Talk to any ex-wrestler, and they can likely rattle off a list of their most impressive wrestling accomplishments. Those who are more modest aren’t also afraid to reference their failures. Because in wrestling, many people succeed, while many others fail.
The one thing that is universal, however, is this:
Wrestling teaches values that last a lifetime, go far beyond winning or losing, and set the foundation for a rewarding career in athletics, and success in life.
“No matter how good you were at wrestling, you will spend most of your life using the values that you learned in wrestling, not the technical skills,” says John O’Sullivan, Founder of Changing the Game Project and author of Changing The Game, the Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids. O’Sullivan wrestled from second through eighth grade before turning to soccer, which he played in college and professionally.
“There is no sport like wrestling that can teach some incredible life-long values,” adds O’Sullivan.
Jeff Ziegler, Kids Director for Iowa USA Wrestling, agrees, stating that wrestling teaches kids that the best things in life don’t come easy, and that it takes hard work to get to the top. Wrestling also teaches kids how to develop a strong work ethic, respect for authority (coaches/officials for example), and independence, Ziegler says.
Wrestling also quickly teaches youth wrestlers that nothing is guaranteed. Winning a tournament one weekend is a great accomplishment, but that has no bearing on success, or failure, come the next match or tournament.
“It’s important to know that no matter how good you think you are, there is always someone out there ready to challenge you and give you all they have, so you need to be prepared,” says Justin DeCoteau, Kids Director for North Dakota USA Wrestling.
What other values does wrestling teach? We take a look at some below:
Accountability: One thing wrestling taught O’Sullivan was accountability. There is no one to blame or point fingers at. You have to look at yourself and ask, “What can I do better next time?”
“Whether it is struggling in a match, or not preparing well and making weight, there is no finger pointing in wrestling,’ O’Sullivan says. “This is an incredible life skill.”
Resilience: Studies show that grit and resilience are far greater predictors of success than things like IQ, O’Sullivan says. “Fighting to get off your back, when you are exhausted, and your opponent has the upper hand, is quite an opportunity to develop resilience,” he says.
Importance of hard work: Regardless of what you do in life, relentless effort and hard work will drive you forward. “You don't last long in the wrestling room if you don’t show up and give it your all, and this is something that will stick with you the rest of your life,” O'Sullivan sys. “Once you have wrestled it all seems easy.”
DeCoteau says wrestling instills these values:
Teamwork/camaraderie: Wrestling is an individual sport, but kids who practice and compete together develop a bond and pull and root for each other. Wrestlers learn how to support others, and work together to achieve goals. For example, a practice partner can push his friend and teammate, helping both improve.
“Youth wrestling provides a sense of camaraderie with other wrestlers from all ages,” DeCoteau says. “It teaches teamwork, but on the flipside it also teaches independence. Wrestling teaches youth about the values of working hard and the importance of setting goals, and working hard to achieve those goals. Like life, youth wrestling teaches kids that you get out of it what you put in. There are no easy ways to success, no shortcuts.”
Good listening skills: “Good listening skills can take you a long way,” says DeCoteau. “If you listen in practice, listen to your coach, this will help you not only on the mat, but off the mat and in life.”
Discipline: It starts with good listening skills. “Having to pay attention and follow directions for the period of a youth practice is huge for youth wrestlers, and that is the start of learning what it takes to be disciplined,” DeCoteau says.
A focus on values, rather than winning, can produce better athletes and more complete competitors, says Jerry Concannon, owner and director of QuickSkills Soccer, a Pittsburgh-based soccer program providing instructional training and products for developing soccer players.
“To be clear, both values and winning do matter, in a sense,” says Concannon, who holds coaching certifications from the United States Soccer Federation and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, and is a Pennsylvania West coaching education and license instructor. “There’s a score at the end of the game. No one is playing to lose. It’s what you are focusing on that becomes important. Too often, however, we focus on the wrong thing.”
Concannon elaborated: “Players and teams make commitments to goals and work to attain them because they are trying to compete and, ultimately, win. This creates an opportunity for great things to happen. Trying to win is the fabric of the sports experience, but should not be the sole emphasis.”
If the sole emphasis is the scoreboard, then athletes end up on a path of limitations, says Concannon. Focusing on the scoreboard/final outcome can lead to a “results" focus instead of a “process” or “performance" focus. Athletes who focus on results, says Concannon, end up, too often, comparing themselves to others and focusing on avoiding mistakes.
“This is limiting,” Concannon says. “The scoreboard-focused athletes end up playing with anxiety. They have trouble coping with failure since success is only defined by the scoreboard and results are not always something they can control.”
How to overcome failure: In wrestling, failure at some point is inevitable. A wrestler will lose a match. They may lose several matches, or not even win in those early years. They may fail to master a specific move in practice, growing frustrated with each failed attempt.
Wrestling teaches the importance of “if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” If a young kid is learning how to code, or working on a math problem, they may not get it right. Through wrestling, they have learned that if they continue to work on their failures, they can eventually get it—and achieve success.
Effort: Repeatedly trying to overcome challenges, and failures, takes effort. That’s another value that shouldn't be overlooked, Concannon says.
“An important aspect of effort is that it’s controllable,” Concannon says. “It comes from inside. If athletes focus on working hard to improve, performing well, and have the freedom to make mistakes so they can learn from them, they’ll end up becoming better athletes.”
Self-discipline: Effort opens up the pathways for the values of self-discipline and the ability to self-assess.
“I’d rather have an athlete on my team who works hard to improve, focuses on what they can do well, and learns from mistakes,” Concannon says. “Those kids will grow as athletes, perform better, and develop the character of a successful person. These values will most certainly impact an athlete's life beyond the youth sports experience—education, profession, citizenship, personal values, and even family life.”
Wrestling teaches values that go far beyond winning and losing and last long after one's wrestling career is done.
Any ex-wrestler can quickly tell you that.