The favorite pastime of many wrestling fans during the off-season is tinkering with potential line-ups and speculating about potential weight moves. This is understandable. Every off-season we see wrestlers move weights, both up and down. Sometimes it works out, like in the case of Seth Gross (South Dakota State) who moved down to 133 and made the national finals or Bo Nickal (Penn State) who went up to 184 and won a national title. Other times, it doesn’t work as well, but with the lower weight divisions separated by just eight pounds, it is understandable that athletes who look “too small” or are having a hard time with the cut would be the topic of discussion over the summer.
Of course, fan speculation doesn’t have much effect on the team itself. While it is fun to play with future line-ups, coaching staffs and athletes have to make these decisions for real. We asked the coaching staffs of several high-profile programs about their approach to future line-up planning. Many declined to comment, but Oklahoma State and Ohio State were kind enough to offer some insight into their process. There appear to be three possible approaches from a theoretical standpoint. First, you could talk to your wrestlers now about what weight they need to be next season, maximizing their time to prepare their body either by getting bigger or slimming down. You could also wait a while to see how the early off-season plays out. This allows athletes to get healthy, gives coaches a chance to see how big each one gets, and gives everyone time to think about what is best. The third possible approach is that a coaching staff allows the athletes to make the decision on where to compete and lets the lineup be decided in the fall.
John Smith (Oklahoma State) made it clear that his athletes know where he expects them to be saying, “We talk to them in the recruiting process about, ‘You’ll be a 125 pounder and we need you there for four years.’ They can go elsewhere or buy into it. The decision is made in the recruiting process and if it changes, it changes because somebody actually grew, somebody put on more strength and power and has moved out of the weight class, but most of the time, we’re not getting it wrong on where we’re recruiting guys. You can’t afford to now with 9.9 scholarships. If you’re coming in at 133, more than likely we need you at 133. Gotta be real careful about moving guys because of the scholarship limitations and being able to put a full team out.”
Obviously, after putting all 10 wrestlers into the NCAA tournament as top-10 seeds and producing eight All-Americans, the whole team approach is working for the Cowboys. Smith also said that he likes to wait a while after the NCAA tournament before discussing any potential weight moves as it gives the athlete time to recover from a long season and gain perspective on where his best weight might be going forward. How an athlete approaches his weight also factors into the decision. Said Smith, “You have a plan two and three years out where people are going to be and the only people that really make any changes within that program are the guys you saw during thew year who took care of their weight, but yet it was a struggle and they weren’t getting their best performance with one hour weigh-ins. Those are the individuals that you’re looking to get bigger stronger and maybe move up.”
Ohio State takes a similar approach as far as working into the off-season a little bit before making their decisions. Their process includes determining two things, what weight makes the most sense for the student athlete and what weight makes the most sense for the team. After gathering as much data and feedback from the athlete as possible, the coaching staff will make the decision as to who moves where. However, some decisions don’t need to wait. The Buckeyes have already decided that Luke Pletcher, who came out of redshirt to wrestle at 141 this season, eventually earning the number 12 seed at nationals, plans to redshirt next season and move back down to 133 for 2018-19 after Nathan Tomasello graduates.
Every program likely has a plan two to three years out like the Cowboys do and I would expect that each of them also discusses any weight changes with the athlete at length before a final decision is made. Coach Smith’s point about buy-in is as true each season as it is in the recruiting process. No matter what the numbers say or what the coaching staff sees, ultimately each individual wrestler will be the one maintaining their weight and competing. If they don’t believe they are at the right weight, it could hurt their performance. Getting athletes to the right weights to help the team and also ensuring that each athlete buys into what the team is doing is critical to overall team success. While fans will always enjoy speculating and tinkering with future line-ups, getting to the right one is a complicated endeavor that requires careful planning.