Wrestling can help us overcome other COVID issues

Updated: January 20, 2022

Photo: John Klessinger (right) offers advice to his wrestling team at South River High School in Edgewater, Md.

By John Klessinger

I am a teacher and I have an old-school approach in working with my students. I believe kids respond best with structure and accountability. No one will ever convince me otherwise. I have too many examples to prove its effectiveness. Yet, I believe each child is different; just like coaching, a one-size-fits-all approach does not always work.

As a result, it may be tougher on one student, more easy-going with another and loving to a third. Although different towards each student or athlete, I highly emphasize following a system of organization and discipline. If not, teenagers will eat you alive and class will not be productive.

This column appeared in the January issue of WIN Magazine. Click on cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

COVID-19 changed America in March of 2020. The initial results of the pandemic were schools and business shutdowns.

For the first few months, school was non-existent. School systems were not prepared for a virtual learning experience. From first-hand experience, I would not see or communicate the rest of the school year with dozens of students. Essentially, those kids missed instruction for 30 percent of the school year. It hurt the younger elementary and middle-school-aged students the most. Those formative years are crucial.

I spoke with many parents with children ages 5-14 who expressed concern for lack of schooling at the start of the quarantine. I could relate to them as my son quickly got behind in math, foreign language and science.

By September of 2020, schools had virtual platforms in place. It was better than at the beginning but still not the regular school structure. With the economy slowly recovering, more people went back to work. This left many students without a parent, ensuring they logged onto their computers for their classes. Because of this, school systems drastically loosened the standards of students. Teachers were instructed to be accommodating and compassionate. Allow for greater flexibility and try to reach every student.

With all of this, I also see another dilemma facing us now in high school sports. Compassion and accommodation have led to entitlement and lack of accountability. The 18 months without school taught our students (and parents) that it is OK to be complacent. It is OK to not give a total effort. Furthermore, it is OK to put school and sports behind almost everything else.

Here is the dilemma, COVID has caused our kids to get lazy, undisciplined and soft. I feel entitlement was already a problem before COVID. Unfortunately, it has become an even more significant problem. The compassion and accommodation have led to more and more expecting a positive result without effort. The free-pass attitude is prevalent.

In wrestling, more and more kids are missing practice than I’ve ever seen in 25 years coaching. The days of grinding through discomfort due to tiredness, sickness, or injuries are done. At least for the present moment. Eighteen months without school, schedules and wrestling hasn’t been good for the sport. All of this is my perspective and opinion. Unfortunately, my lens of view is small and limited to what I see in front of me. It may be a state or regional problem. I suspect it is from what I have heard from colleagues in other geographical areas.

I don’t know the answer. I have run my program the same this year as I have done for years. I have stressed accountability and discipline.

Has it been effective? I believe it has provided the structure that the kids need to a point. However, two kids texted or called that they aren’t coming to practice as I wrote this. Six weeks into the wrestling season, we have yet to have 100 percent attendance for one practice.

It has always been an issue with young men and women acclimating to the sport. Each season you have your new wrestlers not used to the intensity of wrestling. As a result, you always have a couple of kids that feel the need to miss or sit out of practice for minor annoyances. Not injuries, bumps, bruises, and fatigue.

Instead of asking if they can take it easy, they tell me they are sitting out. It is a different world right now. As I said, compassion is being confused with complacency. Worse yet, it is interpreted that it is entirely OK and acceptable to not be committed or responsible.

Wrestling is a sport for everyone. All shapes and sizes. All ability levels. However, not everyone can endure a wrestling season. Far too often, I have bent backward trying to keep kids out for the sport. The harder I tried, the less success I had with those kids. Today, I am realistic that not everyone is made to wrestle. It is a demanding sport. A tough sport. Even if a coach makes it easy with less conditioning or fewer rules, it is still challenging to go head-to-head with another human being.

How many people in life actually do that? Take a survey these days with the average person. I would guess less than ten percent of the population has physically battled in a one-on-one setting with another person in a competition.

The effects on COVID have done little good for high school sports. It is a discouraging trend. I understand the vigilance everyone is taking. That is warranted and needed. Hopefully, at some point, this is behind us. However, we have already struggled with perseverance and grit as a society. Long before March of 2020.

A big reason why wrestling is a great life teacher is that it teaches us resilience in the face of challenges. Right now, I don’t see our kids learning or embracing adversity. Adversity is not looked at in the same light as before COVID.

I see a distinct difference between the new kids in our program from the ones I coached two years ago. Those kids from two years ago are now juniors and seniors. They understand the challenges that wrestling presents. They had the opportunity to wrestle before COVID when they expected to grind and knew they would have many uncomfortable days. They were held accountable for mistakes.

These new wrestlers from all grades didn’t experience the sport before compassion was confused for lack of accountability. They have no basis for understanding what it is like to be a wrestler. They do not know that you will be tired and sore for many days. Furthermore, they have no concept of developing resilience. Everyone around them is protecting them from difficulty.

My feelings may not align with modern-day COVID best practices for teaching and coaching. But I have already loosened the same standards that I have seen effective at developing great young men and women. Right now, I am a watered-down version of the coach I was during the 2019-2020 season. I have spent many days this young season frustrated and confused. I was frustrated at the commitment level and confused about how quickly it became so different from what I’ve done for over 20 years.

I am grateful, though, that we are wrestling. Regardless of the current situation, I feel fortunate that some of these kids I have known for three or four years are getting another opportunity. And I am lucky that my veterans and a few of my newer guys haven’t become complacent or lazy because of COVID.

Like a wrestling season, life is a series of ups and downs. I hope that we all learn from our mistakes and become better because of them. Maybe right now, it is a lesson for me to become more resilient in the face of adversity. An opportunity to improve as a coach instead of clinging to how things used to be.

Only time will tell the result of all of this. In the meantime, like a wrestler, the only option is to put my head down and grind. From there, that is where the good stuff comes from.

 (John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)