When Boys Wrestle Girls
I heard myself yelling “Take her down” a few more times than I’m proud to admit.
In wrestling season, a sweaty scent sweeps through gyms across the country.
My son and his opponents contest each other in the circle, fighting in the primitive manner of ancient Greeks and Romans. After three years of watching these matches, my stomach still churns as much from the smells in the gym as the physicality of the combat. Though only six minutes in length, the painful writhing seems to last an eternity.
Because my 15-year-old son is a lightweight, he has and likely will continue to wrestle girls.
Women’s Wrestling has been an official Olympic Sport since 2004. Last year over 21,000 girls competed in high school wrestling events, according to the National Federation of High Schools, and the number grows each year. Girls now comprise almost 10 percent of the total high school wrestling population, and 14 states have separate state championship tournaments where girls compete against each other.
But because most high schools have only a few girls on a team — if any — most girls wind up pitted against boys in dual meets. It creates an interesting teen development dynamic. To be a good wrestler, you need a combination of strategy and savagery. While we use the words fierce, strong and independent to describe characteristics we want to foster in our daughters, we also are trying to temper the male savage in teenage boys.
How, in a sport defined by physical contact, does society reconcile a fully consensual battle between the sexes?
Initially, I didn’t understand why girls would want to wrestle boys. Sure, they might tousle around with brothers at home, but this sport is vicious and painful. There are nosebleeds, unbelievable contortions of arms and legs, arms wrapped around necks in the ironically named “cradle” position, uncomfortable singlets, and cauliflower ear concerns.
Through maturation, boys’ increased production of testosterone gives them greater muscle mass — translating into a natural strength advantage over female competitors. Girls step into the circle knowing that they are going against the odds and the law of physics. Only two girls have won high school state wrestling championships when competing against a boy. Yet girls are enrolling in wrestling programs in record numbers, wisely viewing the sport as an opportunity to develop resiliency, diligence, endurance and strength.
Last year I nervously watched my son and a female opponent face off. As uncomfortable as I’ve been watching boys struggle to gain advantage over one another, watching Jack on the mat against a girl was worse. I never want him to use his strength to hurt or put a female in a compromising physical position. (Couldn’t I just hide?) Paradoxically, as much as I wish for a girl to beat a boy, I also didn’t want it to be my son. She looked strong, and since my son had weighed in at 98 pounds in the 106-pound weight class, I assumed she was stronger. I heard myself yelling “Take her down, Jack” a few more times than I’m proud to admit.
The match went the entire six minutes. He managed to earn 4 points to her 1, and after shaking hands, he stumbled off the mat to vomit in the hallway.
“What’s it like to wrestle a girl?” I asked later.
“It’s much more stressful,” Jack said. “Because you don’t want to be a jerk, but if you lose, you’ll never hear the end of it from your teammates.”
“Well, is the wrestling any different?” I continued.
“No, I mean that girl was ripped and had three inches plus good weight on me. She had all the leverage. I was just lucky to get escapes and one takedown early.”
I cut to the chase. “Can a girl try to grab your balls?”
“Absolutely not. That’s called a 5 on 2, and it’s illegal for a boy or a girl, so if the ref sees that, it’s a foul.”
“Well, what if it’s accidental contact from another body part?”
“Oh, you mean a nut tap? That happens and it hurts. But it’s not like it gives a girl an unfair advantage.”
“And the chest area, I mean that’s not an area you specifically go for in wrestling, right?”
“Right, there’s no reason.”
“So, it’s kind of the same?”
“Well yes, the rules are the same, but emotionally it’s a lot harder.”
Emotional education is one of the most important outcomes of athletic competition. Developing the ability to display grace in defeat and humility in victory is paramount to a kid’s growth.
Wrestling is an individual and demanding sport; motivation must come from within. There’s no equipment failure or teammate flubbing a pass to blame a loss on; rare is the bad ref call that can really upend a contest. When you win, it’s your victory; when you lose, you commit to working harder.
A year ago a male high school wrestler forfeited a state-level match because he didn’t want to wrestle a female. He cited his personal belief that the aggression required to wrestle was contrary to the manner in which he believed he should act toward girls. I would guess that he and other male wrestlers may also fear that people will judge them harshly for trying to coerce a girl into submission. But the match is a regulated competition, not a date. Off the mat, I would not want my son to use his wrestling training to physically harm a male, either (unless in self-defense).
Male wrestlers can obviously decline to battle a female competitor. It is completely their choice, but I’m optimistic that more of them won’t. Perhaps, instead they will move closer to my recent realization that wrestling a female can demonstrate respect.
She has learned and practiced the same craft in the same blistering way he has. They are both strong, and they both will abide by the rules of engagement. On the mat, combatants are equals until the final whistle blows, they shake hands, and the winner’s arm is raised. Someday my son’s arm will remain low while his female opponent’s is lifted high. When that day arrives, I hope that he and his teammates will not consider that defeat different from any other.