Amateur wrestling is a physically demanding sport, putting considerable strain on participants in all three of its forms: folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman. Traditionally, wrestlers have competed in the lowest weight class possible to gain an edge on opponents. The resulting training techniques created myriad health risks. As in other sports, injuries occur in training and competition. Participation declined for a variety of reasons at the high school level and scholarship opportunities have shrunk at the U.S. collegiate level.
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Pressure to Make Weight
The National Wrestling Coaches Association supports reforms designed to eliminate extreme weight-loss measures in the sport. "Historically, unhealthy weight loss has plagued amateur wrestling and has routinely been the number one objection that parents and students cite for not wanting to participate in wrestling," the association says. "In fact, between 1975 and 1998, high school participation fell by nearly 130,000 in large part, due to the weight loss aspect."
To make weight for matches, wrestlers have tried to sweat out several pounds through various means, including exercising with rubber suits in a heated environment. A series of collegiate wrestling deaths from heart and kidney failure in 1997 during such workouts prompted a variety of reforms at all levels of the sport.
Wrestlers also have developed unhealthy eating habits while trying to maintain abnormally low weight levels. The NWCA is promoting a comprehensive nutrition program designed to help wrestlers control their weight safely.
Hand, Wrist, Finger Injuries
Damage to fingers, hands and wrists were the most common injuries, according a study published in the "Western Journal of Emergency Medicine." The study analyzed 173,604 emergency department cases involving wrestlers 7 to 17 years old from 2000 to 2006. Nearly one-fifth of the injuries to wrestlers 12 to 17 years old were to the hand, wrist and finger.
Arm, Elbow and Shoulder Injuries
Injuries to the shoulder area ranked third-highest among the cases in the study. Elbow and arm injuries also were prominent in the reporting. Overall, strains and sprains accounted for the biggest percentage of wrestling-related injuries examined in that sport, although younger wrestlers appeared to be more vulnerable to fractures.
Knee and Ankle Injuries
After examining injury data for high school wrestlers, Dr. Dawn Comstock expressed concern about freestyle wrestling leg injuries in her blog on the Training & Conditioning website. She recommends that coaches should "emphasize methods for protecting knees and ankles" and that referees "should be vigilant calling wrestlers for attacking their opponent’s legs with illegal techniques."
Injuries to the trunk and pubic area were the fifth-most common injury cited in the study published in the "Western Journal of Emergency Medicine." Overall, overexertion was listed as the most common cause of wrestling injuries, followed by body strikes and the impact of takedowns.
Head, Neck, Face, Eye, Mouth, Ear Injuries
Although wrestlers wear protective headgear, they are exposed to a variety of injuries through contact with their opponent and the mat. Contusions and lacerations are fairly common and concussions occur as well.
Wrestlers can become infected through contact with other competitors and the mats. The NWCA and Fresh Health, LLC, produced a free web-based seminar on skin infections for high school competitors to access.
Declining College Scholarship Opportunities
Budget concerns have forced colleges to drop wrestling programs, dramatically reducing the number of scholarship opportunities. In Oregon, for instance, 14 colleges dropped the sport in the last 35 years. More than 100 schools have dropped the sport nationwide during that span. “You want to see the opportunities be representative of the interest that is out there," Kevin Roberts, an Oregon State assistant wrestling coach told "The Oregonian" in 2009. "The lack of opportunity at the college level in this part of the country is staggering. Numbers don't lie."