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Jan, 2019

Why the Marine Corps has become deeply invested in wrestling's future

Link to article on TrackWrestling

The speaker list included some of the heaviest hitters in the wrestling family with Jordan Burroughs and Hollywood star Chris Pratt headlining last summer’s United States Wrestling Foundation Gala.

But the message that produced the longest and loudest ovation that night was delivered by a guy whose wrestling and professional career has unfolded primarily outside the public spotlight and inside war-torn pockets of the world.

Marine Corps Maj. Jared Reddinger stood at the dais last August in downtown Los Angeles, explaining why the Marines have aligned themselves with wrestling, telling how the sport shaped his life and talking about the characteristics he developed on the mat that pulled him through some of the most intense battles he faced in Iraq.

“I’ve been in some environments in which nobody wants to be in,” Reddinger said. “The things that have gotten me through that, it hasn’t just been the training that the Marine Corps has provided me, it’s been the lessons I’ve learned as a 6-year-old kid in a wrestling room."

For me, that week in Southern California — at the USWF Gala and the men’s freestyle training camp at Camp Pendleton — crystallized the symbiotic relationship between wrestling and the Marine Corps. It shed light on why the Marines are deeply invested in the sport and why they, too, have an eye on high school wrestling participation numbers across the country.

“Over two-thirds of America’s youth are unqualified to join the Marine Corps or to joins the service at all,” said Reddinger, who wrestled at Navy. “There’s even fewer that are willing or have the mental and physical capability to do so. The Marine Corps has decided that we’re going to align ourselves with wrestlers. We feel the wrestling community has the kids who have the skills — the mental and physical resilience — to succeed in the types of environments we live in.”

Nearly a year earlier at another USWF gathering in Detroit — one celebrating the American men’s freestyle team’s 2017 World title — Marine Corps Col. David Fallon struck up a conversation with National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer.

Moyer told Fallon about one of the biggest challenges currently facing the sport — the downward participation trend at the high school level.

Like Reddinger, Fallon was a high school and college wrestler, too. He walked away from the sport not with a mountain of medals and accolades but rather a set of intangible benefits that still stick with him.

“I was a 98-pounder initially,” Fallon said a couple weeks ago. “The sport just sort of attracted me by looking at how hard those guys were working in practices all the time. It’s just something that appealed to me. I became a mat rat. It was everything the sport offered and the challenge that made me stay committed to it. I was fortunate to have some good coaches who were good men, good leaders and kept me motivated and I stuck with it.”

Fallon wrestled at Boston College before the Eagles dropped their program, but he never lost his connection to the sport. And the conversation with Moyer set the wheels in motion in his mind.

“It got me thinking: What could we do as the Marine Corps to help the wrestling community?” Fallon said. “It became very clear that some of the recruiting strategies we use could be applied within the wrestling community. Frankly, the Marine Corps believes wrestlers and the Marines are cut from the same cloth. We sort of have the same DNA. If we’re using strategies to find the next generation of Marines, then why can’t the wrestling community use those same strategies to find the next generation of wrestlers?”

The Marines partnered with the NWCA on a couple projects. The NWCA began bringing in high-level Marine recruiters for its leadership academies to share their methodology behind recruiting, team building and leadership development.

In addition, the Marines have also taken steps to make those strategies more accessible for high school coaches. Fallon said the Marines are working on teaching coaches how to use “championship building blocks” to help introduce more young people to wrestling by stressing

wrestling’s benefits and emphasizing lessons young people can take from the sport and carry through life.

The idea is for coaches to approach students in an effort to find out what’s important to them. The building blocks include incentives such as facing a challenge, being physically fit, creating opportunities for higher education and the pride of being on a team.

“Then it becomes a conversation where the coach will explain exactly how the sport of wrestling is going to give them exactly what they’re looking for,” Fallon said. “Whether or not they win a match is not the emphasis or focus. It’s being able to walk away having learned those life lessons on the mat and that acknowledgement that those same skills are going to help them, regardless of whatever they pursue in their life.”

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