By Roger Barbee
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was often told by a teacher or coach that it was important to be a "good loser." I took those words to heart and always tried to be gracious when I was on the losing end of an athletic contest. However, as I enter my fifth decade of teaching and coaching it seems to me that too many winners do not exhibit good behavior in several areas of play.
Being a gracious winner seems as important as being "a good loser." For me, if an athlete is outstanding at his or her sport, then he or she does not need to act out on the field, court, or mat. If an athlete is good, every spectator will know it without a dance, fist pumping, points unnecessarily scored, or some other such outlandish behavior.
In the early 1970s when I was coaching wrestling at Bishop Ireton, I persuaded a young fellow to try out for our team. He -- let us call him Lewis -- was strong, but not experienced. We had a scrimmage with Falls Church, which had great teams during those years. One of the best wrestlers for Falls Church was a defending state champion at the weight Lewis wrestled. Before the match, I told the other coach about Lewis and how inexperienced he was and asked that his state champion be understanding with Lewis. He wrestled Lewis and beat him by many points. As Lewis came off the mat, worn out by having wrestled this defending state champion for six minutes, he grinned at me, saying with pride, "he didn't pin me."
The state champion, J. H., was that good -- and gracious. He did not have to beat up young Lewis to show how good he was. He showed it by going at half speed while still winning. And Lewis came away with his ego intact, perhaps even a bit inflated. Some recent events at athletic contests have reminded me of how Lewis "lost" his match to J.H.
There is a custom in high school wrestling that a wrestler, after his match, shakes hands with the opposing coach. This is not a rule, just a custom begun in the late 1970s by Herb Soles. However, twice this young season, we have competed against two teams that did not follow this custom. The coaches of both teams explained to me that they did not see the ritual as necessary and had instructed their wrestlers not to follow it.
"Fine with me," I responded to each, for every coach has to do what he or she sees best for their team. I would never second-guess such a decision by any coach, but some fans and other coaches I know have. A bit of an uproar occurred after a quad meet at our school in mid-December. Several folks, parents and other coaches, expressed dismay to me that one schools' wrestlers had not shaken my hand after each match. But I am more interested in how each wrestler conducts his or her match than if he or she shakes my hand afterward.
In wrestling we shake a lot of hands. The rules require that opponents shake hands before and after their match. Teams, after a dual meet, line up and shake hands. That, in my mind, is enough hand shaking and required sportsmanship for any team. What I want to see more of is graciousness. Win, but be gracious in winning.
Every reader, I wager, knows what it is to be embarrassed. Public humiliation is about as bad an experience any person can suffer, and it is even worse for an adolescent. It can happen in any part of school life -- classroom, hallway, field, court, stage, track, mat -- anywhere people are watching a contest or performance. No one wants to be the receiver of public ridicule and when a far superior athlete (or team) unnecessarily piles on points or is overly physical against a weaker opponent, he or she demeans his or her victory.
Scoring points matters. In wrestling, pinning your opponent is the best each wrestler can do for his team. However, some wrestlers seem to enjoy scoring at will just to embarrass a weaker wrestler. Some teams score more points than necessary to secure a victory.
I ask my wrestlers to go out, do their best, and be polite. Twice this short season, I have had to reprimand two of them for expressing joy on the mat. Yes, I am glad they won important matches, but I ask them to be a good winner. After all, there is another hard-working athlete out there with them. Respect his or her work as much as you do your own.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.