What Students Have Taught Me About Wrestling

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Updated: February 21, 2020

By Tucker Lane

(Editor’s Note: The following is an expanded column by former Nebraska wrestler Tucker Lane that appeared in the Feb. 21, 2020 issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN Magazine.)

Up until April 2018, I had spent my entire life immersed in the sport of wrestling. Wrestling was, for me, everything good and bad, happy and sad. It gave me a purpose and pastime; it gave me a friend and an enemy.

For a long time, I never gave this fact much consideration, but as the days became the months became the years, I began to realize that if wrestling was my story, and if I were the stereotypical narcissist who only cared about his own story, then all that mattered was wrestling. And if this were the case, and the only thing that mattered was this wrestling story that was 29 years in the making, then the only people, places, and things that mattered were the people, places, and things that were a part of this story. This realization terrified me.

I gave up wrestling for a variety of reasons, but if I’m being completely honest, the chief among these was that I wanted to see if I could survive in life outside of my little wrestling story. Thus far, “surviving” is, in fact, the most adequate description of how things are going. I haven’t been able to find a job, not necessarily because I’m completely unemployable, but because the years of adulation I received for wrestling have increased my sense of worth to the point where I don’t particularly feel like starting over as a grunt in the real world, slinging used cars for some owner who is probably going to try and skim my commish. My social life hasn’t exactly taken off, and my only friends continue to be former wrestlers. When I tell this to people, they think I’m exaggerating—and I wish I were—but if you told me that I had to go out with a friend for happy hour on Friday evening, and that friend had to be someone who had never wrestled before in his life, then I have absolutely no idea who I would call to be my wingman. And I frequently draw strange stares from the ladies at my local gym when I use the yoga area as a mat to practice my penetration step.

I’ve been eating a lot of Dollar General tuna while stuck in wrestling purgatory, and in order to pay the bill, I’ve been shoveling some sidewalks and taking on temporary work where I can. I also substitute teach with great frequency, anything from elementary special needs on the poor side of town to senior-level AP Physics for teenagers driving Lexuses. In this diverse sample of our local community’s population, I see a fair amount of wrestling gear floating around in classrooms. I will always ask the standard questions when I see a student repping something wrestling-related: When does your season start? What weight class are you going to wrestle at this season? How many years have you been wrestling?

The responses are usually pretty standard, although rarely more than one word. It’s tough to get kids to answer any question that they know they’re not getting a grade or extra credit for. Nonetheless, I have gotten more than a handful of eyebrow-raising replies that lend perspective on a couple of questions that have been debated ad nauseum within the wrestling community. While I have held a very specific opinion on these issues for a good while, the responses of these students made me realize that my opinion on these matters was influenced entirely by those characters who were a part of my wrestling story. When hearing how these issues are viewed by people to whom wrestling is but a mere footnote, or, sadly, a superfluous paragraph that has been edited out, it makes one realize just how significant these points are for the continued prosperity of the sport.

The first topic that has surfaced in my experience as a substitute teacher is the question of what to do about singlets. I was wearing a singlet in my earliest baby pictures. I have never had even a remote hesitation about wearing a singlet. It’s just how people dress in my life’s story–they wear singlets. To college wrestlers who have a high level of investment in the sport and bodies that rival comic book superheroes, singlets are no big deal, either. And, as I quickly learned from my aforementioned local gym, people embrace the idea of singlets and spandex with open arms as they get older. My gym is filled with spandex. People who shouldn’t be wearing spandex are wearing spandex. It’s everywhere. Spandex shirts, spandex shorts, spandex leggings. So much spandex.

But to kids who are unsure about how they feel about themselves and whose interest level in wrestling is marginal, singlets are a big deal. In some cases, as I have learned in the past year, they become a make-or-break deal.

“Hey, I like your shirt, buddy! Are you excited for wrestling season?”

“I did wrestling last year, but my other friends who didn’t do wrestling always called me spandex-boy, so I don’t know if I’m doing it again this year.”

Another interaction after a kid noticed me wearing a wrestling polo to class.

“Mister, are you a wrestling coach?”

“I was a wrestling coach! Are you a wrestler, too?”

“My mom wants me to join this year. Does the wrestling team play in those stretchy suits?”

“In a singlet? That’s what the uniform is called for competition.”  

“A singlet? You have to wear that during games?”

“Well, yeah, you wear it during matches…”

“Oh…”

Finally, the following exchange happened one day when an announcement was made to excuse all students who wanted to attend the wrestling meeting for the middle school team:

“Do I have any students interested in wrestling?”

“I ain’t interested in wearing spandex!” 

“I didn’t ask if you were interested in wearing spandex. I asked if I have any students interested in wrestling.”

“Maybe I would be if I didn’t have to wear that onesie. But you’ll never catch me in spandex.”

Now, I understand that many children like to make excuses and that some can be very cruel. If they can’t use spandex as a cop-out for not joining the team, then they’ll find another reason to decline; if they can’t tease their wrestling peers about wearing singlets, they’ll unearth another means of harassment. However, the fact that the singlet continues to pervade promulgates an issue that doesn’t need to exist. From peewees through college, the vast majority of participants practice in t-shirt and shorts and compete in a singlet. I can’t think of any other sport where the practice attire differs from what is worn in competition. Clearly, coaches don’t feel like t-shirts and shorts present a safety issue, or they would require their athletes to practice in a singlet. Perhaps they believe that t-shirts and shorts present the opportunity for opponents to grab and gain a competitive advantage. Well, the headgear has presented this same opportunity for years, and officials have managed to keep such violations to a minimum.

From a participation standpoint, there is no downside to the sport making a wholesale transition to the fight short/compression shirt look for competition. The popularization of MMA has been a major positive for wrestling, highlighting the sport as an essential fundamental discipline for MMA success and giving high-level wrestlers an outlet to make professional money that is commensurate with their ability levels. Wrestling would be wise to continue to capitalize on MMA’s exposure and compete in gear that is more consistent with that worn by professional mixed martial artists. For every parent that has questions about wrestling branding itself so closely to an overtly violent sport, I truly believe, based on my aforementioned examples, that the sport would see triple that amount of youth who would not have been interested in wrestling if the singlet were still used. Just look at the merchandise store at wrestling camps for further proof of the branding potential of this alternative look. Fight shorts sell like wildfire, while singlets just sit there on the table. It makes sense, too. Fans enjoy wearing their New York Yankees baseball caps and Dallas Cowboys jerseys out in public. They can do the same with their favorite wrestling team’s fight shorts—not necessarily their favorite wrestling team’s singlet. I strongly encourage any coach, at any level of the sport, to switch to this updated look the next time they are due for new uniforms.

My time as an underachieving substitute has also shone new light on the tournament versus duals debate. To someone with a story like mine, sitting through wrestling tournaments is just one of the facts of life, something that just is, nothing to be discussed or argued about because on the weekends, wrestlers go to wrestling tournaments. A wrestler’s weekend residence is a stuffy high school gym or chilly multi-use arena, and to be evicted from that residence without the chance of being crowned champion is as uncomfortable to the wrestler as it is to the citizen who shows up to an apartment for which the key no longer works. Unfortunately, for the non-wrestler, or for those who are just dabbling, squatting in rigid-back bleachers and munching on concession-stand nachos all day is, itself, the very definition of uncomfortable, as demonstrated by the following examples.

When I saw one of my students wearing the t-shirt of a well-known local youth club, I asked him how many years he had wrestled for them:

“I wrestled for them in first, second, and third grade, but I’m not wrestling for them this year.”

“Why not? Did you sign up for another club?”

“No, my dad said that he doesn’t want me to do wrestling this year because the tournaments take too long. He likes to do family activities on the weekend and since wrestling takes all day on Saturday, we can’t do anything except for Sunday. He is signing me up for basketball because the games are shorter.”

I asked another student in a wrestling hoodie about the upcoming season and got the following response:

“I don’t know if I’m going to be on the wrestling team this year. My mom works at night on the weekends and because the games take so long, she can’t find anyone to pick me up once they’re over. She’s still trying to figure it out because she knows I really want to be on the team this year.”

And finally:

“I haven’t done wrestling since I was in elementary. My parents got mad because we were at one of the tournaments for a really long time, but we were at the wrong mat and I missed my first match. So they took me out after that year.”

Clearly, tournament wrestling is confusing, uncomfortable, and inconvenient for the marginally committed consumer. Unlike switching from singlets to more modernized uniforms, however, making the switch from tournaments to duals is more complicated. First, tournament wrestling has become big business in the wrestling community. Youth mega tournaments and tournament series have exploded since the turn of the century. In this same timeframe, the NCAA Division I Championships have blossomed as the marquee spectacle of the sport, going from an event that wouldn’t sell out a college arena to packing nationally renowned venues. It has grown to the point that the NCAA decided to move the 2020 championships to a state-of-the-art NFL stadium, and all-session passes approach $300 per person. Proponents of the status quo can easily point to this and argue that there is no need to mess with a good thing. Why should we focus on switching to duals when there is such growth in tournament wrestling?

Tournament wrestling is also supported by coaches who want to get their kids mat time. In a single-contest dual, there is only the chance to get your starting lineup one match a piece. In a tournament setting, coaches are usually able to enter as many kids as they can, and even their lesser wrestlers are guaranteed at least two matches. I argue that more mat time is not necessarily a good thing. Without delving into the overuse injury and burnout arguments, focusing strictly on making wrestling a more sellable product, I believe that wrestling so many matches in a year devalues the sport. Urgency and hype are generated when the focus is on fewer contests. Would MMA be as popular if competitors fought 30-40 bouts a year? Would football be the most watched televised sport if your favorite team played four games a week? Yes, the violent nature of these sports makes increased competitions prohibitive, but I believe this restriction actually helps them generate interest. Viewers don’t have the “there’s another match in a couple of hours” argument as an excuse for not tuning in.

Finally, many coaches don’t like scheduling duals because of forfeits. There isn’t much sense in using a competition date when my team has eight wrestlers and your team has 10 wrestlers and we only overlap at five weight classes. Despite significant thought on this topic, I haven’t been able to come up with a solution that doesn’t open a pandora’s box of other issues. I do, however, believe that this is a classic catch-22: We don’t wrestle duals because we don’t have enough wrestlers and we don’t have enough wrestlers because we don’t wrestle duals.

I hope that no one has interpreted this as a doom-and-gloom piece on the state of wrestling. In many ways, the sport is more popular than it has ever been, thanks, in large part, to the exciting surge in women’s wrestling and the outstanding work of the sport’s many dynamic social media personalities. But I believe wrestling can be substantially more popular in 2020 on if coaches make the commitment to move away from the singlet and make their competition schedules more dual-meet heavy. These aren’t the only two challenges that the sport is facing in the public school system (cell phone addiction, participation-ribbon culture, low budgets, year-round club domination, shortage of quality coaches), but they are the two issues that surface frequently enough to inspire me to set aside the Dollar General tuna and get down to the public library to write about wrestling again.

 

(Tucker Lane is a former wrestler and wrestling coach. He is the author of Love in the Time of Likes, a novel about a high school wrestling coach who explores the world of online dating. He also co-hosts the Four-Point Nearfall podcast, available on all major listening apps, which discusses action in the Big XII Conference. Please visit his website www.tuckerlane.org and leave him feedback on this article.)

 

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