Friday, November 17th was the official beginning of the 2017-18 Pennsylvania High School winter sports season. It is also the beginning of something much more. Arguably the most competitive state in the nation, Pennsylvania has a very deeply-understood culture around the sport of wrestling. Individuals from all over the state are now officially beginning their training. What this often looks like is students wearing trash bags, layers upon layers of clothing, spitting into empty bottles to lose minute amounts of water from their body and starving themselves to get to a ridiculously low weight. Historically, these actions were accepted norms and continue to be thought of as an integral part of the sport, resulting in a negative impact on the health of wrestlers. The negative impacts can be inconspicuous or visible results from mental illnesses, such as Anorexia Nervosa,and Bulimia Nervosa.These eating disorders can be classified by a combination of different symptoms. Anorexia has symptoms of extremely low body weight, severe food restriction, pursuit for thinness, and intense fear of gaining weight, while being accompanied by actions of “extreme dieting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas1.” Bulimia is often classified from actions of frequent unusual consumption of food, such as binging and purging. Individuals often eat large amount of food during an episode and then follow with induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, and excessive exercise1. The actions associated with diagnosing these eating disorders are common among wrestlers. “In attempt to excel or get ahead in their sport,” registered dietitian nutritionist and eating disorder registered dietitian, Crystal Karges, stresses, wrestlers will try to get to the lowest weight possible by any means necessary, potentially leading to these eating disorders2. Is this really what the sport requires? The unhealthy weight management of wrestlers is pervasive in its culture, but statewide regulations and school-level interventions seek to change this culture.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) creates the rules and regulations for interscholastic athletics in Pennsylvania to protect student athletes. Due to the health effects of poor weight management, PIAA regulates the lowest healthy weight an individual can go down to: the minimum wrestling weight (MWW). Before the season, all wrestlers must have their MWW calculated. To do so, they must pass a hydration test, followed by an Authorized Medical Examiner measuring their Body Mass Index (BMI) and weight. The measurements are placed into an Optimal Performance Calculator to determine the lowest weight the athlete can drop to and develop a plan for a healthy weight loss rate. Additionally, half way through the season, each weight class has an additional two-pound growth allowance. These regulations were put in place to make sure the students are physically healthy while competing. However, even with these precautions, there isn’t a regulation on how the student athletes should maintain their weight.
Who dictates how a wrestler can get their weight down to their weight class and maintain it? Well, it comes down to the individual themselves. However, friends and family can have a strong influence of how they should do so. The movie Reversal highlights a high school wrestler’s struggle dealing with his weight and with pressure from his father, the head coach. Early in the movie, the mother of the wrestler makes his favorite food for dinner. However, the father pressures him into not eating it. That evening the wrestler sneaks to the kitchen, eats the food, and then forces himself to vomit it back up. Similarly, I remember when I was beginning my wrestling career, parents had their elementary-aged kids running in trash bags or sauna suits before a weigh-in. It would be common to hear the child complaining about being tired and hungry and that parent respond with, “You can eat after your weigh-in tomorrow.” This behavior is ingrained, following the wrestler throughout high school. The wrestler feels they have to starve themselves to make their weight. The mindset spreads to their teammates because they learn from each other the so called best ways to make their weight. Once they do make their weigh-in, the wrestlers then binge eat. Thus causing them to be overweight and needing to lose between 5-10lbs the following week for another competition. It becomes an endless cycle, and the wrestlers become constantly fatigued and irritable, showing signs of both physical and mental instability. They are pressured to continue the behaviors that parallel Anorexia and Bulimia. I am emphasizing weight management because I was a wrestler for over 18 years and had some similar struggles. Fortunately, I also learned healthy ways to maintain my weight from the support of my coaches and family.
I find it important to reflect on my personal experiences, because I am beginning my first year as an assistant high school wrestling coach. I want to be as supportive as possible and provide my team with the best experience possible. From day one, I already saw wrestlers wearing long sleeves to practice and a few of those individuals cramping because they were dehydrated. I had conversations with several of my wrestlers and they don’t want to have to struggle with reaching their weight class. They feel fatigued, ornery, and all of them are unsure how to approach their descent without going back to the “traditional” way of cutting weight. Already, I was nervous about trying to convince them to focus on healthier habits. However, I soon felt reassured by the rest of my coaching staff to support focusing on healthy habits for our wrestlers. They have created a manual to give to all the wrestlers, containing sport and team rules, self-reflection tools, and nutrition education for weight management. The last preseason practice consisted of going through that manual with the team to educate them.
Although I have focused heavily on the sport of wrestling, I believe all coaches should do more to educate athletes on physical and mental health in the context of their sport. I believe this is a step in the right direction. The peers, coaches, families, and other people in the wrestlers’ lives have a strong influence on the perception of our wrestlers. These people influence the thoughts decisions and actions of the athlete, impacting the athletic environment. If we, the people in the athletes lives, take steps to support and educate our athletes, it will improve their health and wellbeing.
NPHC member and North Hills Assistant Wrestling Coach, Tyler Hendricks, pictured far right.
1. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. (2014). Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml
2. Karges, C., MS, RDN, IBCLC. (2015, June). Male Wrestlers and Bulimia – How Does It Happen? What Do Coaches and Parents Need to Know? Retrieved December, 2017, from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/specia...
This post was written by NPHC member Tyler Hendricks.
Tyler Hendricks serves at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh - UPMC as an Outreach Coordinator.