Both doctors and child development experts encourage kids to take up sports. It provides regular exercise, and teaches important values like discipline, sportsmanship and teamwork. Some children may even develop the skill and talent to become professional athletes—opening scholarship opportunities, and thrilling opportunities to earn medals and even money for doing a sport that they love.
However, there are concerns that some sports like wrestling can stunt physical growth. Many children start wrestling as early as eight years old. If they show potential, they may already be absorbed by school wrestling teams and groomed for competition. This includes both intense training and strictly monitored diets, since the sport requires division by weight class.
Early training is critical to win in the highly competitive world of wrestling. However, it also means young wrestlers undergo intense physical activity during adolescence, which is a time of rapid growth.
How can wrestling affect growth?
During adolescence, the body needs proper vitamins and nutrients to develop muscles, tissue, and bone. Any nutritional deficits can damage their health and hamper physical development. Severe, prolonged dieting can also hormonal imbalances, which will not only throw off the production of growth hormones and affect the maturing reproductive system.
Unfortunately, wrestlers—as well as gymnasts and ballet dancers—may sometimes engage in unhealthy diet practices so they can qualify for lower (and less competitive) weight classes.
One study of wrestlers competing in high school tournaments found that they had lower height, less body weight, less body fat and less fat mass than their peers.
While the wrestlers were physically fit, the combination of low calorie intake and high calorie burn from rigorous training had led to an unhealthy calorie deficit. In other words, their bodies did not have the nutrition to grow properly.
But it wasn’t just height that was affected; female wrestlers also had a higher risk for late, irregular or painful periods—a sign of hormonal imbalance.
The pressure of weigh ins
However, these complications only occur when wrestling isn’t done properly, often because of unhealthy pressure and downright dangerous preparation for competition.
In the article, “Wrestling Wrecked My Body”, wrestler Russ Hurtley shared his experience of being a high school varsity wrestler. He was selected to be in the 112-pound weight division, and had to go through weigh-ins three times a week.
If he did not meet the target weight, his coach would yell at him. He would skip breakfast before weigh-ins, and spend at least four hours exercising. At one point, he lost 8 pounds in one day, and lost consciousness.
Do all wrestlers experience stunted growth?
With the supervision of a responsible coach, a team nutritionist, and supportive parents, young wrestlers can excel at the sport without having to starve themselves and suffer any damage to their physical development.
And while there are studies of wrestlers who experience stunted growth, there are just as many (or even more) that say that it doesn’t.
One 2018 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness observed 51 male adolescent wrestlers and 21 healthy sedentary males between the ages of 13 to 15 years old. The wrestlers were selected from different schools, and were all active in competitions.
The participants went through tests that checked their hormones, body measurements, and other indicators of growth. All the tests revealed that wrestlers were perfectly healthy, with no hormonal issues, and no difference in height, weight or BMI with people who did not play any sport at all.
Another study in the Journal of Endocrinol Investigation found that while there may be an energy or nutritional deficit among athletes in weight control sports, this is rarely enough to slow down the athletes’ growth and maturation.
The study acknowledged that wrestlers can go through heavy dieting right before a competition, but in most cases, they recover and catch up after the training season—especially if the diets are supervised by a sports nutritionist.
How can wrestlers avoid stunted growth?
Experts agree: stunted growth is not caused by wrestling itself, but irresponsible and unhealthy diet practices.
This can happen if an athlete goes on a crash diet that drastically reduces calorie intake, using dangerous diet supplements that burn fat and carbohydrates, or engaging in unhealthy eating habits like forcibly throwing up food after eating.
None of these would occur if training and diet are supervised properly, and any preparations for losing weight are done carefully and systematically. That’s when the schools, coaches, and the sports tournament officials play a big role in protecting the health of young wrestlers. Possible steps include:
- Developing a healthy diet plan, with the help of a qualified sports nutritionist who understands the caloric needs during adolescence
- Regular physical checkups to monitor the athletes’ growth and development, and proper hormone balance
- Educating athletes about the dangers of crash dieting, diet pills, or unhealthy eating habits
- Enforcing better guidelines for changing weight class
- Partnership between parents, coaches and other adults who can help support and encourage young wrestlers
Through these steps, wrestlers can enjoy the sport without going the physical (and even emotional) ordeal of crash diets and high-pressure weigh ins.