Wrestling is the world’s oldest sport, dating back more than 5,000 years. Little has changed, except for a few safety measures — mats, head gear and mouthpieces. There are no balls, gloves, pads, helmets or sticks. There are no errant passes, outrun teammates or unlucky bounces of a ball. Its participants live at the intersection of anxiety and excitement because when they step into the arena, they walk in on their own.
It’s quite lonely out on that mat, and sometimes one’s success or failure, especially against an evenly matched opponent, depends on how well the wrestler has been trained. The relationship between coach and wrestler is different than that of a coach and an athlete in a team sport, demonstrably so.
“In wrestling, you either man up or you don’t, and there is a ton of pressure, but as coaches, we teach them to go out there and do the very best they can. If they do that and lose, there is no shame. There will be a winner and there will be a loser, but if you know in your heart you did your best, you can hold your head high,” says Tom Rinehart, Irmo High School’s wrestling coach.
Coach Matt Hall from Richland Northeast High School leads by example. He believes it’s a critical step in establishing the credibility he needs to motivate his wrestlers. “In a sport where respect is earned and weakness is not an option, you can’t expect to ask your kids to do something you can’t do. You have to go through the workouts with them and lead them both by verbal coaching and also by your actions.” That, he says, is the key to the strong bonds that develop between coach and athlete.
Wrestling is an individual sport; therefore, the coaches must ensure life lessons are learned early and make a lasting impression. “When you wrestle, you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. You have to be accountable for your own actions, whether you succeed or fail. You can’t blame number 65 for missing his block, or the shortstop for booting a routine ground ball. It’s you against your opponent for six minutes,” says Jason Sandifer, coach at Dreher High School.
“The greatest lesson is the fact that they are the designers of their own success. A person can find allies in life, but when it comes right down to it, one is in charge of his own destiny,” Coach Rinehart adds.
Wrestling is the ultimate personal sport, with success dependent upon one’s skill, speed, strength, conditioning and strategy. Sounds quite a bit like life. And, that, says the wrestling coaches, is the over-arching point — wrestling, more than many forms of athletics, helps build in its participants the character traits they need for success.
“Wrestling is all about sacrifice. In order to be successful in our sport, you have to give up a lot. If you want to be good, it can’t be a hobby for you. You’ve got to be dedicated,” says Lexington High School’s Derek Strobel.
As any parent of any teen can attest, the life of a high schooler is rarely about moderation. They live their lives at 1,000 miles-per-hour, almost 24 hours a day. They are, they believe, bullet proof and indestructible. Coach Strobel says it’s a hard sell to get a kid in high school to think about eating right and sacrificing social activities.
“With wrestling constantly every weekend, we’re always at a wrestling tournament. It’s not like football where Friday night is the only night you play and you have the weekend to have fun with your friends and then you’re back to practice on Monday. You sometimes sacrifice holidays, too. When everyone else is out for Christmas break and eating pies and cookies and everything else, we’re practicing doing two-a-days.”
Practice is long, repetitive and tough on the body. Wrestlers get hit with takedowns, headlocks, cradles and cross faces that can sometimes be brutal. Wrestling is the road less traveled, though taking it doesn’t assure success, only the opportunity for it.
“Wrestling is a lifestyle. To say the words, ‘I am a wrestler,’ is a badge of honor, and as a wrestling coach I have to make certain my kids maintain what that label means. From the wrestlers’ standpoint, it means that they will work hard in every aspect of life, compete with passion no matter what the competition is, always do the right thing, be a leader, confront daily problems head-on without cowardice, win at everything in life, and do whatever it takes to be successful. When you are a wrestler, you say these things to yourself every day,” says Coach Hall.
The relationship between coach and athlete is always a special one. Coaches are motivational and inspirational. They can be stern. They are a demanding bunch and especially unforgiving of carelessness. They persuade, exhort, cajole and sometimes just plain yell, but they push their athletes beyond the boundaries of their perceived limitations, both physically and mentally. Most of the time the result is a better athlete, if not a better person.
“From day one,” Coach Sandifer says, “wrestlers learn they must count on themselves in order to become individual champions. A certain discipline that only wrestlers can understand has to be obtained. Early morning runs before school, dieting all day to make that certain weight for your team when all your friends are pounding pizza and chips, and sacrificing your social life to train is a grind that instills self-discipline, mental toughness and self-confidence.”
Of the many lessons wrestling teaches its grapplers, perhaps the hardest is how to win with dignity and lose with grace. In wrestling, athletes can’t dance or preen when they win; nor can they sling their bat or slam their helmet into the ground when they lose. Either way, they face their opponent, shake hands and move on.
Coach B.D. LaPrad of River Bluff High School is one of the most respected of active coaches in the Midlands. He helped shape the lives and careers of countless young men, a few of them, like Derek Strobel, who became high school wrestling coaches themselves.
Coaching since the 1970s, Coach LaPrad has worked at Bishop England and Fort Dorchester in the Lowcountry, and Irmo, Dutch Fork and River Bluff in the Midlands. He is responsible for producing many of the wrestling coaches presently in the state’s high schools. “You can see his influence all over. He makes people love the sport and makes people want to give back,” says Coach Strobel.
The secret to his success? “He makes people work, and people carry that work ethic with them when they leave,” Coach Strobel adds, but he may be biased. He is Coach LaPrad’s son-in-law. What’s not so secret is Coach LaPrad doesn’t let relationships stand in the way of a good contest. He trains his wrestlers to compete well, and, if possible, to win.
“You’re really out there surviving by yourself in a pretty stressful environment. Yours is the match everybody’s watching, so if you do well or don’t do well, it’s all on you. You have to win with class, and on the other hand you’ve got to accept defeat the same kind of way,” Coach LaPrad says.
“One the toughest things you have to teach kids is how to lose. It’s tough because sometimes it’s embarrassing. A lot of times a pretty good kid gets really handled by another pretty good kid. I’m not talking about getting beat by a point; I’m talking about getting physically dominated. A lot of times it’s a hard pill for them to swallow, but it teaches you a lot about life. It’s not about how many times you get knocked down that counts, but how many times you get up. They have to learn that,” he adds.
Today’s society is one of immediate gratification and, while teenagers aren’t immune from that environment, wrestling doesn’t always carry with it the milieu of immediate success. This is where good coaching steps in.
“A lot of times kids grasp anything positive that happens. And it’s a long road for some of them,” Coach LaPrad says. “Instead of getting beat by 10 points, you got beat by nine points, or you get beat by 15 points instead of getting pinned.”
He notes that one of the greatest satisfactions as a coach is not, as one might suspect, watching innately talented wrestlers succeed, but helping struggling wrestlers simply compete. “Obviously you’re excited for the ones who are successful, but if you coach for a while, you’re going to have kids who keep coming back and practice as hard as they can. Any little positive thing that happens just fuels a little fire in them. These are guys that 10, 12, 15 years from now, you see them and whatever they chose to do in life, whether their job is garbage man or CEO, they’re the best at their job. They learned to overcome … no matter what happens.”
Coach LaPrad believes one of the most important lessons wrestling teaches is how to conquer challenges. “You just have to keep going. You have to persevere no matter how hard things get. And even if you do, it doesn’t guarantee you anything except a chance.”
Can coaches really make a meaningful difference in their young wrestler’s lives? Sometimes, actually, they are the only difference makers. “I used to coach a kid in Charleston,” Coach LaPrad says. “He was a rough kid and came from a rough area. Then, when he was in the ninth grade his family just took off and left him so I took him in, and he lived with me all during high school. He had a chip on his shoulder and had to learn how to do the right thing. He ended up being a great wrestler and was a state champ, two-time runner-up and went to college on a wrestling scholarship. He was the only person in his family who ever even graduated from high school. It was a constant battle for him to do the right thing, but he could always fall back on wrestling.”
Coach LaPrad told him if he graduated college, he would be there. Four years later he fulfilled that promise and flew to Missouri to watch the young man walk across the stage. “He was dealt a lousy set of cards. Wrestling really was his life as far as something he could hang his hat on and be successful. He wasn’t the greatest student but he worked at it. He had an attitude and a temper, but he overcame both.”
There are some awfully good kids who choose to wrestle, and there are plenty of kids in the sport who walk the edge. “They walk on that line where they’re almost falling backward into that bad, bad group of people and a lot of times wrestling saves them,” Coach LaPrad says.
These kids are tough, and a lot of times they’re wrestling because they feel like they have something to prove. They find success in that a lot of times and it really changes their lives. “Of course in order to wrestle, they have to do the school work, so the by-product of that is they get a good education and, a lot of times, have a chance to go to college where otherwise they may not,” Coach LaPrad says.
When nobody in their family has ever been, it changes the dynamic of their entire lives. The difference may be the sport, but making them successful in the sport, if not in life, is the coach. LaPrad says, “No matter what size you are in wrestling, you can compete. You always like to win, but the long-term stuff is the best as a coach.”
Dreher’s Coach Sandifer has a similar story about an athlete. Tywan, then 16, went into the kitchen one evening with his brother to get a glass of water. Instead, he got attacked by his knife-wielding mother. She cut him, and when he tried to disarm her, using a wrestling maneuver to protect himself and his brother, she bit him. By the time police arrived, she claimed her boys were trying to kill her. Muscular and strong, Tywan oddly found himself and his brother cuffed, shackled, and on the way to jail.
After the truth was revealed, the courts placed Tywan and his brother in a foster home away from Dreher, and away from wrestling. But his coaches worked to get him back and were finally able to help him transfer to Epworth which was zoned for Dreher.
“Unfortunately, this incident drew him away from wrestling,” Coach Sandifer says. Tywan had some big real-life issues to deal with. “As far as helping him along, we tried to, and I think it did help a bit.”
Sandifer believes Tywan applied the discipline and wrestler’s mentality he learned in the gym to navigate this situation that to most seems surreal, but to Tywan, given his mother’s abusive history, was only a bit beyond the norm.
Wrestlers often have to dig deep to find an inner reserve of strength just to get them through a match. Tywan found his and not only survived a horrible incident, but the multi-sport athlete also graduated from Dreher and earned scholarships to attend Lander University.
Drive, discipline and determination; it takes all three to be a wrestler. Add to the mix a dedicated, caring coach, and the result is astonishing. It’s the positive energy that creates winners in every way.