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playing poker and teaching science: The Varsity Squad
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Location: Indiana, United States

I'm a middle school science teacher, wrestling coach, poker player, scuba diver, aikido black belt, amateur writer, and student of life. In the past I have tried to give back a little by volunteering at a children's home in Belmopan, Belize, Central America. I also love Frosted Flakes. I have taken a year sabbatical from my teaching position in order to sail the Caribbean. Does that sound crazy to you?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Varsity Squad

Okay blog fans, writing is obviously something that all bloggers have in common. I like to write and have even published a thing or two. The following is an article I wrote that I never submitted for publication that gives a little insight into what it's like to be your son's coach. Enjoy:

The Varsity Squad
My son is on the varsity wrestling squad.

There's no announcer urging the crowd to get ready to rumble, no loud music preceding his arrival, and no bright, explosive fireworks as he walks to the wrestling mat. There's just a slightly built, high school freshman stepping into a large circle all by himself to square off against juniors and seniors who have competed with the best wrestlers in the country.
All I can do is watch. Watch and learn.

Wrestling is an unusual sport. The first competitive sport ever conducted was undoubtedly a footrace, one man proving his physical superiority by outrunning another. The second competition likely came when the loser of the race tackled the winner to prove that running was not the best way to settle the issue.

The sport of wrestling has not changed much throughout the centuries. It was one of the original Olympic sports and today remains a contest of two individuals, once just men but now women as well, squaring off to see which one can pin the other to the ground.

When you step onto a wrestling mat, you step onto it alone. You have no teammates on which to rely, no partner to cover for you, and no coach to decide which technique will work best. You are alone. When you win, your hand is raised in victory and the applause and cheers are just for you. When you lose you walk off the mat with nobody to share the loss with but yourself.

The fact that it is an individual competition is enough to deter most athletes from attempting the sport. There are standard lines of denial that blame tight, spandex uniforms, weight control, or all-day tournaments as reasons not to compete, but the underlying knowledge of a solitary competition in which one person proves physical dominance over another is simply too psychologically daunting for the average teenager. In a day of Prozac and group hugs, a sport which leaves an athlete as the lone loser is much too oppressive for the average teenager's overburdened self-esteem.

My son now stands shoulder to shoulder to weigh in with wresters who are physically more mature than his young years and obviously stronger than he.

Few athletes will experience a pre-competition ritual similar to the wrestling weigh-in. Competitors disrobe and fall in line wearing only a single piece of snug undergarment, an article of clothing which may be discarded if its miniscule mass places the wrestler in jeopardy of being overweight. An official checks fingernail length and scans the wrestler's body as he performs a slow pirouette looking for contagious skin conditions like ringworm and other fungal infections. The wrestler then steps on a state-certified scale to determine his actual weight. If at that time he is a mere one tenth of a pound over the weight class limit, he becomes a spectator for the day restricted to sitting on the bench under the coach's glare as his team forfeits the vacant weight class.

Weigh-in time is when wrestlers begin to size up their competition and my son stands under the gaze of the other team, smaller and less muscular than his opponent. I watched as the young man in his weight class nudged his teammate, nodded his head in my son’s direction, and mouthed the word "fish," the lowest classification that can be placed on a competitor. Wrestling a fish means that its an easy day, no competition, no threat, and nobody else having a hand raised in victory while you walk from the mat listening to the silence from your teammates and fans.

I wanted to tell that young man that my son is not a fish and that he has worked hard for weeks, attending optional morning workouts and lifting weights at home. There are no upperclassmen on the team to compete with in his weight class, but he has worked harder than the other freshman and finally earned his spot alongside the other 13 varsity team members.
He won the varsity position by winning a wrestle-off.

The wrestle-off is the ultimate test to determine who makes the starting squad. Two teammates face each other on the wrestling mat with the winner becoming the varsity wrestler and the loser relegated to the ranks of junior varsity. There are no coaches evaluating statistics, technique, or times as there are in other sports, just two young men and an official.

My son won his wrestle-off against another freshman who he couldn't beat last season, or even at the beginning of this season. But he continued to work. He wrestled, ran, and lifted weights more than any other freshman on the team, with the only reward being the ability to walk onto the mat with someone older and stronger. He won the chance to wrestle matches that would almost certainly result in defeat. He could have remained on the junior varsity squad and won matches against wrestlers his same age, but he would rather lose matches on the varsity than win on the second string team.

He's not a fish. But he sure looks like one to his opponent.

When the time came for him to wrestle his first varsity match he walked tentatively onto the mat. He told me that his goal was to not get pinned. Getting pinned will cost the team six points, whereas a loss by decision only three. He wants his older teammates to know that he is doing the best job he possibly can and not getting pinned may be the best he can do.

His opponent ran to the center of the mat, confident, with a small smile on his face, and the official signaled the beginning of the match. My son was quickly taken down and dominated during the first two of three, two-minute periods and ended after four minutes trailing by five points. The opposing wrestler still looked confident, but at least he was no longer smiling.
The last period began and I watched as the older, stronger competitor reached for my son's head to set up his next technique. Then the unthinkable happened. My son quickly moved his hips in and pulled the boy across his back, tossing him to the mat and held him there as he struggled. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for the hold to break and the stronger, more physically dominate wrestler to regain control of the match.

But that didn't happen.

The official slapped the mat, signaling that the match was over, a pin had been achieved, and my son was the winner. The official held his hand high as the crowd cheered and he ran off the mat to congratulations and back slaps from his teammates. My son hugged me and I told him what a great job he had done and that I was proud of him, not for winning, but for working as hard as he possibly could..

My son also won his next match before the reality of what it means to be a freshmen wrestling on the varsity squad set in and he began to absorb the aches and pains of competing beyond his capabilities. His desire to be on the varsity squad never wavered however and he worked even harder in the following weeks as he prepared for competition. I encouraged him in every way that I could, but I didn't pressure him to train. As a former wrestler, I’ve learned that wrestling is something he has to want for himself and that it's too hard to try to force him to do.

During the next few weeks he won a few more matches and accepted a couple of forfeits to finish the season with an unglamorous record of six wins against ten losses.

Now we're in the off-season. My son proudly wears his varsity letter jacket and continues to train as he prepares for next year.

My son is on the varsity squad and that's where he intends to stay.

Thanks for reading.

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