It’s 2008. I’m sitting in an arena in Minnesota, there to watch my youngest son wrestle in a national tournament. He’s a freshman in high school and he’s made it to the finals. He will face one of Minnesota’s studs, a wrestler he had faced many times before and never beaten. Behind me is a contingent of Minnesota wrestling moms. They are bad-mouthing my son. Loudly. Before I can stop her, my friend, who is sitting next to me, turns around and defends my son. Even more loudly. As the back-and-forth gets more and more heated, I am thinking, “This is going to come to blows” and wondering who will win (the fight in the stands not the one on the mat).
Of course, the answer to that is no one wins. Everyone loses.
Seeing the viral video of two wrestling moms throwing down at a youth tournament last week brought back the Minnesota incident and other memories. The video shows bad parent behavior in the extreme, but there are plenty of parents of wrestlers and other athletes who have acted on that primal instinct to protect their children in a way they’re not proud of. We are parents first, we sometimes act on instincts first.
A 2008 study out of Tokyo that used magnetic resonance imaging, or M.R.I.s, showed the maternal instinct to love and protect her child could be hard-wired into a woman’s brain. Similarly, a 2014 study out of Israel implied that caring for children triggers something in the brain for men as well as women and that there is a paternal instinct as well as a maternal one.
But instincts can be overruled. As my son matured as a wrestler, thankfully, I matured as a wrestling parent. I came up with coping strategies, ways to make sure I think first, react later or never.
One of those strategies is called “Zen mommy.” Before a big match, a friend whose son was also wrestling at a high stakes level, and I would meditate in our seats and repeat our mantra, “Zen mommy” which means we will be calm and channel only good thoughts no matter what happens on the mat.
Another strategy I’ve employed is to watch from afar. I will leave my seat and go to the most distant, least populated place in an arena and watch from there. That way if I do say something inappropriate, no one will hear it but me.
I employed what I call the “distance watching” strategy after I learned the hard way that you never know who might be sitting near you. That lesson came at a college match I watched with another friend of mine who is a former coach, former Big Ten champion and former Iowa wrestler. As we watched a national champion wrestle, he complained that he expected more from the wrestler, that he, in fact, thought the wrestler “looked terrible.” That wrestler’s parents were sitting right behind us. His mother “accidentally” jammed her elbow into my head as she sat down after the match.
Sometimes it helps to be prepared for the worst.
At a youth tournament in Reno I was confronted by a father who had just watched his son lose to mine. He got in my face and screamed at me that there was no way my son was the age he was entered as, that we had to have cheated. I understood how he felt, disappointed that his son was disappointed, hurt that his son was hurt. I had been there, felt that. But I couldn’t walk away and let his accusations of cheating go unanswered. Instead, I didn’t say a word, I just pulled out my son’s birth certificate and held it in front of his face. The screaming stopped.
Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the bad parent behavior in wrestling and other sports and these strategies are not for everyone. But wrestlers are tough, spirited and they don’t back down. Those wrestling apples don’t fall far from their parents’ tree.
I remember two tough parents battling it out in a high school gym at a regular season dual meet. My friend, the same one who defended my son in Minnesota, was videotaping and when she turned the camera around to get pictures of the crowd, a wrestling dad went ballistic. He screamed at her to get the camera out of his face, that she had no right to take pictures and then he put his hands in front of the lens and on the camera. That only made my friend more insistent on taking his pictures. It escalated quickly and only diffused when the match ended and they went their separate ways.
As parents we need to set an example for our children, show them what it looks like to have self-control and rather than fight each other fight the urge to jump in. Find a strategy that works. Otherwise the camera might be in your face and the next viral video might be you.