High school wrestling is enduring some tough times.
Everyone involved in the sport knows that.
Participation is down and forfeits are up.
Take last Thursday, Jan. 11, as just an example. It was a full night of York-Adams League competition. Results for nine matches involving 17 league teams could be tracked down. Those matches featured 47 forfeits, or more than five forfeits per match. In nearly 19 percent of the weight classes, the local teams didn’t field a competitor.
And this is in Pennsylvania, which has long been considered a wrestling-mad state.
Nationally, the situation is even worse.
The National Wrestling Coaches Association reports that the average size of a high school wrestling roster has decreased from 37 to 23 in the last six years and that 29 percent of high school dual-meet matches now result in forfeits. In addition, high school boys’ participation in wrestling — which ranks seventh among high school sports — has dropped six straight years.
Those are frightening numbers for the sport.
Identifying the problem is easy. Solving the problem is infinitely more difficult.
Task force: To their credit, many of the sport's powers-that-be aren’t sitting idly by while the endeavor they love loses ground to other athletic pastimes.
They’ve decided to do something about it.
This past summer, the NWCA decided to form a Blue Ribbon Task Force to discuss the challenges facing the sport. The group will hopefully produce some solutions by next summer.
The task force faces a daunting task.
Wrestling is a sport that is physically exhausting and mentally draining. It’s a team sport, yes, but at its heart, it’s an individual struggle. There’s no place to hide on the mat. Your successes, and your failures, are evident for everyone to see.
It can sometimes be brutal on the fragile ego of a teenage competitor. It is most certainly not for everyone. It takes a special breed of athlete.
Of course, that has always been the case.
So why has the sport suffered so much in recent years?
Many opinions: Not surprisingly, there are various opinions about the decline.
Some blame today’s youth. They claim they are too soft to persevere through the sport’s many hardships.
Some blame the recent increase in club programs that often promote single-sport specialization at a younger age. Athletes who used to compete in wrestling to stay in shape for other sports, now focus year long on just a single sport, usually in an attempt at landing elusive college scholarships.
Still others say the sport needs more dual meets against area rivals and fewer weekend, out-of-town tournaments. They argue that local duals vs. rivals tend to draw more attention from the student body, area fans and the media and would better promote the sport.
There are many other opinions, to be sure.
Coaches weigh in; Eastern York coach Dan Garner, for instance, brings an interesting perspective about youth wrestling.
“I think reducing the amount of competitions in youth wrestling would reduce burnout, the feeling of a ‘pecking order,’ and prematurely thinking that wrestling is not the right sport for them,” Garner said. “I definitely support youth wrestling and believe the wrestlers learn many valuable life lessons. I just believe a little less competition would keep more wrestlers in the sport though their junior high and high school ages, where the competition could have more value and importance.”
Tony Miller, who leads the powerhouse Spring Grove program, believes a delayed start to the wrestling season might help.
“I feel that the limits of competitions and length of the season have impacted wrestling negatively,” Miller said. “Throughout my time as a coach I’ve seen competitions limited in comparison to other sports such as football expanding. With the football playoffs going longer, it impacts many teams. I think a delayed start (for wrestling) would also help participation, giving multiple-sport athletes time off in between seasons.”
Recent moves: Wrestling has already made some recent moves to better the sport.
Strict rules have been put in place to prevent competitors from dropping too much weight too quickly, which had long been a problem in the sport. In addition, procedures have also been installed to prevent the spread of skin diseases. Both moves ensure the health of the young wrestlers, which obviously alleviates the concerns of many parents.
Last year, an alternate two-piece uniform, consisting of compression shorts and a form-fitted compression shirt, was approved for the 2017-18 season. That gave wrestlers the option of the new two-piece uniform or the traditional one-piece singlet.
The idea was to make the sport more appealing to young people who may be turned off by the singlet.
Miller didn’t see much value in that change.
“My kids didn’t care and didn’t want the new style. They like the traditional singlet,” he said.
That seems to be the overwhelming choice throughout the entire York-Adams League, where the traditional singlet still reigns supreme.
All ideas must be considered: Still, it was a good-faith effort to help the sport. At this point, all ideas must be considered. Some will work, some won’t, but it’s clear something must be done. That’s why the Blue Ribbon Task Force has been formed.
Hopefully, it can help rejuvenate interest in a sport that has much to offer.
“Wrestling is a great character builder and competition plays a large role in the process,” Garner said. “How a wrestler responds to winning, losing, instruction for improvement and dealing with adversity lay a foundation for many aspects of their future.”
Garner's right. High school wrestling instills characteristics that can benefit its competitors for a lifetime.
Here’s hoping that some common-sense solutions can be found that will guarantee the long-term future of the sport.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.