It's not just small schools that are losing numbers. The following article is from the Bloomington Herald Times:
Is wrestling an endangered sport?
This is a question area coaches are asking as they see fewer and fewer kids come out. Gone are the days when a coach can take his pick from a squad of 40. Today he is lucky to have 20. Tomorrow is looking even dimmer.
Only four freshmen came out for wrestling at South and Owen Valley this year. Edgewood coach Andy Bengtson counted five freshmen. North coach Perry Summitt counted six. Had not eight freshmen come out at Brown County, the Eagles would have been hard pressed to field a team.
Is it just a just a temporary lapse, or is it a trend?
It might just be a local phenomenon. The National Federation of High School Associations noted an increase of 1.1 percent in wrestling participation nationally n 2007-08. The total number of wrestlers was 265,215, making it the sixth highest participation sport. But that is of little consolation to area coaches, who only know the numbers right in front of them.
Said South coach Royce Deckard, “When I wrestled in the 1960s, we had so many kids that you could wrestle four years and not make the varsity.”
Searching for answers
Ask any one of these coaches and they have a theory as to why the numbers are declining. A lot of theories pertain to the social climate and the sport itself. Let’s face it, what sport demands more discipline and more self-sacrifice than wrestling? What sport has so little payback in terms of glory for all the work that goes into it? What sport has more risk of personal humiliation?
“You practice in a room that is 88 degrees, get beat to a pulp and then have to keep your weight down,” Bengston said.
It is even more daunting out there in a real match, Bengtson said.
“You take a young man in the prime of life, wearing next to nothing, and put him in front of hundreds of fans — with no teammates around him. And it’s either you or me. To lose is humiliating. It’s a huge blow to your pride and you are half naked. You are so exposed.”
“Some kids can’t deal with public defeat,” Deckard said. “It’s different than team sports. In team sports there is somebody else to help you share it.”
For the love of the sport
What sort of satisfaction does a wrestler get in return? Wrestling can’t compete with boys’ basketball for fan appeal or space on the sports pages. A good crowd in wrestling would be 500. So the risk/reward factor is not at all even.
North assistant Lee Miracle talked about that aspect of it.
“There are no millions to be made in wrestling,” he said. “There is no Hollywood to it. In this generation of immediate gratification, it is not celebrated like the other sports. We keep getting pushed to the back gym.”
You can’t blame this generation for looking at less demanding extracurricular options. In addition to other winter sports, basketball and swimming, there are alternatives such as swing choir, theater, student government or maybe even the debate team.
“Some kids would rather be second string on the football team than go out for wrestling,” Deckard said.
Some kids may elect to take a break between fall and spring sports. Some may opt for a part-time job. Some may be content to stay home and play video games.
“Nothing against technology, but we are in the age of computers and video games,” Bengtson said. “Kids can stay home and play on the computer. They aren’t used to the activity that wrestling requires.”
A 24-7 sport
From the time a kid reports to camp, it is all wrestling all the time. Forget about hamburgers, pizza and milk shakes. A good meal for a wrestler is a salad and some broiled fish. The holidays offer no relief. In fact, they are downright torturous.
“We have a meet right after Thanksgiving and another right after Christmas, so we have to train right on through,” Bengtson pointed out.
“Some kids go out and find that the sport is way harder than they ever imagined,” Owen Valley coach David Stewart said. “Not every kid is meant to be a wrestler. The ones who stay are the ones who really love it.”
“I don’t know if it is society or what,” Deckard said. “I don’t know if the kids want to put in the hard work any more.”
No pain, no gain
And then there is also the increased risk of injury. As contact sports go, wrestling is basically hand-to-hand combat. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrestling is the fourth highest participation sport at the middle school level and the second highest in number of injuries. No wonder the ranks are thinning at the high school level. And as Bengtson noted, you have to always have your “A” game in wrestling.
“In the traditional sports like football, basketball and swimming, if you are injured you can still perform,” he said. “But in wrestling, if you are not in your best shape, you can’t perform. The kids know that and so are unwilling to prepare themselves.”
“It’s a testament to our times,” North’s Summitt said. “Wrestling is the toughest sport bar none. A lot of kids don’t want any part of it.”
Winning them back
Summitt and Miracle are planning some things at North this year to make their meets more fun and lively. Each match will be staged under a spotlight. Each wrestler will be introduced with his own personal theme music. Local radio personality Sheila Stephen will serve as announcer.
“We are pulling out all the stops to make wrestling exciting again,” Miracle said.
Another strategy is to beef up the feeder systems.
“We started our AAU and freestyle programs six years ago,” Bengtson said. “We still haven’t totally reaped those benefits, but as they come around our numbers should start to improve.”
“We give them all kinds of opportunities in the summer,” Brown County’s Bruner said. “We have clubs set up, give them every opportunity to make themselves good wrestlers. The opportunities are there.”
The coaches want athletes to understand the man upsides that wrestling offers.
“With wrestling, if you dedicate yourself and discipline yourself like the good ones do, you are going to succeed at something later in life,” Deckard said.
“If all kids could only experience the thrill of achievement that comes with wrestling,” said Bengtson, who excelled at wrestling and football in high school and college.
“When you win, the rush you receive from succeeding in the sport is second to none,” he said. “I’ve had the benefit of both football and wrestling. Wrestling has such of sense of accomplishment. It is just you, your opponent and the mat. It teaches so many life lessons — discipline and mental toughness and hard work — things that will help you later on.”