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.