Patrick’s wrestling again this season. I was surprised when he came home with the forms for me to sign.
See, this is not the first time Patrick’s wrestled. His first experience was when he was about eight or so. I signed him up, primarily because it’s such great overall conditioning, and we were City Folk, and I wanted him to have an alternative to video games.
Even at eight, Patrick was already shaping up to be Very Large. I’d been preaching non-violence for the last four years. This did not prepare him for wrestling. He soldiered through the laps, the wheelbarrow races, the somersaults, sprints, the jumping jacks, and the sit-ups. And then we got to the First Position.
The coach paired all the boys up by size and experience, demonstrated how to break down their partner’s base (that makes sense if you’re in wrestling; if not just think “how to make the other kid do a face plant from hands and knees”) and told them to have at it.
It was not pretty. Patrick clearly was still thinking Non-Violence. And when we got to the actual standing-up-and-trying-not-to-fall-down-while-your-partner-is-striving-for-that-very-thing bit, well, that night Patrick went home in tears. “Why would he want to knock me down, Mom?” he asked.
Explaining that this was a sport didn’t help. We moved on.
Two years ago Patrick came home and informed me that he was signing up for wrestling. He was twelve, and even larger, and I figured what the heck. It’s still good conditioning. And this time, he had some idea what he was getting into.
He had a couple weeks’ worth of training, and then we went to the first meet. To everyone’s amazement, he won his first match. When his opponent asked for a rematch Patrick declined. “I just want to savor this,” he said. And when I asked if he wanted to ride home with me or on the bus he opted for the bus. “So I can receive the congratulations of my teammates,” he said.
It was as well he savored that victory. It was the only one he got, all season. Non-violence might be a good life choice, but it sucks as a basis for wrestling. It wasn’t that Patrick didn’t try. He did. He tried and tried. And every match, he lost. And then, about halfway through the season, he discovered that once thrown, he could stand up. This sounds like a simple thing, but you try it.
First run around your house about fifteen times. Then grapple with your partner for an intense five minutes. Then lie down flat on the floor, on your stomach, and have your partner sprawl on your back, wrap his or her arm around your neck, pull your head back, and choke you while simultaneously hooking a leg around yours and trying to flip you over.
Now stand up.
The first time he figured that out we were at a meet, far away in the mountains. He was lying on the floor, on his stomach, getting choked, his opponent on his back. In the past this had pretty much been the kiss of death for his hopes of at long last winning another match. This time, though, he pulled his hands under his chest, levered himself and the boy up off the floor, pulled one knee under him, braced himself, pulled the other knee under him, got a foot on the mat, then the other.
By this time, of course everybody from our team was screaming, “Stand up, Patrick, stand up.”
And he stood up. His opponent dangled from his back, his feet no longer touched the floor. Patrick broke the choke hold and turned around. His opponent threw him again. And again, Patrick stood up. And got thrown. And stood back up. At that point, it wasn’t just our team screaming for him, it was everybody in the stands. These were parents who had seen him getting thrown in match after match. They had sons wrestling. And they screamed for my kid because whether he won or lost, he was putting everything he had into that one simple act. He was still standing.
He lost that match. And the next one. And the next one. In fact, though he stood up whenever he could, and people screamed for him every time, he never won a match. He did, however, make friends with boys from the other schools–and he did that because one lesson the boys learn along with all the wrestling drills is sportsmanship. What happens on the mat, stays on the mat. The boys walk on together, do their best to pin each other, then walk off together. And like as not, stand together afterward, talking and laughing. New friends notwithstanding, when the season ended and Patrick said he thought he’d pursue other options. I understood why.
Which is why, when he brought the wrestling forms home, I was stunned, to put it mildly. But I kept that to myself. I just said, “Okay, honey,” and signed the forms, and made plans to turn up at the first meet.
When I picked him up after the first day of practice he said, “We learned how to shoot today. I feel like it’s going a lot better this time.”
“That’s great,” I said. Better is always good.
The next day he told me he’d taken down one of the coaches.
The next day he’d gotten a pin.
And then the first meet arrived. There was one boy for him to wrestle. This time, the Patrick on the mat was very different from the Patrick who had left the mat two years ago. He was faster. He took the match to his opponent. He threw him, and then he rolled him over and pinned him. Well, he’s gotten past that non-violence thing, I thought to myself, with some relief.
When the boy asked for a rematch Patrick again declined. I suspected that he was afraid of losing.
The next meet he wrestled two boys. They were smaller, and in their first year and Patrick won.
At the third meet, last night, Patrick signed in, then told me he was going to be wrestling four boys. He pinned his first opponent. He pinned his second opponent. He pinned his third opponent. When he and his fourth opponent took the mat it wasn’t so easy. Both of the boys had already wrestled three times. Both of them were experienced. The match went back and forth. And then Patrick threw his opponent and went for the pin.
His opponent twisted out of it. And the people in the stands started screaming. I, of course, was screaming for Patrick. So were his teammates. But just about everybody else was screaming for his opponent.
Two years ago, the stands screamed for Patrick because while he was losing, he fought every inch of the way in the only way he could. He stood up. Last night, they screamed for his opponent because they had just seen Patrick pin three other boys, and because his opponent put everything into not being the fourth pin.
Patrick is no longer the underdog on the wrestling mat. His first season he lost every match but one. This season he has won every match so far. And now is when it’s really going to get interesting. His first two meets passed virtually unnoticed. A pin against boys who are much smaller and less experienced is only to be expected. Three pins and a decision against boys who are closer to his size and experience didn’t slip by. Last night Patrick became the Man to Beat.
From here on out, coaches worth their salt will watch what he does and train their boys in how to combat his strengths and use his weaknesses. Boys who wrestle him will trade information. It was already happening last night. I heard his first opponent offering tips to a boy who had yet to wrestle him. “Stay off the bottom,” he said. And when the stands scream, most of the time they will be screaming for Patrick’s opponent.
If it felt a little lonely in the stands last night to hear everybody cheering the other boy, I can only imagine how it felt on the mat. Not that it seemed to matter much to the boys. I’m not sure they could even hear it. They finished their bout. The referee lifted Patrick’s hand–it was a decision, not a pin–and the two boys gave each other a quick hug, shook hands, and walked off the mat together.
And maybe that’s the whole point. This is a sport. This is not a battle. No matter how fickle the stands, what happens on the mat, stays on the mat. Patrick will win again. And he will lose again. But that’s on the mat. Off the mat, where most of life happens, he will stand with the boys who understand his losses–and his victories–best: the boys who wrestle him.