HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 17)

Blog 17

Week 4 Regular Season Freshmen Year

The former state champ doorman, Tony, was the same as always. He was extra pleasant and wore that million dollar smile. However, when I entered the back gym’s wrestling room, something was different… The coach was really pushing the boys hard tonight; even more than usual. He kept yelling at them that life is hard, and you can’t just keep going through the motions. He was also screaming that if you don’t let wrestling break you, then you’ll be better equipped not to let life break you either.

Unfortunately, tonight one of our wrestlers just couldn’t take the demands of wrestling anymore. And he walked out of the wrestling room tonight to escape his coach’s whistle. I know this may sound cold, but wrestling really is Darwin-like. It’s survival of the fittest in its rawest form in a very tough world of combat training.

I really hope this young man regroups and resets his mindset so he can come back even stronger. But, who knows… maybe he won’t… I’ve always said that wrestling is a sport anyone can do, but… it’s not for everyone…

If there is one thing wrestling does for our boys, is that it forces them to “Man Up” very fast, or they’re not going to make it through the next practice. And for those who do find a way to “Man Up”, a bond, a brotherhood, and a life-long alliance forms between them and their teammates that will last forever. No amount of time, nor no amount of miles put in between these brothers-in-arms will ever break this bond.

On the car ride home Dakota is pretty excited. He tells me that he’s beginning to understand the real difference between wrestling and other sports as he is rubbing his legs trying to get the feeling in them to return. He also tells me that the talk we had over the weekend after his second lost really helped him. Against Coach today, he tripped him and took him down for two points. He’s not sure if Coach was taking an easy on him, or if he just got lucky…

But, regardless, he listened when I spoke this last weekend after his loss, and now he was able to use my advice this Monday night to achieve one of the greatest goals of all… taking down your Coach. Isn’t it funny how we all tend to listen better after a loss?

I’m beaming and can’t wait until I can park the car and run inside the house to tell my wife that Dakota listened, remembered, and implemented my advice to perfection. And he even took down Coach! Pretty damn cool, huh?

The next night I picked up Dakota from a basketball game that took place after Tuesday’s wrestling practice. As I figured, Dakota didn’t get so lucky today with Coach in the arena of takedowns. However, Dakota weighed-out just a little bit under his weight class, so I’ll happily take that as our good thing for today.

What’s not so good, though, is that he’s really struggling with his learning curve on a wrestler’s weight management. He barely ate anything tonight because he’s worried about making weight the next day for his Wednesday night match. I explained to him how he can eat a little more than he is because he’ll lose some weight sleeping that night.

Well, on Wednesday morning on my way to work, my wife called me upset again. She doesn’t like seeing our boy always hungry. My wife tells me that for breakfast he had less than a quarter of a cup of chicken and some carrot sticks. And for lunch, he refused to bring anything at all because he’s worried about making weight… I promised my wife that I will talk to him again about how he has to eat something for every meal.

Like my wife, my heart breaks too thinking about what my growing boy must be going through, even if it is slowly making this young boy become a good man someday… Back in the day, it was much easier for me to punish myself with a grueling work ethic, and super intensity while trying also to make weight than it is for me to watch my boy go through it… and then also to have my wife in my ear, too…

Well, the good thing is that Dakota made weight for Wednesday night’s match. And the really good thing is that he won 7-0. The bad thing is that his older sister told me that she saw Dakota a couple of times in school that day and he looked really hungry. On top of that, my wife called me on my way home from work and concurred with my daughter that Dakota didn’t look good. As I said earlier, it really bothers her to see him hungry.

When I got to his match I asked him how he was feeling, and he said, “Fine.”  Even though he went on to win his match that night 7-0, I noticed in the second period after Coach told him to pick down, he didn’t seem to have the energy to get out. When I asked him about it later, he said to me that his leg was still hurting him and he didn’t have much energy.

This dragging butt is the kind of thing I’m trying to have him avoid with his wrestling weight-management. But, I guess like everything else, it’s a long, arduous process before one can get it right.

Pushing weight aside, a pretty cool thing happened at Wednesday night’s match. The opposing team’s coach came up to me to say hi. He is a former East Hartford High School wrestler, just like me. Then these two brothers soon joined us, and both of them were also former East Hartford High School wrestlers, too. One of them I used to referee with many years ago. And the other one was actually a teammate of mine back in our glory days when we were ruling the mats for East Hartford High School.

It was really cool to have this meeting of the minds, which consisted of a bunch of former East Hartford High School wrestlers. During this catching up, I found out that Dakota will be wrestling one of their sons. In union, a few of us say, “The East Hartford connection!” Who would have known all these years later, and all these miles east of our old stomping grounds, we’d be here watching our sons wrestle each other…

Dakota and the other boy with the East Hartford connection actually didn’t end up wrestling each other due to the other coach’s team strategy for that night. He bumped the other boy up a weight class. However, regardless, it was really cool to have us all back in a high school gymnasium at the same time watching and rooting for our teams and our boys.

During Dakota’s match, I realized that I need to work with him on a few things. I need to teach him to drag out of a front headlock. Also, he’s not hipping in and arching enough to lift his opponents and bring them back to the mat when they attempt to stand up and get away. Finally, in Dakota’s attempts to go for what now seems to be one of his more favorite moves, the far side cradle, he’s missing a golden opportunity to get a nearside barbwire/butcher. He really had his kid’s arm sucked in good tonight, and he could have used the barbwire/butcher instead of the cradle, which ended up not working at that moment anyway.

Another really cool thing happened tonight, too. I’ve been trying to teach Dakota how to fight back and even make his opponent pay for throwing the legs in on him by pinning him. But as you already know, that’s always easier said than done. Well, thankfully, one of Dakota’s teammates found himself in the exact scenario I’ve been speaking to Dakota about during his match that night. And he perfectly executed the defensive move that can turn into a pin for yourself I’ve been trying to teach Dakota.

As the crowd went wild due to the unexpected pin, Dakota and I made eye contact, and we both knew exactly what the other was thinking… Thank God for teammates… And thank God for the village busy at work again helping my boy learn, grow, and become that young good man that we all want him to be!

In the latter part of the wrestling week, while watching Dakota’s wrestling practices, I got to meet Robby, the first and only State Open Wrestling Champ for his high school. This young man was visiting because the college he wrestles for is on holiday break. He’s a fine young man of good character with a great work ethic. And I was thrilled that he was watching Dakota and trying to give him some tips. I’m extremely grateful when the village expands, and another high-quality person comes in my son’s circle and invest some time in helping my boy grow and become a better man.

Saturday morning, Dakota woke up overweight. It wasn’t much, but he was now going to have to do something he’s never had to do before, which is losing some weight right before he wrestles. To Dakota’s credit, he was down in our basement working out at 5:30 in the morning to rev up his metabolism and make weight. Thankfully it worked. I brought him to the high school, he checked his weight, and it was good. Then I watched him board the team bus and said goodbye to him through the window and couldn’t help but notice how intense he was looking as if he was headed off to some kind of battle of good versus evil, or at least something like that…

During this incredibly long day of wrestling, my wife and I watched Dakota win by a forfeit for his first match. Then the second match he goes up against a kid from John Knapp’s KT KIDZ wrestling program who has been wrestling all over for many, many years. This kid beat Dakota by technical fall, but at least he didn’t pin Dakota. I considered this a great learning experience for him, and at least a small victory.

Dakota’s third match was very exciting, he took the early lead and almost pinned his opponent, then his opponent came roaring back and practically pinned Dakota. The match was very fast moving with lots of action as it went back and forth, and back and forth. During one particular scramble, I was yelling for Dakota to pick up his head as loud as I could. If Dakota had been able to hear me and just pick up his head, I’m sure the kid would have fallen over, and Dakota would have pinned him. But it was not to be. Dakota dipped his head a little bit more, and his opponent was able to use that to roll him to his back and pin Dakota.

It was the first time this season that someone had pinned Dakota. The nature of that match was that someone was going to be pinned with all those big moves that were flying around. And now my job was to convince Dakota that it’s okay that he got pinned. It very well could have been the other kid just as easy because even though Dakota got pinned, he didn’t get out-wrestled. Dakota was just as good as that varsity kid, but it just wasn’t in the cards on this particular night. I’ll work with him on picking up his head in certain situations, and the next time these two meet, if the stars are aligned right, it just may be the other guy falling to his back.

The last match of the night for Dakota, Coach bumped him up a weight class to wrestle against the other team’s varsity captain. This will be a very hard and a very good test for Dakota. And if he can win this one, it would be a huge confidence booster for him.

The match starts off well. Dakota doesn’t seem to be out of his league with this kid, even though he is only a freshman in his first year of wrestling. After some missed shots, the other boy gets in deep on Dakota’s legs. Dakota then whizzered hard, buries his opponent’s head underneath him and uses his long arms to reach for the kid’s ankle. Dakota then works his way to the side of his opponent to drive him off his base and secure the 2-point takedown just like I have been trying to get him to do when kids shoot on his legs.

He’s now up two to nothing over this kid, and I really think Dakota can win this match. After a flurry of moves, Dakota lands a deep half-nelson on his opponent and drives him over but can’t seem to pin him. From the top of the stands, I’m yelling from the top of my lungs for Dakota to settle back and look up. People in the stands are turning to look up in the stands to see who the crazy guy is… and I don’t care. I continue to scream louder than I’ve ever yelled before and then something amazing happens… Dakota settles back, looks up, the other kid’s shoulder goes down, and the referee slaps the mat. Dakota has done it! He went up a weight class and pinned their captain. What a great way to end the night! What a great way to boost his confidence!

Later I will ask my battered and bruised boy who is sporting what looks like two black and blue eyes if he heard me yelling for him to settle back and look up, and he’ll say no. Then I’ll ask him how he knew to settle back and look up, and he’ll say he just knew to do it somehow…

Life can be crazy sometimes, can’t it? Well, regardless of whether he can hear me or not, I’ll keep yelling from the stands and embarrassing my wife because I can’t scream from the mat for my own boy like I have done for so many years, for so many other parents’ children… It really does takes a village to help a young boy to grow into a good man someday, doesn’t it?



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Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century

Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

Dan Blanchard is a bestselling author, and award-winning speaker,
and educator. www.DanBlanchard.net