While biking or driving, I like to put one earbud in and tune to various podcasts to make my drive more productive and informative. I remember my dad would always listen to talk shows while driving home, and I thought, “how boring!” Now, as many fear would happen to themselves, I am starting to become more like my parents.
One of my favorite talk shows is hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson of “Cosmos” fame (the newly revamped version). Tyson is an astrophysicist and, just like me, wrestled while growing up. On one of his shows, he discussed his wrestling career and how it impacted him. He said that he wrestled not because it was easy but because it was hard. At the end of the day, you’ll be in a new place where you’ve never been.
Wrestling has been an integral part of my life for 17 years, 11 years as an athlete and 6 years as a referee. I look back on my experiences and feel the same way; it was difficult, but I achieved something. I’ll never earn Olympic medals, and I have never won any national championships. My achievements are more esoteric; wrestling has shaped who I am and provided the foundation for a successful career as a researcher.
Wrestlers Work Hard
The walls of the wrestling room sweat after practice. With the doors shut, heaters on, and 40 high school boys sprinting, grappling, and doing push-ups, condensation collects on the walls, and the floor becomes a slipping hazard by the end of a typical practice. The stench that the yoga PE classes complained about, the smell that the basketball teams abhorred was worn like a sigil by the wrestling team. It was the smell of hard work.
Now, that smell is more subtle. I am not ten pounds lighter from the shedded water weight, dripping with sweat, origin unknown, after finishing a research project or studying for an exam. But when my research was published or when I was accepted into UCSB, the smell of freshly printed ink from the journal article and the acceptance letter was distinctly different but also similarly satisfying. My hard work had paid off, and these values were instilled at a young age.
Of course, all athletes work hard. Sports require physical exertion, time commitment, and emotional intelligence. However, there is arguably no other athlete that suffers like a wrestler. My wrestling coach used to say that ex-wrestlers would return from boot camp and talk about how easy it was compared to wrestling. The great Dan Gable, Olympic champion and eminent NCAA coach, said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything in life is easy.”
It used to be optional for professional hockey players wear helmets. When the NHL voted to institute a mandatory helmet rule, the result was nearly unanimous; every player wanted helmets. The economic principle of trade-offs explains this seemingly-contradictory scenario well: helmets obstruct peripheral vision but keep hockey players safe. A hockey player without a helmet plays better and is more likely to succeed in the highly-competitive NHL. He would still want to be safe and wear a helmet, but the incentive of playing in the NHL outweighs the incentive of his own safety. When it comes to a vote, all players vote for a level playing field and safety.
A similar scenario occurs in wrestling. The practice of “cutting weight”, where wrestlers dehydrate and lose 10+ pounds of water weight in a short period of time, is ubiquitous and necessary to be competitive. Otherwise, if you weigh 160 lbs., you’d be wrestling someone with the size and strength of someone who is 170 lbs. and decided to cut weight. I think if wrestlers could choose (and it could be enforced), cutting-weight would be banned.
It’s very difficult to cut weight. When I was younger, I would get grumpy when I was dieting. As I got into high school, I learned how to struggle humbly. Still, there were lots of temptations. While I was slowly chewing half an apple and cold-cut turkey for lunch, my classmates were gorging on chicken strips and French fries. I had a list of snacks that I would buy as soon as wrestling season was over.
To endure difficult practices, physically grueling matches, and cutting-weight, perseverance and endurance is necessary. Barring a few disastrous calamities, struggles that seem overwhelming in the moment are not that difficult. I can recall feeling exhausted – feeling like I wanted to throw-up, feeling like my legs no longer worked, feeling like my heart couldn’t beat any faster, feeling like my lungs were stabbing my chest instead of replenishing oxygen. I can also recall how I felt right after; I took a deep breath, had a drink of water, and was replenished 10 minutes later. I could walk on my own two feet, I was unaware of my heart rate, and I was breathing easy. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with schoolwork or swamped with deadlines, I remember this feeling. Most things feel hard in the moment, but then it’s over, and there is relief.
Wrestlers Learn to Fail
When I was around 12, I was often unmatched in local tournaments. My trophy case shined gold, and I went undefeated in junior high competition. Now though, I couldn’t tell you know how many medals I won, who I wrestled, or where individual tournaments were held. However, one particular match still sticks in my mind today.
I had wrestled a short day, since there weren’t many others in my weight class. There was another wrestler, a year or two younger than me, whose coach had watched me wrestle and asked my dad if we could have an exhibition match. His wrestler had not had a competitive day, and so we set up a match – just for fun. The final score was close, I remember, but I ended up losing. My dad used to say that in every match, there is an opportunity to learn. If you learn, you never lose. The only true loser is the one who does not learn. In that moment, I was a loser.
At the end of each match, the wrestlers are supposed to shake hands as a sign of good sportsmanship. It’s entirely likely that I did not shake his hand. I do remember removing my headgear, throwing it violently against the wall of the crowded gym. I screamed and cried and threw the worst tantrum in my life. I had been upset about losing before and since then, but my displays had never been so public and humiliating. I could have learned something from the match. Instead, I learned something later: how to fail with dignity. That loss was my last public display of poor sportsmanship.
Scientific research is sometimes misleadingly portrayed as lots of hard work leading up to a “Eureka!” moment. In reality, scientific research is lots of hard work leading to lots of failure. It is the nature of exploration; many paths lead to nothing new or interesting. Success in scientific research revolves around how researchers can respond to failure. Through wrestling, I grew out of throwing tantrums and learned how to instead adapt and learn. I strive to no longer be a loser; instead, I learn through my failures.
Wrestlers Work Independently
When you’re losing by one point and the time is ticking away, you have no one to look to but yourself. When the match ends and you hang your head down in defeat, there is no finger-pointing. Wrestling is one-on-one, which makes it one of the most ultimate tests of strength and resilience and also lends itself to teaching lessons in self-efficacy and responsibility.
I never wrestled in college, except when helping out at the local high school. During my college years though, I learned that a lot of my success in wrestling depended on my self-efficacy. If I believed in myself, or if I resolved to never give up, I could succeed. High school me would attempt a takedown and fail, and then lay trapped under my opponent. I realized that even if I was flattened out, I should not relent and achieve what I set out to achieve. As a researcher, I remain resolved in this way. Anything that I dive into, I do so with a healthy dose of self-confidence. It’s important to be aware of consequences of failure, but it’s also important to try.
As the only person out on the mat, there is no one else to blame. Athletes often attribute, but wrestling taught me to avoid this potentially toxic characteristic. Attributing can lead to strained relationships. As the sole competitor, you have to take responsibility for your losses. As a budding researcher, it can be easy to make mistakes. I know my mistakes can’t be attributed to others though, so I’ve learned to ask questions and double-check procedures.
Wrestlers Work as a Team
This may seem contradictory, especially following the last argument. Although wrestling is a one-on-one sport, wrestlers are still part of a team. By practicing together, we made each other better. By supporting each other, we built each other’s confidence. There are 14 wrestlers at different weight classes, and there is a team score based on how well each wrestler does. On one of the most disheartening nights of my high school wrestling career, I won my match handedly. Our team lost by just three points; one more match would have made a difference. We lost the league title, and I felt the weight of this.
The research team works the same way. Researchers typically work on a project independently, but we share ideas and collaborate. Sometimes we have to work as a team, even if our own projects are directly affected. I spent the last month attempting to fix an instrument that I’ll probably never use. Still, I contributed to the team and possibly saved over $5,000 in repair costs. Even though I’ll never see that money, I will have the satisfaction of helping the team that will help me earn my PhD.
If it was hard, everyone would do it. Because it’s hard, and because I try, I constantly improve in many facets of life. These statements applied to my wrestling career, and they now apply to my research career. I’m glad to have had wrestling to build the foundation for my life.