The last time I participated in tackle football I was no more than 14-years-old, yet at least once a week, I still play through in my mind the gratifying sensation of a solid collision with another human body. It’s always the same collision, in which I’ve lowered my shoulder into the “belt buckle” of an oncoming rusher; initial impact, followed by driving him to the ground. I don’t know if this "memory" is a specific event from the past or an amalgamation of similar events, but the memory of the sensation is powerful.
I play more basketball these days and even now, some three decades later, one of the best parts is the banging about of bodies in an un-refereed game.
It’s definitely not about anger. And while there’s no denying the violent and aggressive aspects of competitive body contact, it’s not about hurting another person. It’s about the sensation itself, the thrill of impact, leverage, and brute competition. In my more philosophical moments, I tell myself it’s about a transfer of energy between two bodies, a sudden exchange of momentum, an imparting of energy from one human being to another. And in my academic moments I contemplate the studies that show that roughhousing has long term developmental and social benefits.
A number of years ago my 3-5’s class was populated with several high energy boys who had either no siblings or whose sibs were too young for roughhousing. The result was spontaneous eruptions of wrestling throughout our mornings. I found myself repeating over and over, “Now is not the time for wrestling,” until one day it occurred to me that there was never a time for wrestling for most of the kids.
Since then, wrestling has been a part of the Woodland Park 3-5 curriculum. We lay mats on the floor and duct tape others to the walls, creating a sort of wrestling room like one might find in a high school. I explain that wrestling is not fighting, but rather a sport, then run down the rules:
- No hitting or kicking
- No hands on people’s faces, heads, or necks
- No throwing another person down unless you fall with them (a rule made necessary by a child with Aikido skills)
- No jumping or falling on people
- No wrestling off the mats
- Stop the moment someone says, “Stop!”
The result, frankly, is that we reduce wrestling to little more than tight hugging and rolling around on the floor, but it still fills the need.
The first time we tried it, the predictable gang of boys took to the mats in a frenzy. Within seconds our resident "The Hulk" found himself on his back, a boy whose fierce and powerful role-playing typically dominated our mornings. Our eyes locked for a moment and in his I read a small panic that said, This isn’t what I bargained for! The reality didn’t live up to the fantasy: that boy never set foot on the wrestling mats again. His imaginative play was still full of tough guy characters, but that’s where it stayed from then on.
That the more assertive boys were drawn to wrestling was not a surprise. What I hadn’t anticipated was the number of our girls who enthusiastically leapt into the fray.
Parent educator and teacher Chris David once explained differences between boys and girls by asking me to think of their brains as architectural structures. Boys tend to have brains comprised of many little rooms. If a boy is playing in one “room” and the subject of rules comes up, adults need to understand that the typical boy must leave the room in which he’s playing and go down the hall to find the room that houses the rules. Girls, on the other hand, tend to have brains made up of one large room. The rules and their play are in the same room so it’s far easier (and quicker) for them to apply the former to the latter.
Applying this metaphor to wrestling, it’s no wonder that girls rarely engage in wrestling during times that are “not the time for wrestling,” while the boys sometimes forget. When wrestling is officially sanctioned however -- at least in the little laboratory of our preschool -- the girls are as game as the boys.
Wrestling days are demanding for me in that I take it upon myself to serve as referee, constantly reminding wrestlers of the rules. We’ve had a few minor injuries, but nothing a little rubbing didn’t cure. Our hyper-vigilance, in fact, probably makes wrestling one of the safest large motor activities we do. And there is surprisingly little rule breaking. Maybe wrestling and its rules are so intimately entwined that they can be kept together in the same room.
Competitive physical contact is a human urge that has little to do with gender, anger, violence or aggression. It’s a way to measure oneself and to learn about one’s own body and the bodies of others. It’s a way to learn about strength, quickness, and leverage.
At the same time it bears within it the seeds of violence and aggression, if coupled with simple rules, it becomes a powerful, visceral way to learn about self-control, gentleness and empathy.
That’s why we wrestle.