The Pitfall of Natural Talent

Photo of the 2006 Greco National Finalists at 140 Pounds

My heart is heavy as I write this. Several days ago a young man, let’s call him Frank, with tons of pure talent died in a motorcycle accident running from the police making a routine traffic stop, and his girlfriend lies in a coma fighting for life. She has two small children at home wondering where she is.

It was the first really nice day of the spring, and his the last day of his life.

This young man had tremendous potential. He was a natural athlete. Even in a tough sport like wrestling, he made winning look easy. He loved the attention of his success, and he always had a ready smile for the parents and teammates who were happy to be his coach or friend.

He was a charmer, and he knew it, but that charm didn’t keep him out of detentions or trouble with the law as he got older and adventurous. The free flowing, unrestrained way he wrestled didn’t translate well into academic discipline, or disciple of any kind, for that matter.

I only knew him from afar. I wasn’t one of the better or more gregarious coaches. My boys were younger, and they didn’t have as much natural talent. My older son didn’t have a winning record until his third year in wrestling, but he dreamed big and worked hard at it.

I used to tell him that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I wanted him to believe that. I wanted to believe that.

At the same time, I took consolation in the character that was being built into him, and I tried to instill the importance of character in him. I would like to say that character should always be the priority, but who doesn’t long to win, be successful and have the attention of the star athlete? Like Frank.

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College Sports is Not a Career

08 FILA Univ. 70kg National ChampOk, I stole the title (See College Softball is not a Career), but it is too true and too relevant not to “re-appropriate”. It could be wrestling, volleyball, hockey, gymnastics, swimming or any of the sports that become the central focus of the lives of children and their parents.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of it! My kids grew up in the IKWF (Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation), the Illinois state arm of USA Wrestling. They started wrestling when they were 6 and 8. They have wrestled in college (and are still wrestling), and we have learned a lot along the way.

I cannot say that I had the best perspective when it all started, or that I did not have a long way to go in the middle of it all. My confession is that I, too, was caught up in the thrill of the competition and had trouble seeing over the horizon. In the midst of it, the competition seems to be an end in itself, and parents can be as guilty of seeing it that way as the kids. In truth, maybe more so; and we should know better.

The article from which I borrowed my thoughts lays the cold, hard truth on the table:

“Every softball player’s career ends at some point. Usually too soon. If you did not parlay your softball skills into an educational advantage, it was a pretty bad investment.”

Substitute wrestling for softball, or volleyball, or whatever. It is the same. Sports is not a career for all but the very, very rare exceptions… and those exceptions are primarily coaches who received a college degree that allows them to coach in middle school, high school or college. (Professional wrestlers don’t count. Don’t get me started!)

My kids grew up in the IKWF when the “elite” wrestling clubs were just starting. Before that, communities had clubs that practiced at the local high school or park district facility. They were community orientated. With advent of the “elite” clubs, the community clubs were no longer good enough. Parents would travel past two towns, three towns, two counties, across the state and even to other states to these elite clubs. It happens in many youth sports.

I knew people who traveled an hour and half to two hours each way three or more times a week so their son could wrestle with an elite club. They would take their 8-year olds to Tulsa and Reno and other “elite” tournaments all over the country on a regular basis to get them the best competition. I have been in wrestling rooms in May, long after the wrestling season is over, with young kids wrestling hard, grueling practices every day of the week.

Though we never jumped on the elite club train, my kids have been there too in May, June, and July. It was their choice. They wanted to get better. They loved the competition. I loved it too!

One parent told me, “All this money we are spending now is going to pay for their college.” It did not work out that way for their oldest son. He washed out of the DI school in less than a year. Their second son, who was good enough to get a “full ride” to many places, chose the top wrestling school at the time for just a partial scholarship.

It is almost delusionary to plan on a full scholarship in wrestling. DI colleges only 9.9 full scholarships to hand out. There are 10 spots on the team, and wrestlers get hurt. They need backups to their backups. There might be thirty to forty or more wrestlers in every DI room. Almost no one gets a full scholarship. Other sports are similar in the percentages of athletes who can pay for their college through sports.

One smart parent commented to me that they could put away all the money that is spent on elite clubs, travel and gear and be able to pay for college themselves when the time comes.

Wrestling has helped my sons open doors and pay for some of college, but wrestling has not given them a degree (or a career). I have to admit that they could have spent more time focusing on school, and that would have given them more skills to earn their degrees. One of my sons has wrestled at the World/Senior/Olympic level, but he is till pursuing his degree at the age of 24. At that level, wrestling is a job, though there is no career in wrestling. The degree and the career is up to him, and, at this point, it will be in spite of wrestling.

Wrestling is valuable experience, building character and self-esteem. It brings fathers (and mothers) and sons (and daughters) together in unique, relationship building ways. It can help pay for college. But, it is not a career. It needs to be kept in perspective. It is a stepping stone, a path, a vehicle by which a child can journey to a secure adulthood with some advantage… if it is kept in the right perspective.

My brother tells me that one local club keeps that perspective with a statement on the wall that says, “Don’t let wrestling use you; use wrestling” (or something like that). Wrestling is a great journey, but it is not a destination – at least for the 99.99%. Take what you can from it, but do not let it be the end all.

My younger son went through a difficult time his freshman year in college. He was burned out. He felt that all he saw was the inside of a wrestling room. It nearly derailed him. When he took a step back and found a different perspective, his energy for wrestling, and for something beyond wrestling, was revitalized. Jordan Burroughs, after he won an Olympic gold medal, went through a time of letdown. He had reached the pinnacle, and the pinnacle was not fulfilling in and of itself. He was revitalized when he latched on to a higher purpose.

Nothing is quite so intoxicating for a parent than a child who has some talent. Do your child a favor, though, keep it all in perspective. There is more to life than wrestling. There is more to college than wrestling. Wrestling will end. There is a higher perspective. What will be left when it ends is up to you.

Postscript from the Proactive Coaching Facebook page:

“If someone is promoting that your athlete younger than 14 start specializing and playing one sport year round, please understand that more money doesn’t guarantee success – you can’t buy your kids an athletic future. Often the people who want kids to specialize at a young age are the adults who profit from it.”

Potential Colored Glasses

IKWF StateStosh Walsh knocked this one out the park in his blog on leadership and marriage, and I think he is on to something. I am now looking to wear “potential colored glasses” all the time!

Actually, I discovered them myself, after many years of fathering and coaching my sons.

Truthfully, I only discovered them after trial and error with my older sons and learned to apply them with my 3rd and 4th sons. I believe I actually helped them to be very successful in their wrestling careers in which they attained a large portion of their potential. (And they are still attaining it.) I discovered “potential covered glasses” coaching, but that is where I left them.

What I did not fully see, and what Stosh has uncovered in his post, is that there is a way to view people and relate to people – especially people who we love and care about – all the time that will bring out the best in them. These glass are not limited to coaching; the principle can be applied to anyone over whom we may have influence: co-workers, employees, kids that we coach, girls scouts and boy scouts, anyone with whom we may some influence in our lives, even friends and neighbors.

Another way to put it is “seeing the best in people”, but I think it is more than that. It is affirming, encouraging, and sometimes challenging, people to live up to potential.

There is a difference between having unrealistic expectations and seeing the potential in others. Unrealistic expectations can be a burden. I am no psychologist, but I imagine that unrealistic expectations have more to do with how I want someone to be than what or who a person actually is. Potential is also not wishful thinking. Potential is grounded in reality.

At the same time, a person who practices seeing potential, focusing on encouragement and building others up, bring out the best in other person. I know this because I have seen it work.

When my 20 year old was a 74 pound 8th grader dreaming of a career in professional baseball, I knew better, but I did not have the heart to discourage him. Instead, I encouraged him in wrestling, where he really had potential and size did not matter.

As an 89 pound freshman, I thought he should hone his wrestling skills with off season competition, but he tried out and made the freshman baseball team. Dreams die hard, and I was not going to be the killer of his dreams, however unlikely. His coach told me he had the best arm and glove in the outfield, but he mostly “rode the pine” because the coach wanted the bigger guys in the lineup who could really drive the ball. Maybe my son had the potential to be a great baseball player, but the coach did not see the potential. My son got discouraged.

I saw a different potential in wrestling and encouraged him in that direction. He had to learn for himself that maybe he was just too small to be the baseball player he wanted to be. With new-found inspiration to focus on wrestling, and with the right doses of encouragement, he qualified for the State tournament as an underweight sophomore (even at the lowest weight class). As a Junior he soared to the State finals in a very competitive weight class crowded with talent, where he came up just short of a State championship! I did not even imagine that his potential could take him to those heights, but I saw potential, encouraged it, and he became a believer in his own potential.

During these growing up years for me (as a parent), I learned kids grow strong with the gentle water of encouragement. Unfortunately, I learned through my errors, that a different approach can have negative results. I am convinced that, if we spend more time affirming and encouraging, and less time criticizing and pointing out faults, that we will have better relationships and better results from our leading, whether we are leading sons and daughters or spouses, employees, little leaguers and whoever might be following our lead.

Sports psychologists talk about the importance of visualization. People teach athletes the technique of visualizing successful performance. In the world of wrestling, which is a sport that is part of the fabric of my life and family, visualization would be used to imagine executing a perfect move, picturing a winning match against a tough opponent, from shot to counter shot, through every move and counter move to the final tick on the clock and getting an arm raised in victory. The ability to visualize success is important to establishing confidence and achieving success.

If visualization of success for one’s self can help you with confidence and actual success, it can work for instilling confidence in others and helping others to achieve success. Maybe even more so! When someone has confidence in me, I am inspired to perform well, if for no other reason than to live up to that confidence.

Stosh focuses on marriage and spouses. I wish that I read his article years ago. It is funny how I have learned so much about being a leader to my kids (again after much trial and error), while I feel that I remain a relative novice being a good husband and leader for my wife. Stosh reminds us that we are all leaders, even if we are leaders to no one other than our spouses and children. In reality, we are all influencers of many more people, beginning with family, and extending to friends, neighbors and others in our daily lives. Our homes are the places to try on the potential colored glasses and get used to wearing them, but those glasses can be worn wherever we go, wherever we mix with people on a regular basis. Imagine a world in which potential colored glasses where the fashionable things to wear!