitational again during the 2004-05 state meet. "We’re hoping to turn 68 participants into 140," Meyerhoff says. "Then our plan is to identify some weight classes for girls. After about two more years, we hope to begin sanctioning a separate girls’ tournament."

One of the reasons Meyerhoff is confident girls’ wrestling in Washington will continue to grow is that it can be a very cost-effective way for schools to provide opportunities for girls. "For most of our schools, there would be no added expense to having a separate girls’ team," he says. "If two schools wrestle each other and each has enough girls for a team, you separate it and score it separately. They could still practice together, use the same facilities, travel on the same bus, and compete on the same night in the same gym."

AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL
Cumberland College, a 1,700-student NAIA school in Kentucky, isn’t generally thought of as a hub of Olympic training activity. However, that changed five years ago, when it decided to offer women’s wrestling as a varsity sport. This year, Cumberland senior Toccara Montgomery competed in Athens in the 72-kg weight class at the first Olympic competition in women’s wrestling. "For us, adding women’s wrestling has been great because it’s given us a chance to be successful on a very high level," says Randy Vernon, Athletic Director. "Having an Olympic athlete is extremely exciting, and we’re proud of her."

According to Vernon, the school had one major incentive for adding women’s wrestling. "We wanted to increase enrollment," he says. "Since few colleges offer women’s wrestling, we suspected it would help us recruit some students who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in Cumberland College."

The hunch was correct. Cumberland was able to draw 10 women the first year it offered the sport, and the roster is up to 40 for 2004-05. Vernon feels those 40 students probably wouldn’t be at Cumberland otherwise.

Cumberland also found that adding women’s wrestling was a relatively easy way to boost Title IX compliance. "We had added men’s wrestling already, so we needed another women’s sport," Vernon says. "Women’s wrestling was the sport that made the most sense."

The Cumberland women’s squad has its own coaching staff and generally practices separately from the men’s team. However, the squads and coaches do learn from each other and there’s a feeling of unity among male and female wrestlers, Vernon says.

With only six other women’s teams in the country, putting together a schedule is the most challenging aspect of managing the sport. "Like most other college teams, we compete primarily in open invitational tournaments sanctioned by USA Wrestling [the sport’s national governing body]," Vernon says. "The team goes to about 10 meets a year, about half of which they fly to. For the other half, they’re driving pretty long distances."

Cumberland’s closest competition, Missouri Valley College, also travels extensively, adding Canada to its itinerary several times a season. "Women’s collegiate wrestling in Canada is quite a few years ahead of ours in development," Murphree explains. "They have 22 college programs. We went there three times last season, as well as to San Francisco, Portland, Minnesota, and Michigan." Missouri Valley also hosted the first fully collegiate women’s wrestling nationals last season.

Steiner hopes the NAIA schools’ success with the sport will cause NCAA schools to sit up and take notice. "At the college level, what we need are athletic directors who are willing to take a chance," he says. "We need one NCAA Division I university to step up and say, ‘We’ll offer women’s wrestling. We’re willing to be the first.’ Once that happens, I believe we’ll begin to see very rapid growth at the college level."

STARTING A TEAM
Athletic directors who want to start a women’s or girls’ wrestling team at their school may find that the idea generates some resistance. Female student-athletes may be ready, but support from coaches, the community, and even parents can be slow to arrive. Here are some tips from others who have successfully weathered the tough first steps:

Support your coach. The boys’ wrestling coach may be the most natural person to mentor a new girls’ team, but how do you get him enthused about the idea? First, make sure to provide enough support, in the form of assistant coaches and additional resources. "Our coaches were excited about the prospect of adding a girls’ team," says Kuykendall, "and I think that’s because we made sure that it hasn’t taken anything away from what they are able to do with the boys’ team. We make sure they have the extra help they need."

Your approach can make a difference as well. "I told our coach, ‘You’ve been so successful with the boys, and we want that kind of experience for the girls too,’" Kuykendall says. "We let him know that we weren’t just tacking this onto his workload because it was the most convenient thing to do, but that we valued his expertise."

Have a female assistant. When the Amarillo (Texas) Independent School District decided to add girls’ wrestling at its four high schools, one of which is Tacosa, the district’s athletic director stipulated that each team had to have a female assistant coach, at least for the first year. "I think requiring female assistants was a very smart move," Welch says. "Everyone was a little bit nervous about having our male head coach demonstrate moves with the girls. This covers us, because there is always a female in the room, and there’s a female to cover any issues that come up."

While she didn’t know a lot about wrestling, Welch was experienced in strength and conditioning, which helped a lot. "As long as you have a head coach who can teach the technical skills, the female assistant doesn’t have to know how to wrestle, and chances are she won’t," Welch says. "But look for someone enthusiastic, willing to learn, and knowledgeable about athletics in general."

Actively recruit. Filling the roster may be your biggest challenge the first year, since girls have not traditionally thought of wrestling as an option. "In the beginning of the year, our coaches and I are in the lunch room recruiting girls for the team," Kuykendall says. "We get names of possible candidates from other coaches at our school. And we look for girls who tried out for other sports and were cut—we get about a third of our female wrestlers that way, because the skills they need for wrestling are so different from most other sports.

"For the first few years, you can’t assume they’re going to line up to participate," he adds. "You may have to do some work, but then it will start to grow on its own."

Get parents involved. Female student-athletes who want to wrestle may encounter disapproval from parents who aren’t comfortable with the idea. "To people in my generation, women’s wrestling meant mud wrestling or something on Friday night TV that they wouldn’t want their daughters associated with," Kuykendall says. "It can be hard to overcome that image."

Welch has won over reluctant parents by having an open-door policy for all practices and encouraging parents of prospective wrestlers to attend. She also sets up special opportunities for parents of younger girls to meet current wrestlers and see what they have achieved. "Have a welcoming attitude and be patient," she says. "Attitudes change slowly, and you can’t force anything."

THE FUTURE
Where is the sport of female wrestling headed? According to Steiner, that will depend on one factor: how much the men’s wrestling world embraces the women’s sport. "The strangest thing about women’s wrestling," he says, "is that it’s not even accepted within its own sport. Ninety percent of men’s wrestling coaches don’t want anything to do with it. And women’s wrestling is not going to grow until men’s coaches start being more open to it."

Administrators often understand that adding women’s wrestling programs can be a way for schools to comply with Title IX and can help to stem the current tide of cuts to men’s wrestling programs and other Olympic sports. But, Steiner says, it can be difficult to get men’s coaches to see that logic. "With so many high school and college wrestling programs being cut, some men’s coaches are blaming Title IX," he says. "Instead of encouraging women’s programs as a potential solution, they see it as feeding the alligator that’s biting them."

Educating coaches and administrators about the benefits of women’s wrestling is the next item on Steiner’s agenda, now that the 2004 Olympics are over. "For the next two years, until I start really focusing on training the next Olympic team, that’s where my energy is going to go," he says. He’ll take his message on the road, attempting to speak at coaches’ clinics in every state.

"I’m going to ask them the same question I asked myself: Why do they coach wrestling?" he says. "If it’s a great sport for the boys they coach, why not for girls? I believe that if coaches start talking positively about girls’ wrestling, administrators will see that it can be a very viable program for their departments. Women’s wrestling is not going away. It may not happen as soon as I had once hoped, but it will be successful."



Sidebar: A NEW SET OF ATHLETES

Is wrestling really a good sport for girls? According to coaches and athletic directors whose schools have teams, it’s a great sport—particularly for girls who wouldn’t otherwise participate in athletics.

"There are few sports where if you can’t run fast or throw a ball, you can be successful. Wrestling is one of those sports," says Carl Murphree, Head Women’s Coach at Missouri Valley College. "Offering wrestling is a huge opportunity to increase female participation, because it draws a whole new set of athletes."

Dave Kuykendall, Athletic Director at Frisco (Texas) Independent School District, agrees. "When you look at the 30 girls who wrestle at our two high schools, very few of them play another sport," he says. "For us, it’s been a way to get 30 students involved who would otherwise have just gone home after school."

Wrestling also provides an alternative for girls who have trouble fitting in socially or are headed down the road to behavioral problems. "Around here, we seek out the girls who get involved in confrontations and ask them to join the team," says Donna Welch, Assistant Wrestling Coach for Girls at Tascosa (Texas) High School. "It’s a way for them to channel their aggression positively."

In a neighboring district, she adds, a freshman girl was sent to the principal’s office after a cafeteria fight. "The principal told her, ‘I’m not going to punish you. I’m going to send you to wrestling practice,’" Welch says. "She ended up being one of the most successful wrestlers in the area and it turned her attitude around."

Girls whose body type keep them from trying out for other sports can also find a place in wrestling, according to Welch. "We have had several girls compete successfully at the 215-pound weight class," she says. "They’re not going to be on the basketball court or the soccer field. Yet wrestling gives them an opportunity. We are able to say to them, ‘We need you precisely because you weigh 215 pounds.’ And once they start lifting and running and wrestling and learning, they are going to become fit and start feeling good about themselves. Because we offer wrestling, we’re able to give them a chance to build the self-esteem that can change their lives."


Sidebar: MIXED GENDER TEAMS

Separate wrestling teams for boys and girls is the ideal scenario. But at schools without enough girls to field a separate team, administrators can take steps to support girls who want to wrestle.

"If a girl comes out for the team, the first thing I have her do is talk a friend into coming out with her," says Carl Murphree, who coached high school teams, often mixed gender, for 22 years before taking over as Head Women’s Wrestling Coach at Missouri Valley College. "They will both do much better with each other’s support, and it’s a better workout situation."

Administrators should also encourage coaches to talk with their teams about some ground rules. "It shouldn’t be, ‘Look, we have a girl on this team now, so we need to act in a certain way,’" Murphree says. "Don’t put the focus on the girl. Simply tell the team, ‘Everyone in this room is an athlete and is going to be treated with respect and as an equal.’ Then make sure the coach is keeping an eye out for any negative situations and letting you know about them as soon as they develop, no matter how small they seem."

Carefully managed, mixed gender teams can be very successful. "If a girl turns out and hangs in there for a couple of weeks, very often she becomes the rallying point for the entire team," says Jim Meyerhoff, Assistant Executive Director at the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. "Getting past the first few weeks can be tough, but in most cases, the girls end up working harder than the boys, and often they push the boys to succeed in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise."