Exterior of the Shelbourne Wrestling Center. Photo by Jake Paige ’23.

When Jack Heldt ’23 won the national heavyweight title in March 2023, it capped off another impressive year for the Wabash wrestling team. Heldt became the fifth Little Giant to win a wrestling national championship, a success story that helped propel his team to 10th in the Division III standings.

On and off the mat, the team has excelled. This year, seven Wabash wrestlers received Scholar All-American recognition and the squad was named a Scholar All-America team, boasting a 3.56 grade point average.

However, some former wrestlers believe that, behind the championships and honors, the team’s winning pedigree has created an unwelcoming atmosphere, and it is driving some to quit the team.

An investigation by The Bachelor has revealed an alleged lack of support for the mental and physical well-being of some team members on the College’s most successful athletics program.

The findings of the report include an allegation that a coach blamed “lazy” athletes for their own injuries, that some wrestlers are allegedly forced into medical forfeits against their will, and that individual wrestlers’ mental health issues often go ignored. As a result, in fall 2022, at least six wrestlers left the team within a two-week window.

This investigation includes interviews with eight former wrestlers, all of whom wished to remain anonymous out of fear that going on record would socially isolate and ostracize them from their peers. In order to protect their identities, The Bachelor has attributed an alias to each interviewee.

 ‘We don’t do wrestle-offs’

Wabash wrestling has one of the finest reputations in Division III and is the College’s most successful athletics team. Since Head Wrestling Coach Brian Anderson took over in 2004, five wrestlers have won a total of eight national titles. Anderson has also made Wabash a consistent challenger for the national team title, finishing second overall in the 2022 tournament.

 “We’re a top tier wrestling program,” said Anderson, the 2022 national head coach of the year. “Since 2014, we have not fallen out of the top 10 in the country. So, we’re about as high-end as you can get.”

It’s a winning pedigree the coaching staff prides itself on.

“You coach to win, right? That’s the goal,” Anderson said. “You want to win everything in life, you want to win in the classroom and you wantto win in the wrestling match.”

 The coaches need some way to vet their athletes and choose their 10 starters. And with a roster of over 50 men at the beginning of each academic year, that’s no easy task.

 Many colleges and universities in the U.S. choose their starters through a process of “wrestle-offs” in which wrestlers at each weight class go up against each other in practice to decide who the starter will be. But Wabash is different.

 “We don’t do wrestle-offs,” said Coach Anderson. “I don’t think that’s very realistic. They’re not going to wrestle in the room like they do in a tournament.”

 Instead of wrestle-offs, the team gives all of its athletes the opportunity to compete in every tournament that allows open competition. Therefore, if two Wabash wrestlers come up against each other in an invitational, they wrestle.

 It’s a system that the coaches say levels the playing field.

“We can go to a tournament with 60 guys and they all wrestle,” said Anderson. “If you and me cross each other in a tournament, we’re going to wrestle each other, ’Bash against ’Bash. And as a coach, that’s how you like to see it.”

‘I just quit asking’

Some former wrestlers have expressed concern about the practice of omitting wrestle-offs. One such wrestler is Eric, who claims that while everybody gets an equal chance once on the mat, not everybody gets the same opportunities in the wrestling room.

“The guys that succeed in the Wabash wrestling program are those who are the most paid attention to,” said Eric. “So, when I got my first glimpse of that, I loved it, and I was seeing personal gains every day. But when the regular season hit and that attention started trailing off, I was just some other body in the room.”

 As it grew clear that Eric was no longer the favored wrestler at his weight class, he claims that the coaches grew increasingly indifferent toward him.

“I got moved out of groups and was put with freshmen instead of wrestling with our starters who I trained with all preseason,” said Eric. “They shifted me around; they wouldn‘t talk to me and they would coach against me—they would coach whoever I was wrestling with instead of me.”

For some wrestlers, however, the prioritization of the team’s best is a feature, not a bug.

Just like all team sports have practice squads, scout teams and reserves, wrestling teams equally need to focus primarily on their strongest wrestlers.

“To be blunt, no—everyone does not get the same level of attention, and I don’t think that’s a mystery,” said Jack Heldt. “But I do think everyone has the same tools. Our coaches have an open-door policy, and they love when guys want to do private lessons with them. They’ll open up private lessons to anyone on the team during the season, and the guys with higher goals are going to be taking advantage of those.”

Other wrestlers, like Frank, have challenged this sentiment, claiming that the “open-door policy” is only available to the coaches’ preferred starters.

“I had gone to the coaches several times saying I’d really appreciate an hour of their time for a one-on-one,” said Frank. “I gave them my schedule, and they’d say ‘Well, I can’t tomorrow.’ Then I checked back, and the same thing would recur for probably two or three weeks. Then I just quit asking.”

Anderson stressed that, although the coaches try to make time for everybody, they are nonetheless a small staff.

“We put a lot of time into our guys, and we‘re very blessed that we have four full-time coaches,” said Anderson. “We have a big roster, and even though we have four, it‘s almost not enough at times. It’s a lot of people to keep tabs on.”

‘Sometimes that ruffles a guy’s feathers’

Despite the rhetoric around letting wrestlers wrestle, Trevor’s story paints a different picture.

“In my senior year, I made it to the finals of a tournament and I was going to wrestle another Wabash guy,” said Trevor, who is now an alumnus of the College. “I had beaten him in practices, so I was ready. But [as] I was getting ready for the match, one of the assistant coaches came up to me and said, ‘You’re not wrestling.’ I asked him why, and he didn’t say anything.”

Head Wrestling Coach Brian Anderson hugs his wife after receiving an award at the Wabash Wrestling Celebration on January 21, 2023. Photo by Jake Paige ’23.

Trevor claims that the coaches made him take a medical forfeit, despite the fact he wasn’t injured and wanted to wrestle.

After the incident, Trevor quit the team.

“I left because I was so frustrated,” said Trevor. “And then I had a conversation with Coach Anderson, and he told me the reason why was because I ‘didn’t have a chance.’ I said, ‘Well, everybody can wrestle well on any given day.’ And he told me that’s what they were already set on.”

Anderson confirmed that the team does make wrestlers medical forfeit in certain circumstances, but explained that there are many reasons why a team might make that call.

“It could be to win a tournament. It could be that, as coaches, we’ve seen enough at that point to know who our guy is. It could be that we don’t want to risk injury late in the season,” said Anderson. “Sometimes that ruffles a guy’s feathers. He wants as many opportunities as possible to beat his teammate, and we preach that [mentality] a lot.

“But at that point, it’s not about beating your teammate,” Anderson said, “it’s about beating a guy that’s going to the national tournament.”

Anderson emphasized that the main reason to withdraw a wrestler from a match is to decrease the risk of injury, especially late in the season.

“There’s no reason to make our top guy run through his teammate again, who he has wrestled all year long and already beaten three to five times,” said Anderson. “How many chances does that other guy need?”

But some former wrestlers believe that forcing people into medical forfeits against their will runs counter to the program’s open competition mentality.

“They don’t want to risk their guy being beaten,” said Marcus, another former wrestler. “It gets ridiculous.”

But to Director of Athletics and Campus Wellness Matt Tanney ’05, medical forfeits are akin to any other selection decision a head coach makes.

“That is a level of granularity in a sport that I would defer to our head coaches’ expertise on,” said Tanney. “That would be the same reason that I don’t ask about Coach Bickett’s ordering of our tennis doubles and singles players, or the same reason I don‘t ask Coach Morgan who’s running in our relays. When we get to that level of detail on organizing a sport, that’s why we have head coaches.”

“When we have issues, we need to work through them as a team and as a coaching staff. This isn’t about agreeing with one side or another side. It’s about asking ourselves: what would it take to see each other’s point of view? ”
– Latham

‘You’re lazy, that’s why you’re hurt’

When the 2022-23 wrestling season began, there were 56 athletes on the roster. By the end of the fall semester, that number had dropped to 43. And the majority of the 13 wrestlers who quit did so after the Adrian College Invitational on November 5, 2022, the team’s first competition of the year.

The trip to Adrian had certainly not gone the way Wabash had hoped. Wabash finished first out of the 15 teams in attendance, yet several wrestlers picked up injuries and exited the tournament early.

For some wrestlers, the problems began almost immediately thereafter.

Latham was a sophomore who had spent some of his freshman year injured. But after working hard all preseason, he was fit and ready to get back to competitive wrestling. However, his season was cut short when he picked up another injury at the Adrian meet.

“I was hurt, and I lost the match,” Latham recalled. “One coach came over and asked, ‘Did you lose?’ I said yes, and then he just walked away. I thought, well, you weren’t watching, you don’t know what happened—you’re just disappointed.”

When they returned for practice the following Monday, many of the injured wrestlers felt they could no longer be a part of the team.

In the wrestling room, injured athletes spend entire practice sessions on exercise bikes. They do this until they are fit enough to get back on the mat.

Eric was one of the injured wrestlers on the bike that Monday after Adrian.

“We’re all sitting there and one of our coaches has a list,” said Eric. “It’s full of guys that are injured or sick who are on bikes not practicing. He turns to all those athletes and says, ‘So, what happened this weekend? Why is everyone here on the bike?’

“Guys started rattling off answers. Maybe it was just an off weekend? Coach said, ‘No.’ Someone said that maybe we didn’t stretch good enough or didn’t do our hydration or nutrition right. ‘No.’ Another guy said that maybe we went too hard this week in practice. ‘Oh no, no, of course not,’” Eric recalled. “And then coach said, ‘What this list tells me is that this whole team is lazy. The only reason you get hurt is because you put yourself in the position to become injured.’”

Other former wrestlers tell a similar story.

“When we came back from that tournament, it was, ‘You’re lazy, that’s why you’re hurt,’” said Latham.

“Everything was our fault,” said Marcus. “The injuries were because of our own doing. They said we hadn’t been going hard enough.”

“We were seeking out help to get treated,” said Henry, “and it got slapped back in our faces.”

All four of these wrestlers quit the team shortly thereafter.

“Obviously, that wouldn’t be an appropriate response to an injury,” Tanney said in response to these claims. “I’ll leave it at that.”

The coaches deny the use of the word “lazy” and claim that the conversation in question was taken out of context.

“No coach has said that,” said Anderson. “Kids can take a story or hear something, and it comes out a different way. They didn’t hear what was truly said to them, or they took it out of context.

“We preach to our guys that they can’t relax in matches. When guys relax, you can get hurt. And first tournament of the year, we got hurt because we relaxed in some moments. If you’ve got a guy that’s not stopping and you relax, he’s gonna pick you up, put you down and it’s gonna hurt. That’s the whole context of that conversation.”

‘Pride of winning’

Not long after they quit the team, a group of former wrestlers took their complaints to the athletics director. The wrestlers informed Tanney about the “lazy” incident and expressed their concerns about the coaching staff’s alleged disregard for the well-being of athletes.

“Under the guise of high-level success and of chasing national championships year after year, the coaches have created high walls around their wrestlers that make them feel like they can’t escape or find appropriate help when it comes to matters affecting their physical and mental health,” wrote the wrestlers in a private correspondence to Tanney, which The Bachelor obtained. “In short, their pride of winning has ironically kept us from wrestling at all.”

Tanney declined to comment about specifics of the meeting but said he was open to their feedback.

“I think guys were pretty vulnerable and willing to share how they felt,” said Tanney. “I did a lot of listening during that conversation. I took the information under consideration, and it has helped shape plans.”

‘I couldn’t believe the disregard for my mental health’

A month into his freshman season, José had a traumatic mental health episode. A lot of things were weighing on his mind—personal life, school and, most importantly, wrestling.

José was a hard worker and did everything the coaches asked of him. After a rigorous preseason, was excited to get on the mat for real.

“I took the preseason to heart,” he said. “Leaving the team did not cross my mind once during the preseason.”

But when the regular season began, things started to change. The personalized attention he had received in the preseason faded away, and suddenly he felt a deep sense of rejection.

“The lack of attention that I got from the coaches—I started attributing it to me personally, and I started obsessing over it and making it my own self-worth,” José said. “I already had a lot on my plate, and I was breaking down mentally.”

One night at 3 a.m., José was wide awake and having a panic attack. His roommates, who were also wrestlers, knocked on his door to make sure he was OK. José told them he was feeling nauseous and that he was worried sleep deprivation might affect his performance in the early morning lift, which was just a few hours away.

“My roommates were super supportive,” he said. “They told me that my mind and body needed rest. And then they said to go to bed and worry about the lift after.”

José, having never missed a wrestling practice before in his life, was conflicted. But his roommates assured him that they would inform the coaches about what was going on. So José went back to bed to get some much-needed sleep.

“I went to the coach’s office [later that day] and I spoke to the coach that runs the lifts. He’s like, ‘Where were you?’ And I told him everything, how I was at an all-time low with my mental state,” he explained. “I was just told that I’m ‘worrying myself too much’ and that I’m ‘worrying about things that aren‘t real.’ He said that ‘I had no excuse not to be at the lift.’ I couldn’t believe the disregard for my mental health.”

Disappointed but not dissuaded, José sought professional help. He went to the Counseling Center, got the mental health care he needed and turned his focus back to wrestling.

At the beginning of his sophomore year, he approached the coaches to ensure he would continue to get the mental health support he needed.

“I went to coach and said ‘Hey, this is what I was going through last year. I want this [program] to be a safe place for me, and, if I want to do good things for this team, both of us need to be on the same page with what’s going on behind the curtain,’” José recalled. “And coach seemed super receptive to it.”

But that supportive attitude didn’t last. A few weeks later, when José returned to the coach’s office with another mental health concern, he claims he was once again told to “stop worrying.”

“Once I heard that, I realized that I care about my own sanity and my own health more than I could ever care about this program, these coaches or this team,” he said. “That’s when I decided to quit.”

“I was just told that I’m ‘worrying myself too much’ and that I’m ‘worrying about things that aren‘t real.’ I couldn’t believe the disregard for my mental health.”
– José

A national problem

Student-athlete mental health concerns are not just limited to wrestling or Wabash. According to a well-being survey conducted by the NCAA published in May 2022, 12% of male college athletes experience “overwhelming anxiety,” while 19% experience difficulties sleeping and 22% feel mentally exhausted.

Many of those problems can be compounded in a sport like wrestling where weight cutting, pressure on individuals to perform and the risk of serious physical harm are all at stake. Well aware of this, the Wabash coaches have placed an increased emphasis on mental health in recent years.

“It’s affecting our guys,” said Coach Anderson. “I have college-aged daughters, and we have these kinds of conversations, because mental health is very real.

“We have a lot of conversations in these offices with kids to try and lift them up, get them over to the counselors and do the right things,” he said. “We have discussions with parents because we’re worried about them. It’s not just wrestling. We care for our guys, and we put in a lot of time to make sure that they’re not going down a slope.”

Mental health support has grown to be a top priority of the Athletics Department more broadly in recent years.

“It’s a topic that our coaches regularly engage with our students on,” said Tanney. “If people need to seek counseling, we have that available on campus, and I hope they get it. But it’s also not something that our coaches have the professional training to be able to give. So, it’s a fine balance between providing the support that students need to be successful here while also referring them to professional services when they need it.”

‘Quitting is a disease’

Wabash wrestlers pose with awards at the Wabash Wrestling Celebration on January 21, 2023. Photo by Jake Paige ’23.

When Bernie stepped away from the team, he claims his coaches and teammates ridiculed him for giving up just because things were getting hard. It’s this kind of rhetoric, Bernie says, that is keeping more people from speaking out.

“There’s a fear around walking away from something that’s unhealthy for you, and they call it quitting,” said Bernie. “It’s the same about talking out, and it’s usually done by the people that are perpetuating the issues.”

Quitting is, indeed, a big concern for Coach Anderson. And while he recognizes that people leave a sports team for a multitude of reasons, he also thinks that quitting is a slippery slope.

“Quitting is a disease,” said Anderson. “As soon as you quit something, anything in your life, the next time it’s going to become easier. That person is going to quit again, and that’s a bad pattern to get into.”

For many other wrestlers, this characterization of quitting rings true, especially with regard to mental health. For Heldt, overcoming mental challenges is an integral part of the sport, and giving up doesn’t allow people to realize their full potential.

“Wrestling is a sport that takes a lot of mental toughness, and in an era where we’re huge on mental health and opening up, there’s also a certain degree where you have to just suck it up and get through the grind,” said Heldt. “I think a lot of guys, when it gets really hard, just give up for their mental health instead of pushing through.”

The mental aspect of wrestling also opens up questions about the role of coaching staff in supporting student-athletes. For some, they believe coaches should be a shoulder to lean on and a beacon of support. But for others, addressing serious mental health is out of the purview of the coaches.

“You want to go into the wrestling room and feel like you know the coaches actually want the best for you,” said Frank. “You want to feel like you’re getting invested in, but none of us were. We were just there to compete with one another. I never understood their process.”

Heldt disagrees.

“I think the wrestling coaches’ job is to coach wrestling, and they’re really good at it,” said Heldt. “If you need mental health help, go to Jamie [Douglas, Counseling Center Director]. She’s the expert in mental health and helps people who are struggling. The coaches are there for you and they’re there to talk and listen, but that’s not their job. That’s not what they’re hired to be.”

Opening up the conversation

Coach Anderson doesn’t want wrestlers to leave his team. Quite the opposite, he wants to keep guys around for the benefit of both themselves and the team as a whole. And he believes that student-athletes who need support can find it in the Wabash wrestling room.

“As a coach and a teammate, I will do everything in my power to try and get those demons out of your head—don’t quit on us,” said Anderson. “Guys start questioning things. ‘Why am I doing this? Do I really love doing this?’ And that’s hard. But talk to the older guys that made it through their first year. Let them help guide you and counsel you. That’s what we do as a program.”

For Anderson, quitting is not only a “disease” but also a form of letting down your teammates.

“It’s a letdown, and I felt that in college when some of the really talented guys in the room hung up their shoes,” said Anderson, who wrestled for four seasons at Manchester University. “What would the basketball team have felt if Jack Davidson had quit the team last year when they went to the Final Four?”

Many former wrestlers expressed concerns that talking to The Bachelor would ostracize and socially isolate them from their peers. As a result, none of the seven former wrestlers interviewed for this piece were willing to go on the record.

“I’ve heard from guys on the team that we’ve been ridiculed for doing this and ridiculed for speaking out about our concerns because we’re ‘betraying’ the team,” said Henry.

The coaching staff expressed disapproval of former wrestlers who were unwilling to go on the record for this investigation.

“If you’re going to try and discredit the program,” said Anderson,” that’s pretty disrespectful in my mind.”

But in the minds of many former wrestlers, talking out isn’t about disrespecting the team, nor is it an attempt to discredit Wabash wrestling at large. Rather, they say, it’s about opening up a dialogue where wrestlers, former or current, can talk about issues without fear of repercussions.

“When we have issues, we need to work through them as a team and as a coaching staff,” said Latham. “This isn’t about agreeing with one side or another side. It’s about asking ourselves: what would it take to see each other’s point of view?”