Current and perspective wrestling parents are often told that wrestling is full of life lessons. And it's true. Oftentimes, these lessons aren't explained properly, if at all. As a result, parents may view it as only a combat sport with winning as the goal. While winning is important, perhaps more pressing are the losses, and how to fight through them to become better. This is part 1 of our series on life lessons gained from wrestling. By reading, you'll develop an understanding of why wrestling is perhaps the best sport on the planet when it comes to teaching children to be the best version of themselves. This particular edition will cover adversity.
Most of us know the term adversity, but in layman's terms, it means conquering obstacles. Working through tough situations and coming out the other side better than you were prior to the hardship. Wrestlers learn this important skill from a very young age. Between tough practices, managing their weight, lots of competition, and the ups and downs of a season, wrestlers learn to push themselves past what they thought their threshold was. And in doing so, constantly improve as athletes, and more importantly, human beings.
In a recent Joe Rogan Podcast interview with the legendary former UFC Champion (and ex- wrestler) Georges St. Pierre, this was encapsulated well. "I think it's important to face adversity. It helps if you face it at a very young age because it molds you. Especially if you're able to overcome it. If you've never faced adversity before and face it for the first time (later in life), it can break you. It can make you fold," says St. Pierre.
For me, this is one of the biggest lessons of youth wrestling and one that I often think of as an adult. I often find myself in day to day life thinking negatively about a difficult situation, and then flipping my brain to say "Yeah... but I went through a 5 hour wrestling practice once..." or "Yeah... but I once beat a kid that I lost to 8 times in a row. I can do this." Once you develop that mentality, life gets a little easier. But, most people aren't born with it.
So how do kids face adversity in wrestling and how do they overcome it?
The most obvious example is competition. Winning is engrained in American Sports Culture. The late former Oakland Raiders Owner, Al Davis, said it best, "Just win baby!" Most kids are taught that their worth as a competitor is in winning. While good coaches see youth sports as learning tools for future success in life, the media screams a different story. In most kids' eyes, winning is everything. And, in most youth athletics, they've also got teammates to rely on to help with that goal. Wrestling is a bit different...
While wins are excellent, we learn more about ourselves from a loss. At Grappling House (Tallahassee), we say "win or learn," not win or lose. While our coaching gives kids the tools to win wrestling matches, we don't get too upset about losses. Especially at the youth level. Contrarily, we want them to experience failure and learn to overcome. After a loss, we inspire them to take what they learned from the match and get better. Our program is all about becoming the best possible versions of ourselves while using wrestling as the outlet to teach that. In life, you're going to fail. We've all fallen on our face many times, be it athletics, academics, relationships, business, or really any aspect of our lives. Your character is defined by how you respond to that.
To quote the famous Rocky series (cheesy, I know), "You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward." Will you be the person that crumbles under the pressure? Or, will you be the person who self examines, logically figures out the next step, and tackles the problem head on to be better than you were the previous time?
On a personal level for our wrestling club, our assistant coach's son had wrestled a tough competitor 5 or 6 times in a season a few years back. All were losses, and most weren't close. But each time, he learned something about his opponent and went back to the wrestling room to work on his skillset and figure out a game plan to beat the kid. It required a lot of hard work, extra repetition, and thinking through situations. But, in their 7th matchup, our wrestler won by a pretty convincing score. That doesn't just happen by accident. It occurred because he was taught that giving up isn't an option. When you fail, work harder to improve yourself, and you'll fail less the next time. Eventually, you'll be at the top of the mountain if you want it enough. Anyone think that mentality could cross over into a successful career after wrestling?
The second part of what makes wrestling a little different is that fact that you have nobody to blame when you lose. It's a key aspect. Most youth sports are team oriented. While there's absolutely merit to team sports, there's also always a built in excuse and somebody else to pass the blame to. From a mental standpoint, this is toxic. When children always have someone to 'pass the buck' to, it becomes a learned behavior that can lead into adulthood if left unchecked. Think back to your time in youth team sports. How many times did you say or think "We would have won the game if ____ didn't fumble." Or, "I wish Coach didn't tell ____ to try to steal 2nd base. We would have won if not for that." It's not fond to remember the times we played the blame game, but we all did it. Psychologically, it's a defense mechanism to mask our shortcomings. In wrestling, you don't get to do that.
Wrestling is a 1 on 1 sport. You and a competitor toe the line, weight the exact same weight, are the same age, and compete to see who's got a better combination of technical savvy, strength, maneuverability, cardiovascular limits, and much more. When you win, it's 100% because of your effort. And when you lose, there isn't room for finger pointing. You have only the person in the mirror to challenge for your shortcomings. You're left with 2 simple choices; give up or try harder. It's a unique sport in that way. Most kids go with the latter and work through issues. Some kids figure it out quickly, and others have to battle through a ton of losses before becoming slightly proficient. And then suffer another setback, and have to go back to the drawing board. The cool thing about wrestling is there's always someone better. You can go 2 years without a loss and then lose in the state finals. Now, you have to wait a year for another opportunity at a state championship. Will you keep doing the same things, or will you pour everything you have into your next opportunity?
In summary, adversity is an important skill for kids to learn about and overcome. The mental toughness gained from conquering adversity early and often will stick with them for a lifetime. Wrestling isn't just about trying to beat an opponent. It's about showing up each day a little bit better than you were the day before (we always tell the kids the goal out of every practice should be to leave 1% better than you were walking in). We ask kids to put a little more of themselves into each practice and competition, and slowly build to a point of proficiency. Adversity is the catalyst to making this all happen. Once you've faced and overcome a difficult or emotional situation, it gets a little easier each time. Eventually, you get to a point where you look at tough situations and think "yeah, but I'm a wrestler. I can do this." That's the goal that we're constantly striving to achieve as coaches.