Is wrestling season too long?
Long-time West Virginia University coach Craig Turnbull thinks it might be. Wrestling season begins at the beginning of November and doesn’t end until late March, but in reality wrestlers are doing some type of training year-round, like all other NCAA athletes, including a full month of preseason workouts.
That means wrestlers are drilling and being asked to cut weight five months out of the year, which Turnbull believes is probably stretching things a little too far.
“It’s a topic every year at our National Wrestling Coaches Association Convention,” he said recently. “People really don’t like change, and they don’t like messing with historical set patterns – this is always the way it’s been. But perhaps it hasn’t always been right.”
According to Turnbull, the biggest argument that comes up in these discussions is whether or not college wrestling should be just a one-semester sport.
“You’re going through and you are affecting two grading periods,” he explained. “This is so grueling and you’ve got weight cutting; you're fighting basketball. Our most important time is when basketball’s is so let it be a one-semester sport, shorten it up a little bit because it is such a physically and emotionally grueling season and to go that long … it would just work better.”
There has been some momentum within the sport to shorten the season, but not enough to force a change.
“You get close but people don’t like change and they don’t like when it’s always been there to pull the trigger and say let’s make this big change,” said Turnbull. “I may not see it in my coaching career but it will happen sometime.”
So, what is the ideal time frame for a college wrestling season? Is it three months? Four months? Turnbull believes the best time to begin the season would be in December, possibly right after the end of first semester examinations.
“You wouldn’t have any open tournaments until some time in December and you would go from December until the beginning of April,” he said. “That would compress the season because it is too long and that’s where you have to be good and lucky.”
Just about every wrestler goes through some type of injury during the season. When they get them – and how severe those injuries are – will usually determine the type of season they will have.
“When Greg (Jones) won his three national titles he was injured at some point during the season every year,” Turnbull said. “He just got injured at the right time; it wasn’t too significant and he came back and it happened. But if it’s at the wrong time … Nathan Pennesi
had a great year last year. He was ranked between seven and 12 all year and he broke a bone in his hand two weeks before nationals. He took (the cast) off early where he could try but he really couldn’t do it.”
“Some of it is the wear and tear of a long season. I believe at some point they will get brave and say, hey, let’s make a case to the NCAA and the NCAA will come back and say we’re doing this - we’re going to move it to one semester and we’re going to shorten it.”
Because of the nature of the sport, wrestlers typically rank among the toughest athletes you will find anywhere – physically and mentally. But are they tougher today than they were before? Turnbull isn’t sure, but he is certain that athletes today are more skilled, more physically prepared and more knowledgeable than athletes from prior eras.
“The one thing that has changed significantly is the strength and conditioning component and the science involved. People are stronger and more powerful, and the technique continues to advance,” he noted. “You just have to be good; you have to work really hard and you have to be really fit so you can minimize the chance of injury.
“That means that you have to be extremely fit, you have to be extremely disciplined, you have to do everything the best that you can to where you understand every position the best that you can – your conditioning is the best, your lifting is the best so you physically and technically give yourself the best chance to stay healthy.”
But, again, were yesterday’s wrestlers tougher than today’s?
"That depends who you ask,” Turnbull laughed. “I would say that and you could go in the other room and Greg Jones would say they were tougher. I don’t know how you measure those things. That’s what makes for good stories. It’s all subjective because we don’t have any way to measure who was tougher.
“It probably comes down to people who were successful back then would be successful today, they just might be a little more powerful and a little more technical, but you have to have that IT quality, whatever that is, to achieve great things. And IT is hard to describe, but you can see it with some guys in the room. They just have IT, whatever IT is.”
Perhaps IT also includes a little luck, which is what all wrestlers need considering what they have to endure during a long and grueling season.