Note: To watch the interview that I refer to in this post, click here. There’s some wrestling terminology in there for those who don’t have experience with wrestling, but the lessons can be applied to anything else in life.
The summer going into my junior year, I sat with my eyes glued to my laptop. I had just survived training camp with Thailand’s national freestyle wrestling team, which proved to be the 40 most difficult days of my life for various reasons. Regardless, I felt proud of myself.
Taking the leap of faith to go train with the Thai national team was the best possible thing that I could have done with my life that summer, and despite overwhelming fear, I knew that it was something I had to do. In addition to being the wrestling coach, my high school mentor was an instructor in the classical languages, which meant that he had exposure to a good amount of philosophical works. On the wall of the wrestling room at my high school were several quotes. One belonged to Plato, and read, “The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself. To be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.”
I truly made sure to conquer myself that summer, and in that area I made some serious strides. With a little less than a month remaining until school, I would take a little time to recover before getting back into putting myself in better shape. At this point, I was addicted to the process of improving myself. This led me to watch as much wrestling as possible as a way of improving my technique through visualization practice. One of the best resources to watch wrestling at the time was Flowrestling, which offered a monthly subscription to an unlimited vault of videos for $20. Understanding that my mom didn’t have a lot of money, I would limit myself to a one-month subscription before canceling. In that month, however, I made sure to get my money’s worth.
I sat in front of the computer watching technique videos and wrestling matches for hours. This became an obsession. “How did he do that? I need to learn how to do that” became a regular thought. I watched the crap out of those videos, and according to my mentor, the hours paid off. Some wrestling moves were so ingrained in my mind that I would occasionally do a wrestling move that I had never practiced. As a way of learning who the wrestling greats were (I needed to know this in order to know which wrestlers to study), I would also watch interviews. One of these interviews was a car ride in Colorado Springs with two-time world champion Terry Brands. At the time of the video, he was coaching the US national team and helping them prepare for the 2007 world championships.
Those thirteen minutes and thirty two seconds changed my life. Wanting to absorb every possible piece of knowledge from that interview, I watched it several times. By the time I graduated high school, I probably had watched that video over a hundred times. Several moments in the video influenced profound changes in the standards that I would set for myself as a wrestler but also as a person.
Flowrestling’s co-founder and now CEO Martin Floreani conducted the interview from the passenger’s seat (this was back when Flowrestling wasn’t as big). “Why do you love wrestling so much?”
“It’s a test of your mind, it’s a test of your physical attributes, it’s a test of your faith, it’s how you represent yourself…if you have strong faith in the good lord and, you know, you can’t represent yourself, then you gotta take a good, long, look in the mirror.”
To be clear, I’m not a religious person. However, as a teenager, representing myself properly was something that I took very seriously. Wrestling gave me a way to truly represent myself as a person.
Martin asked about the development of mindset. Without having to think extensively about it, the two-time world champion responded.
“American kids grow up thinking that they wanna be an NCAA All-American, not even an NCAA champion. A coach corrected me, ‘Most kids grow up wanting to be a state champion’ and THAT’S SAD.’ Again, it’s not about the result, it’s not about a kid striving to be a state champion and not becoming one, it’s just the fact that they set their sights so low, you know? And they’re not aware of the world championships… if your sights are set on the top tier, things could fall into place.”
Wow. For a very long time, all I wanted to do was make the varsity team. This made me think, “Could I be a state champion? A New England champion? A prep national champion? An NCAA champion? An Olympian?” Terry Brands had just opened my mind to new possibilities by encouraging me to set higher goals for myself. More importantly, Terry Brands backed it up in the way he conducted himself. These weren’t just sound bites for the camera. This was a man who believed in extremely high standards with every fiber of his being, to the point of being seen as a pessimist.
“You talk about your losses a lot, but you’re a world champion! Do you sometimes lose sight of that?”
“No! I mean, maybe. I mean, you’re probably right. I probably dwell, you know, my mom and other people have said, ‘You’re kind of a pessimist, Terry. You need to maybe look at some of the good things.’ But I don’t see it that way. The good things are things that should fall in line. As hard as I trained, as hard as I did this, as hard as I did that, some of the things that I went through should never have happened. The losses, the stepping away from competing at the world championships, the getting injured. Those types of things… that shouldn’t happen. Because when I was on top of my game, no one out-trained me. All the great ones think that. I just don’t think I considered myself one of the great ones in this country- especially the world! [Arsen] Fadzayev won 9 freestyle world and Olympic gold medals for crying out loud. [Buvaisar] Saitiev‘s at number eight right now. [Sergei] Beloglazov won eight. [Aleksandr] Medved won ten. [Aleksandr] Karelin won thirteen or twelve or whatever it was before Rulon [Gardner] beat him. And, you know, John Smith won six. Kevin Jackson won three. Lee Kemp won three. Dan Gable won two. Tom Brands won two.
I won two, but not one of them was an Olympic gold medal! You know, my Olympic medal was bronze and that’s the wrong color from where I was raised, and how I compete. So… I’m getting all fired up, I’m out-driving everybody on the road, I better slow down. But, uh, I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I consider myself a perfectionist, and like I said, we’re put on this planet to strive for greatness, and not greatness in front of the camera and in front of the spotlight but greatness for what we’re able to accomplish.
And I understand, the gold medal wasn’t in my plans for some reason. I understand that. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. And I, uh, yeah, you’re probably right. I probably do lose sight of that- that I won two world titles. But yeah, you know what? Big deal. Big frickin’ deal.”
On that note, the interview ended. Damn. I felt electrified. Those words rang in my ears like thunder.
“My Olympic medal was bronze and that’s the wrong color from where I was raised and how I compete.” I had never heard those words spoken before, especially not with such intensity and belief. He embraced a lifestyle of extremely high standards and demanded only the best effort out of himself.
At that point, I realized that I needed to take a good, long look in the mirror. I was a sixteen year old boy just trying to stay afloat in school, but I knew I wanted more. Could I have been setting my sights too low? Could I truly reach that level of excellence? My mentor also helped me draw that connection from excellence in wrestling to excellence in the classroom. I could truly have more of both.
Terry Brands and I have never met, but that day, he changed my life. He taught me that it’s okay to hold yourself to higher standards than most people around you. Additionally, to exceed at a high level in wrestling, you will almost certainly be seen as crazy to your average person. The sooner you embrace that reality, the better off you’ll be. Years later, I was fortunate enough to be around Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps at a live interview, and I was pleased to see and hear that his mindset was the exact same. It was as if they were reading off of the same script.
I believe those lessons to be true in wrestling and I believe it to be true in life. Wrestling became a vehicle in which I would improve myself for years to come.
What about you? Where do you do think your standards are set? More importantly, where do you think your standards should be?
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