One of my most respected mentors, coaches, and friends is my high school wrestling coach, Steve Ward. The sentiment was shared by many of his former students and athletes, as well as those in the larger wrestling community, as he was inducted into the Massachusetts Wrestling Hall of Fame toward the end of his 35+ year career at Roxbury Latin. Mr. Ward was my advisor, and I always appreciated his calming influence and perspective on situations that were stressful to me in the moment, but ultimately not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
All of us have surely had role models we look up to and respect, and for many years, that was what Mr. Ward was for me. Those who know him would say they appreciate his sense of humor and the calm way he had with his wrestlers. He could most often be seen with his hands in the air as if to say, “I dunno who did it,” and it is those mannerisms and witticisms that have stuck with many of us for a long time. A lot of things Mr. Ward used to say stuck with me all these years as general life lessons, so I want to share some of the top mantras below.
Your Decision to Be Here Means That You Are Tough
I’ll admit I do not know if these are the exact words he would say, but in the team meeting for athletes interested in being on the wrestling team that directly preceded each and every season, Mr. Ward made it clear to everyone in the room that their decision simply to participate in the sport of wrestling made them tougher than anyone else who was not in the room. There were other options, he would say, like playing basketball or hockey, or doing nothing at all. Whether you were good or bad, the mere decision to participate in a very demanding sport made you tough. Knowing that they were respected by Mr. Ward made even the worst of wrestlers motivated to do their best.
Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way
This was one of Mr. Ward’s favorite things to say in wrestling practice. Coaching at a school with very cerebral students, there were varying levels of skill and interest from those who participated on the wrestling team. Mr. Ward recognized that some would want extra credit, some would want to follow those leaders, and that the rest need not hinder either of the two. Whether you were a leader or a follower, there were no judgments. But if you were sucking up space without being involved in a meaningful way, he made it clear that you were hurting the rest of the team.
Be an Athlete
Another problem for cerebral kids is that they think too much. In Mr. Ward’s efforts to remove pressure from difficult situations, he would utter this phrase to remind his athletes that there was an element to wrestling that required very little thought at all – being an athlete. Being an athlete just means doing what is instinctive, lest you forget the moves you had been practicing. This was a simple reminder, in so many words, to do your best.
This is a Bag of Sticks Match
This is perhaps my favorite thing that Mr. Ward used to say. It was his belief that when being smothered by a snake, a person should have a bag of sticks with them to break. Why? Because breaking the sticks would make the snake think it was breaking bones, and it might loosen its grip. A bag of sticks match was Mr. Ward’s nice way of telling someone that they had zero chance of winning against a far superior opponent. While this might seem cruel, it helped soften the blow and put humor into situations that otherwise might have felt overly serious.
Go For Broke
Sometimes an opponent might not be a “Bag of Sticks” match so to speak, but may have still been a very tough or favored opponent. In these situations, Mr. Ward often asked us to “Go For Broke.” Over-thinkers can be tight and unwilling to let loose, and our coach did not want to see a situation where we left something on the mat. There were moments where Mr. Ward encouraged me to go for broke that resulted in me hitting big moves and sometimes pinning an opponent. There were other times when going for broke backfired against me. I never regretted going for broke either way.
The Toughest Kid Wins 3rd Place
Mr. Ward loved having champions, but he had a soft spot in his heart for toughness. Roxbury Latin was a place that was really about building character, and I know Mr. Ward cared mostly about building better people more so than he did about building better wrestlers (although, I’m sure he loved to do both). All this to say, while all the praise might go to someone for winning first, Mr. Ward was clear that the 3rd place finished was tougher than the 1st place finisher, because the 3rd place finisher lost a match somewhere along the way and then had to motivate himself to win the rest of his matches.
After every match our tournament, Mr. Ward would give out four different awards: the cookie, the terminator, the guts, and the goomba.
The cookie went to the wrestler who had the best performance. Interestingly enough, the winning wrestler received a real cookie…to be doled out after the season, when cutting weight was no longer necessary.
The terminator went to the wrestler who had the fastest pin. Nota bene: sometimes the terminator and the cookie went to the same person, but more often than not, terminators were just fortunate to have very weak opponents whereas a cookie winner might have won a match against someone pretty solid.
I have to imagine that the guts was Mr. Ward’s favorite award. This went to the gutsiest performance. I would guess that most guts winners had lost their match, but it had to be close to a 50/50 split. Mr. Ward was keen on rewarding people for being tough and dealing with adversity. And I think that that was ultimately my biggest takeaway from the sport of wrestling.
Last but not least, anyone who has wrestled before knows that there is always something strange that happens at a meet or someone who does strange things. Mr. Ward rewarded these strange events with an award called the gumba. My favorite gumba moment was when we wrestled Milton Academy one year. A Milton wrestler noticed that he had blood on his shoulder, so he licked it off. The ref informed him immediately thereafter that the blood was coming from his Roxbury Latin opponent. This gives you a feel for what the gumba was like.
The practice before every match, the team has a special ritual that it does followed by an address from the team’s captains. This all would happen without Mr. Ward in the room. At the end of each address, Mr. Ward would walk in and say two words: “You’re ready.” It was a simple re-assurance of all the hard work that was poured into wrestling practices leading up to the big moments on the mat. Sometimes all it took was something that simple to remind ourselves of our preparation.
So these are some of my favorite sayings from Coach Ward. And it is only appropriate if I end this by telling you what he told me when I asked him if it was OK for me to write this blog: “I think I told you once that it is better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”