Monday, November 20, 2017

What Has Happened To Sportsmanship In Wrestling?

Sportsmanship was always something that was stressed in the Wolverton household when I grew up.  I will not go on record saying that I always exhibited that as I certainly let my emotions get the best of me from time to time, but it did not happen often.  Particularly when I competed in wrestling as both a wrestler and a coach, win or lose, I would man up at the conclusion of a match, look the opponent in the eye, shake his hand and say “Good Job.”  Then I would walk off the mat, listen for a moment to what my coach had to say, grab my sweats and then find some place recover from the match and start preparing myself mentally for the next one.  I was not really any different than any other wrestler at that time.  There was the occasional competitor that would get real emotional after a loss and have to be sent — sometimes escorted — back to the center of the mat and then would maybe walk off the mat in the opposite direction of their coach, but that really the exception rather than the rule back in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  

In the stands there were the loud fans, most often yelling in support of their wrestler/son, and yes, some loud remarks directed at the referee, usually “He’s stalling!”  Maybe an angry dad might have to get up from their seat and go out into the hall, lobby, or outside to cool off a bit, but they went out on their own accord and kept their thoughts to themselves.  I guess that I should qualify one thing here to be totally accurate.  I do remember at a kids tournament in Bennington, NE that a couple of dads went chest to chest on the side of the mat because of a hard fought match between their two sons that was in progress.  I remember that in a great deal of detail because it was so unusual.  By no means was is perfect back in the day, but it was a lot different than what I see in the sport today.

In large part, I think that sportsmanship in wrestling has gotten as bad as it has because of changes in attitude and focus, as well as what has been emulated by athletes that are looked up to by younger wrestlers.  In this sport, the kids copy what they see from the college levels athletes, and the top high school competitors.  It is kind of interesting to see some of the changes that have evolved over the years off the mat, but that’s a story for another time.  Behavior on the mat is certainly something that is copied as well.  As much as I don’t like to admit it, some of the boorish behavior comes from the team that I have cheered for over the years, the Iowa Hawkeyes (note, this is the only University of Iowa team I cheer for!).  Back in the Gable era, they established the hard-nosed, grind and pound, wear-them-out style that lead to nearly total dominance on the mat.  I do not think Dan Gable was a poor sport, or encouraged bad sportsmanship, but I do not think he thought about it a great deal either or stressed it with his wrestlers.  Actually, some of what I see today came from the Gable era, but since then has become more extreme.

Wrestling is the ultimate individual sport.  Respect for your opponent is paramount.  Challenging oneself against the best should be goal of every wrestler.  I figure that in 2017 when Americans can compete in a physical, violent contest vs. a counterpart from Iran, shake hands after the match and walk off the mat respecting their foe regardless of the outcome, there is no reason that we have poor sportsmanship in any aspect of our sports world.  Honestly, I believe that a lot of the bad behavior that takes place in our sport is because the wrestler, coach, or parent is more upset with himself/herself than the opponent, but in the macho world of wrestling, cannot admit it at the time.  My worst behavior in a match took place when I was in 8th grade and I competed against the first kid that ever talked trash to me on the mat during a match.  Yes, he got under my skin, which is something I allowed!  What did I do?  After I had beaten him, when the referee had us shake hands and raised my arm to signify my victory, I loudly fired back at my defeated foe, loud enough that everyone in the gym could hear it.  I was lucky to get out of that school without getting pummeled.

So what is it that has happened that has lead to me writing this blog?  First of all, its more attitude than anything.  T.R. Foley, a columnist on Intermat, wrote a while back, "This isn't just running off the mat after you lose a match, or refusing to shake an opposing coach's hand. This is the constant focus on INTENSITY rather than technique, WEIGHT CUT rather than healthy dieting, and the idea of BREAKING your opponent rather than letting your excellence and hard work shine. For all the life lessons wrestling can teach young kids our culture has done a fantastic job of bastardizing it to become one with a focus on trying to KILL your opponent rather than just try to score more points or pin them.”  Foley has a great deal of knowledge about the sport on an international level, and maintains that the greatest wrestlers in the world are just the opposite, and as I have watched more of that style of wrestling in recent years, I agree.  At the local level, it is ridiculous to watch nine-year olds encouraged by the fathers to dominate their opponent.  Watch a middle school kid try to get extra physical at the start of the match and I will show you a young man that lacks confidence in himself as a wrestler.  It is a smoke screen that often results in the more skilled wrestler putting the “bully” on his back, then resulting in a fist punch to the mat, a scream, tears, a boy storming off the mat trailed by his dad yelling over his shoulder at the referee.  I have seen that repeat itself many times in recent years.

The behaviors that bother me the most and need to be eliminated are as follows:
  • Refusing to shake hands after the match.  Any thing other than standing up and shaking the opponents hand respectfully is ridiculous.  Being forced to go back by a coach to shake a hand, or the hand-slap and running off the mat technique is immature.  Even the most broken-hearted competitor has the capacity to pause for a few minutes, take a couple of deep breaths, take off their ankle bands and then stand up, go to the middle of the mat and shake hands.  
  • Posing and celebrating on the mat after a victory.  Most common is the double-bicep pose.  What is this?  I recall adults asking little kids to “Show me your muscle” but that stops when they are about three!  I have seen back flips, running around the circle of the mat, strutting around with their chest popped out, and jumping up and down while pumping one’s fist.  Save it!  You can do all of that in the locker room if you feel so inclined.  You have beaten your foe, now have some humility.  It is common after winning a state championship to run off the mat and jump into the coach’s waiting arms.  Funny how I have not seen Olympic or World champions do that.  
  • Running off the mat.  This is one of those things that started in the Gable era.  In reality, I have no problem with a wrestler getting off the mat, and in the early days, they would do that after getting up, shaking hands, and having the winner’s arm raised.  But that has grown into the defeated wrestler jumping up and an at a minimum trying to slap the winners hand as they are taking off.  They often have tears in their eyes or are very angry.  Grow up!   
  • Purposefully humiliating an inferior opponent in front of the crowd.  This has actually been going on for a long time even though a number of coaches have worked hard to convince their athletes otherwise.  The ultimate goal of wrestling is to pin your opponent.  When a wrestler puts his/her toe on the mark, they should be working for the pin.  What I am talking about is the one who easily takes an opponent down, lets them go, takes them down, lets them go and so on.  I have seen others get on top and turn an opponent a number of time to get back points, but let them return to their base without really trying to pin them.  Why?  Statistics.  They are trying to build their stats’ and in the meantime an over-matched opponent is humiliated.  After the first time one of my wrestlers did this when I was coaching, I made it clear to him and the rest of the team that in those circumstances when they had that kind of an opponent, they goal was to see how fast they could pin them.  Period.
  • Parents berating officials, coaches, wrestlers, and whomever else is in the area.  I quit going to youth tournaments seven years ago because I could not stomach the behavior of parents.  Most likely I will never return.  The problem is that parents get away with ridiculous behavior at these youth tournaments and continue that into high school.  In what world would one believe that parents would come onto the mat and assault a referee, or even more incredible, throw a punch at their son’s opponent in the middle of a match.  Yes, that has happened. 
You will note that I do not include coaches.  Actually, I believe that the behavior of coaches has improved, I think in large part because of education, rule changes, and a focus on them having good sportsmanship.  I do believe that many are not doing enough in regard to the behavior of their athletes, but concerning their own behavior, it has improved.

I think to be fair, there are other opinions on this, defenders if you will.  Some will say that some of these things are accepted aspects of the sport.  Well, there was a time they were not, and nothing says that they have to continue.  Wrestling is a tough sport, and it appeals to tough people.  Some of the negatives come with the territory.  But as long as it continues to be a sport sponsored by schools there has to be an educational component and a standard.  It is time for all wrestlers to become men and conduct themselves in an appropriate and acceptable manner.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Day They Played The Game An No One Came

As the point guard dribbled the ball in the backcourt, one could hear the ball as it bounced rhythmically against the wood floor, the squeak of shoes against the wooden floor, and loud comments among players from both teams as the ball was passed and screens were set.  The coaches were giving directions from the sideline and giving encouraging words.  The occasional whistle from an official seemed very loud and shrill as play came to a stop.  After a shot was made there were a couple of hand claps and a few “Good jobs!” as the players moved to the other end of the floor. 

What you didn’t hear was loud cheering and clapping, obnoxious and crude statements yelled at a referee, or nonsense chants from the student section.  There wasn’t that person sitting in the middle of the crowd standing up yelling “Traveling” while rapidly spinning his arms in front of him in the familiar manner to indicate a violation.  No loud-mouthed football players sitting in the front row chanting “Air Ball!  Air Ball!  Air Ball” when a player on the opposing team failed to draw iron on a three point attempt.  That mom that sits in the top row with a spiral notebook keeping stats because she doesn’t think the official scorekeeper does an accurate job isn’t there.  Nor is that dad that sits right behind the bench so he can signal and mouth words to his son during time outs.  None of those people are at this game.  In fact, no one is there other than the players, coaches, and officials.

This probably sounds ridiculous to many of you, and perhaps even a little unthinkable.  However, it might not be as far-fetched as one might think.  There is no question that fan behavior has been less that stellar at various sports competitions, ranging from parents attacking umpires at Little League baseball games to those throwing so many empty bottles on the field at a college football game that three entire sections of students were cleared out before the game was resumed.  We all know that “fan” is derived from “fanatic” and it appears that more people are taking fanaticism to sporting events.  Like many things there is a trickle down effect in fan behavior as college student sections tend to be much more boorish than those at high school games, though some of those behaviors have been adopted by high school kids.  The loud drunk yelling obscenities at an NFL game is much more common than at high school games, but those people do show up from time to time.  

Gyms have been emptied in high schools and middle schools in our country because of the threat of gang violence, and there has been the occasional football game played in front of empty stands because of problems between rival fan bases.  In the soccer world they use the term “Behind Closed Doors” to reference those games when fans are not allowed in the stadium to watch.  Most often it is because of crowd trouble and safety concerns, though in recent years decisions have been made in Europe due to racist behavior directed toward players.  In 2015 a Baltimore Oriole baseball game against the Chicago White Sox was moved ahead to an afternoon game and played in front of no fans because of a curfew due to civil unrest in Baltimore.

I have never been in a venue where I ever thought behavior or safety concerns warranted the game being played with only the players, coaches and officials in the gym or at the field.  That said, I have removed fans that are behaving badly and I have walked both coaches and officials off the floor out of concern of what fans, or in the case of officials, what a coach may do.  I have seen a parent rush on to a wrestling mat and rip a wrestler off the top of his son, and I saw a coach get upset with an umpire at a softball who became so enraged that when he was kicked out of the game he continued yelling at the top of his lungs all the way around the ball field as he was leaving.

So why being this up?  Why spend this amount of time writing about a hypothetical situation where fans are not allowed to be in the gym during a high school basketball game?  Well, I bring it up because I do see it happening more often at some point in the not too distant future.  I say this because it seems like we two issues that seem to be converging.  One, fan and parent behavior seems to be getting more extreme at high school events, and two, school officials are looking at more extreme ways to deal with problems that they face.  I have had conversation with coaches about this topic from time to time, and while not all of them agree with the notion of playing games in front of empty bleachers, some of them did.  Ultimately it comes down to the fact that the games are for the kids, and when those who only have a rooting interest interfere, perhaps it is time to leave them out.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How About A Mandatory Two Years of Service?

I don’t know when I first heard about the concept of every American high school graduate being required to give two years of service to Uncle Sam.  This has to go back at least to when I was a teenager as I recall being told that in some countries all 18-year olds went into their country's military for a couple of years of service.  Of course, that was back in the era of the Cold War and my guess it was some of those Iron Curtain countries that had that requirement, though South Korea, Turkey, Columbia, Israel, Brazil and a number of countries do require it today.  There have been at least a couple of times in the last thirty-plus years when various leaders in our country have mentioned it, and I don’t know why but this is something that keeps coming up in my own mind.  I have thought more so about it in the past five or six years and have started to adopt the belief that every American high school graduate should be required to give two years of service to our country.  Let me explain four reasons this makes sense.

Kids Don’t Know What They Want To Do — A large percentage of this generation of young people is graduating from high school with no idea what they want to do with their life.  Who could blame them in these rapidly changing and uncertain times!  This idea of giving service will be two years — more if they choose — when they can mature and have additional experiences that may help them identify the path they want to take.  It sure would beat throwing money away for two years of college at which time majors are changed and a somewhat out of date educational system prepares many students for careers where there really are not many jobs.  A couple of more years of maturity would clarify things for these young adults.

Get Them Away From Mom and Dad — No generation of children have been raised by such over-protective, coddling, helicopter parents that have reinforced a strong sense of entitlement in their kids.  Our kids have it easy, and we are to blame for that!  We have given them everything they want, and I question whether we have given them what they need.  They haven’t had to fend for themselves or do without.  Few kids today mow the lawn, wash windows in the spring, or do dishes.  Heck, we have kids in our own community that believe it is beneath them to work at Hardee’s or Subway!  What happens with many is that 1) they are afraid to leave the nest when they graduate from high school and hang around for far too many years, or 2) they go off to college only to drive back every weekend and eventually drop out of school.  This is common!

Pay Back For What You Have Been Given — Hey, our country has given a lot to each and everyone of us.  Many people claim that our country needs to cut back on the amount the government spends on various services.  Well many of us have been beneficiaries of some of those services, such as a public education, and it could be that by giving two years of service we could better justify the money that has been spent.  We have young people who have benefitted directly or indirectly from various support programs like food stamps, social security, and unemployment.  There is nothing wrong with having them turn around and give to others, just as others have given to them.  Whether it is tutoring or running after school programs in parts of this country where education is poor, to serving as ambassadors for this great country in a Peace Corps model, everyone has something to give.   

Contribute To The Country — Perhaps the best reason is to help out the country.  Back in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, thousands of young people were put to work throughout the country and we still see the results of some of those WPA and CCC efforts.  Today, our political leaders will not allocate money to maintain our National Parks or infrastructure improvements such as rebuilding roads and bridges.  Labor for those projects can be provided with our nation’s 18- to 20-year olds!  Parents who can’t afford day care so they can work a job could have a ready supply of babysitters.  We can increase the size of our military, both at home and abroad.  Heck, we could have such a large labor force that in some states we may not need to use prisoners on a chain gang to pick up trash and cut weeds along the highways!   People often complain that no one is taking care of this, or taking care of that.  Well, that can be done under this plan.

Lessen The Need For Cheap Immigrant Labor — I am not anti-immigration, nor am I one that bangs the drum about needing a wall to keep out illegals.  I am realist and know that out economy still needs cheap, unskilled labor. No, this should not be a way to deliver free workers to corporations, but it could provide a pool of workers for government funded projects.  A little hard work in the fruit and vegetable fields, or time spent landscaping might help develop an appreciation of physical labor.

In my grand plan I have a few rules that go along with this.
  1. Every high school graduate has their choice of joining the military for two years or providing service to the country for the same amount of time.  
  2. No 18 year-olds are exempt except for those that are incarcerated, a resident of a mental health facility, or hospitalized for a life-threatening illness.  Once these individuals are released they will serve their two years.  Those with a physical disabilities will serve in a capacity where they are not limited.  There are many jobs where a physical disability is not a limitation.
  3. Students that dropout of high school will be required to report within thirty days of dropping out and will serve until they reach the age of 21.  While serving they will  receive educational support in order to be eligible to enter at least a community college upon completion of their service.
  4. No cell phones except for an hour on the weekend.  They will not be needed and are not necessary.
The plan isn’t perfect, but it’s close!  There is still plenty of time for all students to go on to college and have a career of their choosing.  As it stands now we have around 3.5 million young people graduate from high school each year, and about 1.2 million dropouts.  That is a sizable workforce!  We are facing uncertain times so there is a ready supply of individuals to serve in the military as well as young people that can make a difference in the lives of others.  We have a lot of places in this country that would benefit from services that people can provide and what is lacking right now are the people and the money to do it.  Well, this plan will provide the people, and since they are not being paid, they are coming at a low cost!