Biondolillo Guest Blog: Ready, Wrestle! A Case for Universal Mandatory Wrestling

By by Steven H. Biondolillo, as published in Smerconish.com | Feb. 07, 2020, 1:11 p.m. (ET)
Photo on homepage from the 2019 California USA Wrestling Kids Freestyle Championships by John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com
Photo of Steven Biondolillo from Smerconish.com


The most significant sociocultural harbinger of 2019, perhaps, is the National Collegiate Athletic Association's declaration that, in August 2020, women's wrestling will become an official "NCAA Emerging Sport." While the International Olympic Committee introduced women's wrestling in the 2004 Summer Games and the UFC signed its first woman fighter in 2012, the historic significance of the NCAA decision would be difficult to overstate.

For the first time, all elementary school girls in America can imagine themselves striving officially in an enterprise that has forever engaged, tested and bonded boys. As a result, an even bolder cultural inflection point can now be imagined: mandatory wrestling for all schoolchildren.

As far fetched as it seems, our culture's survival could depend on universal mandatory wrestling as a rite of passage. Yes, a form of hand-to-hand combat first depicted in cave drawings could be the very activity that rescues us. How? By its almost unique ability to engender self-knowledge and, thereby, understanding and empathy.

One needn't be a social psychologist to register the troubled zeitgeist: pervasive physical, mental and emotional distress, and widespread social discord, divide and despair. The objective of universal wrestling would be to connect in body, mind and spirit each and every child with him- or herself and with others.

Why wrestling?

Let's overlook the fact that, in most species, wrestling is an instinctive activity that develops the individual's ability to prevail and mate.

Unlike the activity in the animal kingdom, the sport of wrestling's purpose is neither to batter, break nor harm. Its objective, instead, is to gain control, and gain it only for a few seconds. As such, wrestling offers evidence and proof of self-control--the will to prepare physically, mentally and emotionally to engage--as well as the ability to engage with the purpose and prize of momentary control. For Homo sapiens, it's difficult to imagine an activity more perfectly existential.

What wrestling teaches transcends the usual litany of sports bromides, inculcating principles applicable in all spheres of life: the advantage of beginning from a balanced stance; the necessity of protecting oneself; the ability to set-up circumstances to succeed; the will and courage to act; the discipline to complete anything begun; and humility both in success and failure.

In the Abrahamic religions, life is depicted as a condition and experience beyond human understanding, in which all, nevertheless, are exhorted to step forward, face unknown and entropic forces, and repair the world, beginning with oneself. The biblical story of Jacob is particularly instructive: only through wrestling--and its high-touch physical, mental and emotional challenge--can one's full humanity be birthed.

Here are four wrestling proverbs equally illuminating:

“Wrestling: it's 80% mental... and the rest is in your head."

In wrestling, mental strength is more important than physical. In fact, it's an activity that favors neither body type nor temperament: small and gentle individuals are known to succeed as well as large and robust types; individuals with defensive temperaments succeed as well as those who are naturally aggressive. This proverb reminds us of its more popular and pointed sister, "mind over matter."

"If it's going to be, it's up to me."

Now more than ever, the erosion of individual accountability leading to cultural collapse is a concerning prospect. One arena with little room for error is the national security provided by our Special Forces, who are disproportionately recruited from the ranks of former high school and college wrestlers and a powerful reminder that the basis of a great team is its individually accountable members.

“Wrestling = Discipline + Desire + Determination + Ingenuity"

That these values underpin most successful enterprise practically clinches the case for universal mandatory wrestling for schoolchildren. Traditional athletic values--strength, speed, physical flexibility, and technical competence--while important, are never more valuable than these four horsemen.

"You must earn the right to win."

The most problematic four-letter word in our "helicopter-parent-enabled" and instant-gratification culture has to be the word "earn," which smacks of, well, discipline, desire and determination, as well as disappointment, pain and failure. This proverb more than others returns the undiluted concept of work--and all that work and achievement involve--to the center of life.

Western culture was birthed in the gymnasia and palestrae of ancient Greece, and Plato--Western philosophy's seminal figure--was an accomplished wrestler. His teacher, Socrates, went so far to say that, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training." Words of wisdom from our culture's original one-two punch, who opined amply and unambiguously on the interconnectedness of philosophy, the arts, and athletics.

As Plato knew intimately, the Delphic maxim, "Know thyself," has no better enabler than wrestling, which teaches about, and exercises every limb, muscle and digit, as well as the mind and spirit. From time immemorial, the imperative, "Know thyself," has been step-one in the development of empathy and compassion and, in the past 2,000+ years, the bedrock of The Golden Rule.

Once upon a time, gym class was considered to be the institution that helped children develop physical skills, learn teamwork, and improve self-confidence and self-esteem. Today, largely as a result of the pressure of standardized academic testing, gym class is under siege. Yet, it's impossible to find a single source which denies the multi-level benefit to children of reasonably rigorous physical activity during the curricular day.

"Reasonable rigor" in body, mind and spirit, and its civilizing benefits... these national organizations are inching toward the goal:

Beat the Streets is the first wrestling organization whose mission is to reach schoolchildren in urban America through school- and community-based programs. BTS has developed a fun and safe curriculum which builds on physical activity that all children--and other mammals--do naturally. Rather than curbing and repressing a child's natural behaviors, BTS programs channel and build them.

Wrestle Like A Girl, founded in 2016 by a female U.S. Army combat veteran, aims to empower girls and women to become leaders in life. One needn't have binged Game of Thrones to understand the promise of this initiative.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association's mission is both to strengthen the nation's existing wrestling programs and create new programs at all levels. Additionally, NWCA prepares coaches at all levels to succeed.

USA Wrestling Foundation is a coalition of the nation's leading wrestling organizations which recently distributed a "Build-It-Yourself Wrestling Program" kit to schools throughout the nation.

USA Wrestling is the national governing body for wrestling in the United States and a member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and UWW, the international wrestling federation.

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum offers educational programs and materials to all comers, as well as serves the traditional function of preserving the sport's history. One of the most interesting and inspiring NWHF exhibits is the history of the nine U.S. presidents who wrestled, including Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Taylor, Arthur, Taft, T. Roosevelt, and Coolidge.

While the wisdom of mandatory wrestling for schoolchildren is compelling on many levels, as a way to develop self-knowledge, understanding and empathy, and as an early rite of passage to bond children before the bullying begins, its usefulness and effectiveness would be difficult to overstate.

When in 2013 the IOC proposed eliminating wrestling from the Olympics, the world's nations--friends and foes alike--united to block the ill-conceived proposal. As if all humanity had bonded in preparation for an impending battle with the "hostile planet Vectron," wrestling in the Olympics was saved. Why? Because it embodies the gestalt of our tentative human experience, is an unparalleled connector, and inculcates what our children need to survive, succeed and flourish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven H. Biondolillo is the founder and president of Biondolillo Associates, Inc., a marketing and development consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofit organizations build special-events and other creative fundraising programs. Biondolillo is widely recognized both for sparking the national renaissance in walkathons and other peer-to-peer fundraisers, and for coining the term “signature event.” Additionally, he has developed what is regarded to be the nation’s premiere training program in the field of special-event fundraising. Fundraisers developed by Biondolillo have raised over $1.4 billion.

Biondolillo was an elite freestyle wrestler and medalist in national and international competition. He was a member of the coaching staff of Boston College’s NCAA Division 1 wrestling program. His op-ed pieces on amateur sports and child welfare have appeared in publications throughout the United States, including The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Herald, New York Daily News, Boston Business Journal and Union Leader. The third edition of his book, Macaroni and Cheese Manifesto, which Biondolillo uses in team building programs and retreats, was published in 2018.

Biondolillo completed graduate work in English Literature at McGill University and language studies at the University of Grenoble. He received his BA in English Language & Literature from Boston University, where he was president of the National Senior Honor Society and all-university valedictorian. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army War College's National Security Seminar.

In 2013 Biondolillo was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an "Outstanding American from Massachusetts."