Blog post #22 – You can be shaped or you can be broken.

Wow, what an NCAA Tournament. In the above picture is Jesse Jantzen (right, I’m the old guy on the left) a guy who definitely got the job done at the NCAA Tournament back in 2004. Jesse was so dominant his senior year there was little doubt he would win it. Most of the time it doesn’t work like that. The line between failure and success is so thin it’s hard to determine exactly what will give the athlete that fine edge for success on the culminating weekend. Penn State does what they do with a special spirit and resilience that is impressive. But let’s not forget how talented they are and getting it done in the glare of the lights has a lot to do with talent. I think what’s more impressive is the poise and grace of the two freshman champions. Granted, these young men have a ton of mat time and have performed on the world stage but there is nothing like the finals of the NCAA Tournament for intensity and pressure and being your best at that moment say’s something about their mental makeup. I have been fortunate enough to watch both of these young men win Cadet World Championships and their calm under pressure is something they seem to have mastered. I guess it’s only pressure if you see it that way eh?

Victor Frankl said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

I would agree with this profound statement in part and add at the end “surrender to the process.” The “mindful” practice of focus is such a driving force on how we look at pressure, competition, emotions and the management of those components in the context of a very competitive and unruly world. I use the word unruly because as an athlete we may not control what is said to us by coaches, parents, teammates and of course the media but our filtration and reaction to those “unruly” events are critical.

As a high school coach I marvel at the skill and competitiveness of the NCAA Tournament and try to take a few things from it each year. It’s easy to be in awe of the high level of competitiveness and how incredibly tough individuals are. Everything is heightened at this level but in most respects the coaches and athletes are dealing with the same parameters as we as high school participants do at our respective high school state tournaments. There are, of course technical trends coaches see and want to emphasize back in their practice rooms. It’s easy to think just because we are coaches we see the sport as a coach. When we walk through the doors of the arena we most certainly become fans and as fans it’s easy to judge and critique without in-depth knowledge or understanding.  I try to remind myself that these guys struggle with the same stuff I as a wrestler struggled with and that my teenage athletes deal with. Getting athletes to that fine line when they step into that highly charged atmosphere of an NCAA Tournament or high school state championship is a product of good coaching and psychology.

At this year’s state tournament my team lost seven one point matches on the first day. This was the difference between making a run at a state championship and taking fourth. Since that weekend I have asked myself why on the daily. On the trip to Cleveland it was discussed between my assistant and I numerous times.  We are searching for answers. Some of it is coaching ego where we believe we can have that big of an impact and some of it has to do with talent. When we had really talented kids with great skill and preparation it was easy to say we peeked at the right time. But then there are the other parts of the puzzle we definitely have direct control over. Practice structure, competition structure and schedule, time off, individual psychology, focus, mindset and a myriad of other things come to mind when trying to break down what brings out the best in athletes on that final weekend of the season.

Teams and individuals that reach peak performance have some identifiable traits that coaches can strive to within their respective programs. Confidence, a keen focus on the task at hand, positive energy and a spirit of fun seem to be universal for those teams that reach or even exceed their potential at the definitive moment. If our focus on a daily basis is on these very same traits throughout the process I believe our mental approach will be better trained to handle the pressure down the stretch. My kids this year lacked some of these traits and I truly believe it helped determine some of the outcome. We need to look at that culture and ensure we are truly committed to the process and a mindful approach with our daily dialogue and behavior as coaches and teammates. Taking a snap shot of a part of a tournament is probably not the best way to assess overall performance and preparation but looking back it’s easy to ask the “what if’s” had we won all seven rather than lost. Just focusing on that one stat we cannot identify specific areas of weakness. My initial knee jerk reaction was “mental toughness” but it also behooves us to look at the psychological and technical aspect of what took place.

After taking a step back from it and trying to remove the emotion I could see that the majority of our losses were due to being deficient in the bottom position and a lack of mat strategy or what some would call “savvy.”

The problems on bottom are quantitative and a very tangible issue. This is preparation and comes directly back to the coach. I also believe we didn’t have that fun, competitive hungry spirit that peak teams have. This is an element that is not so quantitative but one as a seasoned coach I believe to be real and fixable starting with culture. In some way our culture of fun, ferocious competitors failed us. With that said, I leave you with a quote from the preeminent author of our generation.

“You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard….How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.”

-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Blog post #21 – Father, Coach, Practice…..

Running into my office after school Burke says, “Ok if we’re going to do this let’s get it done I got shit to do.”

“Woe, what’s the hurry? Have a big date?”

“I have a life. I don’t spend every hour at work like you.”

Stripping out of his clothes he puts on a pair of dirty shorts and shirt lying in the corner. He grabs a pair of old shoes from a box in my office and walks out.

I like to sweat and get my joints warm when I wrestle so I pull on my long sleeve sweat shirt over a long sleeve t-shirt and step into a pair of sweatpants with holes in the knees. I grab my shoes from under my desk and slide them on, keeping the laces undone and loose like a pair of slippers. I look at the wall in my office and remind myself to stay positive.

I smile and say to his picture on my wall, “Today I break you.”

Jr WorldTeam Trial is less than two weeks away and he needs to be ready.

Burke could care less about sweating so he dresses lite but he likes to compete and win so he’s here because of that so am I.

As we walk into the dark, warm wrestling room he says, “Practicing with you sucks you’re too fat. I should be outside enjoying the sun.”

I mumble something about paying a price or not being lazy that he doesn’t hear nor cares too. We never turn the lights on during these workouts. I don’t know if we are afraid the light will expose what we are truly thinking or we simply like the diffused natural light that enters through the upper windows and the subsequent ambiance.

He’s been coming to this room with the purple mats, padded walls and smell of sweat since he was six. It’s a hard room, a room filled with tears and the brutality of combat but it’s also where we could forget our differences for an hour or two. A place where nothing else mattered but wrestling.

“We will go for an hour straight, start off drilling and work into live.” I say. “Let’s just jog to warm-up for 15 minutes and then go live.” He offers.

“How about we drill for 10 and then build into live.”

“Whatever, let’s just get it done with.”

“I’ll be the coach you be the wrestler ok?”

He starts to jog, rolling his shoulders I follow suit just behind him. None of his high school teammates are willing to come today so by default I’m his partner. It’s tough to find partners when the sun has finally clawed through the Western Washington cloud deck in what seems like months. At 42 years old I’m again his partner. When he was a toddler we would fake wrestle on the living room carpet. Much has changed since then. I no longer tickle him after rolling in each other’s arms and he doesn’t giggle in delight.

We stop jogging and face each other. He groans as I reach out and put my hands on his shoulders leaning into him. His arms react by coming up inside mine controlling my biceps pushing and then pulling. I move with him as if we are doing some rudimentary waltz.

We take turns taking each other to the mat than bounce back to our feet only to return again in a different way. This is give and take applying the right amount of resistance and look. Even though I have been wrestling since the same age as when he started this isn’t easy. I don’t worry about making it physically through an hour practice I worry about making it through mentally.

He needles me wanting to make me pay for having him come in and practice on a beautiful spring day. I could say ‘fuck it” and let him go but I trudge ahead holding him accountable. I think he said he wanted to be a champion not me. As we drill he delivers a constant critique.

“Jesus, that’s not how you do it. Don’t do it if you’re not going to do it right.” He scolds me. A year ago that would have been me saying the same thing. Just past his senior season in high school he feels license to talk shit. Something he has perfected to bring about the quickest degree of irritation in me. The ten minutes of drilling I worked so hard to convince him to do has quickly eroded into full live wrestling.  He scores the first mental takedown before we have even started. If he can for this small period of time minimize me to something other than his dad or coach or the guy in charge he has gained precious personal freedom. Our relationship now is so much about control.

I try to get my grip on him as he tries to dissect me like a surgeon. Our style of wrestling mirrors our relationship, me wanting to keep some kind of grasp and he staying away moving and sticking. Everything he does I taught him I know him as well as he knows himself. My composure gets him irritated as he slaps my ear. Like a bull I put my head in his face and stalk forward. He punches me in the shoulder bouncing away. I plod ahead squaring my stance and lowering my center of gravity.

“Are you too slow and old to shoot on me?” He laughs like a gambler who thinks he beat the house.

“Oh, tough guy wants to punch me?”  I taunt back.

“It’s wrestling don’t be such a baby.”

Now it’s about pride he has taken us here. I have taken us here. We are both suckers for foolish pride. I will give up takedowns to him, some charity some earned but never will I let him not be my son.

So much of this is pomp and some is just salt we pour on each other’s self-imposed wounds. Now, I laugh thinking how irritated he is. I am now under his skin, not my seventy pound weight advantage or my old man’s strength but my patience and composure has slowly slid into his psyche.

Shoving him on his heels he backs up continuing his stream of shit talk. He shoots low under my outstretched arms. I sprawl and land on him causing him to grunt. Before I can spin behind he circles back to his feet.

“Why don’t you do something other than try and fat me?”

“Why don’t you stand your ground and fight?” I say trying to force my will. I want to keep him here in my control for a while make him pay for all the talking and the attitude. But what I really want to do is make him work and just be close to him. I want to laugh with him and talk about wrestling with him like we used to when he was in fourth or fifth grade and begged his mom to bring him to practice right after school got out. I also want to make him deal with the strength the pressure of a 200 pound man. I also don’t want to lose him to all the things outside these walls? Our sweat drips down our foreheads as our chests heave for oxygen. Our words have become as choppy as our movements.

Thirty, forty minutes go by until exhaustion steals our pride. We lay on the mat. I can hear him breath.

“Are we done?”

“Yes.” I say my eyes closed.

He gets up and walks out the door.

“Don’t forget to do your homework.”

The door closes as I lay in a pool of sweat and he runs to the locker room.

I get get up head out of the dark wrestling room and I see his body jogging down the hallway toward the outside doors, jogging toward the sun, his friends and freedom. “Later Dad” he yells waving his hand.

Blog post #20 – It may not be what you think.

When I was a kid my dad told me, “Never pick on anyone because you just don’t know what they are going through and how close they may be to giving up.” That advice has apparently stuck with me and has served me well. My dad knew something when he told me that and I’m sure had an experience where you can’t always read a book by its cover.

This past weekend on our way to the Olympic Peninsula for our final invitational tournament of the season I loaded up the kids in the van at 6:00 am. We were behind the high school on the dark service road with the last of the nights rain falling.

It reminded me of a time early in my career. Like so many moments these days it hit me like it was yesterday. We were headed to some tournament, it may have been the same one as Saturday I can’t remember. It was a dark winter morning with kids slumbering into the vans, trying to continue what their parents had interrupted only minutes before. I distinctly remember one of my better wrestlers didn’t show up that morning many years ago. I waited and stalled asking if anyone knew anything but of course the half conscious kids laying in the seats had no clue. It started to get late and after a few futile phone calls to his house I left my office, climbed back into the van resigned to the fact he wasn’t showing up and headed out.

The young man in question was a quiet, smart, brown haired, hundred and ninety pounder that backed into the sport at the prodding of my assistants and I. By the time he was a senior he was pretty good. Not necessarily good enough to beat out our 178 pound kid in challenges but good enough to be a potential state placer. He was one of those kids you never had to worry about. A good student who was steady and always where he was supposed to be. That was the strange thing about him not showing up that morning.

I was still a young head coach, in my early thirties but having already had a fair amount of success I was hungry and driven to build a winning squad. Having one of my better kids not make the van for what I probably deemed as the most important thing he or I had to do that Saturday grated on me as we rolled down the highway. The tournament came and went and I remember none of it to this day. Couldn’t tell you who won or lost or even what our team placed. What I do remember is how irritated I was that this kid never showed and it festered all day Sunday during my day off. I planned the ass chewing I was going to give him Monday before practice with the possibility of collecting his singlet and sending him on his way. I was actually that upset. This kid had violated the basic foundation of loyalty I was trying to build and the concept of accountability to a team.

By Monday and our meeting I had calmed down a bit but still unloaded a pretty good verbal beat down. He had said his alarm clock didn’t go off or something to that nature. I bought his story as much as I could buy any seventeen year olds story (which isn’t much) and moved on. Nothing was ever said about it from that point on although I will admit I had lost a substantial bit of trust in him. I just couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind who valued the team and sport could be late or miss a van. Admittedly I was a tad tunnel visioned.

A couple weeks passed and like most issues when working with young people this too faded into the dusty annals of history. One random morning I was in my office and a teammate of his came in and asked if he could speak with me. He said he wanted to make sure I knew the truth about why his teammate didn’t show up for the van the other weekend. He went onto tell that the morning we left the one-ninety pounder’s dad came out and told him he couldn’t leave because he hadn’t told him the night before he had a tournament. A subsequent argument ensued and his dad grabbed a baseball bat and smashed the headlights of his car (he had paid for with his own money). In a panic, knowing he would be letting his team and coaches down he grabbed his gym bag and ran the four miles from his house to the high school in hopes of catching us before we left. Exhausted and cold he staggered into the parking lot only to find it empty and the vans long gone.

I was taken aback by the story and couldn’t wait to talk to the kid and apologize for ripping him for not showing up. His teammate however told me that he promised not to say anything as that was the hundred and ninety pounders wishes. I had really laid into him in the office weeks before and railed about the importance of loyalty and commitment but couldn’t violate the trust of his teammate. He was proud and ultimately didn’t want anyone to know his struggles at home. The three of us carried this giant elephant around for the rest of the season without saying a word. My respect and admiration for this kid grew daily while still respecting the fact that he did not want anyone to know the truth. He lived with me and his teammates thinking he neglected to make the bus to save face for his family.

At regionals that year he was sick with the flu and barely squeaked threw to state. As a fourth place qualifier his chances of placing were slim and I don’t think anyone expected much more than a couple handshakes and a few free meals for him. Astonishingly, with three consecutive wins he made it to the state finals. Ironically, his teammate he lost to in challenges at 178 ended up placing third that year.

For the first time in his wrestling career his parents came to watch him wrestle. As a three year starter and numerous home matches and tournaments this was the only time they took the time to support their son. He lost that night to a better wrestler.

After the season we talked about the morning he missed the van. I apologized for coming down so hard on him and he of course said it was ok and that I didn’t know. He graduated with honors and joined the military after high school. Many years later, just by chance I bumped into him and his fiancé walking on the boardwalk by the Everett water front the day before their wedding. I finally had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him and told his fiancé she couldn’t have found a more loyal guy. It’s true she really couldn’t have.

I have not seen him since but he taught me a lot more than I ever taught him and I will never forget the lesson I learned from that cold winter morning so many years ago.

Blog entry #17 – Practice Toughness

This has been a long week for the Berzerkers. Our run started with a long trip to Montana featuring two days of tough competition and ended with back to back nights of away dual matches culminating with a late Thursday night arrival home after two tough team losses. I front loaded our schedule in December out of necessity to see some specific opponents and attend a couple key tournaments knowing it wouldn’t be easy. There is a level of individual and collective toughness that is necessary to compete at a high level over such a grueling stretch. This part of our journey is all a test regardless and the outcome on the scoreboard is insignificant compared to how we as a team handle these challenges and what we take from it in terms of growth. Going into this stretch is like buckling your seat belt because there’s going to be a few jolts getting from zero to a hundred in such a short distance. By Wednesday night I could see the teams tank getting pretty emotionally empty. Like any difficult endeavor wrestling requires passion and emotion to get to that fine line of excellence. We knew going in what the challenge was and what was needed but still didn’t have that extra “toughness” that was required. I can’t count how many times as a coach I’ve said you need to be tough or toughen up or this is gonna be tough without ever defining what I really mean when I use the term “tough.”

We define our sport by the word Toughness. As coaches and participants we drape ourselves in a cloak of perceived mental and physical rigor that we believe few others are willing to burden. When we describe a great wrestler we refer to them most often as “tough.” When we don’t succeed we usually reason that we were not tough enough or our opponent was just tougher than us. To be honest I can’t say if our opponents were any tougher than we were the other night but I can tell you they had better energy, intensity, in some cases technique and strength and ultimately more points on the scoreboard but I must admit I left the gym with the initial thought that we were not very tough. I’ve really contemplated this “toughness” issue and it’s led me to postulate on what the term toughness really means. It’s so much a part of our sport and our code as wrestlers we have three very visible references to it in our practice room alone.

Toughness by definition is:



adjective, tough·er, tough·est.

1 strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.

Pretty simple, but I think we or at least I put a lot more meaning into this one word, so much so I believe specific sports create their own individual definition of what toughness means. For example, I view toughness in part as the ability to toil or endure the monotony required in a sport where part of its practice requires repetition. In football you may use the term as how well a guy takes or delivers a hit. How about those individuals who are disciplined enough to set and live by strict priorities, isn’t this toughness? Is moral integrity part of toughness or how about the grit to keep getting up when you’ve been knocked down time and time again? Dealing with both success and failure in a way that continues growth requires both maturity and a certain level of toughness in my opinion. The human nature or psychology of “fight or flight” will contribute to wether we are perceived as tough or even weak. The caveman that hung around to fight the tiger was only as tough as a piece of chuck roast in the end while the caveman who ran and survived stakes his claim for toughness on being durable and a survivor. So, toughness is a broad term we throw around in the wrestling room like a Suples’ dummy and can mean many things to many people. The term toughness is like the concept of love – we know it when we feel it but it’s hard to describe. I do however, love toughness.

In recent years I have tried to define what I mean by toughness to my team. Good communication is good coaching and I want my charges to fully understand what it means to be tough in the Lake Stevens Wrestling Program. We practice toughness daily and I define to the wrestlers what this means. It means we come prepared to the wrestling room with the discipline to focus and be present. We wrestle through nagging injuries and practice dealing with hardship. We sacrifice for others and at times put our needs aside to assist others. We never quit no matter how bad the beating. We keep our chin up and refrain from self pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. We show self-control and poise in the face of extreme adversity or antagonism. We never make excuses or blame someone else for our failures. We do our best, exhibited by our actions (this is important – don’t tell. Show!) no matter what the situation.

That’s a lot of meaning for one word but since we should be transparent in what we say and what we say is usually what we think it behooves us to define exactly what we are thinking when we utter the word toughness.