Should I Redshirt a College Year?

By Cliff Cushard

If you are approaching college or already in school, you may have heard from coaches or teammates about the option to redshirt a college year. But what does this mean for you as a student and as an athlete? How does it change the coarse of your college career? Through advice of Cliff Cushard, current head women's wrestling coach for Adrian College, this blog aims to give you the best tools to make an educated decision. 

What is Redshirting

Redshirting is the practice of taking a year off team competition. In most instances these wrestlers are training and doing limited competitions during the red shirt year, but some may take the year off entirely. This is allowed through the current WCWA rules which state a wrestler can compete in a maximum of four years of competition within a five year span.

The current rules define an student-athlete's training and competing restrictions. An athlete is allowed to train with their team and compete in open tournaments (non-team specified competition). They cannot compete in a dual meet for their team or at the WCWA National Championships while red shirting. Red shirt athletes cannot compete in their team singlet or under their school name, but the team is allowed to pay all of their expenses to travel and compete. This is still up to an individual school and if the they are willing to do so - as they are not required. In some instances, the red shirt athlete might be invited to compete at their own expense. They are allowed to compete as a member of a club however, in essence, the competing red shirt wrestler is competing as an unattached, independent person with no college team.

Why an athlete would want to redshirt

For the athlete, they may decide to take a red shirt year for several reasons:  

  1. If they know they are going to take 5 years to complete their degree and/or to get a Master’s degree, they may want to spread out their competitive life to cover all five years.
  2. If they know they are going to have a challenging academic year and want to focus more on schoolwork.
  3. Some athletes burn out and need a year to recover their passion for the sport. (Though this rarely works. In my opinion, burn out should be avoided at all costs. Once burn out sets in, most athletes do not seem to recover well.)
  4. If the athlete feels they are going to have a better run at becoming an All-American by having an additional year to train, they could make the strategic decision to do their school work over 5 years in hopes that they can get the highest possible finish.
  5. On a similar note, some wrestlers make a strategic decision to sit out a year to allow a rival in their weight class to graduate and get out of their way.
  6. Some coaches may suggest that an athlete take a red shirt year to better align the team's best wrestlers. This could create the best situation to make a run at a team title.

What are the pros?

  1. When an athlete trains during the red shirt year they should, in theory, be a better wrestler the next year. Training without the pressure of competition can lead to jumps in skill that aren’t possible while working on competition, weight management and everything else that is involved in a normal competitive season.
  2. If they don’t train during the red shirt year, it might have a big impact on their success in class. An improved GPA can be a positive result as graduation is of highest priority.
  3. A higher placing at WCWA Nationals is a possibility - though not a guarantee. Just because the wrestler takes a year off, it doesn’t mean that rivals don't do as well, that other women don’t also get better during that time, that incoming freshmen don’t slip into some of those positions, or that injuries or illnesses don’t become a factor - anything can happen in this sport.
  4. The team could place higher with it's best wrestlers competing on the mat. There is no guarantee that red shirting wrestlers to best align a roster for success will actually achieve that success.  

What are the cons?

  1. An additional year of school. If your degree does not require it, an additional year of school means additional classes, potential stress, and additional payments and/or loans. 
  2. Delay of beginning your life after college. Depending on the economic climate at the time, redshirting could mean missing out on better job opportunities. It certainly means one less year of earning potential in your lifetime. This can have an impact on retirement, family and additional unforeseen options down the road.
  3. The potential emotional cost of a red shirt year. During the red shirt year, some athletes feel left out or even ostracized since they can’t be part of the team. These feelings have lead to wrestlers quitting the sport if the isolation becomes too much to bear.
  4. Even training and competing in opens, bitterness could arise when watching wrestlers you have beat place at Nationals or other tournaments. During a red shirt year an athlete could become injured or underperform, which could lead to feeling time or potential was wasted. It is crucial a red shirt wrestler is prepared for these types of feelings.
  5. There is a potential social cost. What do your friends and family think of your choice? What does the delay do to your development after college? Again, this is something that should be carefully considered. Is it worth it to YOU?

How is the decision of redshirting being advised to athletes?

To my knowledge, there isn’t any standard way of advising a red shirt year. It varies by athlete, coach, and school. Some programs seem to have no red shirt athletes, while others seem to have several every year. Discussing red shirting with your prospective coach before signing is probably a wise decision so you know what to expect and can decide accordingly.

How to decide

My advice is to weigh the pros and cons and decide what is best for you. Spend some time thinking about why you want to red shirt, or why your coach is advising the decision. Are those reasons worth the costs for you? In many cases they certainly can be, but in other cases they may not be at all. This is a personal decision you are making for yourself and I would be careful to make this decision rather than be pressured into it by other people. It might be that others want what is best for you or your team, but you may decide that the additional money and time isn’t worth it to you. Like many things in life - choose wisely.

Cliff Cushard is the head women's coach for Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan since. He has been an assistant coach for the men's team, and for the women's team since it was established in 2015. He also serves as Michigan's USA Wrestling Women’s State Director. 

Cushard has coached Michigan women's national teams since 2010, developed over 20 wrestlers who have competed at the college level and/or represented the USA in international competitions; and mentored several All-Americans who have won national titles. All of his daughters wrestle, including the two oldest having placed numerous times as All-Americans. Samantha was the first-ever female All-American for Adrian College at the 2016 Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association national tournament.