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Wrestler for Life Story of the Week: Another Notch on the Belt

By Wrestler for Life/USA Wrestling | May 22, 2020, 12:19 p.m. (ET)

Photo courtesy of Peter Zacchilli

USA Wrestling’s “Wrestler for Life” program has started accepting submissions for “The Story of the Week”. It can be about anything wrestling related, whether it’s a particular wrestling match you’ll never forget, or a life lesson that the sport taught you. If your story is chosen, it will be featured on, and winners will receive a pair of USA Wrestling socks.

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This week's submission is by Peter Zacchilli.

Through my experiences, I have learned that young people take different paths in dealing with adversity. The path that is the most traveled is that of creating excuses. Most people find an excuse or a scapegoat. They blame something else or someone else for the challenges and hardships that they face. Nothing is gained through this thought process. Another path often traveled is to take the easy way out. These people find a way around the obstacle of adversity. Those who live life this way fail to develop the character and resilience it takes to challenge the thresholds of their potential. The path to take is to face adversity head on. Through this thought process no excuses are made, no one is to blame, and no alternative route is taken. It’s about having a fighting heart.

Bob Richards, a two-time Olympic pole vaulting gold medalist, defines it as “The set of mind or will that can meet difficulties and rise above them – the kind of outlook on life that says no matter what happens, I am going to make the utmost effort to transform it into good.”

It is vital to take that head on or fighting heart path because if we do so, experiences of adversity and hardship can be the most important moments in our lives. These trying times have a purpose. They are the times that reveal the strength of our faith. They are the times that humble us. Most importantly, they are the times that afford us the opportunity of developing enduring strength for greater usefulness. In challenging times, our mental and spiritual muscles are exercised more than ever. They are broken down and rebuilt stronger, allowing us to face more difficult obstacles in the future. This process is no different than that of muscle hypertrophy in weight training. The bigger the trauma on our spiritual muscles, the bigger the rebuild can be. Over time we eventually develop an unmatched endurance and unwavering faith in the way we approach adversity.

A notch on the belt is an expression that goes back to the old west. In Wild West folklore, it was a way to tally or record the men one killed. Each victory with the gun was considered an accomplishment. Traditionally, a certain achievement or honor would be considered another notch on one’s belt. What if we look at this in a different light though? What if we see each significant adverse experience as another notch on the belt? If we take the fighting heart path when faced with adversity, we know that spiritual muscle hypertrophy will take place. When we see our challenges in this light we can begin to view them as advantages in our growth. This mindset, when an adverse experience is designated as a notch on one’s belt, is a rarity. This is a special way of thinking that can propel one to further levels of greatness.

When I think of this mindset, I think of Benny Herrera. As a junior Benny captured a state championship. He had the ability to recognize each and every difficult experience as a notch on his belt. The first notch on his belt came as a sophomore when he got in trouble in school. The discipline included missing 25% of his wrestling season. He had a lot of growing up to do and he knew it. He took the first step in holding himself accountable for his mistake. At the time he wrote, “I have some goals that I set and this was not working towards my goals. I still have the same goals and I’m going to put all I have into trying to reach these goals. I truly feel sorry for what I did and I will take this and learn from what I did.” With that message he made a promise to himself to learn from his mistake and come out a better person.

Through this experience, he revisited his goals. Benny had extraordinary goals, not ordinary goals. To accomplish extraordinary goals, he was going to have to develop extraordinary discipline. He was going to cut out of his life all the things that were keeping him from reaching those goals. It was not only about his body but also his mind. He needed to reexamine his relationships and prioritize his time with goal-oriented people. Disciplining his life meant he had to examine his decision making, his work ethic, and everything in between. Benny needed a process of rigorous discipline to thrust his health and efficiency to new levels.

We talk about the sides of a coin analogy a lot. Heads and tails are the potential outcomes of a coin flip. But it is the third side of the coin, the edge, which determines that outcome. The edge of the coin is what determines success and failure. This was going to be Benny’s edge – his unmatched and unwavering discipline. What many may have seen as simply a disappointing experience, Benny saw as the first notch on his belt. From then on, he was going to out-discipline everyone.

The next notch came with an injury he suffered the following spring. Wrestling in a club dual meet event, he broke his collarbone. Although his injury did not require surgery, it would keep him off the mat for three months. Initial disappointment gave way to astounding enthusiasm. He looked at it as an opportunity to come back stronger than ever, both physically and mentally. More so, he embraced it as an experience that his future opponents may not have. It was something he was going to fight through that would make him tougher in the end, tougher than anyone he would wrestle. It was another notch on his belt.

That next winter, Benny began the season with a loss in his first match. That unexpected loss was the next notch on his belt. Sure it hurt, but he wasn’t going to let it derail his season. A state championship is not won in December, or is it? Often times I look back on that match and view it as a necessity in his state title run. Taking defeat and bouncing back to victory is such a huge part of an athlete’s development. That loss pulled something new out of him. He bounced back with an attitude that he was going to outwork everybody and he did just that.

We never really know what we are capable of until we reach for that standard. Outwork everyone. Benny had a new found work ethic. He worked hard before the loss, harder than anyone in our room. But after that loss, he reached out for the highest. From that moment on, he wasn’t just putting in the work he was putting in the right kind of work. He tested his limits daily and pushed himself into an area previously unexplored. He began to live like a champion, continually reestablishing his potential to greater heights. His work in the wrestling room was unmatched. His commitment to developing his mindset was even more impressive.

The state tournament came, and it was time to perform. That weekend presented yet another challenge. Benny was very ill with a stomach virus. He was unable to hold anything down the entire weekend. As a result, he actually weighed in close to three pounds under weight. The first day of the tournament he did not wrestle his best, but advanced to the semi-final round.

Many people would have used the sickness as a built in excuse for not performing at their best. Many would keep it in the back pocket as a built in excuse for falling short of their goal. Benny knew that if he wanted to reach his goal, he would have to take this sickness on as just another notch on his belt.

Wrestling is thought of as a sport where the one who works the hardest often times prevails. When we step on the line knowing we outworked our opponent it can bring great confidence. How about the confidence in knowing that you have been through more trials than your opponent? How about knowing you have more notches on your belt? This is how Benny approached that second day. It was time to outcompete everyone. If I have faced more adversity than my opponent I can’t lose. This stomach bug is an asset, not a crutch. It is something my opponent does not have the benefit of experiencing. It is another notch on my belt. This approach proved victorious.

Benny got in trouble in school and set a goal to out discipline everyone. He did that. He got injured and saw it as an opportunity to come back stronger than ever. He did that. He suffered a loss in his first match of the season and set a goal to outwork everyone. He did that. He was wrestling sick at the state tournament and set a goal to outcompete everyone. And he did that.

Bob Richards writes, “I don’t believe anyone ever got to the top without going through valleys. Like the mountain climbers reaching out for the peak, they have to go down before they can go up. The spirit of a man sometimes falls into moods of depression and doubt, but if you can fight your way out of it and keep on going, with your mind fixed on the top and making one less mistake per day and swinging away and doing the best you can, then you’ve got the secret of going to the top.”

It’s about viewing each adverse experience not as a setback or a crutch, but instead a notch on your belt.