This year has been an interesting year for my family. Ian, my younger boy, became the only freshman in Woodinville High School varsity wrestling team. In fact, out of the 30 years of the school history, he’s the only freshman. The school district just required all freshmen to participate in high school sports now instead of the previous junior high stipulation. While this is something we can all celebrate, it was a rough ride for the little guy. He’s had a total of 6 junior high matches of wrestling in this entire life. Although he’s a fairly talented grappler, he’s also not used to all the wrestling rules and strategies. The team also lost nine seniors. These guys were the county champions and some of these guys were at the state level with the coach’s son winning state (the kid had gone to state every year in high school). This school also boasts of having someone as famous as the former UFC champion Randy Couture and his son Ryan Couture as alums. Some of the Ultimate Fighters from the TUF show also wrestled here. Those are huge shoes to fill. Then came my son’s team.
This year, the team was very thin. In fact, there were a lot of sophomores and a few juniors. Only three boys returned from last year to be among the four seniors, with one senior being a transfer student. The year wasn’t just a rough ride for Ian. It was a rough ride for the team. How does one adjust from being a county championship team to a struggling rebuilding team? Ian’s coach demonstrates that it means.
During the season, the coach had never demanded from the kids more than they could put out. In such an adjustment of being the coach of the winningest team last year to the losing team this year, he never asked anything unreasonable. Those who had wrestled know that it’s important to drop weight to the right amount in order to wrestle most efficiently. Our school hired a nutritionist to come in to test every boy to stipulate the maximum weight loss each child could have. Wrestling coaches are notorious for skirting those boundaries in the search of one more W in the win-loss column. A nearby school that had taken many state championships is known to make a kid drop 10 lbs on match day (in fact, MTV had made a documentary about them). Ian’s coach had never made such demands, even though the team needed wrestlers in all weight classes. He let the kids drop naturally while giving them good nutritional advice. Everything was said for the kid’s own welfare.
One of the things I’ve really appreciated about the coach is his off-season mentoring program. He knows that kids need to be mentored by peers. Kids need to be accountable not just to the team or to the coach but to the team’s future. Both of the captains of the varsity team would come in to the junior high school to mentor and coach the little ones. Ian has also started doing some of that. This trains the more senior wrestlers to lead. While the team didn’t do so well this year, mentoring is for the future. The coach recognizes that winning comes from a long legacy of mentoring and long-term development. The more senior wrestlers get recognition for their contribution but at the same time, they learn more about their own skills by teaching. Having been involved in martial arts for some time, I think that the best way to know your own skill set is to teach it to someone else. At the same time, the older wrestlers get the recognition in school because of this leadership development. They become the big men on campus not by beating up little kids but by coaching them and being big brothers to them. The more impressive thing to me however is the loyalty former wrestlers have to this coach. During almost all holiday practices, I saw former star wrestlers come back to coach the little ones. They do it on their own holiday for free. We’ve had some NCAA All-Americans coming back to show techniques to little kids like Ian. How lucky is it for a little boy to see someone who would probably be a potential US Olympic team member coaching him? They come back to show the little ones what it means to be at the elite level. I attribute this to the coach’s ability to create an edifying environment.
Lest anyone thinks that the coach is a softie, he also has very high standards. During practice, I’ve never seen kids fool around or even take a break to chat. Everyone worked 100% in the entire three and a half hour period. Every kid learned to clean the wrestling room and keep excellent personal hygiene. Many kids were formerly chubby athletes and had now looked lean and mean. The fact is, the coach garnered so much respect from the kids that hardly anyone dared to make a pip in practice. He hardly had to yell. The most he ever said was, “I hear talking. I don’t think that should be happening.” He also gave firm nutritional advice to the kids who were not losing the proper weight not because of genetics but because of bad eating habits. The only time I’ve ever seen the coach lose it was from last year when a kid took off his headgear and threw it in disgust after he lost his match. To him, character and sportsmanship are more important than the win-loss column. He’s shaping the kids to be men, not just to be wrestlers or famous MMA fighters.
Ian’s coach can teach many of us ministry and coaching lessons. It’s great when things are going so well and the team is winning everything. It’s also great when our churches are healthy and growing in numbers. True winners are those who persevere in spite of a harsh winter. The fact is, sometimes winning takes away from the fun of the sport. I’ve seen very harsh coaches on some of the winning teams this year in both county and regionals, and I can say honestly that they weren’t harsh for the kid’s own good. Several required the kids to wrestle in spite of serious injuries to their joints. They put the W ahead of the PERSON of the wrestler.
A true winning leader takes care of those in his charge, no matter whether the season is spring, summer, fall or winter. Such a leader looks to the future of not just building a team that gives himself a bigger salary or stronger legacy but a future for all the kids who may not all have full scholarship to wrestle in NCAA. Yet, those same kids could be our future CEO’s, professors or chefs. They all won’t make the Olympic team, but they all may end up being winners in the game of life. In our faith communities, we often sacrifice PEOPLE for numbers. Although numbers are also composed of people, numbers can be generated via methods. Sometimes, real lives become sacrificed on the altar of statistics. Ian’s coach demonstrates that each kid is important to him. Each kid can fulfill his own potential. Each kid can somehow mentor another kid the way his coach mentors him. These are also the essential elements of faith. When we value people, we allow them to develop their gifts based on what God has given them instead of what we want them to be. When we value people, we create a system of accountability and care not for the present but for the future.