23 February, 2017

Reflections on wrestling: this season and a high school career

I'm sorry for so many wrestling posts. This last week has been big in so many ways.

I have many thoughts about the last week. But also about the six years that our eldest son has been a wrestler. It's been hard to get them all together, but important to me in order to be able to move on.

And move on, I must, because life is moving on quickly here. We all found that out yesterday as school started up again after a four-day weekend. Our "champion" received lots of congratulations, but that didn't stop the teachers reminding him and his teammates that there was lots of schoolwork waiting for them. So, I promise that I'll try to keep up with that and stay away from this topic in the near future!

Here are a few facts from our son's schoolboy wrestling career:
  • He's unbeaten this season (something between 25 and 30 bouts, there is some debate about the number, especially as two were forfeits in duals)
  • He's not been pinned since 9th grade
  • Amazingly, in six seasons, he's never missed a match or training session due to illness or injury, I don't know what to say about this, except that I'm thankful
  • He's wrestled with three clubs in addition to CAJ—two in Tokyo, and one in Australia
  • He's wrestled in three countries, including four capitals in Australia (Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, and Perth [the latter just a training session]).
  • We won't forget this young man quickly. He's been our son's strongest rival
    this season and over the last two seasons, they've gone head-to-head
    more than a dozen times.
  • He twice won Australian national championships for his age during our year in Australia ('14-'15) (though we are very aware that it is a minor sport there and the field of competition was tiny)

It's easy to look at our son this season and think that he's had an easy run. But I have to tell you that, while the execution of wrestling has come relatively easily for our son, it hasn't been at all easy for him in many ways.
  • this is the only season he's won all the way through (aside from in Australia where the competition was not so fierce)
  • he didn't even get to go to the Far East competition in 9th grade because he was our second-best wrestler in his weight class
  • not being here during his 10th grade year was hard, he yearned to be wrestling at CAJ that year
  • last year he was beaten in the championship round of the Kanto Finals in a physically painful bout that lasted less than a minute
  • last year he came sixth at Far East, below people he'd beaten during the season
  • often he's struggled to maintain a strong focus right through to the end of the season, this is a maturity thing and it's encouraging to see that he managed it this year
  • CAJ's training has been difficult and pushed him both physically and mentally to the edge often
The mental part of wrestling has probably been the hardest for our son, and the hardest part of parenting him through this. I've never been very fearful about injuries, but watching him and trying to support him through the emotional ups, but especially the downs, has been hard. He's often lost concentration at the end of the season and been beaten by competitors who wouldn't normally beat him. When this happens at the end of a season, it leaves a bad feeling in your stomach for months. I was fearful that that would happen this time too, especially when the expectations were so high and it was his last season, hence the profound relief when he didn't sell himself short this time. I didn't cry when he won. I'm not sure why, but perhaps it was because I was already spent with the emotions leading up to it.

Being a passionate wrestling mum
It's an understatement to say that I get very caught up in all of this. Wrestling season messes with both my sleep and my digestion. This last week has been especially physically and emotionally challenging and will take some recovering from. I love the highs and the thrills, and hate the lows that inevitably come in the week afterwards, but I wouldn't swap it for anything. I'd hate my sons to be involved in pursuits that I didn't care to watch (maybe golf or chess?). Or perhaps if they were involved I'd become interested anyway? 

I certainly didn't anticipate becoming a passionate wrestling mum, wrestling never entered my childhood. It simply isn't a prominent sport in a country where sports have a religious status for many. But that first season in seventh grade reeled me in as I learned lots about the sport (thanks to coaches who were willing to answer our many questions), and then at the end of the season one of our son's coaches encouraged us all by saying that our son had potential as a wrestler (which was hard for us to see at the time). By then our son was hooked and so we were all in it together, for better or for worse.

I mentioned on Tuesday that this sport has helped our son through various difficulties he has faced, that was especially noticeable when we went to Australia for a year. Being able to be involved in wrestling there made an enormous difference when he was missing Japan and CAJ intensely. People have applauded us as parents in the amount of support and encouragement we've given him, but I think that we've just done whatever we could to help him pursue his passion. I believe most good parents will do this, if it is within their means to do so.

Meeting other parents
I love hanging out with other parents at wrestling meets, especially mums—we share a special bond as the mums-of-wrestlers. So it was a special joy this time to meet some of the mums from other schools. 

In the photo is the mum of one of our son's strongest competitors this year. She came over to where I was sitting and introduced herself. She figured out who I was because she saw me sitting right next to the mat and cheering for him in the final. She's got three boys and they're all wrestlers, including one just a year older than our youngest. A bond indeed. We'll probably be cheering one another on for years to come.

I was able to both weep with and congratulate another mum from St Mary's who I've seen regularly at wrestling meets since middle school (her son previous attended CAJ in elementary school). Her son persevered against a very challenging opponent to win his weight class, but was devastated when he sustained a knee injury which meant he couldn't participate in the second half of the tournament.

A third mum from the same school saw me doing cross stitch late on Friday and came over later to chat. Her son also had prevailed and won his weight category.

On Sunday morning we encountered yet another couple at the hotel from St Mary's (there were a lot of parents from there). Their son hadn't gotten the result he'd hoped for and was very disappointed.

The bond forged with all these parents was brief, but enjoyable. A bond that is rooted in watching our children struggle with this challenging sport, then sitting at these meets for hours each weekend. Celebrating their wins and mourning their losses—over many years. 

Qualities wrestling instills
I wrote a blog post back in 2012 at the end of our son's first ever wrestling season. I noted, even back then, some qualities I could see wrestling was developing in our son:
  • sportsmanship
  • ability to cope with losing
  • perseverance
  • ability to overcome frustration
  • patience
  • compassion
Sportsmanship is a strong value in wrestling. Lots of handshaking, limited expressions of emotion on the mat, and no questioning the ref (this season they've cracked down on that for the coaches too).

Coping with losing when wrestling is such a personal thing is hard. Having to cope with it in this arena when the consequences aren't so big is a good way to learn how to deal with the emotions that come with it.

Perseverance. This sport takes a long time to learn and become good at. First year wrestlers are rarely good, and frequently look terrible. It is only by persevering at this difficult sport for a lengthy period of time that one gets the necessary experience under his or her belt to cope with challenging competitors. The flexibility in dealing with different styles and situations and knowing what to do in varied situations, these things come through lots of experience on the mat.

Ability to overcome frustration. It gets frustrating out there on the mat. You get stuck in positions you don't want. The other person doesn't do what you want them to do. Your opponent sometimes gets points awarded to them that you don't think they've earned. Sometimes you think you'd done your best, but it wasn't good enough and your coach yells at you. You try what you think is the best move and it fails. Lots of frustration. Learning how to overcome that is a great life skill.

Patience. Oh, the number of times the coach yelled, "You've got lots of time. Be patient." Working an opponent into the position you want him in before you make your move often takes time. Knowing when to move is important. But on a grander scale, being patient through the years as you develop the skills necessary to win more and more often.

Compassion. This isn't something teenage boys are necessarily good at. I think that wrestling has helped develop this in our son. He knows his strength and is very gentle with those he knows aren't up to going toe-to-toe with him.

Respect for others in authority, your opponent, and yourself is another thing that is highly promoted by the CAJ coach. This is so valuable. They have to call their coach "Coach Yaegashi" or "Sir" and there are penalties for disobeying him in this and other areas, like many, many burpees (combination pushups and squats).

Humility Being willing to admit that the coach has a better idea of what you need to do than you do, is something that many boys don't get. But those who do listen and learn become good wrestlers.

Risk taking. This is something that also is hard to get a good balance in, especially when wrestlers are a year or two into their "careers". Early on they can be quite cavalier, but then they learn more caution, often too much caution, and sell themselves short. Knowing when to take a risk and being willing to do it is challenging.

Underlying a lot of this is self control. Oh boy, do they have to develop that. The ones that don't, don't go far in this sport. It's not just self control when you win or lose, it's self control in what you eat, how much sleep you get, how you conduct yourself on and off the mat, and during training. We continue to pray that the self control he's developed in the sport will spill over into other areas of his life. We're seeing glimpses of it as he matures, and looking forward to much more as he continues to grow into a man.

As an aside: in that 2012 post I've linked to above I mentioned that our son pinned another wrestler that week who'd become distressed, that young man was also a Far East champion this year (different weight class). It's been amazing to watch them both grow and mature through the years.

Relationships with our boys
As I noted in my pictorial reflections yesterday, this has been a family affair. We've all been involved. We've spectated and all our boys have wrestled, David's even learned about coaching the sport. We've videoed, supported not just our boys but other wrestlers and their parents too. We've been present when others couldn't (and relayed almost real-time news to them). It's a common topic around our dinner table and when we're talking to boys late at night, especially at this time of year. This sport has given us a commonality. I love that I've been able to really get into it, because it gives me an entry into their lives, and a way to connect with teenage boys is not to be sneezed at.

So, all in all, can you tell that I'm satisfied? That I'm happy that our son has developed a passion for this unlikely sport. A sport that he would almost certainly not have encountered if we'd remained in Australia. I'm also so thankful that we've been able to be as involved as we have been. Our work, health, and finances have allowed at least one of us to be present at almost all of his meets. What joy this has given us, and not just because our oldest son has had success this season.

As for the future? Our son has plans to continue to train, both with the university club he trained with here over this last summer, as well as when he returns to Australia this time next year to start university. It's healthy to have a community like that to continue with. I've got no idea whether he'll ever compete again. There are opportunities in Australia, and, if he succeeds, and wants to, overseas. We'll see.

Meanwhile, our sixth grader has been inspired by his brother's success and wants to wrestle all the way to twelfth grade. We're still waiting while our thoughtful and athletic middle son decides if he wants to take this challenge on next year in high school. 

We'll be doing this for a while yet. . . good thing I enjoy it. But I also think it is a good thing that we've got a break now, the intensity of an American international school season is quite something!

Next, is track and field season and our middle son has high goals (he's in eighth grade, which puts him at the top of the middle school competition, age-wise). But first we get a month or so break.

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