This past weekend was the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships in Pittsburgh, PA. I suffered some real FOMO watching. I wrestled eleven years and love the sport. This tournament is quite possibly the greatest event in the sport. Here it was, across my state. I’m also quite a fan of Pittsburgh, and it’s rivers and bridges. More importantly though, they have Primanti Brothers. I love me some Primanti Brothers. You can see why in the picture above.
After the tournament was over, I saw a former teammate’s post on Facebook, talking about his trip to the tournament. This guy was a lot more accomplished wrestler than I was, winning a state championship and three conference championships in college. He talked about how hard it was for him to go to nationals in Pittsburgh though- the place his career ended, one match short of being an All-American. He talked about how he spent years thinking his entire career was a failure. Then he talked about getting over all of that, realizing how successful he was, and recognizing all the good he took from his athletic career. It was a really cool, inspiring post to read in the mess of politics and personal drama that usually inhabits Facebook.
Obviously that post made me think a lot about my sports career, and what I took from it into real life. As I said above, I wrestled eleven years, but I also ran indoor and outdoor track, as well as cross-country in high school, winning seven varsity letters along the way. I played baseball for eight years, stopping at the junior legion level to focus on my other sports (we weren’t a very good team, and to be honest, that discouraged me. I dabbled in football in elementary school and soccer in middle school too. I enjoyed playing sports as a kid, and did a lot of it. I’d like to think it had a positive influence on me.
My sports career didn’t really end ideally though. By the time I reached high school, I played sports because it’s what I did. I got more anxiety out of it than enjoyment. This isn’t a story of over-zealous parents here, while they did push me, I probably could have quit if I wanted. It’s mostly a story of me- how I got stuck doing the things I did less out of pleasure, and more because I had wrapped up so much of my identity in being a good athlete. As I became less excited to play, my performance dipped, and frankly I know now that it changed a lot about who I am. Eventually I spent a lot of my senior year fighting injuries, and my running career ended when I was diagnosed with mono my freshman year of college, before I ever ran a race. I not only quit sports, but I basically quit physical activity. I stopped working out altogether for about seven years, gained a solid 100 pounds, and didn’t take care of myself. That finally stopped in 2009, when a 25 year old me realized I was out of breath from walking up the steps to my office. I finally got a gym membership and lost 30 pounds in the first year. I plateaued there until I started eating healthier and cut back my beer and pizza intake back in 2016. I’ve lost 45 pounds since then and feel much better.
We live in a “winners and losers” culture, and that often overshadows the real value in competing in sports. We take our lessons in the form of trophies and medals, and not as much in the form of what we learn. Nobody gives a shit now whether I won or lost that match back when I was in tenth grade- not my family, nor my friends, not my community, and really not me. Sometimes, especially when we’re competing, we don’t take time to realize the actual important lessons we learned along the way.
So what are some of the lessons I learned from sports that have translated into life? Here’s a few of them:
- As long as you don’t back up, most referees won’t warn you for stalling. In wrestling, when you don’t do very much to try and score, you can be called for stalling. If you get two stallings, you give up a point. Sometimes you could avoid the referees ire by just staying present in the middle of the mat, and not backing up. Life isn’t a whole lot different. If the people around you think you’re backing up, and you’re not presenting a plan to upgrade, they’ll think you’re not going anywhere. Pushing forward just a bit, or even just remaining present and steadfast where you are, goes a long way to keeping the people in your life happy. People will leave you alone to your business if they think you’re not regressing.
- Always have a plan, stick to it, and execute. My junior year of high school I ran the mile pretty well. Not well enough to be a state champion or anything, but good enough to score points for the team in most races. Why? I just ran my race. I’d get out with the better runners the first lap, hang in right behind them the second and third lap, then pass everyone I could on the last lap. Sometimes some moron would run way out front that wasn’t supposed to, but I never let that bother me. My job was to hang close enough to score points, and make sure I at least got a third. I knew how to do that. Life isn’t a lot different. You make a plan, you execute, you hope you’re good enough at it to succeed. You can’t get caught up in what others are doing, or panicking that you didn’t prepare well enough. When it’s time, you just execute your plans and try to do them well enough.
- Small things matter, even tenths of a pound. There is nothing more unforgiving than a scale with your weight, or a stop watch with your time, or the inches a baseball lands foul by. Sports are just like that. By the time you reach high school, the difference isn’t so much physical ability, and that’s even more true at higher levels. The differences are minor, and normally seem to favor the better prepared, more motivated athlete. Sometimes you will miss weight very close, or lose a race by a hundredth of a second, or just miss a home run by feet. That’s not accidental. That usually can be traced to the preparation you put in. The extra lifts you got in during the off-season weren’t “no big deal.” That carries over in life. You know the saying “bad things come in groups?” They do- to people not doing the things they need to be doing at that time.
- You can’t control what the other guy does. This one is major to me. We live in a society where everyone wants to game the system for a small advantage, and disadvantage their competition. My experience is that doesn’t work very often. The other person is going to do what they do. Nothing you do to get a cheap advantage is going to make you better than a superior competitor, other than to make yourself better. Don’t worry so much about them.
I learned a lot of things from sports that didn’t win me trophies. They probably were more valuable.