An Open Letter to Wrestling Coaches
If a wrestler you coached were to light a cigarette in front of you and begin smoking, what would you say? I’ll bet it would be something like: “Hey, don’t you know that’s not good for you… And, by the way, secondhand smoke isn’t good for me or for your team.” Well, I’m here to suggest to you that the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is not good for your wrestlers. And it’s not good for our sport either.
What I’ve found over the last two years is that more and more of the youngsters I coach are walking into my wrestling room wearing shirts representing MMA. Some are also training MMA. And not only are we witnessing an increasing number of our standout collegiate wrestlers choosing careers in MMA, but now one of our greatest collegiate wrestling institutions, the University of Iowa Men’s and Woman’s wrestling team, has endorsed MMA and their club is receiving funding from the UFC! This troubles me.
An Inconvenient Truth
Over the years I have thought a lot about MMA and my thinking has morphed from initially accepting it, to questioning it, to now being repulsed by it. If my two decades of coaching youth wrestling and three decades of caring for thousands of patients with brain injuries have taught me anything, it’s that I cannot sit on the fence when people’s lives and well-being are at stake. So, I will not remain silent any longer. And if I do my job in this letter, you too will take action.
Our role as coaches is to safeguard our wrestlers and guide them toward building a foundation that leads to a thriving life. We use wrestling to teach self-reliance, responsibility, resilience, discipline, and a host of other life skills that will serve them well as they continue on their path. Along the way, if we are fortunate, we develop athletes, state champions, national contenders, and perhaps even some elite athletes who become world or Olympic caliber wrestlers. We then watch them succeed as spouses, fathers and mothers, businesspeople, coaches, teachers, doctors and nurses, engineers, and in other professions and trades. And the crowning moment is when they return to our wrestling room and tell us how our sport helped them to achieve their dreams.
My concern is that a foray into a career in MMA, or even dabbling in it, is not aligned with the foundation we promote as coaches, and will not lead to a flourishing life. Sure, a few may experience some financial success, but it will be for a short period of time and will likely come at a great cost to their health, their future, and the future of their loved ones.
The Cold Hard Facts
Here’s what the unassailable, irrefutable scientific evidence tells us:
- Repetitive head trauma- not just concussions, but even repetitive minor blows to the head, lead to permanent microscopic and macroscopic structural changes within brain tissue.
- People who sustain multiple head injuries often suffer increased impulsivity, anger and aggression later in life.
- A history of repetitive head trauma has been found to lead to cognitive impairment, neurodegenerative diseases, depression, and suicide later in life.
If you don’t believe this data, read about Mohammad Ali, Joe Louis, Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Reg Fleming, Derek Boogaard, Mark Kerr, Spencer Fisher and others. What do these stories from each of these former athletes have in common? A history of repeated blows to the head.
The Chasm Between Wrestling and MMA
The goal of a wrestling match is to outscore or pin your opponent. All of the rules and officiating in the sport of wrestling are targeted to keep the sport safe, though sometimes there are still head injuries. The current estimated incidence of concussion in a wrestling match is less than one in five hundred. It is our obligation to minimize this risk and relentlessly improvise to make our sport safer.
In contrast to the scoring and officiating of wrestling, the goal of a MMA fight is to win by either a knockout, by submission, or by outscoring your opponent. A knockout is caused by punching or kicking an opponent until s/he is rendered unconscious, which, by definition, is a brain injury.
Current data suggests that 37% of MMA fights end in a knockout. That means that at least 37% of the time an MMA fight ends with one of the athletes sustaining a brain injury. This percentage doesn’t account for the likely possibility that the winner has also sustained a brain injury from blows to his or her head during the fight. In the last 12 years there have been 78 thousand knockouts in MMA fights. In other words, in the last 12 years the number of knockouts in MMA is LARGER than the entire population of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
There is no tenable argument that better officiating or rule changes in MMA will reduce repetitive brain trauma. That is, unless blows to the head are made illegal.
As a wrestling coach you would never encourage your athlete to intentionally harm their opponent. In MMA in contrast, harm to the opponent is the means to the end of the fight.
A Choice You Must Make
If I were to travel in a time machine 20 years forward and see that any of my young wrestlers have become MMA fighters, I would consider myself a failure as a coach, leader, and mentor to that athlete.
Worse, if I were to look back on those years and identify something I did or didn’t do, or something I said or didn’t say to my young wrestlers that in any way encouraged them to choose a career in MMA, I would feel great sadness. I would also feel enormous guilt because I may have been able to use my influence as a coach to prevent it--and I didn’t.
When your wrestler asks you about MMA what will you say? I can’t speak for you, but here’s what I’m going to say from now on:
Your mind is your greatest asset. The organ that houses your mind is your brain. Always pay close attention to and reject anything that endangers your brain or your mind. That includes MMA. It can lead to irreparable damage to your brain and to your future. I don’t watch it, I don’t condone it, and I would never encourage you to try it. It is the antithesis of what wrestling represents.
Now that you’ve heard my position, I would be interested in hearing yours. What do you want your coaching legacy to be relative to your athlete’s lives?
Mark R. McLaughlin, MD, FACS, FAANS
* Updated Jan 2, 2023
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