Friday, January 16, 2015

Back-Bridging Over The Achievement Gap: Why Wrestling is the Solution Educators Have Been Searching For

By Justin McLennan

The Achievement Gap

It is a widely held belief that schools are failing our children. This belief is backed with scores of statistics showing the grim situations that face the public school system and its inability to prepare our kids for the world. Nowhere are these statistics more appalling than in the lower socioeconomic bracket. So serious is the disparity between rich and poor that there has been a term coined to describe it: the achievement gap
I work for a high-achieving charter school in NYC serving low-income students. It is a place where we pride ourselves in bridging this achievement gap -- year after year we surpass the stats of even the richest public schools. The school has beautiful classrooms with teachers who are deeply committed to excellence and to getting their kids to and through 4-year universities. Most teachers put in 12-hour days every day to make sure they are giving every ounce of their being to this cause.
But, I'm sad to say, it is far from enough. Last year our high school sent 100% of its students to 4-year colleges or universities. That is a BIG DEAL and everyone was extremely proud. But what happened to them? How did they fair in their freshman year?
Not so well. Many have dropped out, and many are struggling academically. This is after 13 years of working their butts off morning and night with some of the hardest working teachers and parents on the planet. From K-12 they may have outperformed their middle-class peers, but the middle-class is making it through college at a much higher rate.  Why? What is missing from their educational or life experience that did not prepare them to succeed in higher education?

Today I want to focus on one thing that struggling schools are missing that could fundamentally change these statistics: WRESTLING. But before we get into the solution, let’s talk a little more about the problem.
The Purpose of Education

There are two main and seemingly opposite purposes of school. The first is to create productive citizens of our society. These kids will grow to have jobs and be part of the dynamic economy of the 21st century. This is the overarching purpose of U.S. public schools, and if you look at the structure of the classroom, with many students (workers) and one teacher (the boss) you see how we train our youngsters to fit into this economic system quite nicely. Certain behaviors are trained, certain knowledge is inserted, and voila!... you have a diverse population of ready, willing, and specialized automatons. 
The second, and less popular, purpose of schooling is to allow students to discover and develop their passions. This is a much more student-centered purpose of school, where the students are challenged to find that which they love to do and to develop it deeply, so when they graduate they know what drives them and can follow their passions into economic success. My favorite quote of education comes from a genius pedagogue named A.S. Neill, who said that kids “learn what they want to learn in order to have the tools that their originality and genius demand.” In essence, children would learn what they need to on their own if they are doing that which they loved and wanted to do. Think of how much harder this person would work than an automaton because they ACTUALLY CARED about what they did. The boss wouldn't even need to tell them what to do because their hearts are already telling them.

As humans we are innately concerned with self-preservation and self-interest. When you have a school system that is not allowing kids to develop their own self-interested areas of study but instead forcing them through a state-dictated curriculum and test-preparation gauntlet, how can you expect success in life?
Success in college and in life are about much more than a curriculum can teach. But too much of that is left up to the luck of the draw of being born into a good family, or having a good teacher or a decent school that inspires you to do great things in life and to be successful.
Finding a Quasi-Solution in Sports

The sad truth about education is that the uninspiring, corporate manufacturing of our children’s minds through state-run schools is here to stay. In fact, the restrictive and dictatorial manner of schools only seems to be worsening, evidenced by a variety of YouTube videos by teachers and students alike. It's crazy that somehow only the teachers and students know that its not ever going to work.
The hope that I have hung onto is in the power of sports. The laundry list of the benefits of sports is extensive, and many successful athletes and professionals (myself included) attribute many of their successes in life to their sports background. 
The additional benefit of sport for our purposes of closing the achievement gap is that sports can be used to motivate the students. When teachers ask, “Why don’t they listen?” I always respond: “Why WOULD they listen?” Sports give uninterested students a reason to listen and to self-motivate in order to stay eligible for their team. That is in addition to all the positive culture and character that they get from the team and coach. 

Now here is where wrestling comes in. Aside from its incredible ability to develop toughness, determination and personal relationships, wrestling has the added benefit that it is perfect for society’s most struggling demographic: BOYS.
Boys Need to Wrestle
In all of my years as a teacher, boys have always been the most challenging. Ask any teacher and they will agree. Impulsive, aggressive, angry, silly, unfocused, the list goes on and on. The statistics about boys in education are SHOCKING. In fact, the disparity between boys and girls is actually GREATER than the achievement gap that we are talking about. 
Let me re-state that. Being a boy predicts failure in school more than being poor. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am in full support of girls and women’s wrestling. I truly hope my daughter Juliana will some day wear a headgear and singlet. But Julie doesn’t NEED it like the boys on my team need it. Julie can relate to other people without physical engagement. Julie can sit still and learn about anything she sets her mind to. Julie follows directions and doesn’t hit in school. 
In the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, the authors argue that much of society’s adult problems stem from this boy problem. Boys don’t fit into the female-run elementary schools largely because it’s not set up for boys to succeed. They internalize their failures and take these all the way to their graves, an attitude that informs much of life.
Sports offer the boy an outlet for these boyish things, a place where boys can be boys and still be successful. Wrestling specifically utilizes the natural tendencies of boys to compete and engage physically. Working with my youngest group of 7 and 8 years olds, it is the most fascinating thing to see them first being allowed to grapple with each other. You sit them in a circle and explain “OK, now when I say go, your job is to try to get your partner on the ground and hold him there.” They look at you and laugh. 
And even as you are getting them ready for the whistle, they don’t believe you. And when the whistle blows pure boyish joy erupts as if, for the first time, they were given a space to be themselves. There they are, our future men, the warriors, the fighters, the soldiers from time immemorial, learning to be just that, but on a wrestling mat. 
When I look at my students and I ponder for their future, much of it comes to worry about their success, their prospects. But when I look at my wrestlers, I think of all the great things they will do some day. I just wish all of my students could also be wrestlers!  Some day it may be so.

Justin McLennan is a teacher and wrestling coach originally from Easton, PA, who lives in New York City. He is currently contributing to the immense growth in the wrestling community in Brooklyn. If you are interested in coaching wrestling and teaching in Brooklyn, please e-mail him at . 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Catching Foxes: Mark Schultz

By Daniel Kelly

Mark Schultz is one of the biggest names in wrestling, ever; period.  His competitive nature can be seen so clearly if one were to watch any footage of him engaging in battle on the mat, from his days of dominating the NCAA to winning gold in the 1984 Olympics.  People tell stories of Mark’s achievements in an effort to paint a picture of how dominant he truly was to people who may not be familiar with his achievements in the sport of wrestling, and it always begins to sound like a tall tale of gladiator-like proportions.  The only thing about these stories; however, they are true.  For the non-believers I can offer one comment:  roll the tape. 
                  Like many successful athletes in any sport, Mark trained extensively.  He had a clear focus, and that focus was winning gold at every level.  The majority of people reading this article more than likely know of the movie Foxcatcher, but may not be aware of many details relating to Mark Schultz's life and his personal perspective regarding his achievements on the mat.  Mark was kind enough to invest some time for an interview with The Daily Grapple:

TDG:  “You were a gymnastics competitor before you began wrestling in high school.  In your opinion, how did gymnastics contribute to your future success in wrestling?”

Mark:  “It contributed tremendously.  Gymnasts do not get dizzy, so whenever I got into a flurry in wrestling I never got dizzy.  Sometimes when you get out of a flurry and you are still inbounds, you have to protect or defend yourself against a shot.  And if you get dizzy you’re in trouble.  Gymnastics provided me with a huge advantage in those types of situations.”

TDG:  “How have you converted your hardships into positive experiences and lessons you can teach unto others?”  

Mark:  “I feel that it was an act of God that the movie [Foxcatcher] was made.  It immortalized my brother, and that is important to me.  I feel that Bennett Miller [director of Foxcatcher] took all of my pain and suffering, and turned it into something that made it all worth it.  The story could have been lost to history, but it wasn’t because of great men like Bennett Miller.”

TDG:  “Even after the ultimate sacrifices you and your brother made, for our sport and for the United States in general, do you still love wrestling?”

Mark:  “I love the beauty of the sport.  Wrestling is the greatest builder of character in the world.”

TDG:  “Is it painful for you to watch the movie?”

Mark:  “Yeah.  It is.  I cried.”

Mark Schultz (right) and his brother Dave Schultz (left).

TDG:  “I feel crazy even asking this question, but the people will want to know!  How does it make you feel that you defeated not one, not two, but THREE Iowa Hawkeyes wrestlers in the NCAA Finals, considering all THREE were under the leadership of Dan Gable, for THREE years in a row?”

Mark:  “Every year I went to the finals I met an Iowa Hawkeye.  That just goes to show you how tough that team was.  The psychological pressure before my finals match against Duane Goldman was the most I have ever felt in my life.  Goldman was a freshman.  I was a defending two-time national champion.  I think I won because before the match Goldman decided I was going to win.  All three were tough.”

Mark Schultz during his 1983 NCAA Championships Semifinal match.

TDG:  “When did you know for sure that your competitive career as a wrestler was over?” 

Mark:  “I herniated my back right after the first UFC, and I went in for surgery.  Then some people started writing letters to the President of BYU complaining about me fighting.  I needed health insurance for my kids.  All of those things are why I decided it was time to hang it up.  We have doubled our average life spans in the last two hundred years, but God didn't make spines to last eighty years."

TDG:  “You are putting out a book, a blockbuster movie based on your book and life events, Olympic Gold Medal, NCAA Titles.  The sky is no limit for you.  What's next?”

Mark:  “I am still doing wrestling clinics, but my back isn’t what it used to be.  I still try and give back to the sport.  I’m trying to help spread the Book of Mormon.  I am doing a lot of public speaking and promoting my book.”

Mark and I talked about many more things relating to his life story aside from the interview segment above.  I urge people to go to see the movie Foxcatcher, but if you truly want to gain insight into Mark’s life, on and off the mat, you need to do so through his perspective.  Keep in mind that the movie is based on a true story, but Mark’s book is the true story.  See the movie.  Read the book.  Compare the two.  Expand your mind.

Mark was competitive on a level that many people simply do not, and cannot, understand.  In the beginning of the discussion I had with Mark on the day of the interview we did, he proceeded to tell me something that he said he had not told anyone publicly in any previous discussions or interviews.  He told me about a few silver medals he won during college and after college while competing in the World Cup, and the aforementioned medals I speak of are the only three silver medals he ever won in his entire wrestling career.  One silver medal was thrown onto the roof of Gallagher Hall at Oklahoma State.  The silver medal he won at the Midlands tournament was tossed in a trash can outside of the gym.  The silver medal plaque he received at the World Cup still resides somewhere near the bottom of the Ottawa River.  He prefaced providing me with the above information by stating:  "Winning is everything to me."  These items, which now reside in landfills of sorts, are items that many of us would treasure for life, and perhaps even hand down to future generations.  Mark was not happy with anything less than gold.

Think about the sacrifices our Olympic athletes make to compete in honor of their country.  Think about the sacrifices that Mark, Dave, and other elite competitors in the sport of wrestling have made and continue to make.  Hopefully Foxcatcher is not merely a movie people go and see to fill up their calendars; a novelty of the sport of wrestling.  Foxcatcher isn't about growing the sport of wrestling.  The intention of Mark releasing his story, and his brother's story, is not to embark on some crusade to grow our sport.  It is frustrating to see people on social media only commenting that the movie is great for our sport and so on and so forth, and the sudden delaying of its release across the country in November of 2014 was some sort of conspiracy to stunt the growth of wrestling.  Is it great for the sport?  Absolutely, but what makes it more than just being great for our sport is that these events happened to real people.

The events which took place on that fateful day when Dave Schultz's life was taken by John DuPont were immeasurably tragic, not because Dave was a wrestler of historic proportions; but because Dave was a husband, father, teacher, mentor, friend, uncle, and brother.  The coincidence and deeper meaning behind the film; however, is that you don't have to have ever wrestled or have been a wrestler to understand the tragedy behind these events which occurred in Mark's life.  We are all wrestlers of sorts.  We all grapple with anger, frustration, doubt, fear, and loss.  These all come in many forms, on and off the mat.

For more information on Mark Schultz please visit: