This past weekend, we completed our season at the NCAA Division III National Tournament in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was a different feeling for our team this year – while sending 8 qualifiers, 2nd most of any team, we placed a distant 10th, watching Wartburg College run away with the team title, and for the first time in over two decades, we were not in the hunt for a top 4 finish, much less a title. Two impressive streaked ended: 24 consecutive years of at least 5 All-Americans and top 4 finishes at the National Tournament.
We did come away with 3 All-Americans though, one of them repeating as a National Champion in his weight class. And honestly, this team worked as hard as any other Augsburg team, and considering the adversity this team faced, a 10th place finish was a good result. Yet, this highlights one of the realities of the sport of wrestling: At the end, the National Tournament, when it’s all said and done, only 10 people and 1 team leave the arena satisfied. Maybe that’s harsh to think about, and a little extreme – but in this sport, no one trains to lose. No wrestler, no matter where they think their ability lies, goes in with the mindset that they’ll lose. They wrestle to win – every match, every tournament. The champions who are crowned in each of the 10 weight classes go home satisfied, one team crowned the champion has their work rewarded, their dreams realized. Everyone else goes home…unsatisfied, unsettled.
And while many don’t admit it publically, those feelings are hard to push aside. Even to this day, it’s hard for me to watch the National Tournament. It’s hard to watch people achieve All-American status and wrestle in the finals. It’s hard because I’m one of the “everyone else” of wrestling. At every level, I’ve never walked away the champion – for reasons both within and outside of my control. Injuries, lack of focus and commitment, someone simply was better than me….but still, unsatisfied, regretful.
And now as a coach, I watch my wrestlers go through that – both over this weekend and many years before that. The truth is that for most wrestlers, things end with a loss – both their seasons and their careers. It’s even harder to watch in my own athletes, as they go through the same feelings as I do – regret, dissatisfaction, disappointment. An opportunity wasted; a goal not attained. I’ve learned to sit there with them in silence, because to tell you the truth, there’s nothing to be said in that moment. Just like I had to, they have to face that reality on their own terms.
Now here’s the fact: life will move on for my wrestlers. It has for so many I’ve coached, and it has for me. They’ll start eating regular food again; no more early morning workouts and weighins, no more battling through fatigue and injuries, no more mental and emotional grind. But at some point, there will be a moment in which they’ll still have to come to terms with their wrestling career and its ending. What does it mean you spent the last 15 or more years of your life doing this one thing, and the ending is one of failure and falling short of your goalsw?
There are lots of cliches and typical words of wisdom I can pass on, but I’ve come to tell my athletes this after their seasons and careers end: Just remember, tomorrow will come, you’ll still be alive, and you’ll still be the same person tomorrow as you are today.” I think three things come out of that statement:
Your life is a gift. No explanation needed here….treat your life as such. Don’t waste it; live it fully and with integrity and character.
Results don’t define you. Experience does. Experience builds character. And in the end, it is your strength of character – your ability to be courageous under adversity, be comfortable and honest with others (vulnerability), and live life in faith and trust rather than control and fear, is what matters. The experience of wrestling has shaped and formed you to live in all these ways well beyond the mat. And that’s a good thing.
You are not normal or typical. You’re a wrestler for life. This is a loose tie but one most wrestlers come to after making sense of things. As I’ve entered society, a world full of “normal” people, I’ve learned that wrestling has shaped me in a way that makes me not normal; atypical. Discipline. Hard work. Honesty (sometimes too honest – is that a thing?). Ok with adversity & conflict. Don’t take things too seriously. Intense. Not obsessed with things out of your control. Able to fully invest and commit to things and relationships deserving of that investment/ commitment. There’s more to add to the list, I’m sure, but I think you get the point. People will be uncomfortable with you, and they will always view you as a bit outside the box. That feeling will suck at times, but the truth of the matter is that being a wrestler is a good thing. I think the world needs more wrestlers, or perhaps, wrestling-minded people. I think the world would be a better place if we were more direct and less politically correct in how we live. It’s the gift that athletes bring as they enter society. It’s why athletics – pure sports, not sports entertainment like what our professional sports culture is based on – are still important today.
This is all a lot……things it’s taken me years to realize. But, I encourage all athletes, as you hang up the shoes, walk off the mat for the final time, take time to face those nagging questions. Take time to make sense of things. Always remember though, tomorrow will come, you’ll be alive, and you’ll still be the same person as you were the day before. And that’s a good thing.