▶ Watch Video: Wrestling program teaches kids skills on and off the mat

Chicago — Wrestling has a bit of an image problem where Roy Phelps lives in Chicago’s South Side. 

“There aren’t many Black people or people of color,” he told CBS News. 

But everything changed for him when the 15-year-old found wrestling through the group Beat the Streets, which uses one of the world’s oldest sports to teach lessons kids can use on and off the mat. Some of the skills they learn are discipline, grit, confidence, humility and commitment, according to its website. 

“Two of my best friends were killed due to gun violence,” Phelps said. “I want to be better than I was at the beginning of the day. And I thought wrestling was a way to help.” 

When it comes to diversity, wrestling lags badly behind other college sports. A 2020 National Collegiate Athletic Association survey found about 7% of Division I wrestlers are Black, compared to 48% of college football players and 56% percent in basketball. 

“Being a minority in any sport is very different. You kind of don’t know your place,” said Ed Ruth, who won three NCAA championships at Penn State. He’s now an assistant wresting coach at the University of Illinois and a volunteer coach at Beat the Streets teaching young wrestlers of color what’s possible. “What I’m doing is actually making a difference. That makes it worth it.” 

Mike Powell, who runs the Chicago chapter of Beat the Streets, said the program is helping create “life champions.” 

“A life champion to us is somebody who’s changed their lives, the way they function, their futures,” he said.