The Impact of Girls Wrestling
The growth of girls wrestling is important for one obvious reason, says Sally Roberts, Executive Director of Wrestle Like a Girl, a nonprofit organization that works to empower girls and women in the sport.
“The growth of female wrestling is critical to the sport of wrestling at large because it opens up the sport to the other half of the population—girls and women,” Roberts says.
But a more in-depth look shows that the growth of girls and women’s wrestling goes far beyond an increase in the number of Americans participating in wrestling.
“Wrestling provides a path of educational, social and financial mobility for wrestlers,” Roberts says. “Wrestling supports kids staying in school, getting good grades and seeking opportunities post-high school such as college, the trades or military service. Regardless of each wrestler’s chosen path, they are primed to excel and become leaders.”
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), the number of girls who wrestle at the high school level has grown from 804 in 1994 to 16,562 in 2018, and 15 states now sponsor high school girls wrestling championships. There are currently 46 colleges and universities in the United States that sponsor women’s wrestling at the varsity level, with another 14 planning to add the sport within the next two years. Women’s wrestling has been an Olympic sport since 2004, with competition currently in six freestyle weight classes. American women wrestlers have earned five medals (one gold, one silver, three bronze) in Olympic competition.
With more female involvement in wrestling, girls also have more role models, setting up the probability of greater growth to come.
“Helen Maroulis has set the tone with her Olympic Gold medal, and there are many little Helens whose names we have yet to come to know that will be wrestling in her shoes,” Roberts says.
It was through the sport of wrestling that Jessica Medina got a chance to travel the world and ultimately pursue a career in coaching, where she now serves as the National Women’s Team Developmental Coach for USA Wrestling. In the article “The Social Benefits of Wrestling,” Medina said wrestling helped her build courage and confidence off the mat, which has transferred to her personal and professional life.
“I know that it takes courage to pursue wrestling,” Medina said. “When I face new challenges in life or work, or building relationships, I feel confident in myself, because of my experiences in wrestling. If a wrestler can put on a singlet to compete against an opponent under a spotlight, they can then feel confident putting on a suit and executing an interview. Being confident under pressure is a norm for wrestlers.”
“The benefits that are gained from participating in wrestling should be accessible to girls as well,” says Mark Reeves, Assistant Executive Director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA).
Reeves was among the TSSAA leaders who helped push for sanctioning girls wrestling in Tennessee—the state’s first sanctioned girls wrestling state championships took place in February 2015.
“Lives are impacted by participation in girls basketball, girls soccer, girls track and field, and so on,” Reeves says. “Why not wrestling? The large majority of girls would prefer to play against girls on the basketball court, soccer pitch, or track. While many girls can be competitive against boys, that should not be the norm. The best scenario for competition is for girls to wrestle girls and boys to wrestle boys.”
Girls soccer was on the rise in the United States in the late 1990s, but exploded after the United States’ Women’s National Team won the World Cup as host nation in 1999. Could a similar explosion happen in wrestling?
“The growth of girls soccer is connected with the reality that women can indeed be successful team athletes and champions on the world stage,” says Jerry Concannon, owner and director of QuickSkills Soccer, a Pittsburgh-based soccer program providing instructional training and products for developing soccer players.
But the impact can go far beyond participation numbers.
“Soccer had been growing in popularity and the new interest from girls has created more awareness for the sport,” says Concannon. “Numbers grew. New leagues emerged. Tournaments started appearing everywhere. More teams require more coaches and more parents started getting involved. Additional coaching education opportunities came about and the level of athletes improved as a result, only further growing the sport and the stage for girls soccer.”
Building a Community
Female wrestling supports an increase in USA Wrestling membership, which is additional revenue that supports wrestling across the board. USA Wrestling recently broke its overall membership record, and with full inclusion of girls and women in the sport, the participant numbers will only continue to rise. Girls wrestling provides an increase in coaching opportunities for both men and women. And, it also provides more opportunities for men and women to pursue business opportunities within the sport of wrestling.
“Many of my former women wrestlers and students have ended their wrestling careers and are coaching at women’s colleges and universities,” says Shannyn Gillespie, former USA Wrestling National Team women’s coach at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. “This not only provides more jobs for women, it also gives high school girls more women role models to follow.”
The growth of girls wrestling also provides more opportunities for parents and families to get involved in the sport, sharing in the many experiences wrestling brings.
“We have had a number of teams who have had little brothers come out for the boys team after their big sister tried out for the girls team,” Reeves says.
Girls wrestling is making an impact across the board within the sport of wrestling. But it seems like the full impact is just beginning to help shape the future of the sport.
“Wrestling may not be for everybody but we need to give everyone the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the sport,” says Medina. “That is how we will build a strong wrestling community worldwide. That is what will keep our sport thriving.”
Why Women’s Wrestling – a message from Terry Steiner, USA Wrestling Women’s National Team Coach