Witness Post: Roy Pittman
Wrestling coach, Roy Pittman, echos Martin Luther King, Jr. when he dreams of a time when a person is judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Wrestling, an accidental sport for Pittman, has become his source of promoting character building. He has leveraged his love of wrestling to improve the lives of thousands of Portland’s most vulnerable youth for nearly half a century.
Background: Born during WW2 in Monroe, Louisiana, Pittman was raised as one of six children by strong willed, God fearing parents. He has two brothers and three sisters. In 1949 the Pittman family moved to Portland, Oregon. His father, Leroy Pittman, worked on the railroad. His mother, Lucille, worked in a laundry.
“My parents died over 50 years ago, but they impact every decision I make because of the values they instilled,” Pittman says. “They didn’t tell me how to live. They lived and let me watch them. They did it the right way.”
A scholar-athlete at Washington High School, Pittman’s best sports were football and baseball. He started wrestling for the conditioning it offered him for his preferred ball sports. Before he knew it, wrestling was his favorite sport. Pittman attended Portland Community College and Portland State. He began professionally as an accountant at a construction company, then was hired as a recreation instructor with the Portland Public Parks Bureau in 1970. Shortly thereafter, Pittman created the wrestling program at Peninsula Park.
Wrestling and Life: As Pittman says, “Every kid has the opportunity to find the hero in themselves.” He continued, “Anyone can be a wrestler. Big or small, you just have to learn how to use your body.” In his career Pittman has coached both national freestyle and Greco-Roman teams. He has also been an Olympic wrestling coach. He knows that the most important thing you can teach wrestlers is to love themselves and to know that they deserve it. He believes that the most exciting thing that happens to him is when young people and parents see what they have in common with each other.
There are intense challenges of working with kids who are labeled rude, obstinate, uncoachable, and unruly by other adults and their schools. “I put pressure on myself to find out what is the right thing to do for one particular kid,” Pittman said. Sometimes the “right thing” for a kid is not in sports or on the mat, but in school. More than anything, Pittman wants to teach kids to learn how to try. He encourages them to “face their fears” and do the unimaginable. Through his affirmations, they do.
Two of his favorite ways to have kids face fears are by having them practice physical feats that produce a mental benefit. He challenges the kids to arch their backs and land on their hands. He challenges other to touch one of the windows that are 15 feet above the gym floor. The arches soon fill the room and the kids celebrate. Small and tall, the kids contort themselves into a human arch. As to the window touches, kids run and leap onto the wall to try to reach the panes. The smaller kids do not get more than 3 feet off the ground, but the bigger kids, who have been doing this activity for years, can actually scramble up the wall and tap the window. When that happens, everybody in the gym gets cheers. “Everybody is telling them what they can’t do,” Pittman says, “I want to inspire them to do the impossible.”
As a former PWC wrestler, now wrestling coach, Aaron Chiles said, “I have known Pittman for over twenty years. I met him when I came to Peninsula Park to practice with the mat club. I have learned that is crucial to take your time and get it right. Coach Pittman taught me that there are no short cuts in wrestling or in life. The things that I have learned from him have made me a better wrestler, a better coach, and a better person.”
Coach Chiles continued, “My most memorable experience with Roy Pittman was when all of the wrestlers went to the classroom for a talk. Coach talked about many of the other wrestler’s performance. He came over to me and said that I was awesome, and that I didn’t take any prisoners. He believed in me, and that made me feel real good.”
Pittman says he has coached four world age-group champions, four Olympians, about 70 state champions and many Olympic team alternates, who have served stints with the U.S. national team. At the same time, he always makes room in his schedule for children as young as three. “If they can get the muscle memory as kids, imagine how great they can be at 23!”
At the end of every practice Pittman walks over to the benches and talks to the parents, as they arrive to retrieve their wrestlers. He cultivates a solid relationship with the parents and they trust him with their precious children during practice and on tournaments over the weekends. Pittman says, “Strong parents with strong values have made me the man I am today. We are all here to pass it on.”
Coach Pittman retired from Portland Parks and Recreation in 1999. When one of the parents asked what Coach Pittman wanted to do after he retired, he replied, “I would like to consult coaches in other sports that deal with motivating kids.” And above all, “I want to be remembered as a person who gives to all people at all times.” He has not stopped coaching and he gives to all who show up for practice at every chance he can.
Coach Pittman is a “Gold” level certified wrestling coach, one of only 12 such coaches to have reached that level of excellence in the United States. He estimates that 80,000 wrestlers have come through his programs. He has been building character in the youth of Portland for 49 years.