Wrestling is what I call a “life sport”. Like life, if you decide to quit you will probably get beat up and eventually pinned. In most sports the humiliation is spread around. In wrestling you have to be willing to risk being humiliated individually in front of friends and family. Ask anyone you know who earned something meaningful and they will most likely tell you they had to risk great loss and humiliation to realize that success. I think that too often today this lesson is muted so that people do not have to deal with the reality and the risk of losing and possible humiliation. The value of competitive sport for life comes from embracing these lessons, not pretending they do not exist.
Wrestling is unique, as it does not allow for the muting of these lessons. In wrestling self-esteem is earned and risked; not given! To be successful takes discipline, sacrifice, and in many cases toiling in obscurity for not much more than the nobility that comes from being in the battle and not getting pinned. Wrestlers recognize the value that comes from the struggle and carry that value into the rest of their lives. I was lucky that I found wrestling. I hope other young men and women get lucky and find this sport as I did.
Where the lesson from Failure started
I attended a 3 year high school so when I became a sophomore I was just taking PE classes. I wanted to play football, but the coach said I was too skinny and I would most likely get hurt. This coach’s decision was a big disappointment at the time. Someone mentioned wrestling to me so I went in and met the coach and told him I was interested in wrestling. He told me that they had already been practicing and had the first match that week. If I wanted to wrestle, I had to come to practice and “wrestle off” for the 98lb weight class position. I would have to challenge the current wrestler occupying the varsity spot. This was a match in order to wrestle the match.
I weighed all of about 85 lbs. soaking wet, and stood about 5’ 6”. I had no clue about competitive wrestling other than wrestling around in the yard.
I was nervous to wrestle off a boy named Duke who was the current varsity wrestler. He was a muscular kid and I was nervous. Even his name was intimidating! I just went out there like the Tasmanian devil and much to my surprise ended up beating him for the varsity spot. I was pretty excited, but had no idea what was in store for me. Be careful what you wish for!
I Get My Butt Kicked (over and over again): Let the Lessons Begin
Two nights later I had my first match. (See the pic above for a good chuckle) They put the mat in the cafeteria as the gym had a basketball game going on and basketball was always the priority sport. There had to be only about 25 spectators including my teammates. I was given a uniform, borrowed some shoes, knee pads, and headgear and went out to meet a kid who was a senior and one of the best wrestlers in the state of California in my weight class. He was built like a gorilla and pinned me in the first period. My teammates and coaches were yelling out advice from the side of the mat; however all I know was that in a very short time, like a slow motion car crash, I was on my back looking up at the lights and it was over. I went to the center of the mat and we shook hands and then they raised his hand. This was my first match and the first loss in my wrestling career.
The next three matches were more of the same humiliation. I was pinned in all three. I was angry that I was that bad. I was wondering if this was the sport for me. Quitting definitely crossed my mind.
Then like a shot between the eyes the first of many lessons of wrestling was delivered. Its genesis was the humiliation of losing by being pinned. I started thinking of what being pinned really meant. I realized that even though I had no idea what I was doing; getting pinned was quitting. People always pay lip service to not quitting, but wrestling is one of the few sports that really reinforce the ideal and clearly demonstrates the consequences. Wrestling matches can end in seconds if your opponent can dominate you and hold your shoulders to the mat and pin you. No points needed just total domination by your opponent on the mat. I vowed at that moment to do everything I could to not be pinned again. I figured that no matter how bad someone beat me in points I was not going to let them pin me.
I worked on strengthening my neck and learned how to fight like hell off my back. I actually started looking forward to not letting someone pin me. I would regularly get my head handed to me that first year but I would finish the match with a smile on my face and respect from my opponent. Both of us knew that he beat me, but we also knew he could not pin me. Slowly but surely I got better. I was never pinned again and finally got good enough to go through the season undefeated in my senior year and went on to wrestle at UC Davis.
Wrestling gave me some of the biggest lessons of my life. Everyone gets beat, but only by giving up can someone pin you. I draw on these lessons regularly in my life today.
Many of my closest friends (you guys know who you are) today are guys that were thrown in this crucible with me. We endured hard practices, cutting weight, training hour after hour so we could put at risk our self-esteem for the whole world to witness. We tested our bodies and our wills weekly on a mat. It was absolutely glorious to suffer with these guys. We shared the glory, defeats and sacrifices of this special sport and special time in our lives.
These same wrestlers, a long way from their last match, now deal with the ups and downs of life and family with the nobility of wrestlers, and they are all safe in the knowledge that they can handle anything that is thrown at them. It is a wonderful fraternity of boys who carried the lessons of wrestling into their lives as men.
This fraternity belongs to anyone who has stepped onto a mat, shaken hands, and squared off with an opponent. The greatest thing about this sport is that it does not matter whether you are an Olympic champion or lost every match you ever wrestled the lessons are the same. Even the most decorated wrestlers must walk the same path.
There is an acknowledgement and respect that is shared between wrestlers. When someone tells me they wrestled we both know we are part of this special group of people who were privileged to compete in this sport. There is no other sport quite like it! If you were lucky enough to wrestle you know what I am talking about. If you were not lucky enough, I can guarantee that your life has been positively impacted by this sport directly or indirectly.
In today’s world we exalt entrepreneurs and visionaries. Young people are told to follow their dreams; however few recognize the work that is involved in realizing that dream. They also do not realize that getting pinned may also be part of what realizing that dream requires. Wrestlers understand this concept. I think that somewhere in our recent history these lessons have become much less accessible.
Wrestlers are the entrepreneurs of the sporting world. Most never get much recognition, take huge risk, and toil long hours to build something that is meaningful to them. Win, lose, or draw the lessons are carried forward and that is what life is all about.
Truth in Fitness,
Jacques DeVore, CSCS