A while back I wrote a very long detailed post about my experiences as a Penn State Wrestler. You can read that here: My Penn State Wrestling Experience but one of the purposes of this post is different than that one. That post recounted a lot of my stories from my career as a Penn State Wrestler. This post has a singular focus. To compile and focus on some of the core lessons from my PSU experiences. Specifically, from my head coach, Cael Sanderson. We learned so many lessons about the sport, life, and became elite wrestlers as well as people thanks to these lessons. I could talk about what I learned from Coach Cael and company for hours, but to keep this brief and effective I will simply break down 7 Core Lessons I was taught, one for each minute in a college wrestling match!
The 7 Core Lessons I will teach will be as follows:
1. Have a Growth Mindset
2. Effort and Attitude > Results
3. Practice Gratitude
4. Want it More
5. Don’t Fight Negative Thoughts, Replace Them.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Lose
7. Be Proud Regardless of Results
These lessons among others were some of the most crucial I learned in my time at Penn State. Lessons that are repeatedly mentioned and reinforced across many books that I have read from some world renown authors and successful people such as Mark Cuban, Stephen Covey, Seth Godin, John C. Maxwell and many others. These lessons are important to wrestling but arguably more important to life. You may not wrestle your entire life, but you will be successful in whatever you pursue if you apply these principles. I’m not saying that because of a bias, I am saying that because I’ve experienced it firsthand, either in my own life or in the lives of my teammates. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Coach Cael, was to have a growth mindset.
Have a Growth Mindset: The Permanent Beta.
Perhaps one of the first lessons I was ever taught at Penn State by coach Cael was a mindset we call the Permanent Beta. The concept of this is that we are always working to improve. No matter what level of success we’ve achieved we hunt the next thing always working to be better than we were yesterday. The goal here isn’t perfection, or mastery even. Coach Cael taught us that we will never be perfect, so it doesn’t make any sense to chase perfection. The goal should ways be progress and a continuation of the process. Much the same way technology is ever changing and improving we as people, as wrestlers should always be improving.
The idea of the permanent beta is really a growth mindset at heart. In her book appropriately named Mindset, Carol Dweck talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. To put it simply, a fixed mindset is one that believes things are fixed and finite, for example, “I can’t get any smarter, I am born as smart as I can be.” The flip side for the Growth Mindset would be, “I am not as smart as others, but I can work hard and study extra to become smarter than I have ever been before!” The idea here is that if you have a growth mindset than challenges turn into opportunity, losses into lessons, and your outlook on life becomes much more positive. No longer will you view things as a fixed result, everything can change! Everything can get better, if you allow yourself to believe it and focus on the growth, the process, and adopt a growth mindset. I like to say that I am better than I was yesterday, that’s all that matters to me. Chasing another day to improve myself, not worrying about what happened prior. A huge part of that is that I focus on what I can control, my effort and my attitude, NOT THE RESULTS!
Effort and Attitude Are More Important than Results:
Two thing Coach Cael taught us often was that we control few things in our lives. If you really think about it hard it’s a difficult concept at first but gets easier to understand. When we make choices, they have consequences but ultimately, we have no control over these consequences. What we do have control over is our Effort and our Attitude. This is a direct quote from a paper from a speech Coach Cael gave us my freshman year called “Five Skills to be a National Champion” Skill 1: Be able to focus on effort instead of outcome. In coach Cael’s notes on it he says this: “Be able to relax and be confident that your goal is to simply to do the best that you can. Live the lifestyle of a champion. Follow the game plan. Do the things we work on in practice every day and go out there and have fun. Relax, have fun, fight and wrestle 420!! Live in gratitude.”
As you can see Coach Cael put more emphasis on our effort than anything else. You don’t win a match based on your skills, your strength, your intelligence or anything else alone. You win based on your effort to utilize all of these. If your effort is higher than your opponents, you will often win more than you lose. Coach Cael says that the goal is “to do the best that you can” nothing about winning or chasing the results. If you do the best you can and give everything you’ve got, then you will be very hard to beat. One thing Cael often said as a caveat though was that perceived and actual effort were different. Perceived effort is what happens when you do as much as you THINK you can do, this limits your actual effort often because you hit what is often called “the wall”. The max effort is almost always much more than this, you simply need to apply yourself a little more each time. It’s similar to lifting weights, the more you do over time the stronger you will get. The only time I ever truly saw Coach Cael upset was when he was frustrated with levels of effort, never results. He would be madder if you wrestled with less effort and won than if you wrestled with complete whistle to whistle effort and lost. Effort and Attitude go hand in hand, and the next attitude I am going to talk about is the most important one Coach Cael taught my team; and attitude of gratitude, as Coach Cael said in the above quote “Live in gratitude.”
Practice Gratitude: Live with an Attitude of Gratitude:
Aside from the permanent beta that Coach Cael taught us an Attitude of Gratitude was perhaps the most impactful lesson I learned. Applying gratitude daily is something that wasn’t always easy for me at first. It really isn’t to this day. But, once I start practicing an attitude of gratitude much of my life changed. I was able to start finding the good in everything, counting my blessings every day and among other things ALWAYS felt I was improving. Even my worst practices were productive because I was grateful for everything. Wins were opportunities to be proud of my hard work, losses turned into lessons to make me better. Coach Cael used to have us write down something we were grateful for each and every day, and also encouraged us to write down two things SPECIFIC to wrestling that we were grateful. Maybe we hit a takedown we’ve been working on, or maybe we got close to a takedown on someone better than us, whatever it may be we should be grateful for it.
One thing I want to say about gratitude from my own experience is to let you know that gratitude means being grateful for everything, GOOD and BAD. It’s even more important to be grateful for the bad things in life because those are what make us stronger, better, or remind us of how great we have it. The pure ability to be happy means that we must also sometimes be sad. You’ll never know happiness without sadness because they are two sides to the same coin. If you never lose a match, you’ll never understand the happiness that comes from victory. Now, that’s not to say it will be easy to be grateful for everything bad, some things are simply too difficult to bear at times. However, this is when gratitude for those around us becomes crucial, being grateful for the support we have, the people who love us, your faith, they become crucial aspects of an attitude of gratitude. When my high school career ended on a loss I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t punching walls, I was laughing with my coaches who had seen me through my high school career. Happy and grateful to have ended my career at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, that I wrestled period. It’s not easy to be grateful for a loss but it’s important because losses are lessons when you live with gratitude. When it came time for what I knew would be the last match of my college career I reflected on that loss and thought about how far I had come since then. A career at Penn State, at the time 3 of what would become 4 Team Titles in my tenor, I was able to go into that last match happy, grateful and free. I pinned my opponent in the first period and took 3rd in the tournament. My high school career ended on a loss, but my college and thus overall career ended on a win. I am eternally grateful to my coaches at Penn State, my high school coaches, and all the club coaches in my career who made it possible to be where I am today. Living gratitude is the most important thing I can impart on an athlete, more than any technique I could ever show. Live with Gratitude. Now, Coach Cael was all about fun, effort, and these would lead to wins, but only if you wanted to win.
How do you win? You Want it MORE!
When I was a kid, I used to occasionally hear “You gotta want it!” from parents and coaches. I never really understood what that meant, even as a high school athlete. Now, that said I kind of always figured it was generic coach speak. Similar to the many you hear in various sports. Generic Coach Speak is not something Cael Sanderson uses. Some things he says are metaphors that can be construed as cliches but when he explains what it means to “Want it” it’s very different than the way I initially interpreted it. Let me first preface this point that Wanting it more doesn’t always mean you will win. There are no certainties in life outside of death and taxes, similarly there are no certainties in sports. Especially not in wrestling. I have seen so many matches where it looks like the one wrestler has it in the bag and gets beat. I have been in that situation on both sides of it. The common theme here is WANTING to WIN but not for any other reason. Allow me to explain Wanting it MORE as Coach Cael first explained it to me.
When I first stepped foot in the Penn State wrestling room I was pretty nervous. I didn’t really have any expectations of my career. I wasn’t a blue-chip recruit; I wasn’t even a state champ. There was any reason for me to think that I’d ever even be competing for a starting spot at that point. But they still expect every Penn State Wrestler to believe they can be a National Champion. So, one of the first things they teach us is how to win. Not by teaching some amazing impossible to stop technique but rather reframing how we view winning. When I grew up I always thought there were a million reasons to win a wrestling match. To make my parents proud, to impress my coaches, to make my haters eat their words, whatever it may be. When I got to PSU I learned a whole different way to look at it. Coach Cael said this in the pre-season meeting “What reason do we have to win?” My teammates and I all gave different answers but he said this in response. “Those are all reasons sure, but there’s really only one reason, because you want to!” Our team was all in agreeance that it was a bit confusing but it makes sense. But to help us understand Cael also said this “The flip side of it is that there’s a million reasons to lose, there’s only one reason to win, because you want to.” It is profound once you start to think about it. So let me explain.
Wanting to win and actually winning are different. Wanting to win doesn’t mean wanting to win for any other reason other than the desire to win. You don’t want to win because your parents will be proud, or you’ll help your team. You want to win because YOU WANT TO! And if you lose, Coach Cael would simply say “You didn’t want it enough.” I lost a match to a UVA wrestler at the Lock Haven open my junior year. I tried to take him down with some dumb move at the end and Coach Cael basically just said those exact words. At first I’ll admit I was defensive but then he explained; I was in on a few shots that I didn’t finish, I didn’t start my end of match sprint to try and take the lead early enough to score the points needed to win the right way, among other things. Now, these aren’t excuses, these are factual reasons I lost that match. I did not want to win bad enough to finish takedowns on the edge, to set up a good shot. The very next match I tech-falled my opponent in 3 minutes and 2 seconds. After that match Coach Cael said “You wanted that one!”
Now, as I have said there’s a difference between wanting to win and actually winning but there’s also a difference between simply wanting to win and “wanting it more”. Everyone wants to win, no one goes out there to lose. But wanting it more than the other guy means something bigger. It means being willing to take risks, it means finishing takedowns, mat returning the guy and riding tough on top. Seeking to score points. Wrestlers who want to win more don’t just seek the win, they seek dominance, they seek to score points and put on a show. The best athletes in the world don’t just want to win when it comes game time, they want to win all the time. They do the things that others don’t because they want it more. That said one thing almost every elite athlete I’ve ever known has been world class at is filtering the thoughts about what it means to win and lose. They don’t want to win for selfish reasons, they want to win because it’s what they love to do. They want it more because they seek to be positive in their lives and success is significantly more positive than failure. But failure and negative thoughts are a part of life as much as they’re a part of sports, particularly wrestling.
Don’t think about a Pink Elephant! Replace that thought!
On any given day a normal person may have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Research shows that generally about 80% of those can be dominated by negative thoughts. In a quote from a speech Coach Cael gave my team and I before Nationals in 2018 after we lost the BIG10 Tourney to Ohio State. Coach Cael wanted to reaffirm that we could and would still win the National Championships in Cleveland that year. And obviously after losing to them we had a lot of negative thoughts and publicity going around. Cael wanted to right the ship, this is a snippet from what he said to us: “Be clear on what you want. Align your thoughts with what you truly want. When the negative thoughts appear you simply say “no thanks” and replace those thoughts with, “I am ready.” Just like you don’t sit in an opponent’s tie up, you don’t sit and play with negative thoughts. Don’t fight negative thoughts, replace them. Eventually your mind tires of playing this game and will move on to another thought. “The effort used to fight against or resist worry and nerves, is the very thing that perpetuates worry and keeps it going.” – Dr. Matthew Chappel. This is the same truth as the pink elephant idea. If you want to think about Pink Elephants, all you have to do is try not to think about them, etc.” As I stated in the above core principles list replacing negative thoughts is important to life as well as wrestling. It’s very easy for our minds to see the negative, to be on alert. After all it is our primal instincts to sense danger, so we’re wired to see the bad and think of the bad before the good. But as Coach Cael said when a negative thought comes to mind you don’t need to fight it, you clear it away by acknowledging it and letting it go. If you go out to wrestle a wrestler ranked higher than you, you might tell yourself you already lost before the match starts. But, if you instead tell yourself “No thanks. I am ready.” You will allow that thought to pass through. It’s better to let the thought go and replace it with a powerful, positive thought.
An example from my own life is that often when I have a negative thought I like to think of something positive like my dogs, or adorable nephews. I don’t even sit and dwell on the negative thought really. Just find a reason to be grateful and happy again. I always tell myself find something to smile and laugh about every day, and it’s a good day. Don’t fight your negative thoughts, don’t wrestle with doubts. Tell them both they have no place in your head, then replace them with the certainty that you are ready. “I am ready!” and when doubt makes you question yourself again, remind yourself of one thing, that you can’t doubt yourself because you’re not afraid to lose.
Don’t Be Afraid to Lose!
“Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again. Fail better” -Irish Poet Sam Beckett. I love this quote because it embodies what it means to succeed in life. Success in life comes from trying, trying can lead to success or failure. But, both are really two sides to the same coin. Failure is what pushes us forward. Failing in the gym makes you stronger, failing in life makes you wiser, failing in wrestling gives you stuff to work on. No elite wrestler is perfect. No elite athlete period is perfect. As fans and bystanders you watch some athletes and don’t believe they’ve ever experienced failure. Quite the contrary, almost all of them have experienced so much failure it would break most other athletes, what makes them different is how they responded to it. A sword is heated up, beaten and forged into shape before it becomes a lethal weapon, the same goes for an athlete. How do we use failure as a springboard for success? We no longer fear losing.
In a speech given my freshman year Coach Cael talked about a story which he called “How do we move forward with peace of mind and confidence?” One little excerpt sticks out from this that talks about how confident athletes act: ” This is the same way confidence comes. Confident wrestlers compete more boldly, aggressively, fearlessly, and at the same time they are more relaxed and loose, not worried about making mistakes or even being afraid to lose. No question this is how we get the absolute most out of our potential and opportunities.” The key takeaway here is that confidence comes from being unafraid to take risks, to make mistakes, or even to lose. If you’re not willing to lose you’re not going to win. As the famous author Napoleon Hill once said “You can’t reach second base if you don’t take your foot off first.” If a wrestler learns at a young age to take risks, to try moves and not care about win or lose they will become dangerous once those risks become higher reward than risks. Once I have shot a certain takedown so many times and been defended in practice and matches I will eventually fix what’s not working about it until it becomes unstoppable (i.e. John Smith’s low single, Jordan Burroughs’ Blast Double) This is how the sport works. Those who take risks succeed. Those who play it safe may win sometimes, but those who are willing to lay it all on the line are usually the ones who don’t just win, they dominate. Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal are two of the most dominate wrestlers I have ever seen, and I can tell you this. In practice, they will try anything. They imparted this on me to the point where I tried one move so much I actually hit on Frank Molinaro. I wasn’t afraid to lose in the room, when it came to matches I started trying big moves there too and it was way more fun than wrestling conservatively.
To summarize this another way, Coach Cael often refers to this premise as wrestling free. When we can wrestle with no regards for the result we can wrestle without worry. We will take a shot and not worry about whether or not we finish it but rather that we will keep shooting until we become able to finish that on everyone. We will try turns and positions that we might not have mastered because if we don’t try it we’ll never know if it would work. Wrestling is 3 parts effort 1 part skills. If your skills are high and your effort is high you will be unstoppable. But how do we develop skills? We practice, we try moves in matches, live wrestling, etc. and we do so with ZERO FEAR OF LOSING! Why? Because results don’t matter. I had teammates who were undefeated in high school, who won world titles, they won National Championships. But I had some teammates who did the same things and didn’t. I had teammates who never won a state title and became a National Champion. I have teammates who won one state title and became a Champ. How did all these wrestlers achieve this? Because they don’t chase the result, they wrestle with freedom, they’re not afraid to lose. They are willing to take the risks others won’t, so they can do the things others can’t.
Be Proud, Regardless of the Result!
I’m gonna start this part off with a quote from a speech Coach Cael gave after we won the 2017 National Title and went 5 for 5 in National Finals for individuals about not letting people blow up our egos, telling us to “Not inhale” : “If you inhale it always becomes about not screwing up in the future. It becomes about defending a championship instead of winning another one. It becomes about maintaining our reputation instead of staying hungry and excited to go win another one. If you inhale you will value winning more than your effort and attitude. Effort and attitude will always be more important than winning. Inhale that! That is freedom and coincidentally will give you your best results. But that is not why we value effort and attitude more than winning and losing, we do that because it is an eternal truth that is backed up with evidence that you can feel in your heart and soul.” Now, this point is powerful because results are often the measuring stick for life in almost every facet. Early in our academic career we get grades, in the start of our athletic careers they still keep score really, and there’s winners and losers. However, in wrestling I know so many athletes who won early and that didn’t pan out later. I also know many who lost early and became exceptional later in life. Coach Cael really never put a focus on winning individual matches. Our expectations were to win National titles and obviously to do that you had to win matches. But, it was still never about winning. If we did our best and gave our total effort wins would come. As I mentioned before effort and attitude were considered the most important attributes to winning. Not skills, not strength, EFFORT and ATTITUDE. How do you get a poor attitude with regards to wrestling? Make it about winning. How do you make it about winning? Don’t be proud of your athlete when they lose, show them you only care about winning and so will they. Coach Cael actually wrote a wonderful piece about this exact idea that you can read here: “How do I help my Kid Become a Great Wrestler the main point Coach Cael makes in this post is that if you want your athlete to become exceptional, be proud of them regardless of the result. Even as a coach I sometimes have to make myself think about the fact that I can’t show I am frustrated if an athlete loses. I don’t really mind losing if they wrestle tough, sometimes I get frustrated but I make sure the athlete knows I am proud.
The best thing I can teach any athlete, parent, or other coach is to STOP VALUING WINS ABOVE EFFORT! Sorry, that had to be in all caps because this really is a game changing way to look at sports in general. If you can show your athlete you’re proud, or if you are the athlete that you’re proud even in a loss it will change the sport for them. Valuing wins too much will create an unrealistic expectation for your athlete. No one will be undefeated their entire life. Cael lost in his redshirt year but didn’t lose in college, but he lost in Freestyle. Dan Gable lost his last match of his career after being undefeated. 4xer Kyle Dake had losses to guys who never even won a title. EVERYONE LOSES! If you can be proud of your efforts, you will go far. If you are prioritizing EFFORT AND A GOOD ATTITUDE you are winning, even in a loss.
I am not saying that results are significant, they are for sure in many ways. No time state champs don’t really get full rides to college, but I know a lot of guys who never even placed in states who go and wrestle for the best schools. I know this because I am one, and three of my best friends were also in the same boat. It’s not always about your accolades, it’s often more about your intangibles, you can be an elite 4x state champ but if your attitude sucks most people won’t see you as a sure thing. EFFORT and ATTITUDE, not wins, not medals, not trophies. If you have high skill, high effort, and a world class attitude, you can be decorated in accolades with almost absolute certainty. But you must first cultivated these things by devaluing winning and focusing on them alone.
Thank you! I hope this helps!
Thank you so much if you’ve read this far. It means the world to me that people read what I write because I put a lot of thought, time and love into each and every one of these. Whether 2 people read it or 10,000 people I don’t care either way I am always happy to help anyone! So thank you again for making it this far!
If you enjoyed the post please share it with someone you think might find value in it. Whether that is an athlete, a coach, a friend, a family member etc. If this post can help anyone I will have helped repay part of my debt to this sport. I am eternally grateful for these lessons I learned from Coach Cael and my other coaches and teammates at Penn State. I am the man I am today because of all of you. Thank you and God Bless.
Have a lovely day! – Coach Pat Higgins, Penn State Class of 2019 (Four Time Team Champions)
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