I learned a lot through pain as a high school wrestler. That first week of practice each year was a revelation. We would start with warmups that were more intense than an entire soccer practice, drill basic techniques and more advanced counters for 45 minutes or so (never letting the heart rate fall), and then wrestle live until it was time for conditioning. That first week, it would be somewhere during the drilling that I would hit “The Wall” – my physical limit where my body said “I can’t do this anymore!” and I would have to push through with mental toughness, visualization of success, and camaraderie from my mat brothers.
Each year I would turn in homework that week with a different handwriting than the rest of the year. My entire body would be so spent from exertion and musce fatigue that no matter how I sat, some portion would be holding me up and twitching from the effort.
Gradually my wall would get pushed farther and farther back. We would do less and less of the drilling and technique and more of the live wrestling. By a month into the season, we would be managing to wrestle live for more than an hour a practice. Together we would push our walls back and fight through sore muscles, head colds, parents who wanted to overfeed us, and all the other problems life can throw at you.
Each time you got your hand raised in wrestling, it brought a compelling feeling of success. Wrestling is a mano-a-mano sport where you are each the same size. Winning means you stand victorious when all you had to rely on was yourself. It is also a team sport.
People not on the team often made fun of us for wrestling. For being homos, for wearing spandex costumes, for caring so much, and for not eating whatever we wanted like the rest of the boys in high school. I had it easy (our team was state champs all four years I was in HS, so critics were kept mostly to snide whispered comments), but I can imagine how it must have felt to have those jokes amplified.
The only other team I have heard described the way I think of my wrestling team is football. With 90 players on the roster and 11 on the field engaging in carefully choreographed plays, you must place your well-being in the hands of your brothers every time the ball is snapped.
We build bonds as men together when we sacrifice, overcome hardship, and ultimately learn that we are stronger through fellowship and mutual reliance than we ever would be alone. We need more wrestling, more football, more fellowship, and more initiations into a common brotherhood.
I do not know what form this future fellowship should take for me, I only know that I am open to it. I will readily embrace the chance to build strong bonds with men in my life and to mentor those younger than I in their journey towards manhood. I am reminded here of two interpretations of manhood that I have considered seminal that lack this sense of mutuality – and hope to find one that does: If by Rudyard Kipling, and It Takes a Man by Chris Young.