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Thirteen Years and Still Humble: The Difference Between Mental Toughness and Arrogance

As I walked off the mat and into the arena tunnel at the 2003 Minnesota state tournament, I felt a sense of relief. You see, the brackets were not seeded. So as the #1 ranked wrestler in the state with only one loss on my record coming from an opponent in Iowa earlier in the season, I faced the #3 ranked wrestler the very first round. He had been upset in the section tournament the week before, and was the only in-state opponent who had posed a significant challenge to me all year. It bothered me that we were meeting so soon in my quest for a state championship, but I accepted the situation for what it was and prepared for battle. After fighting off a barrage of strong underhooks, I scored the only takedown in the match toward the end of the third period, and came away with a 3-1 victory.

I sat in the tunnel, elated with moving past who I deemed to be my only worthy opponent. I hadn’t won a state championship since my freshman year in Missouri before the move to Minnesota, and I expressed to my coaches that the hard work was essentially done.  “That’s it.” I said. “The state championship is mine. He was the toughest guy I would face, and I put him away. I can coast to the finals now.”

Both coaches looked at me, somewhat surprised. I wasn’t normally the loud, confident type. “Well, he may have been your biggest threat,” said coach Wellstone, looking into my eyes a bit concerned, “but you still need to prepare for your upcoming matches. Don’t celebrate just yet.”

“Yea, yea, I know. But you don’t understand. I just put away the only guy who had a chance at stopping me from reaching the finals.”

“I do understand, Mike.” Wellstone put his arm around me. “Just stay focused, okay?”

The next round came up fast. I stepped on the mat with my unranked opponent and put my takedown skills on display. I took him down, let him up, took him down, let him up. I was racking up points and putting considerable distance between us.  It wasn’t until the third and final period that the momentum started to shift. I continued to take shots, but my opponent wasn’t giving up so easily. He started to counter hard and ended up scoring a couple takedowns off of my attacks. Confused about what was happening, and noticing that the score was closer than I thought, I pulled back from being offensive and went on the defense instead. My opponent must have seen the fear in my eyes, because he came at me like a starving lion. Earning a point for stalling, all he needed was a takedown to tie the match and send it into overtime. In the final seconds of the match, he hit a perfect ankle pick on the edge of the mat and secured the takedown.

Neither of us showed any legitimate scoring opportunities in overtime, and so double-overtime reared its ugly head. I wasn’t much of a rider as a junior (it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I developed a significant amount of skill and confidence on top); so I chose bottom, hoping I would get away rather easily and end this confusing nightmare. However, my opponent had a different plan in mind. He wasn’t going to let me get away without a fight. Those thirty seconds in double-overtime were probably the longest of my life. Every scramble ended in a quick stalemate or out of bounds. I simply couldn’t escape. I saw the final seconds fade away, and when it was over, I rested on the mat with my hands covering my face – embarrassed and dejected. I slowly got up and looked over at my coaches. A part of me hoped they would send some signal that this was all just a bad dream. But they didn’t. It was very much real. I shook my opponent’s hand and walked off the mat – sick to my stomach and caught in a state of shock.

It’s been nearly thirteen years, and yet this humiliating moment in my wrestling career still has an effect on me. Not in the sense that I cry myself to sleep at night, or that the pain of the loss hinders me in any way from a productive life; but more so in the sense that I still wish I could go back and redo everything. I wish I would have taken my opponent more seriously and approached the match with some humility. It was my stupid pride that got in the way. There is a difference between mental toughness and arrogance. While they can sometimes appear the same with the confidence that is exuded, they are nevertheless very much different.

I always appreciate when I hear elite wrestlers express honor and respect for their competitors. Not only is this reflective of reality, in that the individual recognizes the obvious skill and abilities of their fellow competitors, but it shows that they have stifled their egotistical pride. After all, and as I have written in another piece, wrestling is not about them. It’s not about you. Wrestling is a gift with which to engage, not a resource for extracting self-worth or lifelong fulfillment.

What exactly is the difference between mental toughness (confidence) and arrogance when it comes to wrestling? Well, for one, arrogance views the sport as merely a resource with which to feed one’s self-worth; it views wrestling as a means to obtain praise and grandeur. In short, he or she loves themselves more than they love the sport.

Mental toughness, on the other hand, though it elicits assuredness in one’s abilities, also sees the sport for what it is – not something to extract personal glory, but something to enjoy. It maintains proper perspective as well. That is, while he or she loves the sport and strives to be the best, there is the understanding that wrestling is not life itself. Failing in wrestling does not equal failure in life. Losing is painful, losing is far from desirable, but losing on the wrestling mat says nothing about the individual as they approach life except for maybe their level of character and how they handled defeat. Of course wrestlers should do everything they can in order to set themselves up for victory. But if victory is not achieved, the disappointment is not something to settle in. Get up, move on, and start a journey in pursuit of the next challenge or opportunity ahead, especially if your wrestling career is not yet over and opportunities still exist. You only have a brief window of time with which to accomplish all you can in this sport, and you shouldn’t waste any time wallowing in self-pity or worrying about gaining self-worth from wrestling accolades.

Believe it or not, humor can be a part of mental toughness. The ability to approach high intensity situations with a bit of humor shows great poise and humility. It’s an added component to the category of proper perspective. I’ve heard many stories of wrestlers, prior to championship matches, exchanging jokes with their coaches and teammates. Of course humor can help calm the nerves, but truly embracing a bit of humor can exude mental toughness as well.

I suppose an underlying theme within all this is that you should never overlook any opponent. We’re all human, which means that we are capable of great things. But it also means that we are not exempt from failure. As a result, there is some level of truth to the notion that “anybody can beat anybody on any given day”. As I have expressed in other write-ups, I wasn’t typically a confident wrestler. But for some reason, I allowed arrogance to get the better of me that day in 2003 and didn’t take seriously the competitor who stood in front of me.

Looking back, I don’t bear any hatred or ill will for the wrestler who defeated me back in the 2003 Minnesota state tournament. In fact, even though I wish I could go back and alter history, I also recognize that I learned a lot from that match. I lost a wrestling match as well as an added gold medal to my collection, but at the same time, I gained a slice of wisdom and humility. And that, my friends, is much more valuable in the long run.

(The picture above is an actual snapshot from the match described in this piece courtesy of theguillotine.com).

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