Wrestling Mat Safety
Prior to the 1950s, wrestling mats were frightful. They consisted of either straw or smashed-down piles of horsehair, crammed into a tufted canvas cover. These canvas mats offered little protection from falls or injuries and were hard, if not impossible to keep clean. Mat burns were not only common but also expected, causing wrestlers to have the constant threat of infections.
Today, with advances in foam technologies, improved health awareness, research and data on impact testing and wrestling mat standards; manufacturers can provide wrestling mats far superior to the mats of the 1950’s and even those available only a decade ago. Proper equipment and the care needed to maintain the equipment is a necessary part of injury prevention in any sport. In the United States, it is estimated that more than two (2) million high school student-athletes suffer from sports-related injuries each year according to a three-year study by the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA).
In the sport of wrestling, direct contact with the mat or the opponent can sometimes result in injury. According to a study conducted by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Cincinnati Sports Medicine Research and Education Foundation, the most common wrestling situation resulting in injury was during the takedown position, accounting for 68% of all injuries, 65% of which occurred during practice, although match competitions did show a higher injury rate. It should also be noted that injured wrestlers were on average, five (5) months older and were at a more experienced level than non-injured wrestlers. In the United States, it is estimated that of the 2 million sports-related injuries, more than 300,000 concussions occur each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Research findings have demonstrated that High School athletes are more vulnerable to concussions than older athletes and may take longer to recover. High school athletes are also three (3) times more likely to experience a second concussion during the same sport season.
High School and Collegiate wrestling rules do not allow slams onto the mat. However, according to the 3-year study by NATA, direct blows to the head/spine/trunk body region incurred the greatest frequency of injuries, followed by upper and lower extremities. A blow or jolt to the head can disrupt the normal function of the brain, causing a concussion. Even mild concussions can be of concern. Because the brain is extremely complex and every injury to the head is different, some symptoms may not appear right away. The signs of a concussion can be subtle. Also, not all symptoms after a concussion are due to brain injury, some can be due to neck strain or scalp bruises.
Wrestling participation at the high school level continues to grow, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHS). As our sport continues to grow and expand into new schools, there needs to be more education and information for coaches, athletic directors and parents about the importance of health and safety aspects pertaining to the wrestling mat. This will require manufacturers, associations, officials, school administration, coaches, and parents to take an active role in learning about these important issues. There will inherently always be injuries in sports, but the idea of education and injury prevention is to reduce the frequency of injury occurrences.
WRESTLING MAT STANDARDS
The American Society of Testing and Materials International ( ASTMI) has established ASTM F 1081-97 “Standard Specification for Competition Wrestling Mats”. The ASTM standard is a basic guideline to assist schools, athletic directors and coaches in the types of foam acceptable and general information about mat construction. All of the major wrestling mat manufacturers have or make mats that meet or exceed the ASTM standard.
The standard goes beyond the physical properties of the foam such as tensile strength to address the safety issue of the mat performance requirements or shock-absorption properties of the mat. To fully meet the standard it requires that ASTM Test Method F 355-01 “Standard Test Method for Shock-absorbing Properties of Playing Surface Systems and Materials”, be used to measure the shock-absorbing characteristics and impact force-time relationships of the wrestling mat. This is extremely important in establishing an injury prevention program. ASTM has determined that the maximum G-max values for a wrestling mat to meet the standard are 100 G-max. Under the specified test conditions, lower G-max values indicate better shock-absorbing properties.
Foam Thickness Doesn’t Always Determine The Impact Protection
It is a common misperception that all foam mats offer the same amount of protection, regardless of the thickness. Nearly all of the wrestling mats on the market today use either PVC Rubber Nitrile foam or Cross-Linked Polyethylene foam. Both of these types of foam cores have many benefits to the user, however, they perform very differently when tested in accordance to ASTM F 355-01 for shock-absorbing properties. As a coach or athletic director, it is important to understand how these two foams differ, in order to provide the best equipment possible for your wrestling program.
PVC Rubber Nitrile — in 1959, Warren Tischler started Resilite, a mat company in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. He perfected a new type of wrestling mat manufactured with PVC Rubber Nitrile foam covered with a PVC vinyl painted surface. This new type of wrestling mat was more resilient, lighter, and safer than the old canvas mats. To prove his mat had better shock absorption than the old canvas mats, he would drop an egg onto the surface of the mat from as high as a second story building and the egg wouldn’t break!
Today wrestling mats manufactured with PVC Rubber Nitrile foam are very similar to the mats first developed by Resilite. The most common thicknesses are 1-inch and 1-1/4-inch. By following the ASTM F 355 –01 Test Method for shock-absorption properties using a 20lb missile (instead of an egg from a two-story building), manufacturers can determine exactly how the foam mat will cushion the impact and dissipate the force – resulting in a G-max reading. When tested to the ASTM standard, both the 1-inch thick and 1-1/4-inch thick PVC Rubber Nitrile foams pass the test with G-max results well below the maximum of 100 G-max.
Cross-Linked Polyethylene – pioneered by Spieth Anderson more than 25 years ago at the University of Waterloo Research Laboratories. Cross-linked polyethylene foam revolutionized the sport foam industry because of its resiliency and ability to retain compression resistance with repeated impacts. In other words, the cell structure does not break down like lesser-quality foams, thus maintaining the protective cushioning.
Today, Cross-Linked Polyethylene foam can be found in many different types of mats and sports flooring because of its resiliency. The layering properties of cross-linked polyethylene foam, allow it to be manufactured in a multitude of different thicknesses. For wrestling mats, the most common thicknesses are 1-1/4-inch and 2-inch thick.
Research tests of cross-linked polyethylene foam indicate that it takes as much as 60% more foam to equal the impact and shock-absorbing characteristics of the PVC Rubber Nitrile foam. In other words, it takes 2-inches of cross-linked polyethylene foam to provide the same protection as only 1-1/4-inches of PVC Rubber Nitrile foam. Therefore it is important to carefully consider the type of wrestling mat and the foam thickness that will offer your wrestling program the greatest benefits while providing for the most impact protection.
Wrestling mats have come a long way since the tufted canvas horsehair mats of the 1940’s and 50’s, but we still have a long way to go. Here is some helpful information when choosing a wrestling mat for your school or club.
Think of the wrestling mat not only as “Sporting Equipment” but as part of the “Sports Facility” itself.
Many schools or clubs do not have the luxury of a year-round wrestling room. They may have to roll them up at the end of the season or after each practice. Proper care and handling of the mat is essential in protecting your investment as well as the health and safety of the athletes.
WASH, WASH, WASH both sides of your mats.
Use a soft, bristled broom to remove as much of the loose dirt as possible. Use a disinfectant cleaner designed for wrestling mats and/or vinyl surfaces. Using a mop or soft cloth to wet the mat with warm, cleaning solution. Apply as much cleaning solution to the mat surface as possible without harming the floor surface. Do NOT allow water to seep underneath mat. It is important to change the cleaning solution often. After removing all the cleaning solution from the mat’s surface, use clean water and a clean mop, sponge or cloth to remove any cleaning residue from the mat surface. Allow the mat to fully dry. This helps decrease the formation of mildew. Using a fan will accelerate drying time.
Manufacturers can incorporate antimicrobial protection into your mats surface.
This is effective against most common bacteria, yeasts, molds and fungi that cause stains and odors. It is not designed to protect users from disease-causing microorganisms, however it will help fight microbes and keep your mats cleaner between normal cleanings. Proper maintenance, care and cleaning of the wrestling mat must still be performed on a regular basis.
Properly store and protect your mats from damage.
Cross-linked polyethylene mats can be rolled with the wrestling surface in and stacked in a convenient place or locked room within the school or facility to prevent vandalism to the exposed foam. PVC Rubber Nitrile foam mats should be rolled using the original mat storage tube. Mats can be stored on a specially designed mat rack system or simply strapped and stacked in a safe, easily accessible location. Mats should never be left or stored on mat transporters that can cause the foam to compress, eliminating the shock-absorbency characteristics of the foam core.
Follow The Standards For Impact Protection.
Always purchase a wrestling mat that meets or exceeds the ASTM standards for impact protection. Avoid basing your mat purchase solely on the thickness of the foam since foam types will perform differently. Request documentation from your manufacturer that the mat you are considering meets the ASTM F 355-01 Test Method for Shock-absorbing Properties.
Allow For The Proper Protection Area.
The minimum size of a High School competition mat is 38’ x 38’ with a minimum of 5’ protection area around the wrestling circle. The minimum size of a collegiate competition mat is 42’ x 42’ with a 5’ protection area. If your high school is considering a 40’ x 40’ mat, you could consider asking your mat manufacturer to keep the wrestling area at 28’, resulting in a 6’ protection area if preventing injuries outside of the wrestling circle is a concern.
If your school, club or facility hosts tournaments, you may want to consider using ½” thick PVC rubber nitrile foam or a cross-linked polyethylene foam as underlayment beneath your wrestling mats. This can be especially important if your mats do not meet the ASTM standards or if your using significantly older mats that may not be in the best of condition. Underlayment is also very beneficial when used in wrestling rooms as part of your overall injury prevention program, since a large portion of injuries occur during practice sessions.
Class-A Fire-Rated Mats
As building and fire codes change, it may be important to check with your local Fire Marshall when you are considering a new mat purchase for your facility. Today wrestling mats can be manufactured to meet the stringent ASTM E 84-05 “Standard Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials” as Class “A” fire-rated in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 255. In most instances, a wrestling mat is not considered part of the permanent building structure, however it is always best to check BEFORE purchasing a long-term investment such as a wrestling mat.
Repair and Reconditioning
Avoid allowing your mat to become damaged or in ill-repair. Gouges, cuts and tears can create a health and safety risk. Open foam allows fungus, bacteria and microorganisms to enter. Manufacturers offer repair and reconditioning kits to help you keep the mat in good condition. However, if the mat becomes damaged beyond what can easily be repaired on site it may be time to have the mat reconditioned. Not all mats can be reconditioned, you may want to check with your local wrestling mat dealer if you are unsure. It is also important to keep damaged or older mats properly washed and disinfected to help eliminate any health and safety risks for your athletes.
As parents, administrators, coaches and others involved in the sport of wrestling, it is important that we educate ourselves about all of the choices we have today in selecting the proper wrestling mat for our home, school, club or facility. As the sport of wrestling continues to evolve, so too do the wrestling mats we use. We need to be proactive in making certain that decision makers are purchasing the wrestling mat based upon what is best for the wrestling program, school and most importantly — the student athlete.Jeffrey S. Baker