It was his first match in two years. His opponent had definition in his arms and fire in his eyes. As the match progressed it was obvious to me that Elijah’s opponent didn’t have a tremendous amount of skill but he made up for that with aggression.
Elijah, on the other hand, was almost trembling with nervousness. In that moment I don’t know exactly what he was thinking but I am sure there was a mental battle between the thoughts,”I can’t do this” and “just keep breathing!”
For the past few weeks Elijah had been tagging along to wrestling practice with me and Jack. Elijah wrestled two years ago but last year decided he didn’t want to continue. It was hard for me not to press him. I knew his participation in the sport would be really good for him. He has struggled in a few areas in his life pressing forward when it’s hard. This is one of the core principles of the sport of wrestling; when you’re out there all alone, nowhere to hide, all your weaknesses exposed and you know you’re going to lose; you still fight.
Elijah whispered to me during one of the practices he was watching, “I kind of miss it.” I could see in his eyes the desire to be out there working hard. He expressed this a few times and we agreed to have him join the team with the absolute agreement that if he started there would be no quitting.
Jack has been practicing with the advanced group and we thought Elijah, although less experienced he is older, would start his first practice with this group. He did, and lasted all of three minutes. He couldn’t keep up with the intensity level. After two minutes of sprints and bear crawls he looked up at me with nervous pain and fear in his eyes and said,”I think I broke something.” In Elijah speak this means, this is really hard and I want to quit. As he walked off the mat and sat down I realized I was raising a son who was being controlled by his fear. The intermediate group practiced that next evening and that night I sent Elijah this email:
“Elijah, I love you. I don’t accept your quitting. You are not allowed to quit. You need to allow the man that is inside of you to come out through this hard work. The quitting spirit inside of you needs to be put to death. Every time you step onto the mat and stay there you put another knife in that quitting spirit. Every time you walk away in fear the quitting spirit gains strength. This wrestling season it’s time to pin that quitter inside of you down and put it to rest, for good!! So, when you walk onto the mat tomorrow with coach Bob, when you take your first step onto the mat, tell yourself, I’m learning not to quit, I won’t quit. Wrestling for you has very little to do with winning matches and that’s ok. It has everything to do with feeling pain and fear and struggle, and pushing forward. I love you and I push you because I KNOW you ARE strong! I see it deep inside of you and it is my job and passion to see my boys become strong men in the Lord! I love you Elijah!”
It was no longer about whether or not Elijah wanted to be a part of the wrestling team or if he enjoyed the sport. I saw in my son at that practice a weakness that could potentially haunt him for the rest of his life. I knew he needed the struggle of wrestling for purging and forming this son of mine into a young man with confidence, perseverance and self-respect.
After two practices Elijah was going to face off against this aggressive kid from Valley Forge Military Academy. Not exactly a warm welcome back. This is exactly the point though; life is not full of unending warm welcomes and there is not always a safe space. When those times come you have to know who you are and how to stand your ground.
With deep breaths Elijah walked out onto the mat. He was literally tossed around for 50 seconds. With ten seconds left in the first period Elijah was tossed to the mat again. On his way down the referee didn’t move quickly and Elijah smacked his forehead into the officials shin. The buzzer sounded the end of the first period and Elijah laid there, sobbing. Coach Bob looked at me as if to say, aren’t you going to go help him? I wasn’t sure what to do. It is so hard to push you kids into pain. It is hard to give them no option to quit when in that moment they feel like there is no ability to move forward. I walked out and told him to lift his head up. Whispering in his ear I said,”this is exactly why we’re here. This is when you have to learn to keep fighting.” Slowly he rose but a part of his spirit was crushed. He just wanted the whole thing to be over. Less than a minute later Elijah was on his back and the match was over. He stumbled off the mat sobbing,”I can’t do this.”
The image of Boromir came to my mind for some reason. I asked Elijah if he remembered the scene in the first Lord of the Rings when Boromir fights off orks while being killed with arrows. He said yes. “Elijah, you are Boromir. Even if you know you are going to lose you have to fight.” The example resonated in his mind and I could see in his eyes the scene playing. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
A little later that day it was time for him to step onto the mat again. “Let’s go Boromir!” I shouted. Three minutes later he was finished. He stood his ground and finished the match. It was a 6-1 loss. The greatest loss I have ever experienced. A loss that will reap immeasurable gain as I call out the man in my son. It was emotional for Amy and I as we talked about the struggle in our boys to become men, emotions of pure joy and gratitude. This is just a much a journey for me as it is for my boys. All of the sudden we’re at this point in their lives where ideas are becoming reality through the crucible of wrestling, and I am loving it!
We bought this shirt for Elijah which had arrived the mail when we came home from the match. He hasn’t taken it off yet. We’re not looking back.
-Written by my favorite guest writer, Matthew Weldon. AKA: the best husband, dad, and coach in the world!