Coffee and pain are my morning companions today. I’m reviewing the entire class in my head, trying to catalog each iota of pain to a particular activity. Forearms ache from a nasty balance position. Knees are bruised from landing hard during a sprint variation. Back is a mass of pain from trying to do pushups without my feet touching the ground. Shoulders and ribs hurt from handstands and cartwheels. No idea what’s making my outer thighs feel painful to the touch today.

The neck pain, though…I know what caused that. Good old fashioned wrestling. The mother sport. The one and only and original martial art. I don’t know of any culture that doesn’t practice wrestling, even if the western world mostly ignores it. If you practice a martial art, you should practice wrestling. If you aren’t familiar with the effort and play of full-out grappling, then your art is only half.

Wrestling is an odd duck in my part of the world. It’s overlooked, or looked down upon. When my daughter was in her early grades, one of her schools banned games of tag during lunch and recess. The given reason was that tag was too close to wrestling. I remember being not as shocked as I should have been at that reason. “Everyone knows” wrestling is for bullies. For jocks, which is the same thing as being a bully to most people. For, mostly, good reasons. Experience is a powerful teacher, even if misguided.

When I work with new students, fear of wrestling is common. It’s usually expressed in distaste and conditions: “I’ll take your classes, but I refuse to wrestle.” That’s pretty common. So is “I’m way to small/weak/smart/well trained in x martial art to ever wrestle, so I don’t want to do it because I will suck.” I usually just smile and nod in response. I know wrestling has a bad rep, I expect that. I also know it’s as human an art as there ever was, and once a little understanding is thrown in, most people learn to love wrestling.

It has to be taught correctly, though. You have to respect the attitudes that people come in to class with. They likely earned those attitudes, and you have to have an answer to their issues. You have to teach them that strength is important, but technique is more important. This is were most teachers fail. They teach bad techniques, in a bad setting, from a bad understanding of grappling. A fancy technique that works in a drill situation but falls apart the second things get a little muscle-y and competitive teaches an instant lesson that wrestling sucks.

Students need to understand the strength and power of wrestling first, they need to feel it opposed to them, and they need to feel their own strength and power in opposition. They need to know their own weakness as a finite thing, where it begins and ends, so that they can understand it.

Say I teach the common “Upper key” or “figure 4” lock. If we stand up and drill it, students can learn it pretty quick. It’s simple enough, and you can learn to make a person tap when it’s applied. So then we break up to try it in sparring, and your partner slams into you and drops you on your back. Why didn’t you apply the hold? Never had a chance. Useless hold. Not good.

Say instead we start with some Sumo wrestling. Easy stuff. Start from a squat, charge into each other and try to drive the other student out of the ring or make them touch the ground with any part of the body other than the feet. First thing that happens is that the big bully student storms the weaker student out of the ring. Fair enough. Might happen the second or third time, too. Maybe you need to have a quiet word with the weaker student, tell them how to set their legs just right, how to grip the incoming wrestler just so. They try it, and still get driven out…but it takes longer. A lot longer. A few more bouts and the big bully students is really working hard to drive out the weak student. Equilibrium is within reach.

Now is the perfect time to pull aside the weak student and show them the Figure 4 lock. Show them how to use the push and pull to find the right time to apply the lock, to look for an opportunity while being shoved around. They go back in the ring to try it. The two wrestlers meet in the middle with a clash, the weaker is shocked back a little but still holding on…one more step back…and suddenly the smaller fighter lets go with one hand, turns slightly into the larger fighter, and slaps on the beginning of the hold…which fails, because the larger fighter fell forward when the pressure was relaxed, and the beginning of the hold was enough to cause him to lose balance, and the smaller students turning in finished the job… The big bully sails through the air and lands on his back with a crash. Win for the smaller student.

“Wow. That really worked. That was fun! I wanna do it again! …What do you mean we are out of time? Awww. Boo! Can we wrestle next class???”

Yes, yes we can.