I’ve blogged about my son in sports. I’ve waxed lyrical about the good sportsmanship the boys learn. I’ve mulled over when to cheer and when not to. Well, tonight, I cheered as a rebuke. I saw something that made me mad enough to spit nails.
We had another wrestling meet. Several schools were there, as they always are. Patrick had finished his match (he only had the one tonight) and we were more or less killing time until the meet was over and we could help clean up the gym (our school hosted it this time; when that happens we have to help roll up the mats, clean up the bleachers, and so forth).
So anyhow Patrick’s off somewhere and I’m sitting there with the high school coach’s wife–whose son is also wrestling, and we’re talking back and forth and not really paying much attention until the coach’s wife says, “Hey, that’s not very nice.”
“What?” I asked, and looked toward the mat.
The coach on the mat (from a school other than ours) was nearly apoplectic. “He’s playing with you,” he was shouting, interspersing it with various other directives.
It was true. The wrestlers were clearly mismatched in ability. And the more skilled boy was toying with his opponent. He’d take him down, then let him up, then take him down, let him up, take him down…it went on forever. His opponent was stumbling, clearly exhausted, and just as clearly confused.
“Don’t play his game,” shouted his coach.
And suddenly I heard the coach’s wife behind me shouting, “Go, Pendleton! You can do it! Go, Pendleton!” The Pendleton boy stumbled to his feet. We clapped, along with the other people in our section of the stands who had seen what was happening. “Yeah! Go Pendleton!” we all shouted.
“What’s his name?” I asked his coach.
He told me. And we shouted his name as he endured the humiliation his opponent was heaping upon him.
“Just stay down,” the coach shouted at last. “Just stay down.”
The Pendleton boy did. The match was over. The other boy won. The Pendleton boy left the mat, shook his opponent’s coach’s hand, then went to his own coach. “You did good,” his coach said, or words to that effect. “He was playing games. When they do that, you don’t have to stay there and let them humiliate you. Just stay down and let it be over.”
It was infuriating to watch, even though it did make a certain kind of sense. Wrestlers gain points for take-downs. By letting the Pendleton boy get up and taking him down time after time, the boy had racked himself up an impressive score. But it seems to me that there comes a point where strategy becomes bullying. That was bullying. Playing cat and mouse with a less experienced, clearly less able opponent is not good sportsmanship.
I’ve talked a lot about all the good that can come of participation in sports. Patrick has benefitted enormously. But any sports program is only as good as the sportsmanship it teaches. I don’t know where that boy learned to do that. I suspect it was something his coach had suggested; in a subsequent match I saw him begin to pull the same trick. He had his opponent down. The pin was assured. And he held his opponent’s shoulders off the mat, preventing the pin, and looked over at his coach. And then he let the boy up, took him down again, and pinned him.
That boy won his matches, and he racked up his points, but I find myself wishing he had fought respectfully, granting his opponents the dignity of a quick loss, rather than inflicting humiliation for the duration of the time allowed for the match. I find myself wondering what that coach is teaching–if he is teaching sportsmanship as well as gamesmanship, if he is teaching his boys how to both win and lose graciously. I wonder if he is encouraging his wrestlers to cultivate friendships among the boys with whom they compete, or if he encourages them to see the boys with whom they wrestle not as opponents, but as enemies. I wonder if he is the coach who wears a shirt that says, “If you want a victory, prepare for a war.” Personally, I would prefer that we not turn middle school sports into battle grounds.
We in the stands did what we could. By cheering the Pendleton boy–who was not from our school, and whom none of us knew–we sent a clear message. “We see. We know. And it’s not good form,” we said.
I am so grateful that my son is coached by men to whom the joy of sports and good sportsmanship still mean something. If you have a kid in sports, and you’re fortunate enough to have a coach who thinks in terms of building character as well as winning trophies, take a few minutes and send them a note. It matters.