The referee grabs the wrestler’s wrist and lifts his hand into the air as the crowd cheers for the victor.
But many of those applauding don’t realize how little the minutes on the mat factored into the victory. What they are actually cheering are the previous days, weeks and years of work.
Technique, stamina and strength – all improved by countless workouts — become tools a wrestler uses to better himself during a match. But there is one thing that separates a wrestler from all other high school athletes: weight management.
Weight management has become a crucial part of a wrestler’s ability to gain an edge over his opponent. It also is one of the toughest processes — physically and mentally — he has to go through while competing.
“Once again it comes down to discipline and staying committed,” said Elyria coach Erik Burnett, who won four state championships at Oberlin High. “It’s mental, absolutely. Your buddies or your girlfriend want to go out and, yeah, it would be great to go out and be able to eat a pizza and drink a bunch of soda pop and do all that stuff. But you made a commitment.”
The commitment is to a weight class in the team’s lineup, and it takes 14 wrestlers making their weight goals for a program to be at full strength. If just one wrestler misses weight, he either has to sit out the match or the coaches are forced to adjust the lineup and another starter is squeezed out.
When the wrestler stays on target, he immediately gains an advantage on those who decide to wrestle at the same weight class but don’t have the desire — or ability — to cut weight. Wrestlers cut down to an optimal weight so they can be stronger and more dominant than the competition. If they’ve also put in the work on technique and stamina, they can be nearly unstoppable.
“It definitely teaches kids a lot about responsibility,” said Amherst coach Brian Cesear, a two-time state placer. “It’s definitely one of the tougher things out there when it comes to high school sports, but I think it’s valuable. When you can get all your weight to where it’s just basically muscle, that’s where you want to be at.”
The idea of weight management has had a negative light shined upon it in the past.
“I hear that all the time … ‘Oh, you’re a wrestling coach? How many of your kids are starving?’” Westlake assistant coach Matt Curley said.
It reached its darkest moment in 1997, when three college wrestlers died within a six-week period due to the effects of poor weight-cutting practices that included wearing rubber suits in saunas, taking the supplement creatine without the addition of water and mixing in ephedrine.
“There have been rules put in place since athletes have died to try and change this mentality in the cutting process,” Burnett said. “The trend in wrestling is to go away from that type of weight-cutting. It doesn’t behoove you to cut a bunch of weight improperly.”
The reforms in weight management include moving the weigh-ins from the day before competition to one hour before a wrestler steps on the mat, and the Ohio High School Athletic Association adopting the weight certification test in 2006.
“Before my time they had to weigh in the night before,” Cesear said. “So you had 24 hours to replenish your body and wrestle. You could be really, really dehydrated and then rehydrate yourself within that 24-hour period.
“Then they went to the second-day weigh-in and that made it harder to cut as much weight. Now that they have the body-fat assessment it makes it even harder to drop a drastic amount of weight.”
The lower recovery time between weigh-in and the match, and the measuring of body fat and hydration levels to determine an “alpha” weight have gone a long way in not allowing massive weight cuts among high school wrestlers.
Mark Moos, who won a pair of state titles and was a four-time state placer at St. Edward, took over Lorain High’s program this year and his first act was to bring in a nutritionist to talk to his team.
“With our society nowadays, it’s normal to have your kids eating fast food constantly,” he said. “I’m guilty. My kids love McDonald’s. It’s become such a regular part of everybody’s diet, so when you want them to watch what they eat or to eat healthy, they don’t really understand what all that fast food does to their body.”
Moos said the kids and their parents listened to the nutritionist’s hour-long presentation. She also wrote up a couple of diets that would be optimal in managing their weight safely.
That seems to be the key among area coaches.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with a healthy diet,” Burnett said. “I tell the wrestlers that I train, ‘What’s wrong with eating right?’ It takes a lot of dedication to eat right every day. It takes a lot of dedication to monitor what you’re doing. That’s what sports like wrestling, MMA and boxing are all about. You have to be very disciplined.
“These types of sports aren’t for everybody. If you don’t want to monitor your weight, wrestling’s not going to be a big part of your life.”
The UFC’s reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” has often shown the rigors involved in weight management — two MMA fighters failed to make weight on the most recent season — and Curley also had a tough time with the process in the high school wrestling documentary, “Pinned.”
Curley was shown measuring water and food that he allowed himself to consume while trying to drop down a weight class before the postseason.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been made fun of about that,” he said. “There are tons of things you do when you’re younger that you think, ‘Oh, I was pretty stupid for doing that.’ There’s so much in that movie that I look at and think, ‘What was I thinking? What a knucklehead.’”
But it appears the “knucklehead” practices are starting to disappear from the high school wrestling scene. Many programs are run by former elite wrestlers who’ve learned how to successfully — and safely — manage weight and the current wrestlers are buying in to the updated processes.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” Cesear said. “There’s always some kids that don’t do it the right way and they might have a bad experience and that might draw some bad attention, but I think (the OHSAA is) taking the proper precautions. There’s nothing wrong with losing weight as long as it’s done safely.”
Almost all the coaches agree that means eating regularly to keep up your metabolism, dropping the weight slowly through the course of a week and putting in extra workouts after the regular practices.
They also agree that weight management isn’t just about gaining a competitive edge, it teaches teenagers lessons about discipline and commitment that they’ll use the rest of their lives.
“It would be awesome if everybody experienced maintaining a diet, and not being allowed to cheat on that diet, and having someone at the end of every week say, ‘You have to be at this weight ... or else,’” Burnett said. “If everyone could experience that, then I think they would understand what wrestlers and boxers and MMA guys are going through. It’s a constant commitment.
“I think everybody knows what commitment is, but I think this kind of takes it to a different level.”
While weight management has gotten a bad rap in the past, it’s becoming obvious that it’s beneficial on and off the mat and that the benefits can be safely achieved.
“I think when it comes to weight-cutting, if you do everything right you’re going to stay strong and you’re not going to break,” Burnett said. “I heard a quote the other day … it’s an Abe Lincoln quote. He said if somebody told him that he had eight hours to cut down a tree, he’d spend the first six sharpening his ax.”
If a wrestler’s body is the ax … weight management has become the sharpening tool.