MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif., -- For some, the visuals of competitive wrestling include ropes, breaking tables or chairs, wearing capes and skimpy outfits and maybe having a tag partner to help finish your opponent off.
For the young children who attend freestyle wrestling practice through the Community Center and Marine Corps Community Services, it’s nearly all smiles as they learned there is much more to this challenging sport than what “professionals” do on TV.
“Some kids come here with a few misconceptions,” said Joe Rosselli, MCCS community and youth recreation manager. “It’s not like they see on TV with the ropes and body slams.”
Seventeen children, the youngest a mere 4 years old, attended the class Tuesday night at the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School padded martial arts training room.
The team, which has produced state champions and regional qualifiers in the past, has no girls, but all dependents of Department of Defense cardholders are welcome to join, said Rosselli, who is still accepting enrollments.
“We have a very young group this year - the majority is 4- through 7-year-olds,” said Rosselli, a former coach and wrestler himself. “The class is $20 for kids age 4 through 14, and practice goes twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday nights.”
The fee covers equipment, a place to practice, uniforms, headgear, a trophy and T-shirt for the season, which began in December and ends in spring.
Team members have the option to travel and compete in nearby tournaments against children of the same age and weight class and eventually could qualify for state or national matches, said Rosselli.
Sgt. Anteli Linares watched son Fernando, 4, while he attended his first practice Tuesday.
“This is a good program they have going here and the coaches are great,” said Linares, who dabbled in the sport himself as a teen. “There are differences in ages and size, but they make sure they take their time with the little guys so they understand, but also with the bigger ones. I know it’s safe for him.
“He’s really happy and really excited,” continued Linares. “He loves coming to the practice every time. It’s great for kids, everybody should try it.”
Working as a volunteer, Gunnery Sgt. Mark Hensley, head coach and a wrestler since age 11, said he not only does this for his son, but to guide aspiring young minds to succeed.
“My son was 6 when we first moved here, and because of my background, I wanted to get him wrestling,” said Hensley, an instructor with MCCES’ Charlie Company. “He’s really taken to it and he’s stuck with it, and I hope the other kids will, too.”
Hensley, now 32, said he sees a lot of changes in those he coaches from the start of a season to the end no matter what their age. Common improvements are focus, self-discipline, social skills, teamwork and maturity.
“I think when kids wrestle, they develop a lot of maturity,” said the Franklin, Ind., native. “It’s just you and your opponent out there on the mat. I think it’s very important, even for kids at this age, to learn how to win and lose with grace. It teaches humility.
“Kids come here and at first just want to mess around and play, but by the end of the season, they are more focused and about as disciplined as a 5- or 6-year-old can be,” he said. “But we’re all here to have fun, still.”
Although wrestling may seem dangerous to any wary parents due to its physicality, Hensley assures the hazard is low. Safety is a constant concern and is not taken lightly.
“It’s a relatively safe sport, especially at this age,” he said. “We try to keep horseplay to a minimum and keep a close eye on them. But they are young, so they are going to run around and do kid stuff, but we make sure they are safe.”
Just because a child seems hesitant at first with the sport, don’t count them out, coaches say, because they could be like a diamond in the rough.
“Some kids really can surprise you,” said Hensley. “I’ve had kids who surprise me and their parents because at the beginning they are not really sure if they want to be there. But come the end of the season, they really excel and do great. You just never really know until you get the kid on the mat.”