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Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)

Pizza. Ice cream. Candy.

For four months, high school wrestlers can only crave some of their favorite foods and snacks.

High school wrestlers seeking elite status and national championships can go nine months between short binges on some of those food items they deem off limits in-season.

Wrestling is a tough sport and demands an incredible amount of discipline: Maintaining weight with a healthy diet is every bit as important as using sound technique and staying in good positions.

"They can eat whatever they want. It's what we encourage kids to eat rather than those foods that are the bad carbs," Dubuque Hempstead wrestling coach Chuck Haas said. "They need to get that protein into their system, but what they don't need to do is overindulge in bad carbs. Those are tough calories to work off."

Too often in the past, wrestlers and coaches have looked to drop to the lowest possible weight, seeking out any possible competitive advantage, sometimes at the expense of the athlete.

Thanks to weight management rules and advanced knowledge of the detrimental effects of rapid weight loss, weight cutting in the sport has undergone a revolution.

"It was all about losing water weight. Today it's all about technique and getting in shape," said former Western Dubuque wrestling coach Tom Danner, who cut 27 pounds as a wrestler in college at a time when a portion of wrestling practice was devoted solely to weight loss.

"That was a lot of the wrestlers' main concerns, was losing weight," he said. "Today they go in in T-shirts and gym shorts. In the old days it was three sweat shirts, sweat pants. Can't do that today."

Haas remembers a similar situation when he was in high school. He weighed 235 pounds for his senior football season, then wrestled at 185 that winter.

"It's completely changed," he said. "You just did it and I probably wasn't the only one in the world who did that. Today, if a kid's losing 10 pounds over a week period, that's a lot of weight for a kid to lose. Back then there were kids dropping 20 pounds in a week."

The Iowa High School Athletic Association is one of 32 state high school associations listed as a client of the National Wrestling Coaches Association's Optimal Performance Calculator, which helps athletes formulate a healthy diet plan to lose, gain or maintain weight.

According to the NWCA, more than 240,000 wrestlers between middle school and college use the calculator each year to establish an ideal weight for competition. More than 7,000 coaches and 8,000 trainers also participate in the program.

Neither the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association nor the Illinois High School Association appear on the list.

The OPC is designed to "evaluate an athlete's body fat, weight, and hydration levels to determine a 'goal competition weight' and a safe weight loss plan."

Coaches use that information to determine the lowest possible weight a wrestler can compete at. From there it's up to the wrestler and coach if they try to fit into that roster slot.

And that's where coaches differ, but not as much as in years past.

"With all the directions we get now from the state, they've done a great job of making the sport a lot more credible," said Danner, who now coaches the Bobcats' middle school program. "And they're probably light years ahead of other sports on proper nutrition.

"Old school you try to cut as much weight as you could. Today you want to be at your best weight possible where you can be at your best."

The IHSAA believed the development of a weight control program which encouraged safe weight loss was a primary factor in promoting proper weight management among wrestlers and began seeking a safe formula in 1968.

In 1987, the IHSAA began providing body composition assessments for each Iowa high school with a wrestling program, which became mandatory beginning with the 1998-99 season.

"There's become much more of a science and more education for all wrestlers today," Haas said.

Prior to the first competition, wrestlers will be measured by certified trainers to determine their body fat. Once that has been determined, calculations can be done to determine what each wrestler's minimum weight is - a wrestler can't go below 7 percent body fat.

The National Federation of High Schools' wrestling rules mandate hydration and body composition assessments.

"The NFHS and IHSAA are NOT encouraging wrestlers to attain their minimum weight," reads a portion of the IHSAA's wrestling manual. "Many wrestlers might actually perform better while weighing more than their minimum wrestling weight. A wrestler's minimum wrestling weight might not be his optimal competitive weight. It is simply the lowest, safe weight at which a wrestler may compete."

Dyersville Beckman coach Kevin Hogan, who won back-to-back state titles in 1989-90 for Edgewood-Colesburg, agrees.

"Each case is different. I'm not big on it, not at the high school level. If you go on to be a collegiate wrestler, it's more about nutrition and healthy living. That has as much to do with being a great collegiate wrestler as your skill," Hogan said. "I'm more interested in seeing kids step up to the challenge, and I understand everyone wants to win, but if you get more kids that want to compete for the love of the sport and the competition, they're going to fare a lot better than the kids that (say) 'I've got to cut weight just because I'm going to get more competitive if I get down to this weight.' And some kids are doing an astronomical number.

"For their overall growth in the sport I think we're better off where they feel good. I want kids to come in every day to practice and have fun, not be stiff ... and so it doesn't become a job, like a weight-cutting job."

In the past, wrestlers would wear two or three sweatshirts, a couple pairs of sweatpants or a rubber suit and work out in an overheated wrestling room. Programs are now directed to keep the wrestling room temperature at a "normal" level with proper ventilation.

"The sport has better wrestlers today," Danner said. "In the old days they spent more time in practice cutting weight. Now they can spend more time on technique without the weight cutting hanging over their heads."

Losing weight is just one side of the equation. Wrestlers must maintain the weight once they lose it - and that may or may not include that extra 5 pounds put on over the holiday break.

And then there are those wrestlers currently at the low end of their optimal competitive weight who wish to gain a few pounds.

"There really is both ends of the spectrum in the sport," Haas said.

Life is good for those wrestlers, who can perhaps splurge and eat that steak or fill up on an extra helping of mashed potatoes - in addition to lifting weights - in an effort to gain back a bit of a competitive edge.

 

January 3, 2014 
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