Sherrill: New NFHS weight classes: a good idea, but bad execution

Updated: February 10, 2011

Column by WIN High School Editor Rob Sherrill

Many have tried, but none have succeeded. It’s virtually impossible to separate wrestling from the issue of weight control.

Sherrill: New NFHS weight classes: a good idea, but bad execution

Another attempt is being made in the form of a new set of weight classes. If adopted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), they would replace the current system, which was instituted for the 1988-89 season.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) decided not to wait for the NFHS to take action. The IHSAA Board of Control voted last month to adopt the proposed weights.

In completing its 23rd season on the books, the current weight class system has been in effect longer than any set of weight classes in American high school wrestling history … with the only modification the addition of the 215-pound weight class for the 1993-94 season.

The central issue seems to be the 103-pound class, which has become increasingly obsolete as a result of the overall growth of the high school population. It’s a legitimate issue. The least populated weight class in tournaments — and the most forfeited weight class in dual meets — is 103.

But do we know that changing it to 106 pounds is the solution? And what about the other issues the proposed set of weight classes not only fails to address, but even creates?

Though Iowa already has made a commitment, the NFHS — and the rest of the nation — still has time to avoid taking a flying leap without a parachute. Here are two pieces of gentle but firm advice for the NFHS and those charged with devising the impending new set of weight classes; classes we hope don’t signal impending doom.

Give us an odd number of weight classes

Is there anything more idiotic in sports at any level than using our arcane list of criteria to break ties in dual meets? It’s necessary for one reason and one reason only: the 14-class system. Over 95 percent of dual meets that end in a tie feature a 7-7 match split, necessitating this ridiculous practice.

Does “winning” a dual meet by scoring the first point in more matches than the other team really give anyone a feeling of satisfaction? How about winning on a coin flip? And how embarrassed do any of us feel trying to explain this nonsense to someone who’s not a wrestling person … even if that person is a sports fan?

This is another one of those silly rules that ensure that wrestling is a sport only wrestlers could love.

It’s important to remember that the current set of weight classes began as a 13-class system. It didn’t become a 14-class system until the 215-pound class  … and over 15 years of unnecessary madness was added.

Let’s stop the madness once and for all. Design a 13-class system and throw the criteria list onto the scrap heap. The team with seven wins would always be the winner and wrestling, for once, will have made something simple out of something complicated, after years of doing the opposite.

Match weight classes with kids

The current set of weight classes was based on a comprehensive survey of the high school population nationwide. When such global change happens just once in a generation, we owe the wrestlers nothing less. It shouldn’t be based on knee-jerk reactions, as is currently happening with the 103-pound class.

As a 13-class system, the current system was designed to put 7.69 percent of the wrestling population in the range of each of the weight classes (100 / 13). That minimizes the amount of weight cutting, because it gives every wrestler an equal chance to make a line-up based on his weight. Any set of classes based on anything else will result in more weight cutting than we’re comfortable seeing.

But another finding of that survey was this: that about 60 percent of high school wrestlers weigh between 120 and 160 pounds, which led to one of the strengths of the current system: more classes in the middle weights. That statistic likely hasn’t changed.

Yet the proposed system actually reduces the number of middle weights. The current system includes eight classes between 119 and 160; the proposed system includes just seven classes between 120 and 160.

And do we really need five classes between 170 and 285 pounds?

We don’t know the answer to that question and that’s a problem. Based on my observations of tournament brackets over the recent past, my guess is no. Basic statistical theory suggests it’s not a good idea, either. The weight distribution of the wrestling population falls into a bell curve, just like any other distribution.

Adding weight classes at either end of the bell curve is a recipe for disaster, particularly for those in the middle of that bell curve who wind up being underserved…and cutting more weight as a result.

It’s likely that only changing the 103-pound class will result in more weight cutting. With the 112-pound class essentially unchanged (to 113), more wrestlers will see 106 as a more attractive target than 103, and more will make the cut to make the weight. Is that what we want to see?

Fewer weight classes + seven pounds between middle weight classes = more weight cutting. It’s simple math.

The bottom line

Weight cutting will never be eliminated — it’s too deeply ingrained in the wrestling culture — but we can minimize it. The way to do it is with a weight-class system that gives every wrestler an equal chance to make a line-up.

We can also make wrestling a sport that’s more sensible and easier to understand for everyone. The way to do that is with a system that contains an odd number of weights — ideally 13 — that eliminates the confusion. The team that wins seven matches wins a tie, period. No more wins on first points scored or on coin flips that would make any normal person think we’re morons.

On both counts, the NFHS has swung and missed badly. The NFHS could avoid an embarrassing strikeout by going back to the drawing board and coming up with a set of weight classes that really makes sense for the wrestlers and for the rest of us, too.