Why Wrestling?

I remember the day Jackson came home and told me he wanted to wrestle.  My mind rushed to images of boys being thrown to the ground, bodies contorted in painful ways, and possible concussions.  I wasn’t so sure I was excited about the sport.  But I was in a difficult spot, and Jackson knew it.  In our house we have a rule that you have to participate in some kind of extra curricular activity.  My boy is small.  He’s always been small, and he probably always will be.  In a lot of ways that can make sports an obstacle.  “Why do you want to wrestle, Jackson?”  “Mom, I hate track.  I mean, I really really hate it.  It’s just not for me.  But I was at the high school for my sports physical, and this coach came over and invited me to practice with the wrestling team.  He said my size makes me a diamond in the rough, and he wants me.  Can I just try it?”  I relented, and agreed.  I figured he would go to a few practices, hate getting thrown around, and we would move on.  Little did I know it would only take a few practices to get my boy hooked.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the fact that I too, would love the sport.

Jackson started wrestling the summer in between his 7th and 8th grade year.  He wasn’t even 100 pounds yet.  He was forced to wrestle boys bigger than him over and over again.  The smallest weight class is 106 pounds, and he was tipping the scale at around 95 pounds.  So what does one do when you walk on to the mat to face Goliath?  You dig deep, and you wrestle with heart.  I sometimes would watch other athletes point at Jackson and smile.  They believed going up against such a tiny guy would be an easy match.  Little did they know that Jackson had a taste for victory, and he wasn’t going to rest until it was satisfied.

But before you think that he was just a natural, and the wins came quick and easy, I should probably let you in on a little secret.  There was a fair share of losing.  As a mother you never want to watch your child fail.  I remember the coaches coming to me that first year.  “Let’s get these losses out of the way this year before he starts high school.  It’s good for him.  He will want it even more after he loses a few times.  And trust me Mama, he will be a better man if he learns that you don’t always win in life.”  They were right.  Before a boy can become a man, he must learn humility, and how to get back up after you fall.  Wrestling was teaching him life lessons.  Get up, shake your opponents hand, and walk away with your head held high.

But what happens after that loss?  A wrestler has a decision to make.  How bad do you want it?  If you want it bad enough you go to the off season practices.  You wake up early to squeeze in a run before school.  And you learn a very important phrase.  “Leave it all on the mat.”  Freshman year Jackson was a little bigger, a lot stronger, and determined to make a name for himself.  He won medals, quieted the giants who thought the little guy across the mat was no big deal.  And he found his place.  He was learning who he was, and what he was made of.  Jackson still wasn’t 106 pounds, so he was spending another year as the underdog.  His coaches came to me again.  “He’s finding his way.  He is wrestling with his heart; that will make up for his size.  We knew he was something special.”  Jackson finished that season wrestling on a separated shoulder for a week.  He never complained.  He never said a word.  He finally came to me and said, “Mom, I think I need an xray.  I’m pretty sure I did something to my shoulder last week.”  “Jackson, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”  He shrugged and smiled.  “You would have made me stop wrestling until I was better.  I wasn’t ready to stop.  It’s just pain.”  Wrestling was teaching him to push through in order to reach the goal at hand.  Another beautiful life lesson falling in to place.

Moving into sophomore year, Jackson had a growth spurt, and bulked up.  Never in a million years did I imagine my tiny boy could get so muscular.  He no longer looked like the underdog, but instead stood on the side of the mat with sculpted arms looking menacing, and ready for battle.  We faced new challenges this year.  The military had played it’s cruel trick, and we had been reassigned.  This meant a new team, new coaches, and new things to prove.  Jackson hated us for moving.  Every day I felt his anger in his stares.  I only hoped that wrestling would help him find his place here, and he would develop a brotherhood.  Ahhhh…the brotherhood of a wrestling team.  Wrestling isn’t like football, basketball or soccer.  The team is small.  The boys really get to know each other, and a bond is forged.  It’s unlike anything I have ever seen before.  Slowly the anger ebbed away, and friends were made.

    Midway through his sophomore year Jackson was forced to tangle with another monster.  Arrogance.  Jackson had come on to this team, proven his talent level, and then he settled in and got cocky.  Remember how I told you that wrestling helps you dial into your inner fight, and you find the will to win even when you don’t have the strength?  In this business they call that heart.  Well….Jackson had lost his heart, and now walked with the strut that comes with being a 15 year old at the top of your game.  You know what happens to a wrestler when he loses his heart, and gets overly confident?  He loses regionals.  He goes home and has to admit that his head was in the wrong place.  Isn’t that what happens in life so many times?  We have this “I’ve got this” attitude, and things slowly begin to slip out of our control.

Jackson came to terms with the loss, and what had caused it.  (I will also throw out that some bad calls were made, and Jackson was forced to wrestle on a mat that had no circle.  One should never have to wrestle without a circle clearly defining boundaries.)  I began to see that look in his eye again.  “Mom, this is my year.  I’m all in.”  Jackson and a few other guys began meeting before school to run a few miles.  Then there were stadiums, requests for extra practices, and intense recruiting.  These boys reached out, and encouraged others to join the brotherhood.  The team grew, and so did the boys.  Last year’s rookies were learning how to be mentors.  Leadership was being birthed, and these boys basked in the opportunity to be something other than followers. 

The season is in full swing now.  Medals are being draped around their necks, some losses are being logged into the books, but the spirit is strong.  The long runs are paying off as they watch their opponents tire in those last seconds.  The extra practices are seeing reward as they add another pin to their records.  Pride beams from their faces not only for their wins, but for the wins of their brothers.

Why let my kid wrestle?  Never before have I seen a sport that demanded so much from an athlete, even long after the season is over.  If you want it, you never stop grinding.  Never have I seen a quiet shy boy burst from his cocoon quite like when my boy is on the mat.  There are very few sports that allow you to compete both individually and as a team.  If Jackson loses, it’s on him.  No blaming anyone else.  This is a lesson that should be learned early in life.  How many sports make you get up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday in order to compete all day long?  Sometimes the athletes (and yes, their parents too) do this for days on end.  You have to really want something to be willing to give up your sleep, your weekend, and often times your favorite foods, just to punish your body in hopes of a victory.

I will never stop holding my breathe when he walks onto the mat.  I will never stop worrying and praying this isn’t the time he gets hurt.  But I will never tire of seeing the hunger in his eyes.  Wrestling teaches discipline, passion, the will to get up and keep going after what you want.  And at the end of the match?  Stand up, look your opponent in the eye, shake his hand, and leave it all on that mat.  Never are you allowed to stomp off angry, throw your headgear, and pitch a tantrum.  Oh no, that’s now how the game is played, or how life works.

So to the coaches who spotted my little boy across the crowded gym all those years ago, I say thank you.  Jackson has learned, and continues to learn so much more than just how to wrestle.  I believe the sport has equipped him with characteristics that will make him a better man.  I only pray that in all he does he always strives to go at it will all his heart, and then walk away knowing he left everything he had on the mat.

Class and Integrity- If You Don’t Have It, Stay Home!

The Urban Dictionary defines class as  “a person who is poised, graceful, mature, or exudes any of these qualities in dress, mannerism, language, and everyday life. Possesses excellent self-control, is gentle, soothing, and unoffensive.”  I almost wish this was given to every parent and coach before a sporting event took place.  The things I continue to witness grown adults do when they are supposed to be leading children not only shocks me, but it sickens me.

Let’s talk coaches… Please know that if you coach a team, your athletes are watching you.  Often times an athlete is more likely to listen to what you say than they are their own parents.  So if a coach is talking trash about another team or athlete, what kind of example are you really setting?  Encouraging players to physically hurt the other team, making fun of kids on the opposing team, and throwing out vulgar and obscene language only makes you look weak and classless.

And please remember that often times the parents can hear you.  I was recently at a wrestling tournament.  Seating was limited, and all the parents from both teams were sandwiched in together in a few rows of chairs.  I heard the opposing team’s coaches.  They sounded like a bunch of frat boys, not leaders.  They were not coaching in a pure way, giving tips on how to win, but instead making jokes about the other team, pointing, and suggesting that their team play to win, even if it meant playing dirty.  “If the ref doesn’t see it, I don’t care what you do.”  Stop right there.  Remember when I said that these kids listen and look up to coaches?  Telling a high school kid that you don’t care what they do as long as they don’t get caught carries right on over into every day life.  You just taught your athlete that as long as they stay below the radar they can do whatever they please.  Whatever happened to teaching integrity?

Let’s dig a little deeper.  During certain seasons coaches see more of my boys than I do.  They are essentially like a second set of parents.  When I let my child participate I am trusting those coaches to not only teach my kids a skill, but also to keep them safe, and help shape them into men of integrity.  If you as a coach then turn around and blow your top, screaming obscenities at students and parents, and can’t keep it together during stressful times, what exactly are you teaching my boys?

Then there are the fun Daddy Ball coaches.  Super.  You want to coach your kid’s team.  You want to “be involved”.  We are so proud.  Let’s give you Father of the Year.  But for the love of sports, LET OTHER KIDS PLAY!  Just because you are the coach doesn’t mean that your kid is the star athlete.  He may be a chip off the old block, but that doesn’t mean that he is really THAT good.  And even if he is, so is little Johnny, Timmy, and Tyler too.  I did not show up to watch Junior run the bases over and over while you tell the rest of the team they aren’t good enough to play.  And while I’m at it…I’d really like your wife to sit down and shut up.  She’s not special!

Now we come to the parents….I’ve sat in stands along side parents for so many years that I have a permanent dent in my hind end from bleachers!  I’ve made so dear friends while sitting in the stands, but there is always that one parent.  I’m betting every single one of you can think of one of these parents.  During this season of my life it is a wrestling dad that just won’t be quiet.  I’m seriously getting short of breath and my heart rate went up just thinking about him.  He coaches from the sidelines.  He coaches so much that the actual coach is quiet because the coach can’t be heard over the dad.  (Side note- Jackson shut that boy’s dad up on Saturday when he beat him!)  Anyway…This dad says things like, “Shove him down, and don’t let him up for air.  Don’t let him breathe.”  It’s a miracle I don’t come down out of the stands and give this father a piece of my mind!  Parents, stop coaching from the sidelines.  You aren’t the coach, and half the time the kids tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about anyway.  Be quiet.  Let the coaches do their jobs.

Accept when your child doesn’t win, even if the ref made a bad call.  Life isn’t fair.  These kids should learn it early in life, rather than later.  Bad calls get made, injustices happen, and we become stronger because of it.  If you want Little Billy to be given a cupcake and a medal every time he puts on a uniform, then perhaps you should start a No Competition Necessary Club.  In fact, I believe some of the greatest lessons are learned from losing.  Life isn’t handed to you.  You get knocked down.  It’s all about whether or not you get back up and learn to do what it takes to win the next time.  Earning a medal is way better than being given one.  Now sit down and hush so your kid can learn that lesson.

Sadly, I have to take this one step further.  Remember how I told you parents should sit down?  I want to keep pressing that point.  Please remember that you are an adult, and you should act as example to youth.  On Saturday I didn’t just watch coaches tell kids to play a game with no ethics, I watched a father come out of the stands and rush a coach from the opposite team.  He was screaming at the coach, getting into his personal space, and itching for a fight.  It took multiple adults to hold the dad back, and usher him into the hallway.  NEVER should a parent engage with a coach from the other side unless it is to congratulate, welcome, or ask general questions.  The way a player behaves is the business of the coaches and refs, NOT YOU!  It begs the question, what are you teaching the athletes?  Do we now come out swinging when we don’t get our way?  Screaming, getting red faced, and acting like a fool won’t change the outcome.

I actually was threatened myself as a coach.  It never ends well for the parent.  In this case the parent was unable to watch her child play the rest of the season because she wasn’t allowed on school grounds.  Be an adult.  If you have nothing positive to say, please keep your mouth shut.  If you have questions for your child’s coach, address them like an adult.  There is no need to cause a scene.

My family has actually been very fortunate with the coaches they have been blessed with.  My daughter cheered for a coach who pushed her to break past her fears, swing for the fences, and always challenge herself beyond her comfort zone.  My eldest son, Jackson has been surrounded by wrestling coaches since the 8th grade.  (I’ll tell you the wrestling story another time.  It’s quite a lengthy chat!)  In the 8th grade my son learned that powerful things come in small packages.  He began learning that winning is important, but it isn’t everything.  Learning from your loss has value; don’t lose sight of that. Jackson also began to see that being a real man means you speak softly, and listen to those who have been there and done that.  Fast forward 3 years.  Jackson’s little brother joined the wrestling brotherhood.  Together they are learning that team is more important than self.  Hard work is more important than talent.  And winning with integrity beats cheating any day.

The boys love their coach.  He pushes them beyond their mental limits, praises them for hard work, and encourages them to be better men.  “Leave it all on the mat.  Put your heart into it, and then walk away knowing you gave it everything you have.”  Those are the lessons coaches are supposed to teach.  Read it again.  That’s a life lesson.  No amount of screaming, cursing, fighting, or cheating can teach that kind of lesson.  They will remember you long after they leave these halls.  Not for that fancy move you taught them, but for the life lessons you shared with them along the way.