How do wrestling coaches set their starting lineup?
High School
Posted by Matt Krumrie on Tuesday, November 24, 2015 8:03 PM UTC


The wrestle-off was once a staple of college and high school programs and considered the most fair way to select a starting lineup. But that mentality has changed, greatly. Find out why below. 

When it comes time to selecting a starting lineup, there are many approaches college and high school wrestling coaches/programs take to determine who competes on the mat.

Many of today’s coaches grew up and competed in the era where it seemed simple: Weekly wrestle-offs were held, the entire team watched and it was cut and dry: The winner of each wrestle-off was the starter for that next dual meet or tournament.

That’s the way Jeffersonville (Indiana) High School head wrestling coach Danny Struck did it for the first 14 years of his coaching career. But an outside perspective on that theory made Struck look more closely at that process and eventually led to a major change in how the starting lineup was determined.

“When I first started coaching and for quite some time into my coaching career, I went with wrestle-offs, because that is how it had always been done, and it was all I knew,” said Struck. “About 14 years into coaching I had a coach say to me ‘basketball and football coaches pick the best lineup, why don’t we?'”

The wrestle-offs were also doing something else, Struck noticed: “We were spending too much time on wrestle-offs, and not enough time on getting better, getting kids in and out of practice, and getting my coaches home after practice to their families,” says Struck.

So they implemented a starting lineup policy that was outlined and clear for wrestlers, parents and coaches in the team handbook. They set a depth chart and posted it just like they do in football, with first string, second string, third string and so on. And they set other guidelines, such as not allowing freshmen to compete on the varsity team that first dual meet or tournament. All freshmen, instead, would compete in the upcoming JV event.

“That first meet, it’s all experienced kids,” says Struck.

But, if there are two or more kids with experience in a weight class, wrestle-offs are held to determine who will start that opening meet/tournament.

These additional rules were also implemented, said Struck:

1. Coaches set the lineup. Period. Coaches use many factors to determine this — attendance, work ethic, reliability, attitude, and who is best for the team.

“In most cases there is no wrestle-off,” says Struck. “In the case we need one, wrestling off is one factor used in how we judge who the varsity wrestler in each weight class will be each meet.”

2. Wrestle-offs occur upon the request of the coaching staff. Ultimately, who wrestles is up to the coaching staff.

To win a wrestle-off, the incumbent starter (varsity wrestler) must be defeated in a best two-out-of-three match series. If the varsity wrestler defeats the challenger in the first match, the wrestle-off is over.

Just like it does in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey and other team sports, the depth chart and who emerges as the starter usually works itself out over time.

“When you factor in attendance, work ethic and class behavior ahead of all else, the lineup starts coming together fairly easy,” says Struck. “We want kids to be competing to be the best version of themselves they can be everywhere, not just in the wrestle-off.”

College wrestling fans love to hear about and share stories of life in the wrestling room. Today’s wrestling forums are full of discussion about Wrestler B, the freshmen or highly-touted recruit, giving Wrestler A, the returning starter “all he can handle in the room.” And while that is likely the case in the long grind that is the college wrestling season, the impact of the traditional wrestle-off as we knew it has also changed at the collegiate level. At St. Cloud State University, home of the defending NCAA Division II national champion Huskies led by head coach Steve Costanzo, a variety of factors are taken into consideration when choosing the starting lineup. During the first week of classes, the wrestling team completes a series of five different events/criteria/ throughout the week, with one determining the starting spot at each particular weight class.

“With a roster size of 52 student-athletes, it’s important that we leave no questions unanswered before the season begins,” says Costanzo.

The Huskies wrestling team uses this strict criteria to indicate starters and backups for each weight class and/or travel roster spot:

1. Intrasquad tournament at the beginning of the season: Returning previous year starters and/or All-Americans do not compete in this tournament.

2. Head-to-head performance in all intrasquad, open and invites.

3. Black/Red Classic Intrasquad at the beginning of the season. The winner of the intrasquad tournament competes in the Black/Red Classic against the previous year starter and/or All-American.

4. Placements in tournaments.

5. Common opponent victories and/or performances.

6. Overall record.

7. Consistency (who’s hot vs. who’s not).

8. Style/match-ups.

9. Attitude, work-ethic and lifestyle.

10. Coaches’ judgement — what’s best for the team.

Certain circumstances may lead to a best-of-three wrestle off (towards the end of the regular season) and only if individuals have earned this right with the following above criteria, Costanzo points out. In a case where an individual (who has earned this right) would be challenging the starter, the challenger must win the first match of the three to continue the best-of-three series.

“In addition, it is very important that individuals competing for starting positions are communicated with on a regular basis by the coaching staff with regards to where they are at on the depth chart and why,” says Costanzo. “Therefore, no surprises arise towards the end of regular season competition.”

At the same time, many programs still hold wrestle-offs, but it’s not a weekly event and not the ultimate determining factor in who earns the starting spot. At Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina, coaches block off one day a month where backups can challenge starters in a wrestle-off. Coaches announce the day the wrestle-offs will be held several days in advance and wrestlers must notify the coaches to arrange the challenge. If no one requests a wrestle-off they will lose their right to challenge until the next month. If a wrestler has already won two of the three wrestle-offs from the same wrestler, there will not be a third challenge (unless the very unique case where coaches’ discretion dictates otherwise). Wrestlers may also concede to the starting wrestler for any remaining wrestle-offs. No wrestle-offs are held in February, which is post-season tournament time.

“There are several other factors that can muddy up perfect scenarios, like wrestlers moving up or down weights,” says Cary. “But we handle those situations as best and fair as possible.

Ultimately, we put the strongest wrestlers we have out on the mat for the end of the season — this process helps alleviate any disputes as much as it can.”

And ultimately, no matter what happens at wrestle-offs, the coaches make the final decision.

“We tell all of our wrestlers that, yes, wrestle-offs determine starters, but coaches always reserve the right to move guys around and put the best lineup/matchup out on the mat,” says Moore. Other factors such as illness, injury, emergencies, team violations or infractions also determine who will start.

“I just feel like a team does whatever it needs to do to get through the season leading up to end-of-season competition,” says Moore. “This part of the year should be reserved for the wrestlers that have demonstrated all season long that they are the best option to represent the team for all remaining competition.”

Three years ago, Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia reinstated wrestling. The topic of how to determine a starting lineup and how it’s handled has become one of the key aspects in building the NCAA Division II program, says head coach Sean Doyle. With a roster of over 40 wrestlers, it’s important that clear guidelines are in place.

“Our goal on an annual basis is to have no wrestle-offs,” says Doyle. “Our wrestlers spend the first few weeks of the season competing for the starting spots and have opportunities during the second semester to compete for the spot as well.”

There is a reason, Doyle says, that wrestle-offs are not held.

“I am a big believer that we need to identify individuals that can compete when it matters most in a high pressure environment,” says Doyle. “The competitive environment is much different when there are hundreds of fans in the stands, coaches in the corners, teammates yelling and many other factors. We don’t want the wrestler that only learns to beat his opponent in the practice room. In our room, our wrestlers are focused on getting better every day, in preparation of being at their best in competition. Our wrestlers know that it does not matter if they can beat their practice partner every day, if they can’t perform when it matters most.”

It is also critical in building a family/culture within your team, says Doyle, who adds: “I don’t want wrestlers to arrive on campus in August thinking about who they need to beat on their team. We embrace being a family and building a culture that supports one another. By not having wrestle-offs and understanding the emphasis on learning and getting better, we’re progressing at a great rate.”

Four schools, four different, yet similar, policies and strategies in place on how to determine a starting lineup. But one thing is clear: The wrestle-off, as once known to the sport of wrestling, is no longer as critical when selecting a starting lineup. What works best for your program or team? What policies and procedures are in place and how do you determine the starting lineup? Discuss below.