Posts Tagged wrestling

Why the tears?

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

― Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how successful we become, doubt will occasionally crawl into our minds and refuse to leave, like a song you don’t like but can’t quit hearing. It will haunt us in quiet times and in inopportune times, and it often seems that the harder we try to rid ourselves of doubt, the stronger it takes hold.

When doubt is confirmed by its partner failure, it starts to attach itself to our souls and can be as debilitating as the strongest virus. At those times, it takes a Herculean effort to destroy it – like it takes a Herculean effort to escape the almost-certain pin of a very strong opponent. That’s what happened on the mat a few weeks ago, with my son in his final state wrestling tournament.

Two years earlier, as a sophomore in his first year of varsity wrestling, he had stepped off the championship platform at the state wrestling tournament with a third-place medal around his neck. Standing above him were a senior and a junior, and with five consecutive pins to close out the season, the future looked bright. The very next day, we were in the gym, trying to climb two steps on that platform in 364 days.

Eight months later, he suffered a knee injury in the final football game of his junior year, causing him to miss a crucial season of development. Twenty-one months passed between wrestling matches. Still, he had never lost to anyone in his weight class in the state, and thought that he could have an undefeated season. That, and a state championship, became the goal. Sadly, the goal of an undefeated season didn’t make it past the first tournament of his senior year.

After three first-period pins, he lost the championship match in overtime to a wrestler from another state. Still, it was only one loss, and it was to a wrestler he wouldn’t face for the rest of the season. Then, the next tournament happened. He came down with a pretty bad cold and wrestled like it. Three more losses – all to wrestlers rated 1 or 2 in their respective classes. Though he avenged one of those losses later in the season, because all three opponents were either in different classes or from different states, they wouldn’t be obstacles in his quest for a state championship. He just couldn’t lose to anyone in his class. That happened three times in the next month.

Several times throughout the season, he reset his goal to “no more losses,” and each time, a loss followed. All told, he entered the pinnacle tournament of the season with ten losses, never winning a tournament until the district tournament in the week prior to the state tournament. With each loss, doubt became louder and stronger. We didn’t want to talk about it, but it was there, and he was going to need that Herculean effort to silence it.

When the state championship tournament came around, the no-more-losses goal intertwined with the state championship goal. You can’t lose in the state tournament and win a state championship. That wasn’t going to be easy. Two wrestlers in the tournament had pinned him earlier in the season. If he made it to the semi-finals, he would likely face a wrestler who had pinned him twice in the past six weeks. We didn’t want to have doubt, but logic wasn’t on our side. We were going to have to depend on faith instead.

Faith was rewarded in the semi-finals, when Patrick pinned the wrestler who had pinned him in their two earlier meetings. On the very next mat, almost simultaneously, the wrestler who had pinned Patrick in their only meeting was qualifying for the finals with a pin of his own. The semi-final pin helped to quiet the doubt, but with a talented wrestler who had already pinned him waiting in the finals, logic wasn’t on our side.

When Patrick was flipped to his back in the second period of the championship match, it looked pretty grim. Even the television commentators said that it was all but over. Somehow, in that moment however, he finally killed the doubt that had been haunting him all season, completing an improbable move and winning the state championship he had worked so hard to earn over the course of six years.

Unlike his dad, Patrick doesn’t often cry, especially out of happiness. This time, though, the emotion got the best of him, and the tears flowed almost immediately. Doubt literally had him on his back, but he didn’t allow it to win. The realization that he had beaten doubt and won a state championship had him bawling like a baby in front of 15,000 in the arena and many, many more on television.

We’ve talked about it several times in the days since, as the exhilaration of victory has faded into appreciation for the experience. Looking back, we’re able to see that three things helped him win that championship: 1. faith in the process, 2. not accepting less than his goal, and 3. never quitting. If he had waivered even a small bit in any of those areas, he surely would have been beaten.

Wrestling is now behind him, but its final lesson was a powerful one that we can all learn from: don’t EVER give up on your goals. Doubt is merely an obstacle, and it is only as powerful as you allow it to be.

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What I Learned as a Wrestler’s Parent

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I vividly remember watching my son wrestle for the first time five years ago (pictured above). He was a seventh-grader, and I had no idea what to expect. Would he struggle mightily to win a handful of matches, as I had in my brief, unremarkable wrestling career, or would he find success on the mat? Would I watch one season of wrestling or spend the next several winters running around to meets?

Later this week, he’ll wrestle in his final state tournament. The last time we were at the state tournament, at the end of his sophomore season, he stepped off the championship platform with a third-place medal. A junior and a senior occupied the two higher spots, and he beamed with confidence and anticipation of the two seasons ahead of him.

After a football injury forced him to sit out his junior year, we hoped he could pick up where he left off. The first and second place guys had graduated, and he had never lost to anyone in his class. We hoped it would be a year of relatively easy victories, but that’s rarely how wrestling works. We know that now.

We also know that wrestling not only develops athletes, it teaches their parents some pretty remarkable things as well – things I wish I had learned much earlier.

  1. We are there for support. Unless you have experience as a coach, leave the coaching to the coaches. Instead, focus on keeping your wrestler healthy and motivated. Remind him to sleep right and eat right. Give him the fuel he needs to compete. Kids will often default to convenience and impulse. Make sure that his pre-competition meals don’t look like movie theatre snacks and that his sleep routine has him rested and alert for competition and practice.
  2. We are there for encouragement. Because of the physical nature of wrestling, we tend to focus on our wrestlers’ physical health, and often neglect their emotional health. It’s important that parents encourage their wrestlers through the dark days when their egos are as bruised as their bodies. A friendly, accepting face can be invaluable after a brutal practice or heart-breaking loss. Lastly, above all else, it’s important that we encourage effort, because effort is all he can control. He might face superior talent, but no one has to face superior effort.
  3. Remember that there is a parent on the other side of the equation in every match. They experience the same struggles that you do. Treat them and their sons like you want your son to be treated. Talk to them in the stands. Your shared experiences will often make the conversation easy. I’ve had great conversations with parents whose sons my son has beaten, as well as the other way around. We’ve even sat side-by-side while our sons were on the same mat.
  4. Enjoy the moment. This is perhaps the toughest one, because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the anxiety of competition. Wrestling is an intense microcosm of life. Hundreds of hours of sacrifice and dedication are tested by relatively few moments on the mat. As a wrestling fan, you have the privilege of watching the drama unfold. Don’t waste that privilege by focusing on your bleacher butt and complaining about the length of the tournament. Even when things don’t go well and your son walks off the mat in defeat, be thankful that he was able to compete and learn from the experience.
  5. As the parent of a senior in his last month of the sport, I’m down to his last two tournaments, and they are big ones – the state tournament and the state dual tournament. His team is undefeated and in a good position to win the title. He is not undefeated, but could still win an individual championship, though it won’t be easy. Nothing in wrestling is easy, and that’s what makes is so special.

Patrick won that first match six years ago. I have no idea if he’ll win his last match, but I’m glad that I was along for the ride.

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Patrick in 2017

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You Don’t Have to be an Athlete to Recognize the Emotion

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Imagine working for hundreds of hours over several years to realize a dream. Imagine needing just one more victory to achieve that goal. Now, imagine walking side-by-side with someone who has the same goal, but if he wins, you lose.

That’s exactly what will happen on Saturday afternoon at the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament during the “Parade of Champions,” one of the neatest annual traditions in Nebraska high school sports. In the final three hours of the three-day state wrestling tournament, 56 wrestlers will end their wrestling season with the referee raising their hand as a state champion. Another 56 will experience a level of dejection that they have probably never experienced and might not ever experience again. For two minutes though, they all experience the Parade of Champions.

I first saw the Parade of Champions in 1989, as a college freshman, when I attended the tournament with a classmate who had won championships the previous two years. I last saw the Parade of Champions last year, 26 years later, as the parent of a wrestler who came up one match short of participating in the Parade. The format has changed slightly over the years, as well as the venue, but the intensity remains extremely high, even for a spectator in the stands.

The wrestlers enter the 15,000-seat arena walking side-by-side with the opponents they will face in their championship matches. The public announce system will play Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” as they are led in a processional which will end with opponents facing each other on the very mat upon which they will decide the championship. The 15,000-plus fans will be on their feet cheering for wrestlers who typically wrestle in front of a few hundred – their successes often relegated to the box score section of the sports page. It’s an incredible affirmation of their journey.

(You can see video of the ceremony at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vq0CiBDBbxA (skip ahead to the 2 minute mark) or at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2r_6n-BrLY for a version of the Parade that happened before most of these wrestlers were born.)

To get here, they each won three consecutive matches in a bracket containing the other 14 state-qualifying wrestlers in their weight class. Those guys are either in the stands, wishing they were on floor, or on the bus on their way home. For months, and most often years, the championship contenders have trained for this moment. They have endured some of the most intense practices a high school athlete can endure. They have made countless sacrifices to get here. Many haven’t tasted soda or fast food since November, as they transformed their bodies into lean wrestling machines.

Most of them have missed the championship match in previous years, so they understand the significance of the moment. In fact, they have likely dreamt about this moment, as they left practice, sore, tired and worried about their next match. To convince themselves to persist in their journey, they have probably pictured where they will display their championship medal.

Their coaches, teammates, friends and family will watch with bated breath, hoping their wrestlers will end the season with their hand held high. There will be celebrations for the winners and a long, restless night for the losers. The seniors know that this will be their last chance to make a dream come true. The underclassmen don’t know what the future holds, and as wrestlers, they know that they must seize their opportunity, because there is no entitlement in wrestling.

The entire scene is a microcosm of life. Long after the wrestlers unlace their wrestling shoes for the last time, they will experience adulthood’s shocking successes and crushing disappointments. It’s unlikely that their subsequent victories and defeats will be broadcast statewide and happen in front of an arena of expectant eyes, but they will take the lessons they learned on this stage and benefit from them.

Whether they land the big job or lose the major account, they will understand that both victory and defeat are temporary and that they must continue to apply themselves and the lessons they learned in order to reach their goals, like they did to be right here, in this moment.

We all have had pinnacles in our lives – moments when our dreams were realized or crushed – so it should be easy for us to empathize with the drama from our seat in the arena or from our sofa at home. That’s what makes sports so compelling. You don’t have to be an athlete to recognize the emotion.

Notes:

This is real reality TV, and it’s available on public television at 3 pm this Saturday, if you can’t be at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, you can see all of the final matches online at http://netnebraska.org/basic-page/sports/nsaa-high-school-championships.

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Using Adversity to Gain Perspective

crutches

We should be two tournaments and a dual into my son’s penultimate season of high school wrestling, but we’re not. A knee injury in the last football game of the season has him sitting impatiently on the sidelines.

That first tournament was going to be tough. Two guys in his weight class will be D1 FBS scholarship linemen next year. One of them is a defending undefeated state champion, and headed to Nebraska. The other is 6’5” and 285 lbs, and headed to Arkansas. Patrick lost to him last year, 7-1. The defending champion and last year’s runner-up would be in his brackets in several tournaments this season. Undoubtedly, this wrestling season was going to be challenging, but after finishing third last year, he had prepared for that, and eagerly anticipated the challenge. Now, it’s not going to happen.

Multiple sports seasons relatively free of injury probably gave us a false sense of confidence. Last wrestling season’s bout with mono was challenging, but the time away from the mat was brief, and Patrick was able to recover in time for the important season-ending tournaments, winning 17 of his last 20 matches. This time, we weren’t as lucky.

At the exact moment his coaches and teammates were posing for the annual team picture, he was being wheeled into the operating room.

Optimism is the rule in our house, and in the few days between the injury and the prognosis, we clung to the hope that surgery wouldn’t be necessary and that time away from the mat would be short. It was tough to see that snatched from him, but we’re treating the experience as a powerful lesson in perspective.

Missing a wrestling season, while disappointing, barely registers on the list of possible health-related challenges. While we were learning that knee surgery would be necessary, some people were getting dire cancer prognoses. While he’s in physical therapy, they will be in chemotherapy. When he’s competing again in a few months, their battle will wage on.

It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you think like that. It also gives you a reason to be thankful for everything that you do have. Gratitude is important any time we face life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks, because it helps us push back self-pity.

When we face these setbacks, it’s tempting to feel like helpless victims of circumstance. Why me? will cross our minds, if not our lips. It’s hard to accept the reality that God sometimes puts us on the sidelines so we understand the game better when our number is called. It’s even harder to treat these experiences as blessings, but they are, if our attitudes are right.

I’ve learned from experience that it’s important to face adversity with faith and optimism. With that attitude in place, setbacks can give us an opportunity to fully reach the depth of our potential. Maybe things have come too easily for us, and only with a unique challenge will we be forced to “find that extra gear.” At other times, setbacks force us into thinking, thinking about how we can live better, more effective lives. Almost always, setbacks give us the opportunity to take an inventory of our lives and a chance to rearrange our priorities so that the most important things get an appropriate amount of our attention.

Though this wrestling season won’t go the way we hoped, we’re making the best out of the experience. Instead of dwelling in the negatives of recovery, we are focused on the positives. The unexpected off-season will give him extra time to build himself in the weight room. It will also provide an opportunity to observe the emotional roller coaster of a wrestling season and be better prepared for it next season. Most important, he is learning to fully appreciate everything and everyone around him. For that, we’re thankful.

 

* Thanks for all of the notes of support. Patrick’s injury was a meniscus tear (fortunately, no ligament damage) that required some sewing. He has to be very careful in rehab and diligent in his exercise, but 100% recovery is expected.

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Eight Reasons Why Your Kid Should Wrestle

wrestling

In the next few months, many children will have the opportunity to participate in wrestling for the first time. Just like the kids, many parents will embrace the opportunity, while others will resist. Because of the timely life lessons wrestling teaches children, I urge everyone to seriously consider trying the sport, if only for one season.

Usually, those who resist wrestling are unfamiliar with the sport. Wrestling can be an intimidating sport, but it’s also one with great potential to develop young adults, both physically and mentally.

My own son resisted until seventh grade. “I don’t want to roll around with a bunch of sweaty guys,” he told me, echoing the popular mantra of basketball players everywhere. My wife, with her medical background, wasn’t very supportive either, citing the skin rashes she saw wrestlers bring to her clinic. I had wrestled in high school – I wasn’t very good, but I wrestled – and I knew what it could teach kids, so I persisted until both agreed to a one-year trial season.

That was four seasons ago – two in junior high, one on the junior varsity team and last year’s varsity season. In that time, he’s experienced extreme highs and extreme lows. There were times that he enjoyed wrestling almost as much as football, and there were times that he talked about quitting. There were dominating wins and puzzling losses, weeks when nothing could go wrong and weeks when everything went wrong. More important than all of that are the lessons that have helped him develop into the young man he is today.

  1. There is no entitlement in wrestling. It doesn’t matter where you are ranked or whether or not your coach likes you, your value as a wrestler depends on your most recent performance on the mat. Last year, I watched a wrestler, who spent most of the season ranked #2, lose two tough matches in the district tournament and fail to qualify for the state tournament. He was a senior who had placed at the state tournament the previous year, but that and his ranking didn’t matter – only what happened on the mat. In a matter of minutes, his season was over. In wrestling, you must constantly earn what you get.
  2. Wrestling teaches toughness. I got my first bloody nose in youth boxing at the age of 7, and never forgot it. At first, I wanted to cry and get out of the ring, but something deep inside me brought me back to the fight. Too many kids make it through childhood without a bloody nose. In wrestling, we have “blood time.” Wrestlers get their mouths smashed, their noses bloodied, their eyes blackened and their joints twisted. Wrestling teaches athletes how to work through pain and discomfort. Wrestling teaches toughness.
  3. Wrestling teaches discipline. Because they have to make weight and need to be in superb shape to succeed, successful wrestlers maintain their bodies like finely tuned machines. Even away from practice and competition, they can’t forget that they are wrestlers. When their friends are feasting on fast food and sodas or staying up too late, wrestlers have to make decisions that will help them on the mat. They know that slipping on discipline will have negative consequences on the mat.
  4. Wrestling instills confidence. It takes courage to walk out onto the mat. Once you overcome the fear of competition and the loneliness of being on the mat, everything else in life seems easier. Famous collegiate and Olympic wrestler Dan Gable says that 80% of wrestling matches are decided before the first whistle blows. “One competitor already knows he’s going to win, and the other knows he’s going to lose before either steps onto the mat,” he says. Once wrestlers develop confidence, they learn how to use it to give themselves a competitive edge.
  5. Wrestling teaches self-reliance. Too many kids look outward for blame when they experience failure. When you are on the mat, no one is going to come save you. You have to decide how hard you are going to fight to win. If you fail, you have no one else to blame. You can’t blame your teammates, your coach’s play-calling or officiating. You win or lose on your own.
  6. Wrestlers don’t go pro. Yes, I know that professional wrestling still exists, but very few wrestlers have professional aspirations. Contrast that with other popular sports. Many basketball, baseball and football players believe that they are going to make millions in professional sports, so much so that they plan for it at the expense of education and other preparation. Wrestlers are under no such illusions. They compete for the sake of competition, not fame or money.
  7. Wrestlers come in all shapes and sizes. Height and weight are large factors for success in several popular sports, like basketball and football, but they don’t mean much in wrestling. Wrestling is a sport where small kids or heavy, but relatively short kids can be extremely successful. Where else can a scrawny 106-pound or short 250-pound kid win a state championship?
  8. Wrestlers learn to respect their opponents. There is a lot of down time at wrestling events, and many wrestlers will compete against each other multiples times in one season. In that down time, they get to know each other, and will even cheer each other on. Not all of them are friends, but they all know what goes into a wrestling season, and they respect each other because of that shared sacrifice.

Even if your child never wins a match, he’ll learn a lot about himself and how he fits into the world. While it’s true the other sports can teach most of these lessons, the intensity of a wrestling season is hard to match. When you sign your child up for a wrestling season, you give them a competitive edge that will help them succeed in life. Don’t miss that opportunity.

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Aiming High, Missing and Still Smiling

The story of a 730-day quest cut one day short.

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“It is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit.” – Les Brown

As an eighth-grader, my son watched the Nebraska High School State Wrestling Championships with me. We paid particular attention to the Class B heavyweight title match, as that was the class that we anticipated him competing in. A sophomore from Syracuse named Matt Clark won the championship that year, and it wasn’t difficult to do the math and know that Matt would be a junior during Patrick’s freshman season and a senior when Patrick was a sophomore.

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, so we decided that day to focus on beating the champ. Coincidentally, Patrick met Matt for the very first time the next day, when he traveled to Syracuse to compete in the youth district wrestling tournament. The day after that, Patrick clipped Matt’s picture from the newspaper’s gallery of champions and put it on his mirror, where it stayed for two years, as a reminder of the challenge ahead and the work that needed to be done.

During our weight-lifting sessions for two years, we dedicated extra sets and reps to the quest to beat the champ. “Do another for Matt,” I’d tell him in encouragement.” He’d respond after a particularly good set, “That was for Matt.” Meanwhile, his mother cleaned around the newspaper clipping on his bathroom mirror.

During his freshman year, Patrick narrowly lost his team’s wrestle-off to a talented senior, and spent the season competing on the junior varsity team, while we followed Matt’s undefeated and second state championship season. By now, Matt had developed into a 6’5” 305-pound offensive lineman with Division I interest. The quest wasn’t getting any easier, but Patrick was growing and developing too.

We saw Matt wrestle in person for the first time, one month into his senior season. In fact, we saw him set the state record for consecutive pins at 50. He was a massive athlete who moved like a wrestler half his size. I told my dad that he looked like a Kodiak bear taking down prey. Once he had an opponent on the mat, it was over. Meanwhile, Patrick, now a sophomore, came down with the flu, but managed to go 6-2 on the weekend. It was a large, multi-state dual team tournament, and since our teams didn’t compete against each other, the match-up would have to wait until the district tournament.

Two months later, on the first day of the district tournament, Patrick won both matches to qualify for a semi-final match against Matt Clark on day two. Two years of anticipation were about to burst. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, Matt entered the match needing one more pin to move into #2 nationally for consecutive pins at 68. Television cameras and radio stations were on hand to witness history. To Matt, Patrick was an obstacle to his record. To Patrick, Matt was the ultimate opponent and this match, the subject of dreams. No one but our family and a few close friends knew how big this was for Patrick.

Matt got his 68th pin, but not without a little excitement, as Patrick threw him to the mat early in the match. The excitement was brief, however, because Matt quickly recovered and got the pin. You can see the entire match here: http://bigappleradio.am/featured-news/video-syracuse-senior-pins-his-way-to-national-record/.

The loss stung, but Patrick didn’t have time to sulk, because a loss in his next match would eliminate him from the state tournament. Fortunately, he bounced back quickly to pin his next two opponents and earn third place and a chance to compete in the state tournament. While the loss to Matt frustrated him, by the time he accepted his third place medal, he was smiling and eager for a rematch. He was realistic enough to know that he would have to wrestle the perfect match and perhaps get lucky to win a state championship, but he was prepared, and as I told him: luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Opportunity happened later that night when the brackets for the state tournament were released. Matt was on one side, and Patrick was on the other, so if both won three consecutive matches, a rematch would happen in the championship match in front of 15,000 people in the arena and many others watching on live television. It was the setting we talked about during our work-outs for two years.

Both Patrick and Matt won their first two matches on Thursday, the first day of the tournament, in dominating fashion. That night, Patrick was full of confidence, although a rival who had already beaten him twice awaited him in Friday night’s semi-final. He thought that he had figured out how to beat his semi-final opponent, but he was wrong.

On Friday night, the goal that had motivated him for two years died on the mat in front of thousands of people, just one match short.

If we set our goals high enough, we expose ourselves to painful failures like this, when we realize that the goal that was so important to us for so long is now unattainable. Failure can crush us at this vulnerable time, if we lose perspective. However, it is also at these moments that the seeds of many of life’s greatest triumphs are planted, if we can retain the determination and motivation that brought us to striking distance of the goal.

Patrick woke up in a foul mood on Saturday, like someone had stolen something from him. I don’t particularly like these moods, but I’ve come to recognize them as a signal that a 16-year-old is highly motivated to perform at his highest level and can’t mask his emotion. Third place was now the target, and winning twice was the path. Two first-period pins, the second over the fifth-rated wrestler in 38 seconds, showed that the passion was strong.

Third best is not where he wanted to be – no one wants to be third best, but there were two wrestlers better than him this year, and by the end of the tournament, he knew that. As he accepted his third-place medal, happiness shined from his face. The two-year quest to beat Matt Clark was over, and he was going to have to take Matt’s picture down in defeat, but he had made huge strides toward becoming a championship wrestler.

When Patrick set that goal, he was a 14-year-old 220-pound eighth-grader who had wrestled maybe 20 matches over four months. He was as close to Matt in wrestling as I am to Ernest Hemingway in writing. What happened in those 730 days, however, was truly amazing. More importantly, we were back in the gym on day 731 – this time without Matt as motivation. Now that he’s stood on the championship platform, the goal is a better, higher view in 365 days.

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Related Facts:

  • Matt Clark won his third state championship the next day, 3-1 over Justin Hennessey, a junior from Waverly. Matt won, but his consecutive pin streak was stopped at 72. He’ll play football at South Dakota State University next year.
  • Hennessey, Patrick’s semi-final opponent, lost only to Clark and the undefeated Class C heavyweight champion this season.
  • Patrick enjoyed getting to know Matt and Justin, as well as their families, and says both are great guys from great families.
  • With two pins to close out the state tournament, and three in the state dual tournament the next weekend, Patrick’s consecutive pin streak is at five.

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Wrestlers Inspire Through Toughness

championshipTough 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.

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