Article #102 First year of Wrestling


Remembering My First Year of Wrestling
By Mike Houck #102

A note from Ben Peterson: One of the great things about wrestling is the super individuals that succeed in our game. Mike Houck is one of those men. Not only was he the first USA Greco Roman World Champion, he is a great story teller. Read what he has to say about his first coach and his intro to wrestling. It’s a lesson we all must learn.
One of the benefits of getting older is the perspective gained on ones life’s endeavors. Having gone full circle with my wrestling career and having ample time to reflect on it, I’ve come to recognize the richness of that experience and continue to gain an understanding of the life shaping events it provided. What follows is a narrative representing the beginning of my wrestling career and a small piece of what wrestling has given to me. I hope you enjoy it!
When my brother walked in the door that evening with a bag of workout gear from Target, not only was I curious but I was jealous! Forget the fact he was younger, smaller and physically less mature than me. He got real workout gear! When I asked what it was for, he said he was going out for a sport called wrestling and needed it. Sweat pants, sweat socks, sweat shirt, t-shirt, workout shorts and a Jockstrap. A jockstrap… my little brother got a jockstrap. I’m not sure why it bothered me so much, maybe because I associated it with growing up or manhood. It certainly wasn’t something a fourth grader needed. I felt like I was going to explode and immediately erupted declaring my intent to wrestle too and that we needed to go back to Target and get MY equipment. And so we did. And thus began a journey that I never could have imagined, and all because I wanted workout gear.
I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the cafeteria at Robbinsdale Junior High that first evening in 1969. Two large wrestling mats were rolled out on the floor and the walls were lined with kids and parents eager to get started. Coach Hanson, Randy as he wished to be called, began the evening with a conversation directed more towards the parents than the kids. He talked about wrestling, covered the rules, and demonstrated basic wrestling techniques. The most dramatic thing he did that evening was drop an egg on the mat from an 8 foot step ladder in order to illustrate the safety of this aggressive combative sport that was new to most of the people there. When the egg hit the mat and didn’t break, you could hear an audible gasp followed by smiles and rapid conversation from an impressed audience. Randy was a charismatic storyteller and when his stories revolved around his passion… wrestling, he never failed to captivate his audience. This evening’s focus was on education and an assurance to parents that their boys would have a positive, safe, and enjoyable experience participating as young wrestlers.
As a young man who knew nothing about this new sport, it soon became evident that physical aggression was not tolerated here…IT WAS ENCOURAGED! Being an overly active, extremely high energy boy I immediately felt at home. All those lectures from mom and the countless number of times she sent me outside to “get my aggressions out” always left me feeling a bit uncertain because I really didn’t know what to do with my aggressions. So, when our very first wrestling activity was to physically push our opponent off the mat by any means possible, uncertainty turned to assurance that I had found a place where I fit, a place I could be myself, play hard, and get physical without getting into trouble.
We did a lot of very cool and fun things in practice- obstacle courses, relays, king of the mat, and physical conditioning and testing that allowed us to see our progress as we got stronger and faster. We also began learning wrestling holds and techniques and were given chances to test our skills against our peers. One thing that soon became evident was the undeniable truth that not all kids are equal. Some are faster, some are stronger, some are smarter, and some have better skills.
When Randy paired me up with Rick Perrozzi at a Saturday morning practice, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Rick was a year older, had more experience and more talent, but most of all, as I was about to learn, had an extremely high amount of aggression that needed an outlet. Unfortunately for me, what followed was one of the most miserable and humiliating experiences of my life! We wrestled live most of the morning. There’s a saying in wrestling, “You can be a hammer or you can be an anvil.” The meaning being…you can pound on your opponent or you can let your opponent pound on you. That morning I was undeniably the anvil.
Now the word “let” is a bit deceiving as it implies allowing and agreeing to something. In my case, that morning with Rick, I was not agreeing to the beating. In fact, I was calling on every ounce of energy and internal fortitude I could muster. It was an endurance test like nothing else I had experienced in my young life and I DIDN”T LIKE IT!
It was that morning that I also first experienced soul searching. Soul searching has been defined as a “deep and anxious consideration of one's emotions and motives or of the correctness of a course of action.” My mind was flooded with questions and thoughts. “Why am I doing this?” “I hate this practice.” “Why would anyone do this?” “Am I crazy?” I wanted to quit... but I didn’t. I just kept fighting and struggling with all my might and when practice finally ended I just laid on the mat in a puddle of sweat feeling as low as I’d ever felt, convinced that I had failed miserably. But then, something miraculous happened. Randy walked over, knelt down and began to describe what he observed of me during practice. He acknowledged the fact that Rick had really torn me up, but he was most impressed with my fighting spirit and how I kept on wrestling and struggling even though I was wrestling a bigger, stronger, and more experienced wrestler. His parting words of admiration to me were, “Houck, you are one tough kid!”
Wow! I went from the lowest moment of my young life to the highest. There was an explosion of pride and sense of accomplishment I’d never felt before. Sure I didn’t score a point all morning but Randy didn’t seem to be concerned about that. Instead he communicated something much more valuable, something he understood as foundational to ultimate success- the ability to struggle through adversity. It was those words at that moment which marked a milestone in my youth, a milestone signifying the beginning of a transformation from immaturity to maturity, a milestone that gave me my first foundational tool for success, the belief and knowledge that how we deal with the struggle is more important than the outcome. This was the genius of my first wrestling coach, his ability to recognize teachable moments, and empower his athletes by appealing to their inner needs in ways that strengthened, shaped, and helped them grow as young men.
Thinking back on my introduction to wrestling, my silly reasons for joining, the appeal of physical aggression, and the extremely challenging activities it provided me, I often reflect upon that day with Rick Perrozzi and the value I attached to that miserable experience. Especially since I attribute much of my success in the sport to my ability to persevere and work through adversity. I wonder how different my wrestling experience would have been had someone not guided and helped me learn such a hard and valuable lesson. Too often we get caught up in evaluating our experiences based solely on outward markers of success such as winning and losing, scoring points or not scoring points, and we fail to recognize those powerful internal forces that provide the stimulus that keep us going when things get tough or frustrating. It is that ability that eventually allows us to gain mastery in all our endeavors. Striving to be the best requires a willingness to constantly challenge personal limits. Struggling through the learning process is not always pretty or pleasant but it is essential. If I could give just one gift to young wrestlers it would be the ability to embrace with enthusiasm the struggle as they strive for excellence.
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