The nature and number of wrestling weight classes has changed over the course of time. Up through 1970 there were 12 weight classes for high school competition. Starting with the 1970-71 season, a 13th weight class (a lower-weight) was added. The next major shift came in time for the 1987-88 season, which in essence did three things: (1) the lowest weight was eliminated (2) a lighter middle-weight class was added in its place (3) the middle-to-upper weight classes were realigned.
Starting with the 1994-95 season, a 14th weight class was added. The 215-pound weight class came into place between the 189 and heavyweight/275 weight classes. Certain states (i.e. Pennsylvania) did not adopt this right away, but the vast majority of states implemented 215 right away. The recent radical change occurred for the start of the 2011-12 season, where a lower-to-middle weight was subtracted for the addition of an upper-weight class.
The forgotten component to the discussion is that when the changes were made in the Spring of 2011, there were other proposals considered that would reduce the total number of weight classes from 14 to 12. Generally speaking proposals to reduce participation opportunities are a non-starter for some-to-many within the wrestling community. However, two questions should be examined before summarily ruling out reduced weight classes: (1) are the 14 spots in a team's lineup actually being filled (2) would a reduction in lineup spots increase the relative competitiveness of some teams, especially those from smaller enrollment schools.
For the 2011 sectional tournaments in Ohio, there were 595 schools that entered wrestling squads. Of those squads, only 123 had a full lineup (20.7%); while 515 (86.6%) had what the OHSAA defines as a team, eight or more wrestlers in the lineup. In addition, the average number of participants in a lineup was 10.87, while the median was 12.
As expected, the numbers varied depending on the size of school. For purposes of the state wrestling series, schools are split into three classifications based on their male enrollment. The small-school division (Division III) features schools with about 70 or less males per grade; the medium-school group (Division II) features schools with approximately between 70 and 125 males per grade; while the big-school division (Division I) features schools with about 125 or more males per grade, with 400 or so being the high end.
Now let's look at the data from this season, which was the third with the "new" weight classes in effect. The presented data shows there are slightly less full lineups, slightly less schools with eight or more wrestlers in the lineup, and the average/median for wrestlers in a lineup has slightly dropped as well.
Based on the data above, the vast majority of teams were struggling to fill lineups even before the "new" weight classes were implemented. That concern is slightly more common due to the change in weight classes. Therefore, it is my belief that a reduction in weight classes for varsity wrestling lineups is justified. Most teams are just not able to fill a lineup, which means opportunities are not being significantly reduced, and having one less spot would help many squads -- in particular those from smaller enrollment schools -- be more competitive in tournaments and dual meets.
The item of greater contention is how to distribute the weight classes evenly and fairly to address the size of the population of 15-18 year-old males in this country, as well as in the context of what current realities are in terms of wrestling program participation. The first of those questions is outside the scope of this article, and should be determined using CDC data. From what I have been told, the failure of the NFHS to properly use CDC data during the Spring 2011 rules change process is a major reason the existing situation stands as present.
This article can, and will, address the second of those realities. It will address the second of those realities by looking at varsity wrestling squad lineups at the sectional tournament, which is the first layer of the state tournament series. The data presented in the previous section related to the ability or inability for teams to fill a lineup is but one part. It shows -- in my opinion -- that the weight class change, which went into effect during 2011-12, is decreasing participation opportunities, and does not properly reflect the reality of wrestling programs' rosters.
The 2011 sectional tournament data shows that participation in the five weight classes between 125 and 145 was all between 0.3 and 0.9 standard deviations above the mean participation for a given weight class. On the other hand, in 2014 sectional tournament data, participation for two of the four weight classes between 126 and 145 (138 and 145) is more than one standard deviation above the mean. For both years, participation in the 152-pound weight class is more than one standard deviation above the mean, with participation in 2014 creeping more than 1.4 standard deviations above the mean.
In both 2011 and 2014 sectional tournament data, participation in the 285-pound weight class was more than one standard deviation below the mean (2011: 1.3 below, 2014: 1.19 below). 2011 sectional tournaments had weight classes at 171, 189, and 215; while in 2014, there were four weight classes capturing a similar range: 170, 182, 195, and 220. For 2011, those weight classes had the following z-scores (i.e. number of standard deviations above or below the mean): 0.89, 0.21, and -0.22; while for 2014, those four weights had the following z-scores: 0.20, -0.38, -0.64, and -0.47.
The other area of study that always raises debate is participation patterns in the lowest weight classes. In 2011, the lowest weight classes were 103, 112, and 119; while in 2014, it was 106, 113, and 120. The z-scores for those weights in 2011 were: -2.34, -1.33, and -0.22; while in 2014, they were -1.82, -0.90, and -0.47.
If the goal of weight class design is to create as normal of a distribution of participation as possible -- while acknowledging the reality that participation is always going to have somewhat of a "bell curve" -- we should try to avoid outcomes where participation is either disproportionately high or disproportionately low.
Based on analysis of the data, my recommendation is to decrease the number of weight classes from 14 to 13. The other part of that recommendation is to keep the current configuration from 106 to 160, while changing the upper-weight configuration to where it was previously (171, 189, 215, and 285).
It is my opinion that said lineup would most accurately reflect the realities of the population and the wrestling landscape, while increasing full lineups and overall competitiveness of teams. An additional benefit of dropping to 13 weight classes is that with an odd number of weight classes, virtually all ties would be decided very early in the criteria "ladder" (i.e. at the greatest number of match victories).