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.”

Youth Sports from the Rear View Mirror

Young Nicholas WinI read a short, but very insightful, article on youth sports that strikes me as very good advice after six children of my own and 22 years of coaching them and other kids. You can read the article here: The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to their Kids about Sports.

It is very simple, but many people “get it wrong”. I include myself in that statement. It took me much of those 22 years for me to learn what is important with kids and sports. I might finally understand.

Like the article says, team and individual sports can be tremendous character builders, instilling lifelong lessons like team work, dealing with winning and losing, overcoming fears and anxieties, leadership, sacrifice, discipline, hard work, goal setting and many, many more things. The problem is that parents, and coaches, sometimes do more damage than good and sometimes negate the lessons that are there to be learned.

I feel like I need to let parents in on a little, nasty secret. Not every kid is going to be a superstar. The six year old “stars” are not necessarily the twelve year old stars or the high school varsity stars. In fact, there really are not that many stars. Even the stars are not always going to shine. The star little leaguer or varsity player in Everytown, USA is probably not going to be a scholarship athlete, let alone a professional athlete. (Do not tell them though! They will figure it out soon enough.)

The percentages are infinitesimally small the number athletes who get athletic scholarships for college and infinitesimally smaller yet the number of athletes who will make a living at any professional athletic level.

Let your kids be kids and be satisfied that they have fun, work hard and develop some life lessons along the way. In fact, if they do not have fun, do not work hard and do not pick up any character from youth sports, they are missing the best part!

Winning and losing are their own proving grounds without much help from you. Not everyone gets a medal. There are clear winners and losers. Kids know that. Emphasize the fun, the benefits of working hard and the nuggets of character building lessons, and the rest will take care of itself.

One of my favorite stories, one of the times I think I got it right, was when my 20 year old was about 10 or 11. He wrestled and was pretty good, but one opponent “had his number”. They met up at the kids regional qualifier for state for a place match. It was a battle. The other kid led most of the match, but my son fought hard and tied it up in the last seconds of the third period. In overtime, it was scoreless until the very end, when the other kid managed a takedown to win it.

Both kids literally fell over from exhaustion, completely spent! They both lay there, unable to get up, even after the referee, impatiently wanting to move on after a long day, told them to “Get up!” They had both used every last ounce of strength and stamina and could not move.

I told my son how proud I was when the impact of another loss showed on his face afterwards. I pointed out that he “left it all on the mat”, and the other kid did too, and that is all anyone could ask. I reminded him of that match often, and I still do, and he always smiles.