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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Learning to win part of process

Winning doesn’t just happen.

It’s a learned thing. It’s not something you can take for granted.

Yes, fate will sometimes intervene. But you have to put yourself in the right position before the flying, fickle finger puts its weight on the scale.

Watching the learning curve is part of what makes these first few weeks of the high school wrestling season so much fun.

There is no other interscholastic sport that so completely reveals an athlete’s character the way the ancient and honorable sport of wrestling does. One wrestling mat with a referee and two wrestlers in the middle for all to see.

There is no room for bravado on a wrestling mat. No time for trash talk and nowhere to hide. Risk has an immediate reward and an equally immediate penalty.

Unless you’ve spent six minutes in the middle of that mat, you can’t know the toll it takes on a body. Let’s put it this way: If you have six minutes until the end of the world, you’re going to want to spend them on a wrestling mat – so long as you don’t shoot for a single leg takedown at the wrong time and find yourself stuck 15 seconds into the match.

The learning curve in wrestling is especially steep at the beginning.

First-timers must get to a place where they have the physical reserves necessary to last six minutes. If you’re gassed after five minutes, you’re going to get pinned.

Part of the process is earning the level of fitness you need so that your brain continues to work in the final minutes of a match.

Gen. George S. Patton famously said that “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Vince Lombardi echoed it as he prepared his Green Bay Packers.

I disagree. Fatigue doesn’t turn you into a coward, and I rankle at that characterization. If you have the guts to step onto the field and put your body on the line, you aren’t going to suddenly turn into a coward once you’re out of gas.

Fatigue shuts you down. But before it shuts your body down, it turns off your brain. If you’re tired, you are incapable of finding your way through to the end. You could look at a neon sign pointing to the exit and your brain simply won’t recognize it.

That’s what makes those closing minutes of a match so exciting. Digging into your tank of reserves you never know what you’re going to find.

But fitness is just a first step.

You must learn the techniques of the sport. You need a foundation of moves and counters, a knowledge of leverage and balance and how to use them. Through time, you will develop a tool box of moves that work for you.

Nathaniel Desantiago, the first-year head coach at Ferris, is working through that process right now.

His Saxons have a commitment to hard work that the coach calls exceptional.

“Where at the point where we can get into tough matches against tough opponents and get to the end of those matches,” he said. “What we have to learn now is how to win at the end of those matches.”

Desantiago, who spent two years as an assistant under Tim Owen before stepping up to the head job, is excited to see the way his wrestlers have responded.

Several Saxons earned their way into the semifinals at last weekend’s Inland Empire tournament at Central Valley. And both lost in the closing seconds of their matches.

“They had a good tournament, and they did well, but if you ask them they would say they came up short,” he said. “They’re disappointed.”

This is where that learning curve flattens out.

In those closing seconds, the match is won or lost on 2 square feet of real estate – one square foot of real estate, the space inside of a wrestler’s head gear in the middle of the mat.

A last-second takedown or a reversal as the clock runs out. Or a perfect counter to a daring move.

You have to get into those situations in order to learn how to win in those positions.

What makes the sport fascinating is the way a young wrestler reacts. How do they learn from their mistakes? What do they do the next time they get into a match like that?

“That’s where I’ve been impressed,” Desantiago said. “My guys handled it really well. You can tell they were disappointed. But they didn’t lash out. They didn’t snap at anyone and didn’t yell at their coaches or teammates. They took inside and started looking for ways to get better for the next time.”

That’s where the lessons pay off. Once you learn how important that 1 square foot of real estate is, it changes your approach to the whole match.

Sometimes the best way to learn how to win comes from how you learn from a loss.

And this is where learning to wrestle, especially learning how to be a successful wrestler, prepares you for a lifetime.

We all wrestle. We wrestle with our careers. With our lives.

But we don’t always learn how to win when it all comes down to that square foot of real estate.

When you know how to win on that home turf, you have a lesson that will serve you for a lifetime.

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