You wrestle like a girl

By Justin Henney
Reader Contributor

About nine years ago I asked my oldest daughter, Adeline (then in third or fourth grade), if she would try wrestling with a local wrestling club. She agreed to do it, even though she was one of two girls out of about 40 young boys. She was quite good, as I expected. She continued for several sessions, with me watching. Then I noticed a change in her demeanor. 

At home, I asked her if she liked wrestling or was she only doing it for me because I was passionate about it. She said she was doing it for me and that she did not like it that much any more. 

Over this past Thanksgiving break she came home from college and I found out why she suddenly lost interest in wrestling when she was young. Apparently the coach at the time had made a comment to her that made her feel bad about herself and her gender. I never heard the comment and she never told me about it. 

Apparently, he had been having the kids show him their stances in wrestling, one by one, and the ones who looked weak or bad he told “you look like a girl,” and the other boys would laugh at the boys who got this feedback. When Adeline got up in front of him, he said, “Sit down princess,” and she walked away wanting to quit.

Usually I look down on quitting, but since I realized I was asking my young daughter to join a male-dominated sport for my own selfish reasons, I was OK with it. 

Over Thanksgiving I reflected on a time I was coaching my younger daughter, Violet, in soccer as a fourth-grader. She had a great natural ability and I wanted so much for her to continue to push herself. 

One day in soccer practice, I saw her jogging down the field with her arms fluttering out to her sides. I did not like this and stopped the team, brought them into a circle and told them I had seen Violet running this way and I demonstrated it in a foolish, mocking way. I told her she reminded me of a princess trying to play soccer. 

I used “princess” in a derogatory, sexist way and thought it was funny — just as the high school wrestling coach had years before. 

It was one of the worst parenting and coaching moments of my life. Violet cried softly and told me after practice she wanted to quit. She did not play soccer any more after that season, mostly because of what I thought of as funny banter.  

I was given a chance at redemption over Thanksgiving break, as my daughters got together and wrestled on mats in our living room. My comments are wholly positive now. 

Violet is on the local girls wrestling team, coached by Valerie Johansen, and is more confident than I have ever seen her — partly due to coach Johansen and some success on the mat. Incidentally, Violet beat her older sister 80% of the time they wrestled over break.  

At Violet’s last wrestling match — which she won — there was a girl from another school who had been paired with a boy. The girl was wrestling “like a girl” as she pinned the boy. She was winning her match 12-0 before the pin and the boy was pretty good. When the match was over, boys and girls from her team came over and hugged her. She put her arms up and made muscles and smiled big. It turns out that wrestling like a girl is powerful.

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