RI Monthly: Beat the Streets Brings Wrestling To Middle School

By Jenn McCaffery

Isaiah’s teammates lie down on the edge of the mat, beat on it with their hands and chant his name, as Murray has encouraged them to do. Meanwhile, Murray yells, “Tap the leg, tap the leg!”

It turns out to be a close, high-scoring match, but this time, it’s Isaiah’s hand that ref Tyler Banks holds high at the end of the match. His dad, Stephen Hudson, who is sitting by the door, calls out, “Come here, buddy. Good job.”

Isaiah and his fraternal twin, Elijah, have wrestled in Beat the Streets all year. Elijah, who uses a cane to walk, says his favorite things about wrestling were learning how to defend himself and the competition against other schools.

Murray, who was an All-American wrestler at Rhode Island College, made Elijah captain because he would let him know what was going on with the team and helped the new wrestlers out with pointers.

“I do everything the coach asks me to do, and then I never give up a match,” Elijah says. He often winds up competing against an opponent who is a little bigger than him, but says, “I wrestle no matter what the other person’s weight is.”

His favorite match was the last time Del Sesto competed at Roger Williams. “The first time I wrestled the same kid and lost,” Elijah says. “But the second time I did much better and made him very tired.”

Stephen Hudson appreciates the physical aspect of Beat the Streets program and how it helps keep his sons in shape. They’re both on the honor roll, but they know that they can’t play sports unless their grades are good.

“When your kids are in school, there are a lot of distractions,” Hudson says. “Not everyone’s paying attention, and some kids are taking school seriously. Everybody’s situation is different. You see a lot of kids from single-parent homes, and that makes it even harder. I know a lot of single mothers. It’s a hard job trying to raise your kids, plus work. We’re fortunate in that my wife and I both work, so we get to share in the activities with them.”

But even though his sons have enjoyed wrestling, he also encourages them to branch out. The year is divided into four sessions, and kids can choose different programs each time.

“This is a learning experience,” Hudson says. “He [Isaiah] wants to try something different next year. That’s fine. When they first started out, Elijah had issues with his knee, but he has the endurance of two of me. So I said, no matter how good you are at it, the main thing is to persevere. All anybody asks of you is that you do your best, try your hardest.”

Advocates for the after-school programs say kids who participate in them are much more likely to show up and succeed. A study PASA commissioned of 763 middle school students in Providence that tracked them through high school found that the activities motivate kids to come to school and that the longer the students participate in the programs, the better they do academically.

Thirty percent of the kids who didn’t attend the AfterZone were chronically absent, according to the study. But after students participated in the program for thirty or more days, only 12 percent didn’t come to school regularly.

And of the middle schoolers who took part in the after-school offerings for fifty or more days, 97 percent later graduated from high school. The graduation rate for the Providence school system has improved in recent years, but the city is still looking to increase that number. It is now about 73 percent.

Beat the Streets keeps tabs on how their kids are doing in school. The wrestlers are required to take behavior and grade reports to their teachers and bring them back to their coaches.

In the beginning, Murray says he had kids who had detention every day. So he pulled them aside and asked them why.

“Oh, well, I cursed at a teacher, or oh, I flipped a teacher off,” Murray recalls. “Then I had a little lesson with them. Why did you do what you did? How does that help you? You’re in detention now, when you could be here, enjoying more time at practice. I feel like they’re slowly learning that, that they shouldn’t just stand up to do something to be that cool kid.”

Teachers and the AfterZone staff tell Murray that the grades and behavior of the kids on his team have improved.

“Even the kids I was told to watch out for, this kid was troublesome, or this one likes to take attention away, those kids came the longest way,” Murray says. “Those are usually the kids that want to go on the trips to all the tournaments. It’s great because those are the kids that push the whole team.”

He wishes he could coach them for more than two days a week, so he could have more of an impact. But he says the kids who are really into wrestling are always asking questions to improve themselves: How is that kid better? Why is he better? How can I get better?

But for all the excitement of wrestling and getting to travel to tournaments in Boston and attend an end of the season awards night, keeping kids in the program can be a challenge. The PASA-commissioned study found that students participated in the AfterZone “intensely, but for short periods of time.”

Part of it is that students like the Hudson brothers and Giselle are trying things out, and the AfterZone gives them the chance to sample all kinds of activities. But middle school kids are also pretty easily distracted and might not have transportation in the summertime.

“The kids that don’t show up for a while, I don’t make them feel like they’re doing something wrong,” Murray says. “I tell them I understand this sport is hard and that you might not like certain things that we do, but that the door is always open.”

Giselle’s enthusiasm for wrestling flagged a bit during the second session of the year, Murray says. She loves competing and wants to do well in school, but at the same time, she likes to hang out with her friends during wrestling practice. But she rededicated herself later in the year, which has shown in her performance.

“She’s not afraid to go against any guy, even the toughest ones,” Murray says. “Her parents were always coming to the meets and matches. I would just imagine if I had a daughter and she’s wrestling these bigger guys I’d be a little cautious, maybe say something to the coach. But ‘she loves the sport,’ that’s all they say. ‘She loves working hard.’ ”

The afternoon of the meet, she’s paired up against a girl named Elena from Roger Williams. They meet in the circle in the center of the mat. Giselle assumes the top position behind her and wraps her arms around Elena’s middle.

As they grapple on the mat, Giselle maneuvers to get Elena into a headlock and goes after her legs, but Elena manages to get out of the hold and stands up. As teammates from both sides shout encouragement (“You got this!”), Giselle pins her down.

Banks calls time. Both girls return to the center of the mat and Banks lifts Giselle’s hand in the air. She shakes his hand, walks over to do the same to the Roger Williams coach and pats Elena on the back. Then Giselle turns around, pulls the ponytail holder out of her hair and heads back to her team.

Read the fully story at RIMonthly.

Providence Journal- At the Schools: R.I. Wrestling Program Sets the Standard

By John Gillooly 
Journal Staff Writer

Posted Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:42 PM

PROVIDENCE — "Why can’t we do it in Rhode Island like they do it in Massachusetts?"
That seems to be a common refrain around Rhode Island these days. It doesn’t seem to matter if it's education reform, business initiatives or medical innovation, Rhode Island is constantly being compared with the Bay State and usually Little Rhody comes up short in the comparison.
That’s why, as a Rhode Islander, it felt good to read a front-page story in the Boston Globe on Friday to the contrary. For once not only can Rhode Island match a successful program in Massachusetts, but the program here in the Ocean State is even bigger.
The Globe story was about how a nonprofit wrestling program for Boston public middle-school students is — as the headline reads — "Helping students grapple with life."
It tells how the program, Boston Youth Wrestling, helps fill a gap in the athletic opportunities available for urban middle school students. These are opportunities that can give urban kids, many of whom are at risk, a sense of purpose. It can teach discipline and dedication and it can help young people from getting — as one student in the Globe said — "caught up in dumb stuff."
It was just about this time two years ago that I wrote a story about a similar program in Providence. The program, called Beat the Streets, had been started in 2013 by Billy Watterson, who at the time was a Brown University junior and a member of the Bears varsity wrestling team.
Watterson had been doing some volunteer work in Providence and noticed a lack of after-school athletic activities for the city's middle school students. Sure the kids in the city played basketball and for two decades there has been the Providence Cobras, an outstanding youth track program run by Thom Spann and Kevin Jackson.
But not every kid in the city likes basketball or wants to run. Watterson saw a need for more and he felt a middle school wrestling program was what he could do to help make a difference.
Watterson was working from personal experience. When he was in middle school in Pound Ridge, N.Y., he was 90 pounds and didn’t really care that much about school.
"I was getting C's and F's in school, I was struggling," Watterson said two years ago.
But he was introduced to wrestling and started developing a sense of purpose and personal pride along with a work ethic. When he started having some success in wrestling, he realized that if he worked hard in other aspects of his life he could be success just like he was doing on the mat.
He had learned wrestling is a sport in which you don’t have to be the most athletic or fastest to be successful. You just have to be willing to work at developing fitness and technique. 
Watterson wanted to give some Rhode Island urban students the same opportunity. So he took a year off from Brown and dedicated it to building the Beat the Streets program.
He incorporated the program as a nonprofit, formed a board of directors and began the task of convincing urban public school educators that this was a good program for kids, even if there wasn’t a tradition of wrestling programs in the state’s cities.
Like every program, it started with a small group of students, boys and girls, from a couple of Providence middle schools. But it kept building. In the fall of 2014, Watterson returned to Brown for his senior year, but he stayed involved with the program and still is.
Today, he's listed as the program’s executive director and Hope High wrestling coach Ed German is the program director.
According to the Globe story, the Boston program had about 250 participants this year. The Providence Beat the Streets program had 450 student participants this season.
Beat the Streets now has teams at seven Providence middle schools and has expanded to include teams from two Central Falls middle schools. The network of partners now includes the Providence After School Alliance, the Providence School Department, the Providence Recreation Department along with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.
They practice two days a week at their schools from October through March, and before every practice there is a mandatory 45-minute tutoring session with volunteers from local colleges. Once the regular season ends, the students can continue working with coaches on weekday nights and on weekends at some Providence recreation centers.
Every student-athlete also is assigned to a mentor group, consisting of one adult and four students. Being able to compete, getting team gear and winning awards all are connected to school attendance.
The benefits of the program go well beyond the wrestling mat. But there have been plenty of triumphs that also have shown up on the scoreboard. Six of the teams competed in the statewide middle school wrestling league and one Providence school, Nathanael Greene, won a divisional title with only one loss.
It’s probably not surprising that people with the same motivations know each other no matter where they live.
"We actually work with the Boston Youth Wrestling program at lot," said Watterson.
For once the news in Rhode Island is just as good as it is in Massachusetts.
-- jgillool@providencejournal.com


Wrestling With Doubt & Winning

By Marcos Aranda

We had our first practice of this block on April 29th. 

When we got into the practice room, you could feel the excitement in the room. The coaches introduced ourselves, and Coach Zack went over our rules and expectations. The kids handled their stretches and warm ups well. The returning wrestlers were happy to get back to work, but the new kids were tentative when we started teaching them stances and motion. 

After we covered stance, we let the kids play the toe touch game(the kids use their wrestling stance and motion to touch the other wrestlers toe first). They enjoyed the competition. At the end of practice, we played king of the mat. Wrestlers go head-to-head, one at a time, in front of the whole room in the toe touch game starting from the lightest weight to the heaviest weight, mimicking competitions. 

The older wrestlers were excited and ready to compete; however, the new wrestlers were deer-in-the-headlights. Four young, African American girls in particular had to be begged to compete with the other students. Since it was their first day, they lost pretty quickly. Surprisingly, they started jumping back in line to play again

They had been afraid of competition, especially one where they were the only person accountable if they lost, but they had brushed off the loss, got ready to try again, and were more comfortable in their abilities. It was motivating and inspiring to see this change in attitude. I had had another rewarding day as volunteer with Beat the Streets Providence.

600 Moments by Billy Watterson

Rain was coming down hard on the car windshield, and all I could see ahead was the glaring red of brake lights. I had to stop myself from emitting a string of curses. I was driving two of our Beat the Streets students to an event in Boston, I was frustrated, and we were late – a 45 minute trip quickly turning into a three hour after-school odyssey.

I think I made something like a growl, and Frederick, the student next to me, laughed, which did not help. I said, “We’re going to be late, buddy, and I really hate traffic.” The student just laughed again and the other student in the back seat just kept bobbing his head to loud music blaring from his headphones, unfazed. Then, seeing what must have been a look of abject frustration on my face, Frederick said, “Coach! It’s just like when I wrestle. You can’t be nervous, or uptight. We are way too blessed to be stressed! There is too much good to worry about the bad. Now we get to hang out in the car for three hours!”

With that, an eighth grader once again provided me with a fresh perspective on life and one more of a thousand lessons that the students I’ve had the chance to work with impart to me every day.

I am blessed in six hundred ways and more.

I have six hundred students like Frederick, who remind me how blessed I am on a daily basis. I am reminded through text messages in the middle of a horrifying work day:


By Billy Watterson

Published by Swearer Sparks

I am reminded late on Sunday night through a too-late phone call – “Coach! I wanted to let you know I’m excited for practice this week! I went on a run today!” – that the Mondays might not be so bad.



But, mostly I am reminded through the special moments like that one in the car, where my students renew my belief in both them-- through their amazing resilience, insight, and potential--and in myself.

A few moments:

The student who said to me, “You know what, Coach? I didn’t think we got to go to college, but I think I am going to. I am going to wrestle for Brown.”

The student who told me, sitting in a diner, that the only reason he hadn’t been coming to school was because his mom didn’t want him to. That she was sick and needed help taking care of his younger siblings. That he had to walk 40 minutes to school, but that he had been making that walk every day for the promise of practice and the slight bribery of a diner breakfast if he had perfect attendance.

The student walking off the wrestling mat, out of breath, who didn’t realize how great he could be, and then did. “You know, Coach, before I started wrestling, I really didn’t believe I could be good at anything.” Words which brought an ethos into sharp reality and made it possible, attainable, worth every moment.

The student who gave me a dream. Sitting next to me in the car silent for a while before saying, “I am going to be the first Olympic gold medalist from Providence, it’s my dream, and I’ll do whatever it takes to do it. You are going to watch me on the stage with a flag wrapped around me. I’m going to make you proud. I know I can do it.”

These are only my moments, and while they matter intensely to me, there are many more of them with our other coaches, and there are many more of these moments which need to be had. This is a constant reminder to me that there is more that needs to be done, even if I have to run headfirst through a wall to do it.

Some days I feel the pull of inertia. Then I feel myself starting to move forward, because it is the only way to go.

Unlike many people, I have these daily, constant reminders of why I am blessed. Constant reminders that turn inertia into momentum, momentum into purpose, purpose into passion, and passion into change.


My Conviction in this Sport by Charlie Saylor

I was never a champion wrestler.

I never won the state tourney, and I never came home holding a trophy or a bracket. I remember the feeling of elation the first time I placed in the top six in the county---in my 4th year of wrestling. After my last match in my senior year of high school, I walked off the mat, never to compete again for my team. 

And yet, I find myself returning to the sport of wrestling again and again. Nothing has been as formative in my development as a person. I remember the troubled looks I got when eating a bowl of peas for Christmas dinner because of a match I had two days later. When no one would practice with me in the off-season, I drove to the neighboring town and had their state champion lineup beat me up 3 times a week. The lessons I learned about ambition and responsibility stuck with me beyond the stuffy wrestling rooms and bleak gymnasiums.

Apart from the cliché sport development side of the story, what I cherish most about the sport is the connection each wrestler shares. The adrenaline rush of pinning your opponent and the agonizing discomfort of getting pinned are extremes that are unique to wrestling. Only someone who has experienced both can understand what it takes to wrestle, and can share in the religious devotion to the sport.

It’s this connection that fuels my belief in Beat the Streets. A middle schooler from the West side of Providence who grew up speaking English as a second language shares little in common with myself. Once we are practicing on the mat together, wrestling transcends the barriers that would otherwise exist. No sport is as difficult, solitary, and rewarding. This unique combination is what drives my enthusiasm for coaching, and my conviction in wrestling’s ability to cause personal growth.