Sensory Deprivation & Wrestling

by tommy.rousse

Not me. Strangely, no photographic record of my participation in wrestling exists. Notice the full-figured fellow top left. That's Coach Erwin, who was usually in my corner.


In today’s class, we discussed disability in gaming. Below, I unpack how wrestling forced me to forego my two dominant senses, sight and sound.

I wrestled for a couple of years in high school. Within a month of joining the team, I was on the varsity squad. If this were because I was a naturally gifted wrestler, so well-suited to the sport that I quickly overtook my teammates despite their years of experience, this would be a very different account. No doubt I would have brought it up earlier.  In point of fact, however, wrestling was a fairly marginal sport at my high school— it mostly existed as an off-season conditioning program for our football team. There aren’t many people who weigh 125 pounds who also play Louisiana high school football, so I was the only person in that weight class, and the varsity designation defaulted to me. I spent a lot of time getting absolutely destroyed at varsity wrestling matches. Because of my understandably awful seeding, I also had the opportunity to wrestle the very best members of my weight class while they were still fresh at the beginning of every tournament. It was a humbling experience and a quick lesson in physicality and the materiality of the body.

For example, although I’m not particularly tall, I was usually two to four inches taller than my opponents. You learn fairly quickly that each extra inch of height adds five to ten pounds of bodyweight, regardless of musculature. That meant that I was usually outclassed in muscle bulk by about fifteen to thirty pounds. While skillful wrestling is important, one of the most important elements of the competition is packing as much power as possible into the human body at the weight limit. I was extremely thin and lightly muscled; my opponents were usually stocky, wide-shouldered fellows with four years more experience.

The results were predictable and consistent— I lost every single varsity match. Exact records aren’t kept at the high school level, but if they were I imagine I’d still hold the Louisiana state record for fastest loss ever. During one match against the future state champion, my opponent was apparently looking over to his coach every time he was about to pin me for a signal. The coach laughed and gestured for him to let me up four times in a row.

Not that I knew this at the time, actually. I wrestled essentially deaf and blind.

I’m not legally blind or anything— without glasses,1 a layman’s description of my condition might be something like “not being able to see worth a shit.”  Shapes, blurs of color, light levels— pretty much all I get without glasses, unless I’m about two inches away from whatever it is I’m looking at.

Naturally, you can’t wrestle with glasses on.  Observe the fellow being pummeled in the face in the above photograph.  It turns out that I wasn’t able to wear contacts either, as getting one’s face ground into a wrestling mat makes them pop out fairly regularly. That meant I was wrestling essentially blind. I could see a little of my opponent’s features, but no spectators or coaches.

Since I didn’t want to end up with cauliflower ear (warning: gross images ahead), I wore headgear for all of my matches.  When wearing headgear, words just become meaningless syllables. Coaches would try to signal and shout strategies, team-mates would stand around the mat and yell their support, but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.

This was a strategic disadvantage; other players with better sight could get advice during an active match by glancing over to their corner. But within the contest itself, you don’t need to see much. For blind wrestlers, the rules of a normal wrestling match are altered, requiring contact at all times between the contestants to prevent the sighted player from exploiting their opponent’s disadvantage. Blind wrestlers have done quite well for themselves.2

For me, a wrestling match, even in front of a home-crowd gymnasium, was an immersive isolation.  Once on the ground, I usually closed my eyes as insurance against “accidental” gouges and let my body’s sense of space take over. After hundreds of repetitions of falling to the mat, arms and legs locked with another person, you develop a fairly precise idea of what they’re doing based on very limited tactile clues; sight and sound matter comparatively little.  Many novice wrestlers expose themselves to easy pins by craning their neck to get a better look at their opponent. They soon learn there’s little need to look.

You learn to feel the exhaustion in your opponent by the rise and fall of his chest; from quick and sure to hard and ragged. The “incidental” battery of the other’s arms are easy to track; with time, you can judge movement and stamina by the muscle tension in a clenched hamstring or knotted shoulder. As you experience a wider variety of moves, you gain a sense of things like when a shifting grip on the shoulder is going to be followed by a push at the base of the knee.

My surroundings only started to re-emerge after the match was over.  Mostly I would be on my back, freshly pinned, looking up into the fluorescent gym lights for a moment as I caught my breath, peeled off the headgear and rocked back on to my feet.  I staggered around disoriented for a few moments, shaking hands and squinting my eyes at the people around me, trying to figure out who was holding my glasses.

I was always secretly thankful that I could delay seeing the looks on people’s faces in reaction to the loss. Sympathy, triumphant glee, pity— it was all the same blur to me.


  1. I used to think that eye-glasses were the greatest invention of the 20th century, because with them a large segment of my generation has no disability at all. Without them, my thinking went, huge chunks of society wouldn’t be able to read or write. It turns out that myopia has sky-rocketed due to less exposure to sunlight, so it’s a particularly useful invention at the moment, but before our current era myopia was far less of a problem.
  2. Better, at any rate, than I ever did.