Friday, March 06, 2009

Winter Sports Champion Season

(News-Herald, March 5)It’s championship season in PA high school sports, the season that captures the most attention from local fans. I like the winter sports. By which I mean the high school versions. I still occasionally try to enjoy professional sports, but endless seasons of contests between squads of over-privileged millionaires battling in allegiance to whoever is writing their next fat check don’t really send me. I know that there’s a trickle down effect, that some high school athletes are already motivated by dreams of future big fat paychecks of their own. But mostly high school sports can show you a lot about the human heart, striving and pushing to achieve.
I like basketball because of the team factor. The most exciting teams are just that—teams. It’s a fast-paced version of the part of life that is all about fitting together, working together, finding a connection and rhythm as a group.
There’s also a certain random suspense. Whether the team is hot or cold, fast or slow, in synch or out—on any given night, just about any team can beat just about any other team. And because you can have a direct effect on your opponents, it reveals character—how far will you go? Will you fight with class, back down, or become a thug?
Swimming, on the other had, is interesting because of the absence of those factors. Swimmers are great students of each other. Basketball players may have game films, but swimmers go on line day after day, checking results, looking at records, memorizing times. When a swimmer steps into a pool, he already know exactly what his opponents are capable of—and there isn’t a thing he can do to stop them.
So the best swimmers know how to dig down and extract every last molecule of grit, because the only obstacles they can control are the ones inside themselves. Swimmers know more ways to play mental tricks on themselves than any other athletes.
The sport I don’t attend as often as I ought to is wrestling. And I’m not the only one. Wrestling is the most woefully under-appreciated high school sport we have.
The physical demands are enormous, and they are immediate. Swimmers have no direct combat with their opponents at all. A basketball player has to fight an opponent for control of a ball and some space on the court. A wrestler has to fight another person for control of his own body.
That’s not easy. Spectators often question why the wrestler didn’t just hook his foot back a bit farther, or grab the leg that was right there. What you forget, if you didn’t have a larger sibling or at least haven’t been beaten up by him in a few years, is that it’s hard to know exactly where everyone’s arms and legs are when all you can see if the floor that your face is mushed into.
Wrestling has enormous mental demands as well (the common assumption is that wrestlers are the dim bulbs in the scholar-athlete chandelier, which is just not right—Franklin’s Cory Ace, for one, was as smart as any student I’ve ever taught). There’s no hiding on the mat, nothing for the crowd to see but you. Other sports certainly have moments of solitary struggle, but for a wrestler, that’s all there is. Other sports offer a full field of spectacle—in wrestling there are just two guys out on the mat.
And while outcomes aren’t as clearly fore-ordained as in swimming, many wrestlers have to walk onto that mat knowing that they’re facing someone stronger who is likely to make them look helpless in front of a full gym. Certainly guts, commitment and heart can be important in all high school sports, but I can’t imagine how a wrestler could hope to succeed at all without them.
Maybe that’s why more people don’t go to wrestling matches. In basketball, there a hundreds reason to lose. In swimming, the action goes on separately, impersonally, side by side. But wrestlers lose in each other’s faces. It’s raw. Watching a wrestler get badly beaten can be like seeing a singers step forward for a big solo and botching it badly—your gut twists in embarrassment, even when you know there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
The unfortunate part of post-season play is the guarantee that most athletes play until they end their seasons, or careers, with a loss. Even so, I hope each athlete (and families and friends) take the opportunity to look back at the season with pride.

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