Friday, December 21, 2007

Covering wrestling - pinning down a technical sport

Politicians are flocking to Iowa, trying to gain an edge in the nation’s first primary for president that will take place in two weeks. Actually, Iowa holds a caucus, where voters gather in precincts to determine which politician they like best. There’s no denying what sport Iowans hold dearest. Sure, 70,000 fans may attend an Iowa football game, but where else in the country would 9,000 attend a wrestling dual meet? That’s how many watched No. 3 Iowa defeat top-ranked Iowa State, 20-13, in Ames two weeks ago.

Politicians would be well advised to spend time on the mats at local high schools to help in their own maneuverings. (Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney may know national politics, but they need to learn more about the heart of the Midwest. That starts with sports like wrestling.) Like politics, wrestling can get confusing for casual observers, which is why we need to translate as much as we can. Like politics, wrestling also usually has a clear winner at the end (unlike the Bowl Championship Series).

Still, few sports are as technically oriented as wrestling, which has its own language and relies on very specific rules and guidelines, most of which readers care little about – not even in Iowa, arguably the cradle of wrestling in the United States.

“Wrestling is a very unique sport,” says Jim Leitner, sports editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque. “Even here in Iowa, where it is very popular, there are a lot of people who have no idea what the sport is about and what some of the finer points are. So, you have to strike a balance in your story. You have to write a story that will appeal to the die-hard wrestling fans, and, at the same time, you can’t make it so technical that a casual sports fan can’t follow it. If your story hinges on a very technical storyline, you have to be sure to explain it well enough so you don’t confuse the casual fan.”

That’s why Des Moines Register sports editor Bryce Miller looks for emotion and odd details in wrestling coverage. “Only the most hard-core wrestling fans understand and want deep, deep wrestling detail with the tongue-tying language of the sport,” says Miller, who covered University of Iowa wrestling as a beat at five NCAA Championship tournaments and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “Instead of focusing on cradles and inside-trips, talk about the people stories behind the game or match. That type of story pulls in more general-interest readers. If you’re too wrestling-specific, it’s a niche audience and you slam the door to a bigger group of readers who might want to know that not only did Bill Smith win 2-1 — but the victory came on the one-year anniversary of the death of his former roommate.”

Readers want mostly basic information, such as who won a dual meet or a tournament and how specific wrestlers performed in these competitions, says JR Ogden, sports editor for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like other sports editors, Ogden says readers prefer human interest stories in sports game coverage – particularly in less publicized and more technical sports like wrestling.

“I try not to get technical because most readers don't understand one move from another,” says Ogden, “and, for the most part, the same move or hold can be called several different things.”

Lehigh University coach Greg Strobel says wrestling is very simple. “Don't get too involved with knowing the names of moves, just watch the struggle to overcome the opponent,” says Strobel, a two-time NCAA champ and coach of the 2000 Olympic team. “Wrestling is really very simple. Try to take your opponent to the mat, try to turn him over, try to control him. On the converse, don't get taken down, get away, don't be controlled.”

Some more tips for covering wrestling are offered below.

TAKING NOTES
Taking notes is essential to all game coverage. Find a system that works well for you. You might take notes on each match by putting names on two sides of the page, putting the running score down the middle of the page. Or you might just put the names of the two wrestlers a the top of the page and then record observations as the match progresses.
■ Miller keeps a running play-by-play that records points scored and the time points were scored “so I can explain key moments in many ways — chronologically or in different ways — but also keep room to the side to explain details and observations about words, facial expressions, crowd reaction and the fabric that really puts readers in the crowd.”
■ Ogden also keeps a running play by play but he covers tournaments differently. “In tournaments, I try to watch as many matches as possible that involve the teams I'm interested in,” he says, “then catch up with the others once the meet is over.”

PREPARING BEFORE MATCHES
Miller says reporters should prepare the same way for any game coverage. “My rule: Never come to the event empty-handed,” says Miller. “Always have a couple unique facts in your notebook, some unique sources ideas. If a wrestler is going for 100 victories, can you talk to mom and dad before coming to the match?”

LEAD ELEMENTS
Make sure key information is high. “Many times, writers and reporters sacrifice clarity and what-you-want-to-know detail at the tops of stories in exchange for flowering, over-indulged prose,” says Miller. “It’s always important to remind writers that on spot events, particularly in sports not commonly on television, readers depend on us to tell them what happened first and foremost.”
■ Add team names/nicknames
■ Include team scores
■ Focus on a key match, particularly if it altered momentum or secured a team victory
■ Focus on an individual’s performance, particularly if this ties to a human interest element
■ If the match is blow out, focus on how and why one team dominated. Did one team record pins in six matches or were five matches determined by two points or fewer?
■ Focus on a coach’s decision or strategy. Was a wrestler moved up a weight class or did the match begin at a mid-weight class?
■ Focus on a stats leader. Did a wrestler pin his ninth opponent or did a wrestler win his 10th decision by two points or fewer?
■ Records. Put team records in parentheses within the first few paragraphs. Try to add them after you cite the school’s name – and not the school’s nickname. Also, add conference or district records for high school competition.

LANGUAGE
■ Pin – when a part of both shoulders are held down for at least two seconds.
■ Near fall – when wrestler has control of opponent and a pin appears imminent
■ Takedown – when a wrestler takes an opponent to the mat
■ Escape – when wrestler escapes from a down position
■ Reversal – when a wrestler escapes from under an opponent and controls him in a single move.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Find stories – especially those that take place beyond the mat. “The goal of a newspaper story, especially in the 24/7 information age of online, is tell people something they couldn’t know without reading the story,” says Miller. “We talk about these key words high in stories — first, biggest, only and most. If you can use any of those words, it means your reporting has identified the uniqueness in the event. Newspapers also have the chance to take you into locker rooms, into interview areas and places quick, radio/TV sound bites do not. If readers only needed the basics, we would all run Associated Press stories. Tell them things they don’t know with perspective-driven information and reporting and unexpected sourcing.” Ogden also recommends looking for a story: “This could be a match that turns the dual one way or another, an athlete's or coach's assessment after the meet, or a big match-up on paper that turned out to be a dud or lived up to his hype.
■ Key momentum swings – either from an individual match or team standpoint. “If it’s a blowout, team-wise, we’ll focus on a great match or featurize the whole story,” says Leitner. “We take a more featurized approach to covering every sport, not just wrestling, so our readers have come to expect good human interest elements.”
■ Match-ups: See which matches feature ranked wrestlers. Check records and past performances for each athlete so you will be prepared to add these details into the game story. Details, such as the fact one wrestler has never pinned an opponent in 10 wins, will help you look for details during the match.
■ Did a wrestler make an adjustment during a match? Did a wrestler who was nearly pinned win the match? Speak with athletes and coaches afterward for more insights.
■ Determine how a coach recognizes match-ups.
■ Is this the team’s worst loss, or biggest margin of victory? As always, seek to find out the reasons for such a great victory or terrible loss. You can also cite the last time the team lost by such a margin. (Check newspaper archives and speak with athletic directors/sports information directors.)
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the meet and the opponent’s record. You can also do this for key, ranked wrestlers, offering the name and record of the next person he will face.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against its opponent.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the key wrestler by describing how he performed. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how a wrestler appeared fatigued down the stretch by describing the action.
Check the numbers for key statistical streaks for teams or individuals.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Weight classes for colleges. The NCAA uses the following weight classes in its championships – 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197, heavyweight (183-285 pounds).
■ Weight classes vary for high schools. Most high school associations offer several lighter classifications. Florida, for example, uses the following 14 weight – 103, 112, 119, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 152, 160, 171, 189, 215, 285 (heavyweight).
■ Wrestlers cannot wrestle below their weight, but they may compete above their weight classification. Rules vary for how much higher athletes can compete. In Florida, for instance, an athlete cannot compete more than one weight class above, meaning a 119-pounder can not go beyond the 125-pound class.
■ Growth allowances are usually granted for high school athletes. In Florida, that means a wrestler can gain two pounds midway through the season (That’s set for late December this year). These rules are created so wrestlers won’t go on crash diets or starve themselves.
■ Weigh-ins – Wrestlers usually verify their weight about an hour before meets. This may be two hours before matches at NCAA tournaments.
■ Sudden death – when wrestlers are tied after three regulation periods. In college, a winner is determined by the first wrestler to score a point during the one-minute overtime period.
■ Wrestlebacks – Usually, tournaments are double-elimination, which means wrestlers who lose can “wrestle back” into the later rounds until they lose their second match.
■ Scoring during matches – Near fall (2, 3 or 4 points), takedown (2 points), reversal (2 points), escape (1 point), time advantage (2 points).
■ Scoring for team scores. Points are awarded to teams whose wrestlers win by the following methods:
6 points – fall (or pin), default, forfeit, disqualification
5 points – technical fall (if near fall was already awarded to winning wrestler)
4 points – technical fall (if near fall is not recorded by winning wrestler)
3 points – for a decision
■ Tournament scoring. Scoring changes based upon how many places are awarded, according to the NCAA. If eight places are awarded in a tournament, scoring goes as follows: 16-12-10-9-7-6-4-3. For six places, scoring goes 12-10-9-7-6-4. For four places, scoring is 10-7-4-2.
■ Matches last three periods unless the match ends prematurely by a pin, technical fall or disqualification.
■ Record the names of the game officials in case anything unusual happens in the game. Also, interview them afterward in such instances.

INTERVIEWING
■ As most reporters will tell you, get to know the people involved before asking questions. That’s why beat coverage is essential. Of course, many stringers and reporters are asked to cover teams they’ve never met, which is certainly more challenging. Still, make the effort to introduce yourself before a match, even if that is just to tell coaches you’d like to talk with them after the meet.
■ Athletes, like everybody else, react to questions in varying ways. So do not get discouraged if someone does not talk to you right away. “It truly depends on the individual and the situation,” says Miller. “I’ve known NCAA champs who seemed unapproachable, but were just fine talking right after they were finished. I know others who needed a small amount of time to decompress. You must know the athletes/teams you cover, since there’s no one answer that applies to every situation. And, as always, deadlines might dictate how long you can wait.”
■ Strobel wishes more reporters knew some very basic information before they covered matches and asked him questions – the names and records of participants. Pretty simply, Strobel says: “Knowing who is competing impresses me. Not knowing records bothers me.”
■ Ogden prefers to wait until the overall competition has concluded. “There have been times I have talked to wrestlers after their matches in a dual – when they come up to press box to do radio – but coaches want to keep the "team" focused the other wrestlers.
■ Leitner likes to speak with coaches first so he can then get a better idea what questions to pose to the competing wrestlers. “The key is developing a good relationship with the coach,” says Leitner, “and basically training him to give you good, newsworthy information that leads to good storylines.”
■ Work hard to gain some trust, otherwise that means you may get bland, uninformed quotes. Even if you are covering a team for the first time, you can impress coaches and wrestlers by doing your homework – by reading published articles on the team, by reading press guides, and by speaking with opposing coaches and wrestlers before you head out. That way you’ll be able to ask specific, informed questions – something that often impresses those being interviewed. They’ll see that you are working as hard as they are and that you may be someone they can trust. “In my experience, I have found that wrestlers, in general, are not very quotable people,” Leitner says. “They seem very guarded. They don’t want to give away any information to opponents who might be reading the article. So, it takes a little work to gain their trust, and you have to do a better job interviewing them than you would with athletes from other sports.”
■ Ask what coaches, players were thinking during a key moment.
■ Ask wrestlers to describe their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask the to offer a narrative of the match. This will give you an insider’s view of the match, which is can be more important than getting quotes. Do not be afraid to summarize and attribute this information. Not everything has to be a direct quote.
■ Ask how the team has progressed over the last several games or weeks. But make sure you read as much as you can about their pervious meets so you can ask informed follow-up questions.
■ Introduce yourself to coaches before the meet whenever possible. You can also ask the coach his goals and how he expects the meet to go, which could lead to a nice angle for your game story.

You do not need to be an expert to cover wrestling. Like with any sport, you just need to do your homework and to work diligently along the way.

“In my opinion, you don’t have to be an ex-wrestler or a huge wrestling fan to write about it,” says Leitner. “I had no experience in wrestling until I started writing about it. But I do find it a very intriguing sport and one with a lot of great storylines. If you’re willing to learn about the sport, you can find it very fascinating. I could sit and watch 10 hours of the Iowa High School state wrestling tournament and never get bored. I don’t think I could say that about any other sport, including the more popular ones.”

-30-

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