By Abigail Funk
Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at afunk@MomentumMedia.com.
Training & Conditioning, 16.2, March 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1602/wrestling.htm
It has been almost a decade since three collegiate wrestlers died in the same season while attempting to make weight. It’s been seven years since the NCAA implemented minimum weight guidelines for its wrestlers. This year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is putting into place new rules to curb unhealthy weight-loss practices among wrestlers at the high school level.
Starting with the 2006-07 season, all states that follow NFHS rules will need to have protocols in place that control the practice of “making weight.” About half of state high school associations already have such rules, but the other half will be using the next eight months to get their programs up and running. In addition, individual high schools will need to work closely with their wrestling teams to prepare for the change.
Jim Thornton, MA, ATC, PES, Director of Athletic Training Services at Clarion University and chair of the task force that wrote the NCAA rules, is happy to see the regulations coming to the high school level. “High schools will be going through the same thing we did at the collegiate level, and quite frankly, there are going to be some growing pains,” he says. “But I can tell you this: Without question, it has been one of the best things to happen to the sport of wrestling.”
The rules changes are aimed at preventing athletes from engaging in rapid weight loss, ongoing weight fluctuation, and unsafe weight-loss practices. The main idea is to keep wrestlers healthy and prevent short- and long-term physical problems that can result from the above practices. Hopes are that the rules will also put more focus on learning the skills of the sport and less on the tradition of cutting weight.
While the NFHS rules do not require athletic trainers to administer the weight-management procedures, most schools are asking their athletic trainers to get involved. In this article, we’ll explain the new regulations and provide some advice from both college and high school athletic trainers who have experience with the process, including tips on tackling the most difficult aspect of implementation: working with your coaches and student-athletes.
In making the recent changes, the NFHS basically rewrote wrestling Rule 1-3, the weight-management guidelines, to make them much stricter. Under the new rules, wrestlers will be required to weigh in at a hydrated state (specific gravity no more than 1.025) before their first match of the season, at which time their baseline body fat percentage will be assessed. From there, a safe minimum weight will be determined based on a body fat minimum of no less than seven percent for males and 12 percent for females. For the remainder of the season, the wrestler’s weight must stay at or above their safe minimum weight. And if weight loss is permitted, it must not exceed 1.5 percent of their body weight per seven days.
While the NFHS rules on body fat percentage and weight loss are specific, what’s not spelled out is how the testing should be conducted. Some associations are implementing statewide procedures, while others are letting school districts or individual high schools figure out what works for them. The hydration testing is easily accomplished through a urine test, but body fat percentage can be assessed in several different ways. States also have different rules on who is allowed to conduct the testing.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association, for example, requires high schools to use skinfold calipers to assess body fat, and allows anyone to become a skin fold assessor after participating in a three-hour workshop and passing an exam. Jim Fast, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Eaton Rapids (Mich.) High School and a certified assessor, has observed that it’s mainly athletic trainers coming forward to be assessors. Entering the state’s third year of mandatory testing, the process is becoming easier as more assessors are trained every year.
“We have an in-service every year, and if you’re a first-time assessor, you’re required to go to the three-hour in-service and pass the exam,” he says. “But if you’ve been to the in-service before, you can just take the annual exam online.”
The Virginia High School League also requires its assessors to use skin fold calipers, and they, too, are given training on how to use them correctly. “If you don’t know how to do a skinfold test properly, there is a lot of room for error,” says Jon Almquist, ATC, Athletic Training Program Specialist to Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools. “So we have a workshop every year for medical professionals—athletic trainers, physicians, and school nurses—who want to become certified measurers. Each participant is taught to administer the testing in the same manner and is certified by the same person. This way, we know it’s being done right and coaches aren’t concerned about a kid in one part of the state not getting the same results as he would in another part of the state.”
In Florida, where most schools are using a Tanita scale, athletic trainers who want to become assessors must also be trained through a workshop. They can receive further training to become “master assessors,” which qualifies them to train other athletic trainers to do the testing at their high schools.
“We enter into the scale the wrestler’s gender, their age, their height, and that they’re at an athletic activity level,” explains Heather Klein, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Master Assessor at Timber Creek (Fla.) High School. “When they step on the scale, it measures their body weight and body fat percentage, and It prints everything out. It’s probably the easiest and quickest way to do the assessment.”
Klein says one wrestler can be assessed in under five minutes, from filling out forms and conducting a urine dip stick hydration test to stepping on the scale and getting a printout. She estimates that 30 to 40 wrestlers can get through the testing in an hour. The Tanita scale is expensive, however, and Florida schools often team up to do assessments together so they can share equipment.
In conducting the preseason testing this past fall, Klein found the importance of the wrestler being hydrated while on the scale to be paramount. “The Tanita scale can’t recognize a wrestler’s fat cells if they’re not hydrated,” Klein says. “One of my wrestlers weighed in as having 5.8 percent body fat, and just by looking at him I knew he wasn’t that low. So we had him drink some water, weighed him again in 25 minutes, and he registered at 8.2 percent body fat. He was borderline hydrated the first time and passed the hydration test by a significant amount the second time around.”
Other state associations are using the Optimal Performance Calculator (OPC), which was developed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) and is included in the association’s $30 membership fee. The assessor enters the wrestler’s height, weight, and age into the Web-based software program, which then calculates a lowest allowable weight for each wrestler based on the seven- and 12-percent body fat minimums. The ease of this option is that it’s a Web-based program and makes the calculations automatically. For those wrestlers above the minimum body fat percentage, the OPC also calculates a safe weight-loss plan and can even produce custom diet plans for each wrestler.
No matter how your state decides to administer the testing, Fast suggests remembering that you, and not the coaches, are doing the certifying. “Be assertive and take charge of the situation,” he says. “It can get intimidating, especially at the high school level where the athletic trainer is often younger and newer than the coach. But try not to be intimidated. The program has strict guidelines and you have to follow those, no matter what a coach is saying.”
Along with getting the procedures right, convincing coaches, wrestlers, and parents of the positives of the rules changes is critical. Almquist says working with the high school coaches in Virginia was no small task in implementing his state’s program. “Many wrestling coaches have been doing for years what we now say is inappropriate to do,” he explains. “So many of them were wrestlers when they were younger and nobody died when they were competing, so they ask why should anything change?
“But support has slowly increased and our coaches have even started adopting some of the philosophies of proper nutrition and weight loss. And they’ve found increasing success in their wrestlers as a result,” Almquist continues. “They needed to buy into the idea and it took time.”
A former wrestler himself, Thornton admits to have sat in the furnace room of his high school to sweat off a few pounds. He also wasn’t opposed to sucking on a lemon and spitting into a cup all day in order to lose one last pound of water weight before weigh-ins. “We’re dealing with an institution steeped in tradition here,” he says, “and I would say it’s important to have persistence and rally school boards and parents and whoever you can to support you.”
The first step is talking to your wrestling coaches about the new rules and how the testing is going to work. “One key is communication,” Klein says. “My coach is just as informed as I am and that helps tremendously. We feed off of each other.”
In Virginia, coaches are invited to attend the workshops that certify measurers. “Coaches can’t become assessors,” says Almquist, “but it can be very informative for them to be at the meeting. It can be the step that gets them to buy into the program.”
The MHSAA requires that coaches attend an hour-long seminar ending with an exam in their first year dealing with the regulations. After that initial seminar, they are required to attend an update every three years.
Bryan Smith, MD, PhD, Medical Consultant to the Atlantic Coast Conference, adds that not only coaches, but also wrestlers and their parents need to be informed. “Everybody has to understand the value of what you’re trying to accomplish—that the student-athlete be able to participate in as safe and healthy an environment as possible,” he says. “And communicating is the key. If everyone understands the ultimate goal, they’ll be okay with how the testing is going to work.”
One way to convince others of the benefits of the stricter rules is to point to the success at the college level. “If you look at the research since the NCAA adopted its policy in 1999, wrestlers are not losing as much weight and their skill level is higher,” Smith says. “The successful teams are still successful and if you ask them how they feel about the changes, they like the situation better.”
Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the NWCA, says several studies at the collegiate level have garnered good news. According to one, NCAA championship wrestlers’ body fat is approximately 8.5 percent, even though college wrestlers are permitted to have body fat as low as five percent. “College wrestlers are no longer confusing lowest allowable weight with optimal weight,” Moyer says. “They are also not cycling their weight as much as they used to and aren’t bingeing between weigh-ins and matches. High school athletic trainers should share this information with their wrestling coaches.”
Another argument for the changes is that they may lead to higher participation rates. “We’ve seen an increase in parental support,” Almquist says. “Parents are more accepting because they feel their kids are safer and they’re not watching them starve themselves over the winter season.
“It also makes the sport more attractive to kids,” Almquist continues. “Say there’s a kid out there who wants to wrestle on the team with his friend but doesn’t want to give up Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas cookies. Well now he doesn’t have to, and maybe he’ll try it out and become a successful wrestler.”
“Wrestling is kind of a Spartan sport,” Smith adds. “A lot of kids are turned off by the training and the conditioning, and I think parents are as well. Managing weight in a healthier manner will certainly promote more interest in the sport.”
Health & Hydration
In addition to showing your coaches and student-athletes that the minimum weight regulations can work on many levels, talk to them about the negatives of “cutting weight” and give them information on how to lose weight safely. Inform them of the importance of staying hydrated, and explain that dehydration can lead to long-term health issues down the road.
Jack Ransone, PhD, ATC, Director of Athletic Training at Texas State University, explains to wrestlers and their coaches that as little as a three-percent reduction in body weight can significantly reduce muscle strength. “Muscle strength is obviously a key component of wrestling,” he says. “You can still lose weight without losing strength by cutting down calories as long as you maintain the appropriate ratio of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.”
Eileen Bowker, MA, ATC, is an Athletic Trainer at Pemberton Township (N.J.) High School, a member of the NATA Continuing Education Committee, and the NATA liaison to the NWCA. She says there’s nothing wrong with counting calories, and in fact, she encourages wrestlers to keep a journal of what they eat daily. “Kids need to eat all day long,” Bowker says. “It’s just a matter of lowering fat selections, eating leaner meats, and trimming excess fat.” (See “Weight Management” below).
Fast also stresses hydration. “Staying hydrated throughout the day, before a match, and after a match is so important,” he says. “We make it mandatory that wrestlers weigh in before and after practice so they have an idea of how much water weight they’re losing, and we tell them they need to get their weight back to within a pound after practice.”
Bowker says that staying properly hydrated will also help athletes lose weight. “When you’re exercising, your body is using energy,” she says. “Heat is a byproduct of energy, and if you’re not hydrated, you body doesn’t have the fluids to keep your body cool. Your body, in turn, then won’t allow you to burn the calories you need to lose weight. The number-one mistake athletes make when trying to lose weight is not drinking enough water.” (See “Hydration Tips” below).
Patience is Key
Lastly, be patient. It may take time for the high school wrestling community to embrace the rules changes. Collegiate wrestlers and their coaches are beginning to see that their rules are making healthier wrestlers, but for many high school coaches and athletes, these changes are brand new, and they’re going to need encouragement to see the benefits.
“The same thing will occur in high schools as did in the NCAA when the guidelines first came in,” Ransone says. “Coaches were upset about it. For whatever reason, they felt they knew better than science. But it was my experience that within two to three years, the wrestling coaches saw it wasn’t significantly affecting their teams and that practices were spent more on technique and conditioning than on cutting weight.”
Bowker says the new regulations may take some extra effort, but will prove worthwhile in the long run. “It’s easy to look at it as one more thing you have to do,” she says. “But you are helping a sport change for the better—and not just any sport, one of the oldest ones around. Being able to say that athletic trainers were the ones who helped implement these safeguards for wrestlers is going to be great.”
To view the National Federation of State High School Association’s rules changes for the 2006-07 season, click on “Sports and Rules Information,” and then “Wrestling” at: www.nfhs.org.
NATA members can search “wrestling” on the NATA site to access information on implementing a weight management program: www.nata.org.
The National Wrestling Coaches Association site has links to both the Collegiate and Scholastic editions of the Optimal Performance Calculator as well as information to share with coaches about the process: www.nwcaonline.com.
To read more Momentum Media articles on weight loss, enter “weight loss” into the search window, select “articles” from the pull-down menu, and click “search” at: www.athleticsearch.com.
Sidebar: Weight Management
Eileen Bowker, MA, ATC, Athletic Trainer at Pemberton Township (N.J.) High School, works with USA Wrestling and holds seminars across the country on conducting body fat assessments. She provides these tips on losing weight to coaches and wrestlers at her presentations.
• Eat light p.m. meals.
• Eat slowly.
• Eat one serving.
• Decrease intake of calories, but to no less than 1,500 per day.
• Eat low calorie snacks (carrots, celery, lettuce, plain popcorn).
• Eat low calorie desserts or no dessert.
• Avoid fast foods that have a high fat content.
• Cut out butter, margarine, sauces, gravy, and dressings.
• Grill, bake, broil, or boil—do not fry.
• Avoid caffeine.
• Avoid salt.
• Avoid any situations where you will eat to excess.
• Restrict weight loss to no more than two pounds per week.
• Substitute low calorie items whenever possible.
• Keep a daily diary of everything you eat and analyze its caloric content.
Sidebar: Hydration Tips
Eileen Bowker, MA, ATC, provides these tips on how to keep hydrated to coaches and wrestlers at her presentations.
Two Days Prior to Testing
• Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day (water has no calories).
• Increase intake of foods high in fiber (such as salads, cereal, vegetables, and fruits)—which will help with the removal of excess weight from the body.
• Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
• Avoid foods high in fat (fried foods, meat, french fries, pizza).
• Avoid salty foods (potato chips, pretzels, tuna, crackers, soft drinks).
• Be sure you eat and drink—do not dehydrate!
One Day Before Testing
• Continue drinking fluids. Urine should be clear if you are fully hydrated.
• Continue eating fibrous foods to eliminate excessive waste from the body.
• Stay away from fatty foods and snacks.
• Avoid caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, soda, etc.)
• Avoid any vitamins or mineral supplements.
Day of Testing
• Avoid caffeinated drinks.
• Drink about 17 ounces of fluid (a sports drink is an excellent choice).
• No vigorous activity on the day of testing.
• Avoid any vitamin or mineral supplements.