It isn't anorexia or bulimia. It doesn't have an official name, nor is it a real illness. But during high school wrestling season, "making weight" can become an epidemic among teen-age athletes.
Fasting and dehydrating in order to drop weight quickly before a match are deliberate abuses of which medical and sports authorities have long disapproved. Yet the pressure of competition can push the young wrestler and his coach toward abusive weight loss methods in order to qualify against a weaker, lighter opponent or to round out a small team's representation in all weight classes.
"The current system promotes bumping," said a panel on wrestling weight reduction in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine. Team stars aren't likely to be bumped from their weight classes; the less talented boy tries to move into an unfilled class so that he gets a chance to compete.
High school wrestling has 12 weight classes, ranging from 98 pounds to "unlimited" (185-284 pounds), with about seven pounds in each class. Half an ounce of excess weight at the official weigh-in will keep the wrestler from competing in his designated class, although he may compete in the next higher class. The coach's wrath may fall on him if this happens too often. He may be assigned hours of extra workouts, moved to the next class, or dropped from the team. In such circumstances, even boys who understand good nutrition can turn into crash dieters.
Time-honored weight loss techniques include prolonged fasting and fluid deprivation, use of laxatives and diuretics, and jogging in place inside a steam shower or sauna while wearing a rubber suit to increase sweating. Some boys also learn to chew tobacco or gum and spit constantly to get rid of more fluid weight.
Although these practices have been condemned for more than two decades by such authorities as the American College of Sports Medicine, National Federation of State High School Associations and American Medical Association, they are still handed down among high school wrestlers today. Suits and saunas get used in spite of their illegality, and penalties are seldom if ever applied. Coaches say, "It may happen in isolated instances"; wrestlers say it is an open secret.
Once extra weight has been dropped and a wrestler officially weighs in, he is free to gorge on food and drink to regain strength before the match begins. If weigh-in takes place hours in advance, his actual weight may rise several pounds above his nominal class by the time he finally gets to the mat.
With one or two matches scheduled each week during a five-month wrestling season, the athlete who wants to compete at lower-than-normal weight finds himself repeating this starve/binge cycle over and over. Similarly, the 14-year-old boy who is growing fast must somehow limit his normal weight increase to a pound or two during the season, if he is to keep his slot on the team. Strength and concentration may drop, and the wrestler may suffer from nosebleeds, fainting, anemia or more serious health problems.
Even worse is the situation of a competitor who can't win matches in either his normal weight class or the next higher or lower one. In search of an opponent he can pin, he may try either to put on or to lose as much as 20 pounds, jumping several weight classes. If defeated again, he might try his luck at the other end -- all within the space of a few weeks. Like a yoyo, his health can come unwound.
The long-term consequences of severe dietary abuse might include fluid retention, hair loss, low blood pressure, metabolic and blood imbalances and even death, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Fasting for just one or two days might not be damaging to a healthy individual, writes Dr. Nathan J. Smith in his book "Food for Sport," but an athlete cannot expect to compete effectively if deprived of energy sources.
Erratic eating does arrest growth during the wrestling season, Smith adds. Although he and other physicians believe there is no evidence of permanent effects such as stunted growth, the coaches and parents of wrestlers sometimes tell anecdotes about families where sons who wrestled in high school never got to be as tall as their siblings.
Physicians cite many problems caused by making weight: depression, reduction in muscular strength, decrease in work performance and learning ability, lower blood plasma volume, reduction in cardiac function, lower oxygen consumption, impairment of body heat regulation, decrease in renal blood flow and urine, and excessive loss of electrolytes. The American College of Sports Medicine and an American Medical Association committee on sports have stated that such conditions can impede normal growth and development.
Dehydration, says the AMA, will cause premature fatigue and impair a wrestler's performance faster than deficiency of any other nutrient. In a hard workout, five or six pounds may be lost through sweating. If the wrestler already was dehydrated before his match began, he will be seriously short on both water and electrolytes by the time it is over. That is one reason why some competitors "turn green" or "gray out" on the mat.
Nutritionists point out the great difference between dropping weight through this kind of dehydration and reducing body fat to attain a more stable competitive weight. While the average teen-age male has roughly 18 percent body fat, athletes can safely drop to about 10 percent by judicious dieting and conditioning. (It is inadvisable for teens to go below 7 percent body fat, says nutritionist Monica Olsen of the Dairy Council of Greater Metropolitan Washington.)
Nutritional education is not yet a top priority for most high school wrestling teams. Instead, coaches and wrestlers are tightly focused on winning the next meet. As one varsity wrestler puts it: "The coach doesn't force anyone to do anything. He just says, 'Lose weight.' It's up to you how you do it."
Nevertheless, school systems which have adopted the wrestling rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations are aware of the hazards of severe dieting and wide swings in weight. Local athletics coordinators express dislike for rapid weight loss practices. "I've been close to the sport for 25 years as a coach and official, and I know it haunts all coaches and officials," says Lewis Jenkins, commissioner of the Washington Metropolitan Wrestling Officials Association, which assigns referees in the District, Prince George's, Montgomery, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties and part of Anne Arundel County.
Jenkins says coaches need help with nutrition education. He believes all competitors should be weighed in advance by the same physician, who would certify their best competitive weight before the season begins. After that, says Jenkins, they shouldn't be allowed to drop to lower weight classes.
The American College of Sports Medicine says more official weigh-ins should occur between matches, and that in playoffs, wrestlers should be able to participate only in the class where they had the most matches during the season.
William Savage, who has been athletics coordinator with Fairfax County schools for 15 years, says one valuable protection against weight abuses is the certified athletic trainer program, which has been in effect at Fairfax's 23 high schools for four years. "It has greater importance than anything else we've done," says Savage. "The trainer can monitor these concerns through daily official weigh-ins." A sports dietitian also has been consulted by some Fairfax coaches.
Montgomery County's Ed Masood, recently named to the state wrestling hall of fame, has served as Maryland wrestling rules interpreter since 1977. He says that both national and state rules now preclude a wrestler from being recertified at a lower weight after the season begins. "It took three or four years to be adopted," says Masood. "Coaches send me a weight certification card and, after a match or tournament, a result sheet with standings and weight classes. We don't check every kid at every match, but randomly throughout the season. If there are yoyos, the coach gets a call."
Rubber suits, rope jumping in saunas and any other artificial method of weight loss are illegal,Masood emphasizes. "If a kid uses them, he forfeits the match and the team loses. But I'm not in the room to check what he has on under his sweats.
"What we've tried to do is see that kids aren't in a continuing pattern of loss and gain. We want them to stay as close to their optimum weight as possible."
How is that weight determined? Each wrestler now must bring in a physician's statement of weight, height and general health before the start of the season. This document, known as the sports physical, applies to all sports and is not really oriented to the weight concerns of wrestlers.
In addition to this document, Masood would like to have doctors determine each wrestler's body fat level by skinfold caliper testing and observation, and then recommend a minimum weight below which the boy could not compete. Masood currently is seeking medical volunteers to carry out this project as a community service, under a computerized program.
An average of three skinfold tests, plus data such as the wrestler's weight, height and exact age, would yield the minimum percent of body fat the boy should attempt to reach by dieting. "Most kids shouldn't be asked to drop more than 6 to 10 percent of total body weight," says Masood.
As a bonus, he believes this medical volunteer program could help to educate coaches on training methods and nutrition throughout the season.
Sports medicine and nutrition organizations concur about the need for more education, supervision and monitoring, especially for young novice wrestlers. The beginner, they say, usually is the one most tempted by crash diets and rubber suits.
Coaches can't keep an eye on every kid every moment. But new efforts can help the whole team become aware that "making weight" abuse, like anorexia and bulimia, is a secret that needs to be told.