My son wrestles. He has made a thousand decisions prior to this night of competition, when he will wrestle under the spotlight, in front of his friends, his friends’ parents, his teachers, and his football coaches. A hundred times he has run the track, during practice as well as after, on his own time. He has sprinted the hallways, the stairwells, and the wrestling room, carrying his partner. Push-ups, sit-ups, sandbag carries—his aches and pains make him slow to stand, stiff to descend stairs, always groaning. We buy Advil in pint-sized containers. We have baggies of ice stuffed in the freezer.
Every day starts with my son stepping on the scale. He rations his food, he knows about salt and empty calories and the need for protein and the importance of hydrating.
On the day of a wrestling meet, he tries to stay focused for school, but his mind snaps to his match, over and over. Iron to a magnet, the worry refuses to give up its elemental hold.
His opponent has a nearly same record. The match will be close.
When my son jogs out and shakes hands, my own hands tremble in my lap, betraying my practiced calm. My mouth goes dry. I say a silent prayer, please God, no injuries for either boy.
I don’t think wrestling builds character. Wrestling can feed egos, create whiners, and empower bullies. I’ve seen wrestlers who experiment with drugs, wrestlers who hurt their own teammates, and wrestlers who quit when the season gets difficult and the losses pile up. Life builds character, or not—depending on how you go through it. Wrestling provides a stage, that’s all.
We all know this sport is not only about winning. If it were, our sons would only want to wrestle the kids who don’t know a head-lock from an underhook. If it were, they would tether their self-worth to praise from their coaches. If it were, wrestling would create only monsters with egos and despairing losers with no self-regard. To be sure, some of these exist. Moms, we can do better. We know better.
Do you want your son to be humble? Then remind him to thank his coaches for helping him. Remind him—win or lose— to show his opponent respect. Remind him to help his teammates, no matter their skill level.
Do you want your son to be strong? Then praise him for working hard. Nudge him toward the weight room. Show him how to eat right. Cook for him, with him, or beside him—however you run your house. Don’t forget, all that strength can help you too. You drive him to practices. He can help with yard or housework. Teach him that relationships work best when they feel balanced, when we give what we can when we can.
Do you want your son to be responsible? Help him wash his own clothes. Help him make his own food. Help him write a schedule for Sunday, when he can work ahead in school. Help him, don’t do it for him. When he’s an adult and he’s tired, he will still need to finish household chores. Prepare him now, and he’ll be one step closer to responsible adulthood.
This is a young man in front of you. You want him to be capable and strong and–maybe, like me–you want him to win. Tonight, I want this win deep inside my bones.
He wrestles aggressively. He looks good on his feet and gets the first take-down—a single leg. No other score the first period, then he escapes at the beginning of the second period. He’s up 3, nothing. Then, I don’t know what happens…something sloppy and he’s reversed. He knows better. He knows better. But he’s pinned.
He hangs his head as he leaves the mat and hurries into the hallway. He sits against the wall, tears of rage and humiliation run tracks through the sweat on his face. His coaches will talk to him. His teammates too. They know when to find him, what to say. In the meantime, the tears are okay. They mean he cares deeply that he’s lost. Maybe he’ll feel sorry for himself. Maybe he’ll wish he’d done something different. It’s all good.
When I see him, I will wrap my arms around his neck and tell him I love him. That’s all he needs from me right now. Tomorrow, he’ll weigh himself and we’ll talk about what to eat, and then he will carry the garbage cans out to the curb.