Archive for the ‘coaching’ Category

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The Strong Hold of Wrestling

February 12, 2012

As we head into the championship season of high school wrestling, I try to catch matches as often as I can at the high school in the district where I last taught. Several of my former students are having good seasons, and I get a kick out of watching them in a venue so completely different from my English classroom. As I sit in the stands before the match watching the mats being cleaned and taped and the athletes warming up or working off nervous energy, I inevitably think back to my own wrestling days.

I first got involved in wrestling because a few of my friends joined the high school team.  This was in the  early 1960’s just at the beginning of a wrestling surge in Bergen County. Bergenfield High School had a pair of terrific coaches: Sal Cascio, now a legend in the area, as the head coach, and Cosmo DiBartolo his assistant. Up to that time, this was a second class sport with little interest from the general high school populace. Sal Cascio changed that. He attracted a corps of dedicated kids and turned them into a powerhouse team with a large following in relatively short order.

1964-65 Bergenfield Mighty Mites JV wrestling team (me, middle of 2nd row)

Being on such a powerhouse had a downside, for the competition was extremely tough, especially in the lower weight  classes. At 110 pounds, I was halfway between two weight classes, 106 and 115, both of which were occupied by District Champs. I was destined to be a JV scrub, so I was not much a part of this powerful machine that ran roughshod over the other teams in our district. But in spite of the fact that I could never break through to the varsity, just partaking in the practices with the kind of daily competition I had to face and under the tutelage of great coaches gave me a solid background, enough to allow me to be on my college team at Seton Hall. Though my repertoire was not extensive, I had a pretty good double leg takedown and a killer switch, and once I mastered legs (moves centered around leg holds), I wasn’t half bad. However, my college career lasted only one season. My interests shifted, and I directed my time and energies elsewhere. I assumed that would be it for wrestling.

1966-67 Seton Hall Pirates (me, left end of bottom row, looking like half the team)

I was wrong. Years later when I was teaching in Newark, my career was revived, not as a wrestler, but as a coach. East Side High School had several turnovers in its coaches, and the position had even been manned for one season by the gym teacher at my middle school, but he wasn’t really a wrestler and looked for a replacement, so he asked me. Several former students on the team came to me with desperate  persuasion, and with probably not enough thought and a great deal of trepidation, I agreed.

The situation at East Side was unlike any I was familiar with. There were no assistant coaches, just me. The gym which had been used for wrestling was partly roofless and unusable because of ongoing construction. The mat, which was kept in the  roofless section, was caked with a thick layer of pigeon poop. If and when I ever got it cleaned, where was I to conduct practice? In the main entrance hall of the building, that’s where. This meant hauling the wrestling mats into and out of that area each day and suffering constant intrusions from anyone entering or exiting the building. The uniforms were a ragtag mixture of colors and styles and in various stages of disrepair. Not an ideal situation, especially for a rookie coach.

Then there was the matter of the wrestlers. There were only a few returning wrestlers, so we recruited as many newcomers as we could get our hands on (sometimes literally). Unlike most suburban high schools who drew their athletes from local recreation programs or organized area teams, these kids had no exposure whatsoever to the sport, at least not as it existed in high school. Pro “wrestling,” however, was quite well known. The first day the new kids would arrive, they’d ask where the wrestling ring was and whether or not they could wear costumes (“I wanna cape!” exclaimed one. “How about a cool leather mask?” asked another.) The Hispanic kids were all fans of Lucha Libre on channel 47 and wanted to specialize in diving off the ropes of the ring. What had I gotten myself into?!

Another area of concern was the schedule. Previous years of neglect, including not showing up at matches, had eroded the season to only a few matches with the other teams in Newark. One lesson I had learned well in high school was that good competition helped develop good wrestlers. I set out on fence-mending missions and ended up with an ambitious schedule for our rebuilding program, including surrounding schools such as Elizabeth, Linden, West Orange, Irvington, and St. Peters. I entered my team in tournaments in Kearny and at Pope Paul. The groundwork for the season had been laid.

Now to get the wrestlers ready. We practiced like crazy despite our makeshift facilities and shabby equipment. I employed as many of the routines as I could remember from my days at Bergenfield. We drilled and we drilled, and the kids started to come along. I wanted desperately to fill all twelve weight classes to avoid forfeit losses. That meant some raw recruits would have their baptism under fire. They may not have had much of a wrestling background when we started competing, but they were tough kids who would battle. If they only knew three moves, they learned to keep doing them and doing them hard. If you have to go down, go down swinging. I knew we had strength in our returnees at 101, 122, 141, and 188, so there would be role models to emulate and at least some points scored, but that wasn’t much to pin our hopes on. Amazingly, we opened the 1980 season with two wins in our first four matches. Unfortunately, we lost the rest, finishing at 2 – 9. There were some bright spots, though, with captain Fermin Mendez winning a City Championship at 101 and taking third in the districts and Darius Webster third in the city and second in the district at 188.

practice on the funky old East Side mats

My second year was daunting because we lost our four experienced guys to graduation, so we headed into season two with a young but enthusiastic group. Several of the second year kids really showed tremendous improvement after taking their lumps in their first season. In spite of our youth, we improved to 3 – 8 with the JV going 6 – 3. Our soph 115 pounder, Senen Pitaluga, took first in the Christmas tournament and a newcomer, a Cuban boy named Alcides Mendoza who had just come to the country in the Mariel boat lift, won the Kearny Freshman Tournament at 135. The previous year, 45 out of the 59 individual matches won were won by the graduating seniors. This year we again had 59 individual wins, but now only 14 by seniors. The future was looking brighter for the Red Raiders of East Side.

the 1981-82 East Side Red Raiders

I started off the third season with high hopes, but the grind of trying to coach a Varsity, JV, and Freshman team by myself while battling with an unresponsive administration caught up to me. Between schoolwork, practice, and wrestling meets, I had no time for anything else. I was exhausted and rapidly burning out. Luckily, a former heavyweight who was now working as a DJ started coming around to help out at practice, so I promoted the idea of him taking over. Since his business was slow at the time, he agreed. Though it was a needed change, in a way I was sorry to leave. I would like to have seen it through at least until my original group had finished their senior year, but that was not meant to be.

I have no regrets looking back at my time as a wrestler and a wrestling coach. There are many valuable lessons to be learned on the mat that translate to life. It is competition at its most elemental, just you and your opponent with only your own strength, skill, and wits on which to rely. The importance of good preparation becomes clear, for adversity can make an instant appearance during a match, and you need to learn to be able to anticipate it and react to it. Sometimes you will do so successfully and sometimes not, but either way, going through it makes you mentally tougher.

A wrestling match is only six minutes in duration. That may not seem like a long time, but those who have done it know how demanding it is. In a tough match, you use every ounce of strength and every bit of energy you have. It can be grueling, but in the end, win or lose, you come away with something of value. Anyone who has wrestled will understand this. Those who haven’t may just scratch their heads. But all the strenuous workouts and regulating weight and pressure-filled matches will result in individuals of stronger resolve, I promise you that. And that is something that lasts a lifetime.

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The Lesson

August 12, 2011

From the very start of that track season, she came to  practice every day. I didn’t even realize it at first, only noticing later by virtue of the unusual perfect row of attendance checks. Peggy was one of the Invisible, those kids who have the quality of going unnoticed virtually anywhere. She was physically suited for the role: small, nondescript, and quiet. It seemed that she had few friends and was always to be found at the fringes of any gathering.

I first became aware of her during the process of separating the wheat from the chaff, an unfortunate reality in high school sports. Some of the girls who came out for the team were naturally fast, the speed coming effortlessly from long, powerful legs. Others were strong and athletic, characteristics suitable for throwing and jumping. As these girls tried the various events, their potential  was revealed, and a hierarchy on the depth chart was established. Peggy, however, found herself at the bottom of the list in every event she tried.

Normally in track,  making cuts is unnecessary. Biology, physical laws, and the stopwatch tended to take care of that. A natural selection of sorts would run its course, and those who realized by their results that they were not keeping up with the others would either stop showing up, opt out themselves, or offer to help in some other capacity.

But Peggy stayed. Each day she’d be out there, taking up her usual position far behind the others, something that would normally be a discouragement. However, her ordinarily passive expression would be replaced by an uncharacteristic look of fierce determination. No amount of last place finishes would deter her.  Once the season started, it was time to determine events. It was desirable to put the less successful runners in the sprints. At least then the races were mercifully short and divided into heats, so these girls could be somewhat competitive amongst themselves. But Peggy wanted to be a runner, not a sprinter, and no amount of gentle persuasion could alter her choice. I settled on putting her in the 800 meters, a two lap race that theoretically would lessen the chance of an embarrassingly large gap developing between her and the rest of the field. Even so, her greatest efforts could keep her no closer than 200 meters from the rest of the pack.

In spite of this, Peggy plugged away, never shying away from even the toughest workout or most daunting competition. I could see the other girls gaining respect for her pure determination and commitment. They began encouraging her, cheering her on through her struggling finishes.

No, this story has no fairy tale ending with Peggy winning the big race to seal the championship for the team. By the end of the season, her times barely placed her in the borderline average range. However, when measured against where she started, it was a milestone accomplishment for her. At the awards program after the season ended, the applause was rousing and heartfelt  when Peggy’s name was announced for Most Improved Player. She was nearly bursting with pride and happiness as she came up to receive her well-deserved award.

To me, this is what track, or any high school sport for that matter, is really (or should be) about. The values gained by even the lowliest members of a team are powerful and are carried through life beyond sports: the camaraderie of teammates, the feeling of being part of  something greater than yourself, and most of all, the lessons of the gains possible through simple hard work. Peggy embodied all of these, and she accomplished goals that perhaps she hadn’t even identified. And this is a wonderful thing, one that I should have known without Peggy’s reminder. Once, long ago, I was just like her.