The Zak Zone

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to quickly stop by Punxsutawney Area High School to snap some pictures at a pair of youth wrestling tournaments: The Groundhog Classic Saturday and the Novice Tournament Sunday.

Thinking back on the events, two things stood out to me.

First, I discovered that you can pack a lot of people into the gymnasium at PAHS.

Much to the events' credit, a total of nearly 600 wrestlers ages six-to-15 turned out for the annual tournaments, and the parking lot wasn't the only area that was nearly full.

Once inside, there was action in four different circles throughout the gym, with the stands nearly full, as well.

I've been in packed gyms before, but can't recall a time when both the floor and the stands were so packed.

On top of it all, with the tight schedule, the tournament took a vast number of people running back and forth to scorers' tables and filling in the brackets to keep the event running smoothly.

Kudos to all who helped with the event, as it seemed to go off without a hitch.

Although I was unable to stay for the entire tournament, I can easily agree with the Punxsy Wrestling Web site ( for any interested in checking it out) that the tournament was a "huge success" this year.

The other thing that stood out to me, though, appeared to be a bit less positive until I considered it further over the past few days.

Sunday's tournament was a novice event, reserved especially for wrestlers in their first two years of wrestling.

I was able to stay for about an hour Sunday, and while I saw dozens of youngsters pouring their hard work and sweat onto the mats that covered the gym floor, another bodily fluid worked its way to the mats, as well: Tears.

It was adorable to watch the pint-sized grapplers go at it in comparison to the high school age group I'm more used to covering. And while I'm used to a variety of immediate reactions to a loss, from frustration to surprise, I hadn't run into an instance of crying yet in my brief time covering the sport.

A large part of sports photography is doing your best to capture the emotions surrounding an event. So, as I look through the camera lens, I try to capture moments in time that either show a time of great action or tell an emotional tale for the reader who wasn't there or who was too caught up in watching the event to catch all the details.

But it was almost heartbreaking to watch some of these poor kids, some as young as six years old, who had poured their hearts into these matches, have to deal with the fact they had lost.

Now, don't get me wrong. There were certainly an equal number of joyful emotions I saw through the telephoto lens, which puts you more up-close-and-personal than is often comfortable. But I was used to seeing those reactions, as they seem to carry over as we age.

It is appropriate and fitting for a high school wrestler to stand and pump his fist when he wins a match.

But he or she knows the inappropriate nature of an adult crying when he or she loses, so while they may feel some of the same emotions as the youngster, they have discovered other ways to express the hurt.

These youngsters, though, have yet to develop the filter that says we aren't supposed to cry when we lose a game or haven't learned the new coping mechanisms that adults use to replace crying. So, they cry ... And that's OK.

Sports is a learning process, and part of what sports is teaching these kiddos is exactly how to handle losing.

Some of the kids aren't there yet, and that's OK, because they're on the journey.

If there's one thing I can guarantee, it's that losing is inevitable. It is an extreme rarity for an athlete to have a "perfect" career.

Punxsy's JV boys' basketball is chasing perfection this season, sitting at 14-0 entering its final six games. If they pull off the undefeated season, it will be an extreme rarity. And that is just one season.

Boxing is one of the rare sports that has seen a handful of its athletes retire without a loss on their professional record. But even then, surely those fighters lost a bout at some point on their way to the top ranks.

Losing is inevitable ... in sports and in life.

And while those young wrestlers pour out their tears on the mats of wrestling tournaments across the state, they're still early in their learning how to cope with losing.

One day, we will all come to a point of loss. Whether our loss takes place on the mats, on the field, on the court or in a job interview or a friendship gone bad.

So, while we shouldn't encourage these kids to cry after a loss, we should use those moments as teaching moments that there will be times when it's OK to cry.

I think it's an appropriate reaction to cry after a tough loss once in a while. I've seen professional athletes, high school athletes and, now, six-year-old athletes do it.

But if you're going to cry, it should be an emotional reaction to the loss itself and not related to a tantrum.

One little guy, after losing a match Sunday, folded his arms after shaking his opponent's hand and refused to leave the mat in a bit of a fit. As a six-year-old, I probably would have done the same.

When he was finally coaxed off the mat so the next match could start, he was greeted by a man — almost certainly his father based on their interaction — who spoke to him through his tears.

The man had been cheering intensely for the boy as he wrestled, but the intensity in his eyes had vanished after the match as he comforted his son.

When we lose, I guess we need to realize that, sometimes, it's OK to cry.

But a tantrum associated with losing isn't acceptable.

And the life lesson that man passed on to his son after the match, with hardly an eye on them but mine, can surely go a long way: Losing is inevitable. It's OK to be upset. But never let the tantrum win.