I’ve recently begun my training to become a high school wrestling referee. It’s my side gig. I don’t know much about wrestling, but I’ve always loved the sport, and I appreciate the intense discipline involved. I guess discipline comes from the fact that wrestling involves so many moves, and so much strategy. In fact when I watch the very best wrestlers, like Spencer Lee and Dean Hamiti, it looks more like they are dancing than wrestling. They have that kind of agility. I also appreciate the amount of strength training and weight-cutting they have to do. Yes, it is true I often see wresters spend an ungodly amount of time in the sauna at my local college, trying to cut water weight. I also see them frequently in the weight room. Surprisingly, many of them don’t look that strong. Wrestling involves conditioning and speed. That’s why so many of my wrestler-friends look skinny and unimposing. But when they wrestle, I see a whole different dimension- ferocity.
I have a lot to learn. I’m starting by watching college NCAA champion matches and watching the referee- seeing why he makes the calls he does. I also go to wrestling referee clinics, or procedural meetings, to learn the latest rules and changes. I went to a clinic three weeks ago, in Naperville, which is about fifty miles west of Chicago. Naperville’s just a small town. I love Chicago, because it is so cosmopolitan and international, but it doesn’t have much peace. Naperville doesn’t have the kind of cultural opportunities that Chicago has, but it has tangible peace. You can walk along the hills and rivers, the old abandoned mansions and little arts and crafts stores. You can feel the peace. It’s good for me to visit other places. It breaks my rhythm, it shows me other ways to live my life.
The clinic was held in the early evening at Naperville Central High School. I was sitting in a classroom with about thirty guys, most of them in their fifties and sixties, although some were older or younger. I saw that some of the head officials were in their seventies, but they had maintained their wrestling physique their whole lives. They looked like those ancient Mahabharata warriors, old men who had become like ancient trees in terms of power and beauty.
“No biting” was one of the first rules they talked about. I was confused- I mean we live in a civilized society, so wouldn’t it be just a given that you can’t bite your opponent? But it must happen frequently enough that they had to make it an official rule. They told us that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a hard bite or a soft bite. It leads to automatic disqualification. We also discussed the order in which the various weight classes wrestle. How do you decide who goes first? There’s an app that you can program to randomly generate the order. But one school does something different- they put a mouse in the middle of a maze. The maze has twelve exits. Depending on which exit the mouse chooses, the corresponding weight class gets to go first.
The clinic was basically preparation for the open-book wrestling exam, which I took online. By reading the rules book and going to the clinic, I was able to pass the exam. But that’s not enough to prepare me for being a referee. That’s why I’ve been going to every tournament in my area, where I just shadow the referees and watch what they do and how they make calls. What impresses me is how fast and knowledgeable the referees are. I’m going to have to go to many more tournaments before I’ll be comfortable officiating my own matches. But I’ll get there.
The veteran referees are happy to teach me the ropes. There’s a shortage of referees, so they’re happy to have new blood. The wrestling officials I’ve met come from all walks of life- although many of them are teachers or take blue collar jobs like firefighters or mechanics. My grocery store is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago – a schwa and ritzy neighborhood, so I enjoy meeting and working with people from a different background.
I went to a junior varsity tournament yesterday. Most of the kids were middle-school aged, although some looked slightly older. A very diverse group of wrestlers- Mexican, African-American, Asian and white. During one match, a boy cried out, “He’s choking me!”- referring to his opponent who had him in a kind of headlock. The veteran referee looked at me and said, “Well, if that were true he wouldn’t be able to say it.” And he allowed the match to continue. The boy got pinned, but he lived. As an official you have to know when someone is crying wolf.
I saw one Black kid with an unbelievable style and speed. He pinned his opponent in less than ten seconds. I feel he has a great career ahead of him. It’s exciting to see.
During another match, a boy was about to win, but he said, “Sit down boy! Sit down boy!” to his opponent. The referee told him that his opponent is not a horse, and penalized him for unsportmanlike conduct. They restarted the match and the boy held his tongue and won easily. He was short and fat but had tremendous will power. His grandmother was there snapping photographs but she scolded him.
The coaches got a little feisty! As a referee, you have to hold your ground if you know you made the right call. I’m thinking about learning some judo in case I have to fight off a disgruntled coach or parent.
I really admire the discipline and perseverance that these boys develop. Their tenacity and intense training reminds me of the 3100 mile race. Saturday I have another tournament, which is another opportunity for me to learn from more experienced officials. I’m not sure where my wrestling journey will take me. I don’t have to know. When Guru gives you a new road, you just follow it.
“Four unfinished stories
I must finish:
Man’s journey into the Unknown,
(Sri Chinmoy, The Goal is won, Sri Chinmoy Centre, New York, 1974)