Bringing Out the Best: Beat the Streets

Building the next generation of Astronaut-President-Jedis through wrestling

In 2010, Billy Watterson was a freshman at Brown University and on the wrestling team. When a wrestling alum dragged Billy out to volunteer in the Providence community through Junior Achievement, Billy was initially less than enthusiastic. But what he saw and heard shocked him.

While visiting a middle school, he was surprised and dismayed by the condition of the school and the fact that there were no sports teams. What really blew Billy away was what he heard from the kids when he asked about what they wanted to be when they grew up. “They talked about working in the local grocery store,” Billy explained, “and I kept thinking, this is so wrong. They’re still in middle school—they should still want to be Astronaut-President-Jedis!”

Despite his initial reluctance, Billy began volunteering regularly, ultimately working for an education technology company. While Billy enjoyed the work, he kept coming back to the underlying challenge of kids not believing in themselves. Then again, in the spring of 2015, one of the students he was working with mentioned that his school didn’t have any sports teams.

In middle school, Billy had been a scrawny kid—85lbs and easily distracted. He didn’t really believe himself and he wasn’t convinced he could succeed. Billy ended up in wrestling in middle school because it didn’t matter if you weighed 85lbs and weren’t athletic. The coach told Billy that if he worked hard, he could succeed.  So Billy took a chance on it, and his success in wrestling spilled over into other areas of his life. He started working harder at everything: from school to being a brother, a son, and a friend.  Eventually, he made it to Brown.

It turns out that Billy is not alone in this regard when it comes to wrestling. Wrestling has the most first generation college students of any sport, with 29% of all college wrestlers being the first in their family to go to college.

Billy is quick to point out that his interest in wrestling has as much to do with the side benefits as with the sport. Wrestling has a positive impact on absenteeism, engagement, and achievement. It also has a low barrier to entry, and can be done almost anywhere you can put down mats. Billy also offers that wrestling is uniquely well suited to draw the students who are struggling the most. Those who join because they want to defend themselves often find something totally different and far more helpful.

Beat the Streets, the nonprofit that Billy started, partners with schools to launch official school wrestling teams. The most important piece, Billy says, is bringing in coaches who are strong role models. Beat the Streets targets college-aged students from similar backgrounds who have succeeded. By virtue of being connected to the schools, the Beat the Street coaches can work with students more easily to address grades, attendance, behavior, and especially chronic absence.

Billy and Beat the Streets have a strong emphasis on leveraging the power of play to meet students where they are. Billy says that he has been surprised by how quickly things can turn around and how quickly kids can go from struggling to succeeding when using this approach. 

Beat the Streets is currently reaching 400 students in 13 schools and one community center, with plans to grow their reach and continue to bring out the best in the students they serve.

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