How do you become Elite at Wrestling?

So, how do you become Elite at wrestling?

There’s a very simple answer to this question really. Hard work, a lot of support, and patience. Becoming elite at any sport takes time, and tremendous effort combined with a multitude of other factors. As a coach I spend a lot of time contemplating what I can do to make this process faster and more fun. I also spend a lot of time studying success, not just in our sport but in other sports and life in general. Previously I shared a list of some great books that I have read on these topics. Here’s that list:

This list is curated from a lot of books on the topic that I have finished. The mindsets and lessons taught in many of these books are paramount to achieving success and part of what I will talk about in this post. I will talk about common themes to becoming successful at wrestling or any sport as well as life. Now, this is not a one size fits all post. The process of becoming elite is different for everyone. This is simply a post to outline some of the common themes I have seen from my teammates and coaches at Penn State, and other elite athletes I have studied. As well as the themes from the many books on the topic I have read. I hope you enjoy it!

Step 1: Love the Sport

“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” This quote is something commonly told to adults about finding a job. If you have a job, you truly love, it’s easy to do that job. You don’t have to think about doing something it’s very easy to do it. Most people love a lot of things in life. If you love a certain food, you don’t think “do I want to eat this?” when it’s given to you, you just eat it. The same thing goes for a sport. If you love a sport, it’s never work. The most elite athletes in the world became that way because they were willing to put in work others weren’t willing to do. Why? Because they love it.

There are a lot of people who claim to love wrestling, a lot of coaches who claim to love wrestling and coaching but they don’t really mean it. If a coach doesn’t love it, the athletes notice right away. But if a coach loves it, the kids will see it and reciprocate. I as a coach love this sport. I have loved the sport more as a coach than I ever did as an athlete. I have had practices where I’ve had 2 kids, or no kids show up. Days like that make you question yourself, but your love speaks up and says, “press on!” So, my job as a coach is to impart a love of this sport on all the athletes I coach. Not every athlete will become an elite wrestler, some may not even finish their career. But if they love this sport for any duration of time, they will get a tremendous value from this sport! So question is, how do you love this sport?

How do you love a sport that entails so many things that aren’t necessarily fun? Getting slammed, having to lose weight just to be able to compete, getting cut, bruised, or injured. How do you love a sport where it’s basically an organized fight? There’s a simple answer, you love it because you have a coach who shows you all the fun and great aspects of it. All of the aforementioned aspects of wrestling are part of every single sport on earth. Any sport can cut you, get you injured, you will fall in almost every sport. The key is that you keep getting up. You do this by loving what you do. In studies done about some of the most successful musicians in the world learning at the Julliard School in New York City an early love for their craft made all the difference. Years ago, this study was done to compare those who were elite and those who were simply good. The common theme of those who were elite wasn’t that they started out as prodigies. It wasn’t that they had some innate talent for the instrument. It was that their first teachers were fun! They made them love the instrument because it was fun, it wasn’t work. It was NOT a “grind” it was a pleasure. Coming to practice at any age shouldn’t feel like work, at Penn State we had some hard practices, but for the most part we were EXCITED to go practice. Even my worst practices at Penn State were better than some practices I took part of in high school.

The key to fostering the love for the sport as a coach, as a parent, and as an athlete is to find the FUN in it. Love the sport for what it is, a game. And make it something that you’re excited to do each and every opportunity you have. Wrestling is an amazing sport, it becomes easy to get addicted to the wrong aspects of it. You might love winning, or love fame that comes with being good, but these things are a byproduct of the work, the process, and the love for the sport. If you’re interested in understanding more about why and how wrestling can be seen as fun, consider reading my post about the topic: (Wrestling is FUN!) The next step in becoming elite at this sport is a fun one to apply to wrestling but also life.

Step 2: Control your own Destiny; Control the Controllable.

“The cowards never started, the weak died out along the way. That leaves us.” – Joaquin Miller. I first heard this quote in the book Shoe Dogs by Phil Knight, the founder and first CEO of Nike. His college track coach who became his business partner would often say this to him. Now, this quote originally comes from American Frontiersmen Joaquin Miller who ventured out to California during the famous 1849 Gold Rush. If you are familiar with history at all, this was a dangerous time where many sought out wealth and a new life. Traveling thousands of miles in harsh terrain to get there. But, what was the difference between the cowards, the week, and the 49ers? Their belief about their destiny.

The cowards viewed the trip as impossible, no way could they make it and even if they did they’d never find gold. They believed it was impossible so it became so. The weak attempted to make it out there but either failed or turned around, never knowing what could’ve been either way. And those who made it, they became rich. But there’s a caveat, they did not become rich right away. Even making it to California didn’t guarantee gold. Once they got there they still had to do what was necessary to fulfill their destiny. This meant hard work, this meant controlling what they could control.

Prospecting for gold and becoming elite at wrestling aren’t all that different. Both take immense amounts of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. You will fail at times, you will experience wonderful successes. Sometimes you question if it’s all worth it. But what is the common theme between those who become elite wrestlers and those who found gold and became rich? They controlled what they could, and this controlled their destiny.

Controlling the controllable sounds very much like coach speak, because it really is. But it’s powerful once you actually understand what it means. To control what we CAN control really boils down to only a few things, so it’s simple to understand and thus take control of your destiny. To list what you DON’T control would take me ages, but I can list what you do control in three words; effort and attitude. You can only control these two aspects of your life, just about everything else is left to chance. A list of some things you DON’T control; genetics, where you were born, what your parents do for work, your school’s coaches, etc. There are many things in wrestling and life you don’t control. In the example of the 49ers, they couldn’t control what rivers had gold and which ones didn’t. They had to put in the work sifting through the dirt and sand to find gold flakes. Sometimes they found nuggets, sometimes they found specks, success was different day to day. But, what didn’t change was the work. 49ers knew they had to keep searching for gold, it was the only way to guarantee they’d find any. They had to believe and have a good attitude knowing that some days they wouldn’t find anything. Other days they’d find more in the first hour then the rest of the day. But it all came down to their efforts and their attitudes, which was all that they could control.

In wrestling it’s very much the same, we control our effort and our attitude. These two factors lead to everything else we do. How do we work hard in practice? Give amazing effort and have a great attitude about doing the work! How hard is it to love practice if you choose to have a great attitude about it? Answer; not hard at all. If you don’t have a great attitude, maybe you had a horrible day, how can you make up for it? Give your all the whole practice and give yourself a reason to be proud. Effort and attitude are all that we can control, we must focus in on both of them if you want to become elite at wrestling and life in general. If you believe you can be great you will work like it. If your attitude is that you’re going to practice so that you can get better and you couple that with amazing effort you will find yourself getting better. However, if your attitude is that practice is a waste of your time you won’t improve. You will quickly get embarrassed by those who do control their attitude and effort well. The most important thing about effort and attitude is to apply a heavy degree of patience to your career. Those who exercise control over their destiny and life often believe that everything needs to happen quickly, when in truth PATIENCE is the key to becoming elite.

Step 3: Temper your Expectations: 10,000 Hours to Greatness

A book I likely should’ve added to that reading list for any coach, parent, or high school athlete would have to be Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell. This book has become world renowned because it established a very basic, very simple rule to the achievement of any goal and becoming successful at any endeavor. The simple explanation? It takes time and focused practice! In his book Gladwell explains the ability of some to succeed where others fail and the factors that play a part in that. Such as hockey players being born before a certain date factoring into them being better then their peers and many other well researched connections to overall success. But one main theme is that it takes about 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE practice to become elite at something. Whether that be playing an instrument, a sport, or whatever that may be. Now, there’s 8,760 hours in a year but we can’t spend every single hour doing something like a sport, you need to sleep, eat, and do other things. So generally, Gladwell and others exploring his research say to become elite takes about FIVE years of deliberate practice.

Now, why do I keep saying deliberate practice? Because one thing Gladwell harps on is that it’s not just going through the motions that gets you to excellence, it’s focused effort that does that. This is where coaches come in. A coach’s job is to be able to help you understand what you need to do to improve, it’s also a coach’s job to make sure that you take control of your career as well. No matter what age, you must be willing to do the work yourself to improve. And even teaching this can take a lot of time to learn. So many athletes in so many sports start off doing a sport because someone else wants them to. The elite athletes take ownership of their career at an early age and seek to become better because they understand what they want out of it. However, you can’t rush greatness. You can’t have 18 years of experience at 14 years old. You need to temper your expectations and BE PATIENT!

10,000 Hours to greatness means it takes 10,000 hours! That’s 5 years at least. Even then, the truly elite never believe they’ve mastered what they do. But you still must employ patience to become elite at something. Tom Brady didn’t start as the JV quarterback on his high school’s 0-8 JV Team. Had he decided then that he sucked at football he may have never become perhaps the greatest ever. Michael Jordan was famously cut from his school’s team, what if he had been impatient and decided maybe he wasn’t a basketball player? Yet, many wrestlers decide early in their careers that they’re not cut out for this sport. Many parents judge their athlete’s accomplishments at 10 to be too insignificant to become great at this sport. At the time of writing, this past weekend was the Region tournament in New Jersey where I coach. This is the second step of the individual post season. Many of my younger athletes, Freshman and sophomores, didn’t make it out of Regions and did not advance to the state tournament. As a coach I have to get them to be patient and believe in the process. A very accomplished wrestler didn’t make it out of Districts as a freshman, he lost in region finals as a sophomore. Lost in state finals as a junior, and FINALLY won his state title as a senior. He is now a 2x NCAA Champion, 6x World and Olympic Champion and one of the greatest US Wrestlers ever, his name? Jordan Burroughs. Jordan is famous for writing all about the patience and growth he had to experience as a wrestler. His patience and trust in the process made him the man he is today. An idol to so many athletes and their families. Patience and persistence pay off.

My older brother Kieran grew up wrestling Jordan, they’re the same age in fact. My brother beat Jordan in 8th grade and many times before then, yet the trajectory of their high school careers was very different. My brother was an incredible athlete, he was good at anything he set his mind to. He was (still is) amazing at skateboarding. The things he could do as a wrestler I could never dream to attempt. He had all the building blocks of an elite wrestler, but lacked the ability to hone it the way Jordan was able to. There was a big difference in their career though, Kieran lacked patience. Kieran and my dad wanted results to be immediate, he couldn’t wait around for the process to take hold whereas Jordan was willing and did continue to work. If you want to be elite at this sport you need to temper expectations and be patient. Results at 10 do not guarantee results at 18. Results at 18 don’t guarantee results at 23. It all takes time and effort. I know plenty of wrestlers who were amazing at 10 and out of the sport by 15. I know many who were horrible at 10 and are achieving the pinnacle of success in high school. The timeline is different for everyone. The most important aspect of patience is that it means being willing to see the forest for the trees. You need to look at what’s ahead of you and be willing to take each brave step towards that goal, understand that the only way to reach it is to keep moving. It takes diligent hard work, patience, and a great attitude. Another common thing that I have seen from all of the elite athletes I know? Immense levels of support.

Step 4: Be Proud, No Matter What! Goes for Parent and Athlete.

In my previous post Lessons from Cael Sanderson: I talked about one core lesson that really changes the way this sport can go for you. The final lesson was “Be Proud, Regardless of the Result!” in this lesson I talked about a letter from Coach Cael that I found online which is he was asked the question: “How do I help my kid become a great wrestler?” You can read that here. There’s an excerpt from this that really sticks out to me every time I read it: “I tell them that the biggest mistake parents can make with their children in athletics (or
anything for that matter) is to blur the lines between why they support and love them. It is
very easy for kids to mistake why a parent is proud of them. Kids need to know that their
parents love them just because they are their son or daughter”
I believe this is so powerful because I have experienced this as a son, brother, athlete, and now as a coach. I have felt what it feels like to lose and feel the pressure that you let down your family. I felt the pressure of being alone because those who were supposed to love me unconditionally seemed to think less because I lost an athletic competition. Now as a coach I see it all the time, from parents, coaches, and even athletes. My goal as a coach is to make sure that every athlete knows I am extremely proud of them, NO MATTER WHAT! I implore any parent reading this to heed Coach Cael’s advice and be proud of your athlete NO MATTER WHAT! Show them that you’re proud of their effort win or lose and they will reward it with more effort.

I understand frustration after a loss, I get that there’s a lot of work that goes into making an athlete great. Parents move mountains just to help their athletes compete and do the sport in general. But, it is a powerful feeling knowing that no matter what happens you make those around you proud. Feedback has its place in performance but being proud needs to be evident in victory AND defeat. Parents, coaches, and athletes need to be proud of good effort, and a hard fought match. Kids are a lot smarter than we let on, they can tell when we fake pride. To truly be proud regardless of the result boils down to being proud that your athlete is so awesome! Just competing in the sport of wrestling; a one on one battle of wills is impressive enough. That deserves recognition, that deserves beaming pride from athletes, parents, and coaches. If you want your athlete to become elite, then we must work to always be proud of them. As a coach I am so proud of any athlete that goes out there and competes because the nerves it takes to go do that in front of others can’t be understated. Wrestlers are modern day gladiators, we go out there alone, the result fully on our shoulders. I am so proud of the fight that my athletes put up, I am never upset if they lose. Because Losses are lessons, nothing more. Be proud of yourself, of your athlete, because if they win, they will be excited, if they lose they will be upset, but if they know we are proud, they will be proud as well. The next lesson is one of the most important aspects of becoming great at life, at wrestling, at anything!

Step 5: Don’t Be Afraid! Take Risks, Take Chances. Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn!

“Who Dares Wins”- Motto of the British Special Air Service (SAS) I love to start these off with quotes because I’m a sucker for cliché coach speak but also because it becomes an easy introduction. For those who don’t know who the British SAS are they’re essentially the UK’s Navy Seals. The best of the best. Their motto “Who Dares Wins” is a source of pride but it’s also a reminder that the only way to achieve victory is to first try. I also have a second favorite quote that relates to this matter. “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter, try again, fail again. Fail better” by Samuel Beckett. The biggest pitfall in life in general is this unwillingness to take risks. Why do we fear risks? Because there’s always a consequence to our actions. But all growth in life comes from taking a risk and accepting the consequences. When first learn to walk, we will first fall down and sometimes hard. However, we all learn to walk at some point! At no point do we doubt ourselves and believe “I’ll never walk!” why? Because it’s primal instincts to learn to walk. I wrote a pretty expansive post on this exact point which you can read here (Centurion Mindset: Win or Get Better) but I will explain it a bit more here.

As a coach I often yell at my athletes to just simply take risk. That’s really all I want from them. I don’t want them to feel like they need to play it safe just to win. I would rather they take risk doing more than most and risk losing than ever play it safe just to win. There’s so much pressure if your goal is ONLY to win. If your goal is go out there and compete hard, to put up points and dominate the winning takes care of itself 99% of the time. My goals as an athlete were to try and dominate. I didn’t do it every time, but I had way more fun in the matches I scored a lot and lost, than the matches I squeaked out a win. Winning is fun, but putting on a show is more fun. This mindset of Win or Get Better is very important to me as a coach. But it goes hand in hand with teaching a valuable life lesson, to live free of fear, free of a concern about consequences.

I’m not saying live with no regard for anything, but you don’t control the outcome, you only control the decision to do something. As mentioned above you control your effort and your attitude. An attitude of fearlessness isn’t possible for everyone, but an attitude that reworks your concepts of fear to be able to overcome it is. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to proceed in spite of fear. In wrestling terms, if you shoot a single leg, you can either get the takedown, get a stalemate, or get taken down yourself. Those are really the 3 most common results of that action. In life terms, if you apply for a job you either get it or you don’t. Same with many other things. Long story short; if the action exists, there will be a positive and negative consequence, but this CAN NOT stop you from acting.

So often in life we’re taught to avoid risks. This yields people who never dare to be more than what they feel is safe. We often hear people say “Step out of your comfort zone!” or “Just try it, what can go wrong?” things like these actually result in more fear of taking risks. Because they make it seem like there’s something BAD with doing the action. “Comfort zone” implies we’re safe at a certain spot, so why push the boundaries? “What can go wrong?” is perhaps the worst way to get someone to do something, because it implies that something CAN go wrong. What’s wrong about shooting a single leg? So what if you give up a takedown? Get an escape and take them down and now you’re winning. So what if you ask a girl out and she says no, there’s other girls out there. So what if you apply to a college and don’t get accepted, you’ll get an education somewhere. In order to succeed in this life you have to push forward with action. You have to take risks and you can’t fear the negative results more than the positive ones. They’re both of the same measure, the two sides of the same coin. Take risks, take chances, and either succeed or learn from the lesson.

Learning from mistakes is the ONLY way to growth. The only way we get stronger is failing. We do not progress if we only do what we already know works. Life is fun when you challenge yourself, take risks, dare for more than just the bare minimum. I tell a lot of my athletes that it’s easy to be average, just don’t try ever. It’s scary to be great, because you must put in effort. You must apply yourself, put it all on the line and see what happens. One thing wrestling teaches more than anything is how to overcome adversity, but this is only learned through self imposed adversity. Taking risks and accepting that sometimes it’s going to go your way, other times it won’t. Those other times must be learned from, and above all we must be grateful for them, good or bad. Life’s lessons are treasures, they help us find ourselves.

Step 6: Build Your Support Network

Diving away from the more individual focused stuff for a moment, this step is arguably one of the more important steps in the whole post. Wrestling is inherently an individual sport but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take endless amounts of support to be good, even more to be great, and unfathomable levels to become elite. With any endeavor in life you must have a proper support network in place. That means parents believing and supporting your dreams. Friends and other family understanding what you’re seeking to accomplish. Coaches who will push you, support you, and ALWAYS have your best interests at heart. If a coach makes your career about something other than you, be that money, their ego, or their brand than they’re not supporting you. Find a powerful network of people who want to pick you up when you fall down, who will go through hell with you (teammates are great for this!) and who will always correct your path when you stray.

For my personal life I had so much support throughout my career. My family began as my biggest supporters, then my teammates and friends became the ones who really believed in me. Eventually my now fiancé was always supportive of my goals, sometimes more than me! There were periods where I would question myself and my support network would remind me why I started. There are 5,280 feet in a mile. If you walk 5,279 and you falter and fall back 10 steps, it will be your support network that picks you up and walks you the remaining steps. Life is a journey of making relationships and living through them. The bonds we form in school are strong, the bonds we form through sports are even more powerful. My teammates have become some of my best friends, the wrestling community is powerful and fiercely loyal to our own. This sport becomes a lot more fun when you do it with others. You don’t become good alone, you don’t become great alone, and you certainly CAN NOT become Elite alone. Which brings me to my last and final point. Understanding WHY we wrestle.

Step 7: Know your WHY. Why do you wrestle?

I often see a lot of bad takes online about wrestling. Many are well intentioned and think they know a lot and will do a good job of making others believe they’re making sense. That’s not to say that there’s really an overflow of BAD advice, more like misguided. But one thing I often see is that people talk about getting elite at wrestling like it’s such a simple path. “FOLLOW X Y AND Z AND TRAIN HERE AND YOU WILL BECOME THE BEST EVER!” A silly example but really something that you may see. “Go to this camp, wrestle this tournament, eat this diet” The list of things goes on and on and on. But often these gurus miss one of the most important aspects of becoming successful at anything, let alone wrestling. KNOWING WHY YOU DO IT!

Almost every book on success and achievement will mention that you must “begin with the end in mind.” This essentially means that you need to know WHY you do something before you set out to do it! Now, most people don’t get into sports originally to become Elite. Few ever do more than truly dabble in it. I love wrestling for this exact reason, I love that there are so many who get into it and never want to be anything serious. BUT THEY LOVE THE SPORT! They’re never concerned with medals, with wins and losses, they have a childish innocence and just do the sport for fun. When we are young that’s what we all do it for really. Then it becomes about the wrong things. It becomes purely about wins and losses, it becomes about titles, essentially IT’S ABOUT RESULTS! Now, allow me to clarify here. I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t desire success, but that SHOULD NOT be the end goal. It’s merely part of the process. Which is far more important than the results.

The first book on the list at the start of this post is called “Sometimes you Win, sometimes you learn” the book deals with using life’s lessons to progress and become something special. If you want to become good, chase trophies. If you want to become great, chase medals and titles. If you want to become elite, chase the process. Now that brings me back to the topic at hand. How do we “succeed” if we don’t set goals like winning titles? Simple answer, you make your why something that these goals fall under. For example, if my WHY for wrestling is to become a better person, and work harder than anyone else, a lot of those titles and medals will come. My WHY as a coach is to make my athletes better as wrestlers, and as people. If they love wrestling, finish their careers, and are successful in their own eyes. I DID MY JOB! Now, if they win state titles, go to college, and win more titles there, awesome! But, I will still be just as happy as I would be for the kid who goes and gets a job and puts his wrestling lessons to work right away!

Knowing your WHY is no simple task. It takes a lot of effort to identify why you do something. You can change your why as your career grows but just make sure that you keep some aspects of WHY you got started in place. The FUN should never go away. The LOVE of the sport should always take priority over the love of medals and titles. Your WHY must be powerful. It’s the reason you wake up and run in the morning, the reason you can get through a day not eating, the reason you will practice multiple times per week. When your mind tells you “No”, let your WHY scream “YES!” Identify WHY you wrestle and take that with you everywhere you go! When you go lift, when you go to practice, into competitions etc. Never lose sight of your WHY. Elite wrestlers know why they love the sport, why they do the sport, and motivate themselves every day to work for that WHY!

Conclusion: THANK YOU!

In conclusion I just want to say THANK YOU! If you made it this far, I really appreciate it! I spend a lot of time writing these blogs and anyone who reads it really means the world to me. Whether that’s 5 people or 10,000 people. I also want to preface that Though I have focused on these 7 steps to becoming elite there are many more ways to walk that path. Some of my steps won’t always work for everyone. This is more a “One size fits most!” type of post. The best advice I can give as a coach on how to help your athlete, or yourself if you are the athlete, become elite. Trust yourself, trust the process, remain patient and be the hardest worker in the room. Wrestling is a truly amazing sport, it can take you so many places you may never dream of. But you must tread the path first. You must crawl to walk, walk to run, and then run to fly! I appreciate you reading this, and if you enjoyed it please consider sharing it with others who might find value in it. If you have feedback I would love to hear it! I want to keep improving and becoming the best coach and advocate I can be!

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart! All the best! Coach Pat Higgins. Head Coach of Centurion Wrestling Club.

For more posts about our mindsets please check out the below:

My Penn State Wrestling Experience

To summarize my Penn State Wrestling experience could take me forever, but to give you brief glimpse only takes a bit! Give this post a read if you want to hear about some of my experiences and lessons learned as a Penn State Student Athlete.

Centurion Mindset: Permanent Beta

In life we must always be improving. Those who stop improving will limit their success. Those who hunger for more will always find more to do to be better! Learn all about the growth mindset called the Permanent Beta.

Published by Centurion Wrestling Club

Former D1 Wrestler at Penn State University. Member of Four national championship winning teams.

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