A Man At Home On the Mat

South Pasadena High School Wrestling Coach Al Shuton Prides Himself On Instilling His Athletes With Toughness and Courage

TAKING A STANCE: Al Shuton, who for 21 years has coached South Pasadena High School’s wrestling team, has a tough exterior that belies his kind, nurturing nature. Shuton also wrestled for the Tigers. Photos by Mitch Lehman

“Get low,” he says, with fixed eyes and furrowed brow, as he circles the two dozen wrestlers assembled on the black and orange mat, which is moist from a pre-practice cleaning.

“Ten pushups,” he says, pointing to one of the athletes who apparently wasn’t low enough.

Al Shuton is at once intense and warm, barking and praising. Stopping his orbit temporarily to welcome a wrestler who has just entered the north gymnasium, then beckoning another to “focus.”

It’s a dance that has been going on for 21 years when Shuton accepted an offer to return to his alma mater and coach the South Pasadena High School wrestling team, a squad of which Shuton himself was once a member between 1984-87.

Wrestling is a tough sell at SPHS. Shuton said that the Tigers have only fielded a full lineup once in his two decades at the helm, meaning that the team forfeits a full six points each time they fail to send an athlete onto the mat to compete in a weight class – the same deficit that would be surrendered by a lost pinfall.

“It’s tough,” said Shuton. “But even though we have only once had a full team, we have won a fair amount of dual meets. And when it comes to the league tournament, we are always very close. Second or third.”

Wrestling is a participation-driven sport – similar to track & field – where success and failure can often be determined by something as simple as the size of your roster. With 13 weight classes to fill, a team with less than that number is at an immediately disadvantage against a team with a full complement of grapplers. At league finals and CIF competitions, wrestlers represent just themselves and their schools, somewhat leveling the playing field.

Shuton loves the dichotomy of individual as teammate. He also loves the mental toughness required to walk onto the mat and partake in one-on-one competition.

“I am a huge believer and I am constantly influenced by what [Olympic wrestling champion] Dan Gable said many years ago,” stated Shuton. “’Once you have wrestled, everything else is easy.’ Wrestling gives you that strong foundation that makes it possible for to get through anything. When you have been through a wrestling program, that tries to make you a better person, you are much better prepared to attack the ups and downs of life.”

Shuton was coached at SPHS by Mike Verdugo, himself an international competitor who grappled at UCLA when the Bruins fielded a team. Verdugo went on to become a master in judo, a discipline he taught Shuton when he was a Tiger.

“Coach Verdugo took me under his wing and started to work with me when I was a sophomore,” said Shuton. “I was doing the best I could and I was in excellent shape. It was kind of like taking the first step in being the best I could be. That is when my eyes were really opened.”

Shuton said he doesn’t gauge success in terms of wins and losses, but other accomplishments.

“I measure it by improvement,” said Shuton, pausing to wish his athletes well as they left the gym after a long practice. “If we have a solid team that is hustling or wrestling well, that is a sign of success. Every year is good, but some are better than others.  We have some highs and lows, but the highs always overshadow the lows.”

Shuton teaches Geography at Nava College Prep, a high school in Los Angeles. He is also a crossfit instructor and teaches kite surfing in his spare time.

But wrestling is his passion.

“You are not going to get this type of mental development and toughness from any other sport,” he exclaimed. “You are on your own. It’s you against your opponent at you have to overcome their skills and strengths to beat them. That kind of toughness is developed in the gym, day in and day out. That is what we are focused on.”

The growth of girls’ wrestling has taken place in the last few years, a welcome addition to Shuton’s palette.

“I love it,” said the coach. “It’s awesome. Why should just guys wrestle? I have four young ladies in the gym right now and it’s great. The young lady should have the same opportunity as the boys do. There is a high level of aggression at a girls’ tournament and it is really great to see. Girls are coming home with medals, It’s awesome!”

Then he quickly switches from “awesome” to “instruction,” a man as comfortable on the mat as most are in an easy chair.