10 life lessons I learned while wrestling

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I recently sent my old high school wrestling coach a letter to give to the team. When I was a wrestler in high school, I’d always look at the names on the mats, on the record boards, and in the trophy cases and wondered how they achieved the success they did. I had assumed hard work, but I’d always wanted to know what their path was like and if they had anything to pass down. Insights, tips, tricks, and pretty much anything else that would help me get my name up on the board next to theirs. So, 10 years later, after a successful wrestling career and retirement to become a comedian/actor (lol), I’ve decided to write a letter to them passing on what I had learned. Think of it like a time machine where I’m writing a letter to my former self.  Much in the same vein as a lot of articles and blog posts I write, I put together a list of 10 things I learned through wrestling. These would be life lessons that would make me into the person I am today. Below, is that letter. While some reading might not be wrestlers or even athletes for that matter, the message and a lot of the lessons are universal. Hope you enjoy.

Dear Wrestlers,

My name’s Ryan Nallen. I asked Coach Aug to share this with you. I used to wrestle at Notre Dame (class of ’06) and I wanted to share some words of wisdom with you regarding what I learned when I was in your shoes, and how to make the most out of your season/wrestling career. I’m writing this because I’d always wanted to hear what the names on the mat had to say. I wanted to know how they got their name there or in the record books or in the trophy case. I want to share with you what I wanted to hear when I was in your shoes.

First of all, wrestling has taught me everything I know. It taught me life lessons like: self-discipline, determination, confidence, focus, goal-setting, and perseverance. It taught me that the only person you can blame should things not go the way you intended is yourself. It changed who I was and made me into who I am today. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and there has been nothing yet that compares. Below are some life lessons wrestling taught me that I’d like to highlight with you:

  1. HARD WORK. Let me assure you. In life, no one is going to hand you anything. Ever. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be a state champion. You need to work and you need to work hard. You need to train harder than you’ve ever trained before. If you want to be a champion, you need to train like a champion. And I’m not talking about just going to practice every day, putting in your time, and then going home. I’m talking about going the extra mile, waking up to run bleachers before school starts, doing another set of pushups or sit-ups after practice, and arriving early and leaving late. I’m talking about being the first guy in and the last guy out. It’s what you do when no one’s looking that makes all the difference.
  2. TALKING vs. DOING. When it comes to goals, don’t just talk about it. Do it. In life, you’re going to meet a lot of TALKERs. People who say “I want this” and “I want that.” They’ll say, “one day I want to open up a business” or “one day I’ll start eating right.” These people will be talking for the rest of their lives. Be a doer. Get to work. You don’t need to tell the world what your dreams are nor do you need to talk about what you’ve accomplished. Go out and let the work speak for itself. Let your success make all the noise.
  3. COMFORTABLE. Don’t ever give up and don’t ever get comfortable. The match is not over until somebody gets pinned, teched or the buzzer rings at the end of the third period. Champions keep going when they don’t have anything left in their tank. Winning or losing, always be on the attack and never let your guard down. The second (literally) you get comfortable is when you lose.
  4. GOALS. Dream big. WRITE them down. Decide what you want, how you’re going to make it happen, and then GET IT. This doesn’t just apply to wrestling but everything in life. I wanted to go to college and I knew I had to have good grades to get there. I wrote down every day what I wanted and what needed to be done to accomplish it. It’s the physical act of writing them down that adds more importance to it for some reason. I remember on a bus ride to the sectional tournament I breathed on the window and wrote IHSA Sectional Champion. When the tournament was over, I got back on the bus, sat right where I was sitting before, and put a checkmark next to the faint window writing while holding my bracket board.
  5. CONFIDENCE vs. COCKINESS. This was a lesson I learned the hard way. I went from never wrestling before high school to being ranked #2 in the state and #13 in the country by my third year wrestling. I thought I was unstoppable and it effected my work ethic. I didn’t think I needed to push myself that hard anymore. I got cocky. I learned just how wrong I was once I got to the state tournament and lost in the first round. Once you’re on top, you need to work harder than before to stay on top. There will ALWAYS be someone coming to knock you off the podium.
  6. NEGATIVITY. When I started wrestling some people told me, “you’ll never make it down state”, “you’ll never wrestle at a Division I college”, and “you can’t compete we this guys because they’ve been wrestling their whole lives and you just started.” In life, people are going to tell you NO. It’ll happen all the time. They will throw their own personal insecurities in your face to bring you down. Rise above that. They aren’t the problem unless you believe what they say. I know firsthand that the greatest opponent you’re ever going to face is yourself. You are the one that allows their words to bother you and you are the one that lets doubt creep in. You can say I CAN and I WILL as quickly as you say I CANT.
  7. WINNING and LOSING. Win with humility. One of the greatest things I was ever told (Ed Luety) after I started to celebrate was, “Act like you’ve been there before.” You shouldn’t need to celebrate because winning shouldn’t be a surprise to you. If you do celebrate, wait until you’re in Champaign pointing at your family from mat 1 because you’d just secured a medal. Should you lose, don’t let it destroy you. In fact, let it motivate you. With every loss or setback, you have to say, “I’m not going to let this keep me down. I’m going to get back up and come back.” Learn from your mistakes or your failures and then make sure they never happen again. When I lost, it felt like the worst thing in the world and I had no one to blame but myself. It felt like someone had died. But it needed to happen because it got me back on course to making sure I worked harder than before. For some perspective, in my entire high school career, I won 117 matches. I lost 11 times. 5 of those losses were to guys who would later win state championships.
  8. Be a sponge. Ask questions. You need to learn everything that you can about the sport. I lived it and I breathed it. When I was in high school, I used to study technique tapes (yes video tapes) all the time and I knew who all the greats were. I tried to acquire the knowledge that my competitors already had from years and years of wrestling. I wrote down specific bullet points I wanted to try in practice. I’d come in with a notebook on how to double-leg like Brandon Slay, leg turn like Kendall Cross, low single like John Smith and Cael Sanderson, or crank arm bars like Tom and Terry Brands. Find role models and emulate them. These guys were successful for a reason. Try to be just like them or take what you like and add it to your arsenal/toolbox. Also, know your competition. I knew who the best guys in the state were in my weight class and what their wrestling track record was like. If you’re going up against a school that’s known for headlocks, there’s a good chance to be on the lookout for that with your competitor.
  9. MOTIVATION. Do something to stay motivated and focused on your goal every day. Literally go to YouTube and type in motivational video and watch what you find. It’ll spark a fire inside of you that maybe you didn’t know existed. I would constantly keep myself motivated when I was your age by reading articles and watching videos. I watched the Rocky movies, Rudy, and Vision Quest so much I could quote them. I had a poster of Rocky on my wall, and I watched The Season (ESPN documentary about Iowa Wrestling) probably 100 times. That would lead to the entire team yelling “Iowa Style” during the practices of our 2004 season. A season that would result in that team going all the way to the Elite Eight. It kept everyone pushing themselves because we emulated the toughness that the Hawkeye wrestling program was known for. Find that thing that keeps you going.
  10. MENTAL TOUGHNESS. The most important of all. The mind is a very powerful thing because imagination harnesses a plethora of possibilities. There are those who are tough and there are those who are not. And I’m not talking about physical strength, but instead mental strength through the power of belief. If you BELIEVE and I mean truly believe that you can accomplish something than you can. If you believe you’re unstoppable than you are. You need to be ready to shut off the self-doubt, pain, and distractions. If you believe that you are a force to be reckoned with than there is no way anyone can beat you. The only person who can tell you different is yourself. Every time I stepped on the mat I believed I could win and was going to do anything in my power to make that happen. It became part of who I am and stayed with me forever.

With that, I want you to all know that you capable of anything you dream of. This is a great time in your life and you should enjoy it. Make the most out of it and give it everything you got so one day you can look back with no regrets. Write down your goals and go after them with a relentless drive and passion like no other.

Some of you might want to be a state qualifier, a state placer, or a state champion. IT’S POSSIBLE. Some of you might want to wrestle in college, be an NCAA champion, or Olympic champion. IT’S POSSIBLE. All of you should want to be the best wrestling team in the state and country. IT’S POSSIBLE. I have been in your shoes and I know the power of belief and how far hard work can get you. The point is, you need to know what you want and believe you can achieve it. It’s going to take some hard work and it’s not going to be easy.

Are you up for the challenge?

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