Wrestling does not teach violence, said Coach Curtis Tyson. It’s just the opposite, in fact. Like any good discipline such as karate or Taekwondo, wrestling teaches respect for the opponent, for the coach, for the mat, for your parents and for other adults in the children’s lives, he explained. In teaching that, you teach them to respect everyone because they will always have coworkers, a boss, customers, a spouse. “Anger will hurt you in wrestling or any other sport,” he said. “So you learn how not to get hurt.”
Coach Tyson began wrestling as a sophomore in high school and started coaching that summer in club. He wrestled for three years during high school and he was, and still is, Okeechobee’s only two-time champion National All American. He went on to wrestle in college for two years but had to go out of state to do it because, although there are a few now, at that time there were no colleges that offered wrestling in the state of Florida. Okeechobee has only four state champion titles; three of those are in wrestling, and two belong to Coach Tyson.
He coaches now because, “Wrestling did a lot for me,” he said, “so I wanted to give back.” Before he and his wife, Jennie, opened Serenity Coffee Shop, he was not able to coach because he was on the road too much and did not want to do something halfheartedly. Once they opened the coffee shop though, he said he realized he could volunteer as a coach. He started out helping at the high school and then started coaching the kids at club too about three years ago.
Coach Tyson teaches the children discipline, respect, honor, self-discipline and morals. He wants to teach the kids the core of what it takes to be a decent person. He believes the way the club is growing speaks for itself. His wife, Jennie, showed me a picture from a tournament five years ago with only eight children in the picture, and now she says, there are about 70 kids in the club. He has one assistant, Israel Medrano, who is always there and several who are there off and on. He also has high school kids who help with the younger kids because that teaches a lot in itself he said. Everyone is a volunteer. They do all of this with no actual wrestling room. They use the gym at the high school when it’s not in use, but he said the high school wrestling team is not so fortunate. They have to wrestle in the cafeteria. Last year the club practiced in a storefront, and the year before that, they met at Yearling Middle School.
It costs $40 to join the club, but once you join, you get a T-shirt, all your fees for tournaments are paid and camp fees are paid if you go to camp. When he wrestled in high school, he spent $30 to $60 each weekend, and the kids in club do not have to pay those fees. The club utilizes fundraisers and grants through Children and Family Services of Okeechobee. Anyone interested can visit Serenity Coffee Shop on Park Street or just go to one of the practices on Tuesday or Thursday at 6 p.m.
A woman who brings her 8-year-old autistic grandson to club said she was concerned because her grandson had no male role model in his life, and she talked to Coach Tyson about having her grandson learn wrestling. They decided to give it a try, and he loves it, she said. “He knows if he misbehaves, he will have to do pushups, and he doesn’t like to disappoint his coach, either,” she explained. “He hasn’t won yet, but he tries his best. If he gets nothing except discipline, respect and socialization, I will feel blessed because socialization is usually his issue. He even learned to shake hands there. He really respects his coach. I think it’s a great experience.”
One of Coach Tyson’s favorite things about coaching is watching the timid newcomers to the sport change and grow. Their confidence grows and they begin to hold their head up, he said. “It’s a huge thing. Wrestling made a huge difference in my life. It’s the only reason I made it to college. I might not have graduated from high school if it weren’t for wrestling. It changed my life. I got saved because of wrestling.” He had a coach when he was in school who was just different. One day, he overheard this coach talking to someone else about salvation. He didn’t preach, but he lived different; he talked different. “That’s what I try to do,” he said. “I want people to see me live different and talk different.” Recently one of the kids lost a match and was upset about it. Coach Tyson asked him, “Did you do your best?” When the boy replied that he had, Coach Tyson said, “then that’s all that matters.” He believes learning that is important for the kids. “It transfers to every day life,” he said. “It did for me, and I hope it does for others.”