What’s the difference between a wrestler who falls victim to nerves during a match and one who is able to stay aggressive on the mat under pressure?
Mental confidence and mindset is what most people respond with. An athlete who is able to stay calm and focus on being aggressive has a huge advantage compared to someone who can only hope they’re going to be able to beat their opponent.
What’s not as well-known is the strain that ‘typical’ weight cutting has on a wrestler’s mental toughness before matches.
Most wrestlers know proper nutrition and fueling has a big effect on their physical performance. A fueled, hydrated wrestler will always be stronger, react faster and have more explosive energy than if they were starved and unable to recover properly before the start of a match.
Unfortunately, mental toughness also takes a back seat when wrestlers skip meals and dehydrate days before their weigh-in.
Wrestlers go in with the idea that they’ll gain a competitive edge by cutting so they can be the ‘biggest guy’ on the mat and presumably be stronger than their opponent. Ironically, most wrestlers who starve and dehydrate to make weight end up weaker and destroy their mental game before they ever step on the mat.
Talk to anyone who has been starving for days on end to make weight, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. Their focus is completely split between trying to lose as much weight as possible and dealing with the stress of thinking about food 24/7.
During training, the goal goes from improving performance to how many calories can be burned during the workout. Conversations with teammates about strategy and technique usually turn into discussions about weight loss and how ‘dedicated’ they can be to the process.
Come time for weigh-ins, wrestlers can’t maintain their mental confidence because of fatigue and their focus revolving around avoiding getting scratched instead of being aggressive on the mat.
The process leads to physical and mental weakness and ultimately makes wrestlers perform at a lower level than they’re capable of.
At best, wrestlers are going into their matches improperly fueled and mentally fatigued, leaving them at a huge disadvantage despite all the ‘dedication’ they just put in before their match. Worst case, burnout.
Luckily, there’s a simple and effective way of planning a wrestler’s nutrition for peak performance and weigh-ins so that they can get the benefits of a competitive edge, without all the mental strain and strength loss that comes with skipping meals and fluids for days on end.
First, wrestlers need to figure out the right weight class they should be competing in
In a lot of cases, wrestlers are trying to compete at a weight class that is much less than their bodies ‘natural’ weight. Someone who naturally hovers around 145 may be much more effective staying at that weight class than trying to get down to 138 or even 132.
Talking with coaches and figuring out a realistic weight class for them to be in is step one.
Obviously, there are certain situations which require wrestlers to cut weight when they otherwise wouldn’t need to, such as needing to get down a class or two because the higher spots are already filled.
Leverage nutrition so you can work smart, not hard when dropping weight
The best time to start trying to ‘slim down’ if you need drop weight is in the offseason, several weeks before preseason or weight certs even happen.
The reason dropping weight needs to be a slow and steady process, aside from all the mental stress, is because of the 1.5 percent rule:
Any wrestler who’s dropping more than 1.5 percent of their total body weight each week is eating at too large of a calorie deficit. Weight is lost as muscle mass instead of fat because the body doesn’t have enough energy reserves or protein to sustain itself. In other words, dropping weight rapidly means getting weaker with every pound lost, not stronger.
Considering many athletes use the summer months to build up strength, this could mean erasing most of that progress in a matter of weeks simply by dropping weight too quickly.
Instead of having to lose strength, making a plan to reach target weight and calculating the max weight loss possible each week can help wrestlers have a plan to reach their goal before certs and avoid the panic and strength loss that usually comes in the pre-season when some wrestlers are trying to drop 10 or even 20+ pounds in a few weeks.
To use the 1.5 percent rule, simply multiply your wrestler’s current weight by 0.015. For 160 pounds, that would put max weight loss per week at 2.4 pounds, or a minimum of ~5 weeks to safely drop weight without losing muscle mass. The more time you give yourself to lose weight, the easier the process.
Using this tool combined with a nutrition plan can take away most of the stress of making weight during the season, and instead prepare a wrestler to go into matches stronger, more energized and mentally tougher than ever before because their focus can now shift from making weight to winning the mental game and being aggressive on the mat.
Always remember: Weigh-ins should be an afterthought when getting ready for a match, not the main focus.
How to make weight without sacrificing performance
The other part of easily and consistently making weigh comes from utilizing two key nutrition strategies unique to wrestlers.
By having a strategy in place and having your diet work for you instead of against you, the process of making weight becomes much easier.
The first strategy is manipulating hydration, but not in the way that seems obvious.
Traditionally when cutting happens, water and fluids are immediately restricted because wrestler’s want to dehydrate to drop weight. Unfortunately, their body is going to be working against them physiologically.
While it seems counterintuitive at first, if wrestlers want to be able to easily and rapidly drop water weight, they need to be consistently taking in enough fluids to replace any water as it’s lost throughout the day and during practices.
The reason restricting fluids doesn’t work is because the less frequent someone hydrates when they lose water, the more their bodies are going to release chemicals that cause the body to ‘hold on’ to any remaining water weight.
By understanding exactly how much water a wrestler needs on a daily basis by evaluating their unique needs, sweat rate and training schedule, a fluid plan can be used so water weight can be temporarily manipulated and allow the body to drop significant amounts of water weight about 24 hours before weigh-in.
The great thing about this method of weight loss is that it’s not only very temporary, but the fluid lost is intracellular. Simply put, the type of water loss using this method won’t cause symptoms of dehydration such as fatigue and weakness.
The other way to leverage nutrition to work for a wrestler instead of against them, is by incorporating specific types of foods that cause minimal weight retention in the body. This is how wrestlers can continue to have regular meals up to 24 hours before a match without sabotaging their weigh-ins.
To do this, the focus should be on consuming foods that are low residue.
A low residue diet consists of specific types of food that when eaten, cause minimal weight retention in the body. The types of food that are low residue vary greatly, but the idea behind these types of food are that they:
1. Don’t cause any excess fluid (weight) to be stored in the body like many other foods do
2. Spend minimal time being digested, meaning minimal weight gain from meals
A few examples of low residue foods include cottage cheese, chicken breast and nut butters among many others.
Most wrestlers can expect to lose between 3 and 5 percent of their body weight in about 24 hours by using these strategies on top of a typical training regimen. For a 160-pound wrestler, that means being able to drop ~8 pounds the day before a match without being fatigued, stressed or losing strength.
By trusting the process and having a plan in place, making weight can be consistent, effective and much easier mentally on a wrestler so that they can focus on what matters: being aggressive and confident when stepping onto the mat.
Jackie is a sports dietitian and fueling expert who helps high school wrestlers gain a competitive edge and easily stay in match ready year-round by utilizing an individualized sports nutrition program designed specifically for wrestlers, so they can effortlessly make weigh-ins while increasing strength, mental toughness and aggressiveness on and off the mat during every phase of training and competition, so they can consistently perform their best.
Jackie Slomin is currently offering FREE online training for parents of high school athletes where she goes through the exact process she takes wrestler’s through, so they can effortlessly make weigh-ins and be at peak performance WITHOUT losing strength, starving or dehydrating for days on end EVEN IF they have more than 10 pounds to lose.
[Click here to register for the free training]