In response to this challenging time, I want to share some inspiration and methodologies to cultivate inner resilience developed through my 30 years spent training, competing, and coaching in the sport of wrestling.
We have our own term for resilience. We call it “mental toughness.” Cultivation of this attribute is basically “the secret” to guiding a new wrestler on the journey from joining a team to possessing the inner fiber required in the sport. Resilience is prized as much as gold medals. Coaches look for athletes with humility and willingness to learn. We know they eventually outweigh strength and athletic skills. It’s basically a secret code we don’t write about. We teach it in a room with mats on the walls and floors.
Leaving Harvard Wrestling to coach at Rondout Valley High School, I struggled to find a way to convey the concept to our young team. On the collegiate level, wrestlers have gone through the humbling process of developing mental toughness. In high school it is a grassroots process.
In the beginning most young wrestlers think mental toughness is puffing out one’s chest and swaggering around school. To them, posturing is mental toughness. Coaches know that’s the furthest thing from reality, and is an attitude to overcome if a young wrestler wants to succeed.
In wrestling, mental toughness is the willingness to persevere when you are exhausted, injured, or uncomfortable. Fear is part of the sport and must be overcome when facing an opponent with more muscles, a better reputation, or record. You have to believe in yourself to win a state, national, or Olympic title—especially when you have not done it before. This doesn’t happen through arrogance or the emotional mindset of bullying people. It comes through resilience.
Cultivating deep resilience takes time. You can’t press a button nor buy it. Big titles don’t come easily and there is no fame or fortune as motivation. The forging of inner character and latent mental and physical abilities is the reward. Through this process you gain respect from your peers.
In the wrestling community coaches teach acceptance. Bodies come in all sizes and shapes; socioeconomic diversity abounds. Long a sport reserved for men, women’s wrestling is the fastest growing high school sport in America, outpacing all others by a factor of five.
We have amazing examples of resilience. Notably, Anthony Robles, born with only one leg. He started wrestling in junior high, the smallest and worst wrestler on his team. With support from his mother and coaches—incredibly—he won the 2011 NCAA championship to a thunderous standing ovation from fans who understood they witnessed a demonstration of resilience training, built over years of hard work.
I’ve had my own profound experiences of the power of resiliency. Starting out as a tiny, 67 pound 8th grader from a Jewish family that didn’t do sports, it seemed only the toughest kids in school did wrestling. I survived the first two weeks of practice, and our legendary coach, Louis Giani, took me under his wing for four years. Coach Giani was voted “Best Coach in America” three times. We were the Dead Poets Society of wrestling. “Desire-Discipline-Determination” was posted on the wall and we took it seriously. Because of my determination and the supportive team mentality, I won two of our team’s collective 28 individual NY State Championships. In my final match in the state finals I was losing five to two with 20 seconds left, and on the bottom. Somehow, I managed to tie the score, and win in overtime. Resilience and a higher power took over my being. After the final whistle I carried Coach Giani off the mat. Then, I ran to a corner of the gym and cried uncontrollably for 20 minutes. I finished my career as co-captain of the Harvard team, first alternate on the 1984 Olympic team, and proudly the oldest competitor and 6th in the 1996 Olympic trials.
So, here are a wrestler’s perspective on a path for anyone to cultivate personal resilience in the unprecedented times we find ourselves:
1. Start a daily practice of reflection or meditation. Start with five minutes a day quietly breathing deeply and calming yourself. In the process, actively express gratitude. This discipline builds resilience and reduces stress.
2. Pick a physical activity: walking, yoga, tai chi, HEART® (my patented mind-body-fitness tool and movement system), push-ups, weight training. Pick anything to create a disciplined physical activity for yourself. This provides a golden opportunity to overcome stagnation on days you feel lethargic. Commit to 10 push-ups in the morning and 10 at night: 20 per day. At year’s end: 7,300 push-ups! My area of expertise is circular movement. If you practice the HEART® core routine three minutes a day you will do 40,320 sophisticated circular exercises in a year. Small steps add up to resilience.
3. Every once in a while stretch yourself. Test the limitations your rational mind has imposed on you? Do a little more. Do something for someone else. Overcome a small block—the dishes or cleaning your closet? A five-mile run or marathon? Wrestling champions know how to wash the mats.
4. Watch your mind. When is it holding you in a fixed pattern or limiting you? Reframe limiting stories and embrace the power of affirmations.
5. Perhaps most importantly, embrace the powers of compassion, kindness, and community. Through states of gratitude and compassion we grow and evolve.
The way we function as individuals, and in community, along with economic structures, are shifting. Our personal and loved ones’ health, and that of humans globally, are on the line. Through wrestling I have seen the power of resilience and compassion. You can be determined, aggressive and firm, yet remain gentle and approachable.
Your big heart and resilience are necessary attributes of our new reality. Let’s cultivate them moment by moment, one day at a time.
Wrestling paintings by Nancy Ostrovsky: TheArtofWrestling.com