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Kids are inclined to love wrestling so let’s expose more of them to our sport
I love this time of year. The leaves change colors, the air becomes brisk and I know another wrestling season is just around the corner.
My love affair with wrestling began in the fifth grade. After basketball season was over, wrestling began for fifth through eighth graders at 3:15 p.m. in the school gym.
I knew nothing about the sport, but I also knew my parents expected me to participate in athletics that were offered after school in the gymnasium, so I went to practice with the other fifth graders.
None of us had wrestling shoes and we didn’t know the first thing about the sport, but by 5:00 p.m. that first afternoon, I was hooked.
I don’t recall much about the initial practice, but I know that we practiced on a blue wrestling mat and our coaches, Rob and Tiger, were teenagers from the local high school who had just completed their own wrestling season.
I remember that we did so many push-ups that day that I thought my arms would give out, but I would not quit. I longed for that first practice to be over because it was so much harder than any other practice I had experienced as a kid.
At the end of practice, when we had finished our conditioning, I was physically exhausted. I was drained and concluded that wrestling was going to be really, really hard and that I probably wasn’t going to be a big fan of these workouts. Then something amazing happened.
The high school-aged coaches called us to the center of the mat, told us to “take a knee,” no sitting was permitted. They proceeded to tell us what a great job we had done as the older kids walked around and told us we were tough little guys and that we were now part of their wrestling team.
They told us that if we stuck to it, we would be champions one day. They promised us that if we worked hard we would be winners on and off the mat.
Then we jumped to our feet, clapped in unison, shouted our school name, and it was suddenly over. As practice ended, I was swept with emotion and a sense of camaraderie I had never felt before.
While I was relieved that practice was finally over, I could not wait to get back to wrestling practice the very next day. As I watched the coaches and older kids roll up the mats, I knew that they were doing it for the little guys, like me.
At school the very next day, I learned that two of my best buddies also loved wrestling. We were ten or eleven years old and weighed 69, 71, and 73 pounds respectively. We were skin and bones, but we were wrestlers and we all felt an immediate bond with the “big kids” in our K-8 grade school.
As the season progressed, my passion for the sport grew. I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as possible. We learned single- and double-leg takedowns, how to chop and jam from the top, and how to a throw a proper half nelson, but only after breaking our opponent down. We learned sportsmanship and how to cheer on our teammates. Most importantly, we learned how to step onto the mat on our own.
Today, I am teaching theses very same techniques and lessons to my seven- and nine-year old sons, as well as their friends.
While they are a bit younger than when I first started wrestling, they too are developing a love for the sport.
As we begin a new season, I sincerely hope that 1,000s of new kids fall in love with wrestling this year. I hope these kids are blessed with coaches like Rob and Tiger, and I hope that as they progress, wrestling teaches them as many life lessons as it has taught me.
(Chris McGowan is from Sioux City, Iowa, where he was introduced to wrestling in the fifth grade and competed through college. The father of three girls and two boys remains involved with the sport as a parent, volunteer coach and member of the Board of Directors of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.)