Friday, March 10, 2017

Words of Remembrance: Justin Bystrom

Dear Heavenly, gracious Father, our hearts are heavy, but I want to thank you for the opportunity and responsibility to honor my friend today.  Please, make my words your words and give me the strength to do right by my friend Justin.

My name is Kevin Black and I’ve had a special connection with Justin since I was a little kid.  Most recently, as the head wrestling coach in River Falls, I worked closely with him as our club president.  I spoke to Justin almost every day over the last 6 years.  He became one of my very best friends.  He was thoughtful, kind, considerate, respectful and extraordinarily supportive.  He always put out his hand to receive a greeting and he always asked if I had a minute to talk.

Often times, we hear people describe a friend as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Well, if you’ll allow me a few minutes to talk about Justin, I think that you’ll agree with me that he wore his heart in his eyes.

He lived his life by what he could see.  By what was right there in front of him.  He lived in the moment.  He was always present.  And there’s something profound in the way he followed his heart through his eyes.

You see, the way the eye works is it takes light in through the cornea to the pupil and it’s focused by the lens onto the back wall of the retina, which is covered by millions and millions of photo receptors.  It’s the lens, however, that is important in this story.  Because the lens brings things into focus.

Justin gave everyone a chance and he believed in others because he lived in the moment.  He believed in his kids and was present for all of their important adventures – sports, hunting, marching band, broken bones, surgeries, graduations.  He was there to see all of them.  One of his last posts on Facebook was a quote by Brooke Hampton that said, “speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become.”  He was always very generous with his use of adjectives. 

It was always about being in the moment, never about the past or the future; it was about right now.  He focused on what he could see because his heart was in his eyes. 

Growing up in Beldenville, he spent a lot of time by his dad’s side helping with chores, hunting or riding on the airboat and fishing with friends like George Quist.  He absolutely adored his mom.  He was fascinated by her ability to communicate with a paint brush and she’d be fascinated by how he could communicate with his camera.  He loved his parents and would speak fondly of them often.  He missed them everyday.  

His first paying job was picking sweet corn and selling it at the end of his driveway.  He paid for college with all of that money he made through the honor system.  The honor system: trusting others to leave their money as they counted out their own ears of corn.  It worked because he believed in the good in others.  He chose to see the world this way.  His heart was in his eyes.

In fourth grade, his eyes noticed something very special and he became friends with Stacy Rohl.  In 8th grade, he asked her out.  He also asked her out in 9th grade and 10th grade and 11th grade and 12th grade.  I remember he used to call our house when Stacy was babysitting.  Once in a while my brother would chat with him and we told her we didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just marry him.  Maybe we saw what Justin saw.  Well, it wasn’t until after they graduated that she agreed to go out with him and it started a life of 26 years together.   He was committed, dedicated and loyal. 

Yesterday I talked to Ron Nelson about Justin.  Mr. Nelson lived up the hill from him in Beldenville and said that he was, by far, his best neighbor.  When Mr. Nelson moved to Prairie du Chien, Justin and Lowein went for a drive just to see where Mr. Nelson lived.  No other agenda.  Maybe he stopped for some cheese curds along the way, but he just wanted to see where Mr. Nelson lived.  And that makes sense to us. Because his heart was in his eyes.

He stepped into the wrestling community in the mid-80’s and we became his extended family.  Many of his coaches developed a unique bond with the Bystrom Machine.  My dad was one of them.  And his best friends shared a passion for the sport.  My dad often tells the story of when his mother told him that Justin’s life was so much better by being involved with wrestling because he got to "Soar With Eagles."  And what a great view that gave him.

When Justin was in college, he took a photography class and became intrigued.  It grew into passion.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Justin fell in love with photography because it was a way for him to share with us what he could see.  From his point-of-view, whether it was while soaring with eagles or sitting matside, he was able to capture the joy of living in the moment.  The lens on his camera intensely focused on the details of life, real life, and captured moments and we’re all better people for it.  His love for others became so clear to us all through the use of that camera because he was able share with us what those eyes saw.  His heart was in his eyes.

His camera opened his eyes to many new things and  brought him all over the country – Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Olympic Trials, World Team Trials, Junior Nationals, State Tournaments, youth tournaments, youth practices, softball games, graduations – and he impacted thousands of people simply by being present and sharing his heart.   He lived his dreams wide awake.  He saw, with his eyes, that the good stuff in life came from focusing on the moment and being present.

Stacy was the love of his life.  His children, Lowein, Tyson, Winston and Serena were the joy of his life. 

He was always there.  But he’s not here anymore.  On Saturday, March 4th, his heart stopped working and suddenly, we were without our friend who was always there.  Stacy told me that, true to character, Justin wanted to be a donor when it was time.  “But not my eyes,” he told her.  They can take everything else, but he wanted to keep his eyes.

Isaiah 40:31 says, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  Justin soared with the eagles and those eyes had a tremendous view of life.

In the end, Justin shared his heart with everyone, but he’s taking his eyes with him because he’s living in the moment and he’s focused on something new.  Phillippians 3:14 says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” 

Our eyes might be filled with tears today, but when they dry, we’d do well to use them to focus on what’s right there in front us.  And live in the moment.  To be present.  This is the greatest lesson I learned from Justin.  To be in the moment is to focus on what is right here, right now.  Disappointment and regret?  That’s in the past.  Fear and anxiety?  That’s in the future.  Those things don’t exist in the present.  It’s things like love, hope, joy, peace, passion, those are the things that thrive in the present tense by living in the moment.  And these are the words I’ve heard many of you use when describing Justin. 

Pouring yourself into the moment is the best way to live our lives.  And it’s how Justin wore his heart in his eyes.

In a letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.”

Justin, thank you for sharing your heart with us.  We’re all better for having seen what you see. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

My only blog post about the Presidential Election

This will be my one and only post about the 2016 Presidential Election.  In it, I won't share any of my opinions about policies, issues or potential scandals.  I won't agree with, disagree with or endorse any candidate.  Yes, I do have opinions - many opinions - about this particular season of politics, the United States and each candidate and I will caste a ballot on November 8th, however, making those opinions known will likely do more harm than good to my position as a wrestling coach.  We'll leave it there.

That being said, I found my 6-year old's take on the election last night to be quite interesting, revealing and even shocking.

Before bedtime, Micaiah told to us that he is planning on voting for Donald Trump at his school election (obviously, his vote doesn't count...just being clear for those who get their facts from sources that suggest it might...).  Liz and I both looked at each other, shrugged and in unison asked him why.  He didn't have an answer right away just like most of the people taking a stand to support either candidate.  Isaiah (8-years old) broke the tension, and just like Kenneth Bone, said he didn't know who he was voting for yet.  We haven't talked about the election with our kids, so I took the opportunity to listen to their opinions and thoughts without inserting any of my thoughts or trying to influence them either way.

Lying next to Micaiah in bed, I asked him why he has decided to vote for Trump.  As a matter of fact, his answer was "well, Hilary Clinton is going to take away all of the guns so people can't kill deer and make sausage."  I asked him how he knew this and he said, "I just know..."  So I asked if he knew anything about Donald Trump and he quickly replied, "Jack said he says mean things about girls."


Both of his claims may or may not have merit, but that's not the point.  Sensationalized a bit, they're both out in cyberspace and in the news, for sure, however, I was surprised by what Micaiah had picked up on pieces of either candidate - true or not.  He followed those claims with a few others that were quite alarming, but I won't write them here today because I don't want sway anyone.  Many of us are concerned about our children's future following this election and I wonder how many of us have listened to what they're hearing and what they think of this entire thing.

During this brief conversation with Micaiah, I immediately thought: his rationale sounds eerily similar to the rationale of many of the adults who are planning on voting next week.  His opinions of the candidates mirror many of those who are vehemently sharing opinions on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Our Commander-in-Chief will likely be decided by the same logic of a 6-year old.

One of the things that makes our election process unique is that a large percentage of voters are uniformed and uneducated on most of the issues.  The truth is, most of us have a limited, at best, idea of what actually happens after the election or how politicians go about their business.  I don't think that's a bad thing.  Campaigns hit a few key issues and people show up at the polls, trust their gut and democracy runs its course.

"But this time it's different," people say.  This is "unprecedented."  It's a disgrace.  A joke.  Other countries are laughing at us.  Really?  Are you sure?  Or do you just believe that 6-year old in your kindergarten class?  Because by-and-large, most of us are as uniformed as Micaiah and we're getting our information about the candidates the same way he is.  We're listening to others who know as little as we do.  We read a post on Facebook or click a link on Twitter and it infiltrates our hearts and minds.

This year's election is completely bonkers and social media manifests all of it to the extreme, but make no mistake it's not the first time craziness has circulated the polls during presidential elections.  For you own pleasure, do some research on the 1824 election and tell me that this is the first time anyone could suggest the election is "rigged."  Look into the candidate Eugene Debs before we wildly claim that no one has ever ran for president surrounded by a cloud of legal trouble.  Debs ran for office five times, mind you, and in 1920 he did so from prison.  There's never been this much hate in politics?  How about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr?  Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804 (yes, with a gun) because of the 1800 election.  A bias media published a newspaper headline that Thomas Dewey had defeated the "nincompoop" Harry Truman in 1948.  No one gave Truman a chance, especially the media.  Peaceful transfer of power...?  Anyone recall what happened after one of the most important outcomes in presidential history in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln became president (Hint: Civil War)?  I could go on and on and on how history has presented us with some rather bizarre presidential campaigns and elections.  Yet, somehow, we're still the United States of America.

I don't do the future, so I cannot say what is going to happen to our country following November 8th. History suggests we're on a path that leads to a destination.  It also suggests that a country as big and strong as the United States of America will work through the kinks and come out on the other side bigger than any of candidates.

Is it fair to be critical of the way Micaiah is getting his election news?  I think so.  After all, he's only 6-years old and he's using kindergarten logic.  However, if we dare to encourage an adult to consider their source(s), suddenly everyone is offended.  In the end, this election will probably be defined more by how it makes everyone feel rather than the issues.  Real-time news sources will continue to say "this is the first time ever..." when the reality is that this entire thing isn't very special.  We're not that special and you're not that special.  This isn't the "first time ever."  I guess that's why I was able to take what Micaiah said with a grain of salt.  I just wish others would be able to do the same.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Just keep paddling

Yesterday we took our high school wrestling team down the Kinnikinnic River on a what we planned on being a quick trip.  With several newbies, it lasted twice as long as expected.  I like putting our student-athletes in new and challenging situations because it's part of developing the Total Athlete - Body, Mind and Soul.  When they're out of their element, they're forced to think quickly, make adjustments in order to adapt to their surroundings and handle some unforeseen adversity.  It was an activity meant to "stretch" them.  I floated down alongside these teenagers, often getting out of my boat to help someone get back on track, and saw many valuable lessons right before my eyes.  I'm constantly on the lookout for teachable moments and our trip was full of metaphors that can help us through life.

After ruined iPhones, kayaks full of water, and lost glasses and sandals, here's what I learned while kayaking with a bunch of teenagers (who weren't very good kayakers):

Wear sunscreen.
In other words, be prepared.  Whether you have a kayak trip planned or something else that you're looking forward to, take the opportunity to do the little things in advance so that you can enjoy the journey.

Let the current take you where you're going.
Fighting the current seems to be the default for most first time kayakers.  Almost like a fact of life, when kayaking with a bunch of wrestlers, the first bend in the river brings the chaos of overturned and sunken boats and kids frantically looking for lost items or paddles.  There's an art to going with the flow or letting the current get you to the end of the route.  It takes a little practice on the river as well as in life.  Why make things difficult for yourself?

Avoid rocks, especially the ones that are visible.
Speaking of making things difficult for yourself...the water flows over enough rocks that are barely visible and will get you hung up, so you would do well to avoid the ones that you can actually see.  Often times we find ourselves, or see others, run directly into road blocks hoping to go straight through them.  Maybe it's unhealthy habits, toxic relationships or other things that we know full well are less than best and keep us from becoming who we're created to be or in contrast to our potential.  Still, we think we can go over them or through them.  The reality is those rocks don't move, do they?

Paddle through your problems.
On the lower Kinnikinnic River, you're bound to run into a rough spot where a tree is blocking the way down stream or the current takes you into a rock wall.  It's best to keep paddling through those rough spots.  Rookies panic and lift their paddle above their head and it ends badly, usually with getting wet.  In life, when things get tough, you have to keep moving forward.  You have to push and pull your way through instead of sitting idle and letting the issue get the best of you.  On the other side of the troubled spot is calm waters.  Just keep paddling.

Stay right...or left.
As the river meanders back and forth, our eyes play tricks on us when deciding whether we should stay right or go left.  Many times it's a lucky (or unlucky) guess.  We bottom out in the shallow water and have to scoot forward or even get out of the boat and give a little push to get back into the current.  There's no sense in looking back and letting one decision define the entire 3-hour trip, right?   In our lives, we get hung up on small mistakes and allow them to define us.  You should have gone right instead of left?  Okay, now move on because you'll get another chance in a few hundred feet.  Maybe you'll guess right and be right, or you'll be wrong again.  Keep moving because you'll begin to understand, but not if you keep looking backwards.

Use your oars.
If we sit back and let the river take us, it's possible that we'll eventually get to the end of the route, but we might get hung up along the way, too.  So, use your oars to keep the front of the boat facing down river.  We have access to a lot of great tools in life that are designed to keep us on the right path.  Take advantage of them.  Some of those tools offer wisdom in decision making, help us through an obstacle, or provide the balance needed to stay above water.

You'll always find someone else's sandal.
Spending a few hours on the river, you're bound to see "footprints" of others who have gone before you.  Remnants of previous trips like sandals, shirts, hats, etc. aren't uncommon.  It's evidence that you're not going through this journey alone.  You're not the first one to face the meandering river of life with unexpected obstacles or hidden rocks.  You're apart of something bigger and you're going to make it.

The river wins.
No matter what we have at our finger tips, how qualified we are, how prepared we are, or aware of our surroundings, the river will have her way.  We can't change what God has already set in motion.  We can fight the current or go with the flow.  Use our oars to keep paddling and miss every rock or crash into all of them.  We can lean on others and make the best decisions, or not.  However, when all is said and done, the river does as it pleases.  She might take us safely down stream or dump us several times. It's a humble reminder that we simply can't control everything.

Friday, June 17, 2016

What happened to sportsmanship?

I stayed up past my bedtime last night to watch the Cleveland Cavs play the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.  It's turned into quite the series and will conclude with a pressure-filled game seven on Sunday.  I glean so much watching the championship contest of major sports on television.

The best athletes performing on the biggest stage under the biggest pressure is top-notch entertainment in my world.   Several small factors become key components to victory that transcend all sports.  In spite of not being a fan of basketball, I can learn a great deal about competitive grit, mental toughness, individual and team purpose, motivation and cohesion, among other things, that helps me as a coach and leader.  I also enjoy the confetti-laced celebrations.

I have no ill will towards basketball as a whole, just so we're clear, and even if I don't completely understand the nuances of the sport or some of the most basic tactics, I do understand sportsmanship.  Sportsmanship is not sport-specific and I saw much to be desired in game 6 of the NBA Finals.  Sure, there's bad blood between these two teams.  I understand that.  Tempers can get the best of the best people at times.  I give a pass to athletes in that regard.  After all, when most of us are at our worst, it's not televised for millions of viewers.  We all lose our cool once in a while and athletes aren't exempt from that.

What I couldn't tolerate, though, is how disrespectful the players - all players - and coaches were to the referees.  In my book, under no circumstance is this permissible.  It doesn't matter if it's the most important game of the season, it's unacceptable.  It's clear that the NBA has allowed this culture to invade the sport.  In an 8 minute span in the fourth quarter, every single call made by the referees was disputed.  The athletes weren't just asking for a clarifications of the rules.  They had full-blown temper tantrums.  I have three children under 7 years old and I recognize a temper-tantrum when I see one.

On top of this, there was no accountability.  Not by teammates, coaches or the referees.  I would expect most of the world to hold a small child accountable to some extent if they demonstrated the same behavior as these grown-men.  Nothing.

I'm not sure if I'm bothered by the lack of sportsmanship or that it was tolerated so easily.  What are kids to do who watch this?  How can educators, coaches and leaders hold children accountable when the best in the world are not?  What are we teaching young and old athletes?

The NBA is not the only place that has a culture like this, by the way.  Its prevalence is unique in each sport.  

What can we do about it from the outside of professional sports and how should we respond from the inside of youth sports?

"How can a young man keep is way pure?  By guarding it according to your word." - Psalm 119:9

Sunday, June 12, 2016

You were made to soar

The first time I flew in an airplane, I could not believe my eyes.  I was 15 years old and, like most teenagers, my frame was very small.  I had a picture of life that had me as the center of attention.  As the plane climbed in altitude, I felt smaller and smaller.  It was my first time on a plane and it was the first time I understood humility.

Over 20 years later, air travel still has the same affect on me.  Every time my body feels the thrust of the plane on the runway, I get nervous.  I think: am I the only one who's wondering if this is really going to work? I mean, it just doesn't make sense that a gigantic piece of metal filled with people would be able to float above Earth's surface.  The plane speeds down the runway, thrust overcomes drag, lift conquers gravity and all of sudden our ascent into the clouds begins.  Bernoulli was right.  Newton was right.

Last weekend we took a small family vacation to Chicago.  We planned this trip around the airplane.  Once we were in Chicago, we took in the Navy Pier, Wrigley Field and Legoland, but it was about getting our boys to experience life above the clouds.  And they weren't disappointed.

They were excited through the entire experience from the off-site parking shuttle ride to waiting in the TSA line to how they store the luggage "under" the plane (they soon understood that the luggage was, in fact, still "on" the plane) to the flight itself.  It was question after question and questions about the questions.  They dug into the moment.

7, 5 and 3 year old boys possess a blind faith that gives them the assurance that planes just simply fly.  That's what they do.  It wasn't until we were 35,000 feet in the air that one of them asked how this could all be possible.  He wasn't looking for the scientific explanation behind it all.  He saw the ground far beneath us and he was trying to make sense of that feeling that was sinking in...the world is very big and we're very small.  God is big and we're not.

At 35,000 feet, our problems don't seem so big.  Storms don't cease to exist, however, at that altitude, we're able to see it much differently.  At sea level, we're pounded by the winds and the rains.  At cruising altitude, we're able to see above the thunderheads.  It's the perfect metaphor for a life in Christ.

Living life at the highest level often requires us to change altitudes.  When troubles drag you down, remember that you were made to soar.

"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." - Isaiah 40:31

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

She said she's willing to do whatever it takes

"She said she's willing to do whatever it takes."

This is what I was told about an athlete who had just suffered a devastating loss.  She was hurting badly and looking for anyone or anything to help her make sense of it.  She had committed her entire life to that single moment and fell short.  She had seen her dream as a reality for so long that she knew nothing of a life without it.

She had done everything she was told and worked harder than everyone else.  But it didn't work.  The sports community told her that if she prepared the right way, believed in herself and did her absolutely best, she'd accomplish her goals.  They lied.  Her best wasn't enough.

Talent can fool you into thinking you're prepared for something you're not.  She put all she had on the line and came up short.

When what you have isn't enough, you begin to wonder if who you are is.

She had so many questions and no answers.  She lost motivation, lost trust in the process and most of all, lost herself.  It didn't feel right; it wasn't her.  She didn't know who she was anymore.

She was broken and that's precisely where she needed to be.

She had arrived at a crossroads, one that will be a defining moment in her life.  Hard work and talent wasn't enough.  There was a new realm within the sports world that she had yet to explore.  Becoming the Total Athlete requires a commitment to the body, mind and soul.  It's as if the veil was lifted from her eyes for the first time and her paradigm was shifted.   Doing whatever it takes took on a new meaning and there was no turning back.

To reach her full human and athletic potential, attacking the mental and spiritual aspects of sport cannot be overlooked any longer.  Avoiding passivity and moving towards the fight in a wrestling match is imperative and obvious.  Now, she must go towards the fight inside of her.  Ask the hard questions of who am I? and why am I here?  The new journey is overwhelming and terrifying.  Without knowing where to start, she must do so immediately.  The same intensity needed to endure a grueling practice must be applied when confronting the condition of her own heart.

Identity Before Activity

When your guts are torn out and exposed to the world, vulnerability is not a choice and the only response is humility.  You're finally able to admit to yourself that athletics is about the journey and not the outcome.  You're forced to change your perspective.  The loss creates an opportunity to develop perseverance in a way that wouldn't be possible without it.

The setback becomes a set-up for something bigger than yourself.

There's no guarantee that a favorable outcome is waiting on the other side of vulnerability, but it's guaranteed that the outcome won't show up if you're not willing to be.  Digging deeper and deeper, finding out who you are beyond the wrestling mat is the new journey.  It's necessary for victory and it's necessary for who you are to become.  When you know you are, you know what to do.

Living Life at the Highest Level

Finding the strength to put her shoes on and step on the mat is the easy part.  Stepping away and examining what's in her own heart is not.  Courageously, she must stand face-to-face with who she's created to be - or Whose she's created to be.  Motivation, significance and value independent of sport must be her discovery in order to live her life at the highest level.  It's then, and only then, that she'll be able to compete at the highest level.

The pain is real.  The loss will hurt forever.  She'll never get over it.  She will, however, be able to embrace all of it because this is exactly what she needed.  All of it points to the one thing that matters most.

Without hesitation, she says she's still willing to do whatever it takes even though it's much, much more than she had anticipated.

"A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without the medal, you'll never be enough with it."

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My first youth wrestling experience as a parent

I've been sharing my opinions and thoughts about youth sports on this blog for close to 10 years and have been very open about how I feel.  It's lead to some harsh criticism in the comments section as well as on Facebook and forums.  However, there has been an overwhelming amount of support and it's very clear that the "silent majority" is extremely large and wants something better for their children.  Still, it's a big uphill climb to institute positive changes within the current youth sports culture.

During some of my first posts, many of the challengers questioned my credibility because I didn't have children of my own participating in youth sports.  According to them, I was just another person without kids trying to tell them how to be parents.  It's human nature to shift the blame when the evidence is too convincing to refute.  I distinctly recall one post asserting that my tune would change once my kids started participating in youth sports.

Well, we've come to that point.  Last Sunday, my oldest son chose to wrestle in our local youth tournament.  It was quite the experience for everyone and I feel like I have a responsibility to share what it was like for us.

Spoiler alert: I haven't changed my opinions about the youth sports culture.

I've been coaching at our local high school for the past three years and running the youth practices for the past four.  I've been a wrestling coach since graduating college and my children have seen my life as a coach from the behind-the-scenes.  Wrestling has been around them since they were born, but it's never been an expectation from Liz and me that they would participate.  I suppose there has been pressure from the community, friends, family and the idea that little boys want to do what Daddy is doing.  However, still to this day, I have never asked any of my children if they want to wrestle.  They asked if they could come to little kids' wrestling practices and last week Isaiah asked if he could wrestle in our tournament.  He's seven and several youth wrestlers have been attending tournaments since they were five, but it wasn't on his radar until now and I didn't want to put it on his radar before he found it.  Yes, I want my children to wrestle very badly, but I want more for them to discover what they want to do.  If anything, I've been more stand-offish about wrestling than any other sport.  I've asked them and encouraged them to try tee ball, soccer, swimming, etc. like other parents, but the wrestling gig is different for us.  There are just too many facets and layers to it here in our small town and I don't want to send the message that my kids are supposed to wrestle because of their last name or because members of their family have done it and are still involved in different capacities.  You could say I'm over-sensitive to all things wrestling when it comes to my household and no matter how difficult or intentional that is for me, it's what's best for our family.

We had youth practice on Monday and I mentioned to the parents and little wrestlers that we had our tournament on Super Bowl Sunday.  In an e-mail, I encouraged parents to be patient and let their sons/daughters ask if they can participate before asking them if they were interested.  How a question is framed by Mom and Dad can influence what a little kid is thinking because they want to please us.  Some of our youth wrestlers decided to wrestle and others didn't.  No big deal either way.  Isaiah asked his mom if wrestlers from other towns would be at the tournament and that was the deal breaker for him.  He said, "oh, well I'm not going to wrestle this year," which we had suspected and we left it at that and arranged for a babysitter.  Later in the week, he brought it up again.  We could tell he had been thinking about it and he had some questions, so we talked about it trying hard to be informative and not persuasive.  He slowly changed his mind and wanted to give it a shot.  The night before the tournament, he was pretty adamant about getting his gear set out in a special place and going to bed early.  It was fun for us to watch his level of focus change.

He was nervous.  I was nervous.

One of the things I often tell youth wrestling parents is to make the experience about their children and not about themselves.  It was easy for us to handle Isaiah and his nerves, but it was more difficult for us to figure out what to do with ours.  I think we did well to keep them to ourselves and not project anything on him, however, the truth is I was thinking a lot about myself, too.

I thought: Am I handling this the right way?  Am I showing enough excitement for his excitement?  Am I going too far in not making it a big deal that I'm not even making it a little deal for him?  Will I be able to act the way I expect good parents to act?  Can I keep it in perceptive?  Both privately and publicly?  I know people are going to be watching my kid and I know people are going to be watching me.  Can I pull it off?  I was thinking about me as much as I was thinking about Isaiah.

As much as my thoughts were bouncing all over the place, my focus wasn't.  It was all about him and he took precedence over everything else that day.  I removed myself from other tournament obligations and we had a great day together.  I enjoyed watching him figure things out in accordance to his personality.  He paced around the open mats before things started.  He looked around and soaked it all in.  We fumbled over trying to get his headgear to fight tightly, shared some snacks and found his name on the bracket - all little moments that could have been skipped if I didn't take the time to be in the moment.

When wrestling began, his anticipation level was through the roof.  I was happy standing alongside him and giving him the assurance that I was going to be there after he removed the leg band and walked off the mat.  He fought and tried hard and there were a lot of tears.  Whether if it's a 7 year old or a 36 year old, putting it all on the line, being vulnerable and doing our best inside those fears will bring with it a lot of emotions.  I had a new connection with my little guy and a new perspective on the tears at youth wrestling tournaments.  I've been very critical of the tears - not that children shouldn't cry, but that youth tournaments shouldn't push kids to tears.  I still believe this, however, in some cases, those tears are the result of someone giving everything they have in the moment and being completely vulnerable.  That's scary, but something that we should all strive for.

After his final match, he walked in his little Isaiah waddle towards me and cuddled his head on my shoulder.  I told him he did great and he asked in a very matter-of-fact tone if we could now go bowling.  Of course.  His tournament was over and shifting gears was on the agenda.  We didn't have to talk about the wrestling tournament, dissect it or explore his feelings.  It was over and we moved on.

Later in the day, he asked me about when I was a wrestler and about winning and losing.  My memory says this is actually the very first time he asked me about being a wrestler (I've always been just a coach).  I quickly told him that I don't measure wrestling with wins and losses, but only with smiles and hugs.  He thought that was pretty funny and we laughed.  Then we went bowling.