With five sons in my home, there is often a lot of wrestling and other physical activity that happens in my home. Recently, I was chatting with my oldest son, Spencer, while we were playing basketball at the local rec center, and I mentioned that he should try out wrestling for a season. I told him that there were some things I think he could learn from wrestling that would help him out with other sports, and that the sports also teaches important life skills, including overall confidence.  He was quick to pass on the idea, saying that he thought he would manhandled because he’s a bit small for his age.

I told him that wrestling in a league is actually done such that kids are matched up not just by their ages, but by their sizes as well. As we discussed some reasons why, despite having stronger interest in other sports, including baseball, basketball, and football, it might be a good idea for him to try out wrestling, I remembered some things that I learned from the sport of wrestling, starting when I was in middle school and carrying through to high school. Based upon those experiences and what they taught me, I am an advocate for kids, especially smaller ones, taking up wrestling or some other “combat” type of sport, at least to an extent that they develop confidence. A natural companion to wrestling, karate, judo, boxing, and other fighting disciplines is weight lifting, which I got into the habit of doing even before my teenage years, and which has helped my confidence even into my middle age years.

Here is my own story of dealing with bullies, which is the foundation of my reasoning for recommending kids develop some self-defense skills.

Growing Up a Young, Wimpy Athlete

I grew up in a sports-minded family. I loved sports, and I played a lot of them, including baseball, football, soccer, and basketball. I was athletic and coordinated enough. But I was kind of a scrawny kid, shorter than most people my age and not very muscular as I entered the public school system attending elementary school.

I also tended to want to stand up for myself and not allow people to disrespect or bully me. That combination wasn’t a great combination.

To make things worse, I had two older brothers who once in awhile apparently rubbed people the wrong way. Most of the enemies they made at school playgrounds and elsewhere were their own age, which 3-4 years older than me. Instead of dealing with my brothers, who usually came as a pair, they’d occasionally take out their frustration on me.

One particularly memorable occasion still leaves an impression in my mind. I remember walking my normal path home after a routine day as a first-grader. As I left the school grounds to make the trip to my house, just few blocks away from school, I was confronted by several kids (four of them) who I didn’t much recognize enough to know who they were. Without asking questions or explaining why, they started throwing stomach punches until I went down to the ground. Recognizing that they were several years older than me and much bigger, the only thing I knew to do was just take the beating and hope that it didn’t last any longer than needed to serve whatever purpose they felt they needed to accomplish.

As wandered home, I remember being embarrassed, and I wondered how I could keep the whole situation hid from my mom and the rest of my family. As a six-year-old, I wasn’t well trained at doing laundry, something that I found unfortunate knowing that the situation had resulted in a pair of jeans that had both grass stains and that were soiled in the front and back from my body’s response to the beating.

When I got home, my black eye and other evidence suggested that I’d had a problem at school. In the ensuing discussion, it was revealed that my brothers had crossed a few people at the new elementary school we all attended. They promised (with some encouragement from my parents) that they’d figure out who my attackers were and take care of the problem.

Later that day, after the embarrassment of the situation sank in, I remember making this commitment to myself: “I can’t let something like this ever happen again.”

The problem was, I didn’t really know how to prevent myself from getting torn up again by bullies, except to just be careful and avoid those situations. Fortunately though, except for a situation on the monkey bars when a girl named Tawanna tried to yank me down by my feet and end up getting kicked (which meant I had to then haul-tail it in to the protection of the classroom and my teacher), I went through elementary school without much incident.

Taking on the Rock-Throwing Bully

Middle school (in Tallahassee, Florida, where I lived, we had 6-8 grades after elementary school and then started high school in 9th grade) is a time when kids really seem to start trying to assert their independence, establishing their circles of friends, and finding their places in a societal pecking order. At the middle school (Cobb Middle School) I attended in the late 1980s, things were often a bit chaotic as kids worked to establish their identities. For some reason I’ll never understand, each afternoon after lunch, shifts of a hundred or more kids were escorted out of the cafeteria to spend 20-30 minutes outside the school in a kind of “holding pen” area, where we were expected to wait and kill time (maybe they wanted us to get some of our energy out) until we were allowed to go back into the school for afternoon classes.

Despite the fact that we were chaperoned by school administrators, it was common for fights to break out during this after lunch limbo period. Usually, bullying by some person and retaliation by their victim were the cause of the fights. There was a group of select older kids, eighth graders, who daily determined that they needed to assert their superiority by claiming the only usable wooden picnic table in the pen, and using that as a base to throw random things (acorns and other random stuff that fell out of the trees and onto the group normally) at other kids, most of whom simply tried to avoid the big, intimidating crowd of potential instigators.

One day during this chaos session, I was hanging out with several of my friends, all of us casually dodging random objects (mostly light weight furry balls of stuff that grow on some of trees that grow in Tallahassee) being launched in our direction, when I felt a solid enough bang on the side of my head that it made my ears ring loudly and my head buzz with pain and dizziness. After seeing a large rock bouncing away from me, then taking a few seconds to fully try to realize what just happened, I looked up at one of my friends and asked him who threw it.

“Jason threw it!” came the answer from my best friend, who was pointing in the direction of the kid well-known for being big and strong as well as not being afraid to fight, besides having buddies of a similar ilk who were not afraid to jump in. I was almost as  disappointed to hear who was responsible for my new, raging headache as I was about the rock to my head incident itself.

But now that I knew who threw the rock, and everyone around the scene knew that I knew, the only choice seemed to be to head over there and remedy the situation by fighting the bully.

As soon as I had most of my balance back, I wandered almost completely by myself to a group of boys who seemed to be begging me to try to do something about what had just happened. I wasn’t really prepared for what was going to happen next. Instead I just let instinct do what it likes to do.

I went up to a laughing, mocking Jason and yelled, “What in the hell do you think you’re doing,  throwing a rock at me?”, as I shoved him in the chest, kind of hoping he’d just let it go and simply let me get my slight bit of redemption out of the little 5-minute power struggle. Instead, it was game on!

He came right at me with his fist cocked.

The next thirty seconds of action would give me plenty of reason for appreciating the time I’d spent over the previous several months going to wrestling practices with my older brothers.

I stepped out of the way, guided Jason’s fist past my face, then jumped behind him in a wrestling takedown position. Although he outweighed me by a good 30-40 pounds and was about a half foot taller, I was able to get him off the ground, flip his legs up, turn him horizontal, and land him onto the piece of hard concrete and dirt surface that had become our makeshift arena.

As Jason lay there on the ground, defeated, half-conscious, with his friends standing around bewildered at what they’d just witnessed, it felt like I’d just dumped water on the wicked witch. “Well, there goes that,” I thought to myself. Later, talking with my friends about how bold it was to take a stand (a successful one at that) against one of the most notorious bullies in the school, we figured it was likely that we wouldn’t have to worry about this guy or his friends throwing stuff at us or intimidating us during this chaotic recess session or anytime else throughout the school day.

And we were right.

Standing up to the bully using my newly acquired wrestling skills and the strength that I developed from the sport ended up being a “peace through strength” approach that worked well for me and my friends.

Standing Up to One of the Buck Lake Boys Ring Leaders

The following year in middle school, I found myself in a situation that ended up being a sort of defining moment in my life. There was a group of boys who were middle and high school aged who’d formed a “gang” they called the Buck Lake Boys. This group of 40-50 cowboy-types were known for being rough and unruly.

While on the bus headed to school one morning, I apparently crossed one of the younger members of this group, not even knowing the kid was one of the Buck Lake Boys.

I found out a short time later that morning that I’d stirred up a hornets nest. As I waited for school to start sitting with a few of my friends outside the school library, we couldn’t help but notice several of these dudes aggressively heading down our corridor obviously looking for trouble. Their ring leader, a guy named Eddie, stormed ahead of the pack, winged closely by some of his closest buddies.

Before they got close to my group, one of my friends blurted out, “I wonder who those guys are after. Whoever it is, he’s in a lot of trouble.”

It turns out their guy was me. Eddie walked right through my circle of friends and stood face to face with me, putting his finger in my chest and mixing threats with profanity. “This day is not starting out very well,” I thought, hoping for some backup from my homies.

No backup came. My friends all stood there petrified. This was going to be my battle alone apparently.

Fortunately the school bell rang, which gave me an excuse to quickly start making my way to class. I hadn’t cared about being on time too often before, but I had several reasons to be early that day.

Over the next several days, I did whatever I could to avoid this group of guys, going to great lengths to make sure none of them ever found me alone. On one occasion one of their messengers approached me during lunch time and asked me to meet him “at the lower bowl”, a place where some school PE classes were held that was far enough from where the school buildings and teachers were that it was a prime area for holding fights.

I declined the offer, knowing that it would only put off the inevitable, a showdown between me and the leader of this notorious group of thugs.

After staying out of their way for several days that week, everything came to a head that Friday just as it was time to go home for the weekend. I thought I was possibly home free when I left the hallway that led out to the area where I caught my bus. I was walking with my friend, Shane, who had done what he could to help me stay out of harm’s way that entire week.

All of the sudden I felt a big shove in the back that sent me sprawling forward, nearly falling down. I turned around to see almost the exact same group of guys, evidently feeling like they needed to take care of what they felt needed to be done before the weekend settled things down.

My heart started racing. I wasn’t ready for this fight, but it was obviously ready for me. I turned and handed my bag to my friend, asking him to hold it for me for obvious reasons. Then I stood and faced Eddie, who was intent on using me to make a point to anyone who dared ever stand up to one of his gang.

After a couple of shoves back and forth, I saw Eddie’s rare back and start his big, pointed boot going forward, aiming right for my most sensitive area. Again, the wrestler instinct set in, this time much stronger, because I’d had a year behind me of developing self-defense skills in the form of grappling.

I sidestepped his kick, caught his ankle and calf with my hands, and instinctively ran him straight backward to a curb that grew out of the concrete walkway where we’d begun the fight. With his right leg held in the air and the other one barely available to hop backward, Eddie’s left heel hit the curb, and down he went. Less than a minute later, his head and face were badly beaten by a kid who simply didn’t know what else to do in that situation. School teachers and administrators pulled us apart, me first. Eddie second.

After I’d been restrained by one of several adults who witnessed the scene and who seemed to approve highly of how things ended (all well aware of how much of bullies Eddie and his group were), Eddie quickly rose to his feet and clawed at my face, leaving a scratch across my nose and forehead. The realization of what had just happened set in on all of us. After a school administrator had restrained Eddie, making him no more a threat to me, I looked around at a cheering audience of people who were ready to see Goliath go down. I raised my hand and shouted in triumph. It was, for me, like a scene out of a Rocky movie.

There were all kinds of consequences for me stemming from that fight. Word went around school not to mess with me or my buddies. Eddie was fed some serious humble pie, and lost his place as the school’s alpha. I was given discipline, but not even half as much as Eddie’s sentence.

Both Eddie and I were sentenced to serve detention after school the following Monday, after the weekend had given me and him a chance to think about the confrontation. The football coach who served as detention officer obviously knew Eddie well, and kept asking (teasing him) about why he was there in detention this time. Pretending not to know about the incident that was the cause of both of us being there, he kept prying to get more details out of Eddie, asking him, “Who won the fight?” and other interrogations that proved to be embarrassing for Eddie.

Yes, That’s My Brother in the Newspaper

Several weeks after our legendary fight, Eddie saw me in the library and walked up to me with the local Tallahassee Democrat newspaper. He showed me a picture of the newly released selections for the All Big Bend Wrestling Team. At the front of the group of wrestlers named as the best in the Big Bend area of Florida (including Tallahassee and several cities surrounding it) was my older brother, who happened to look a lot like me.

Eddie pointed to my brother in the picture while trying to show genuine interest instead of disgust, asked me, “Is this your brother?”

“Yes, that is my brother,”  as I nodded, confirming the reason I had not been an easy target for him.

I could see the wheels turning in Eddie’s head as he realized how it was that a kid who was not known to be a fighter, a smaller guy who seemed innocuous enough when it was time to keep picking a fight, over and over again, could have packed such a punch. In fact, if I could have read his mind, I’m sure that I would have heard him saying, “Well, that explains a lot!”

Learning to Navigate a Physical World

It is a sad truth that in so many situations, the world kids grow up in, and much of the world we exist in as adults, is dominated by physical elements. Taller, more physically dominating people usually are given leadership positions and given more respect. Those who are more physically assertive, even if it be through posture and body language, are typically more successful than those who are meager and submissive.

But you don’t have to necessarily be large in stature to be respected physically. I learned that while in middle and high school.

My success in learning to wrestle and lift weights, then taking on the bullies and physically succeeding gave me confidence that has carried with me throughout my life, including in areas that are not thought of as being so physical in nature: music, education, employment, my marriage relationship, and parenting.

Mr. Miyagi, the Karate Kid’s famous sensei, well-known for his wisdom as much as his knowledge of combat, said this in the movie: “Here are the 2 Rules of Miyagi-Ryu Karate. Rule Number 1: ‘Karate for defense only.’ Rule Number 2: ‘First learn rule number 1.’

I agree with his assessment. In my years growing up, I tried hard to use diplomacy and be resourceful to deal with conflict. However, it was always useful to know that if ever push came to shove, I could hold my own.

Now I’m trying to pass that mentality on to my kids for their benefit.