Tough people inspire me through moments of weakness. When I pull myself out of bed and grit my teeth in a struggle to stand straight, I think of the soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and my discomfort fades away. When I’m tired at the end of the workday, I think of my grandfather and his days working the sugar beet fields of Western Nebraska during the 1930s, and I’m reenergized.
We need more tough people in the world today – people who persevere without pity. Tough people show us the potential of the human spirit. Tough people show us how to handle adversity. Tough people keep us from feeling sorry for ourselves.
Wrestlers are tough people. Wrestling demands both physical and mental toughness. It’s difficult to understand the level of toughness involved in wrestling, if you’ve never wrestled. Most people see three two-minute rounds and mistakenly believe that their workouts of equal length are equivalent. Unless those workouts are against an adversary of comparable strength and size who is resisting your every move, they are wrong.
I made that mistake myself as a high school sophomore. It probably wasn’t wise, and though he refused to do it for football, my doctor signed off on my sports physical for wrestling. I was grateful for the opportunity to compete and excited to cash in on the hundreds of hours I had spent in the weight room. Then, reality struck.
Wrestling practices are brutal. We ran. We sometimes carried each other while we ran. We wrestled each other, and then we ran some more. Not only were we trying to increase our strength and stamina, we were also trying to eliminate any non-productive body weight. If we weighed more than we should, we would risk wrestling a better-conditioned opponent who weighed what he should. 160-pounders often played football at 180 pounds. You didn’t want to be at 160 pounds if you could be at 152 or 145. To avoid that, you had to be aware of your condition at all times, especially when your friends ordered pizza.
Tough people are disciplined. They can deny themselves comfort and resist temptations. Wrestlers drag themselves to practice almost every day, knowing that they could be going home for a nap and lounge time instead, and many do it on an empty stomach. Wrestling practices are a brutal affair, as coaches push their athletes to do more with their bodies and minds than they think they can. Athletes who have participated in multiple sports will tell you that nothing compares wrestling practice. A fairly successful and now retired wrestler recently told me, “Everyone hates practice, but everyone loves winning. Wrestling teaches that practice enables winning.” That’s a pretty good lesson for a high school or college athlete to learn.
It all culminates on the mat, in front of a crowd that is noticeably smaller than those who attend football and basketball games. Though the crowds are smaller, it’s hard to beat the passion of wrestling fans. Many of us have a history in the sport ourselves or we live with a wrestler and thus have a front-row seat to the struggles and sacrifices of a wrestling season. Our hearts are on the mats with the wrestlers we cheer for.
On the mat, wrestlers strain to make their burning muscles do things that their opponent’s burning muscles won’t or to make themselves endure discomfort that their opponent won’t. A wrestling match is often as much a match of will as it is a match of skill and physicality. Those who have conditioned their minds to overcome obstacles and to push back fear give themselves an edge. That’s why wrestling defeats hurt so much. It’s tough to realize that you gave everything and still came up short – another good life lesson.
Later this week, in Nebraska, the state’s best high school wrestlers will compete for state championships. There will be 16 wrestlers in 14 weight classes for each of the state’s four school classes – 896 young athletes who enter the big stage with a big dream. By the end of the first day of competition, that dream will be over for all but 224 of them who qualify for the semi-finals on day 2. When whistles blow over the semi-finals, that number will be cut in half. In the finals on day 3, 56 will have their hand raised as champions of their weight class.
Though only 56 will be crowned champions, they are all champions of toughness who made themselves elite through rugged exceptionalism. Though they might not walk off the mat with championship medals, they will have earned a toughness that should inspire us all.