Wrestling with Humility

The NCAA tournament has just come to an end. I bet you didn’t watch a single minute. Hundreds of young men endured physical pain, and poured sweat, blood and tears into thousands upon thousands of hours of work – and you didn’t know we were in the middle of it.

“What are you talking about!” you might be thinking. “I watched the entire tournament from beginning to end. I knew the seeds, the brackets, and competed against my friends!” But I’m not talking about basketball – I’m reflecting on the wrestling season.

I have been a wrestler and a coach for more than ten years. These days, I help coach at Fordham Prep in New York, where our season also just ended. At our awards banquet, head coach John stated, “We are not here to form your sons just as wrestlers. Much more, we are here to make them responsible citizens. As athletes at a Jesuit school, we are here to make them good Christians.”

Wrestling and faith? An odd combination. What do those have to do with each other? Dedication, exercise (maybe like the Exercises?), commitment, and trust are a few shared aspects. Probably most important, however, is humility. Let me tell you what I mean.

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How can you not be humble dressed like this? (And yes, that's Ken Homan.)

How can you not be humble dressed like this? (And yes, that’s Ken Homan.)

In the United States, wrestlers are humbled by a general lack of attention, developing their talents far from the sight and recognition of others. In our high schools, other students view us as the crazy athletes who work too hard, who don’t eat enough for as hard as they work, and have overly-intense coaches. In college, wrestling’s the dying sport hanging on for dear life. On the international stage, we’re the land of confusing rules. But that’s OK. Some of us like it better that way – we’re athletes, not entertainers.

Despite a smaller American following, wrestling is huge internationally. Have you ever heard of Jordan Burroughs? He’s arguably the best American wrestler in history. His biggest following? Iran. Bulgaria. Turkey. Who’s the last American to walk into an Iranian building and get a standing ovation? Burroughs.

Wrestling epitomizes true sportsmanship and equality. At the Olympic level, it represents one of the most widely inclusive sports: 71 countries qualified and 29 medaled at the 2012 Games. Women’s wrestling has seen rapid expansion around the world. All you need to compete is a singlet, a pair of shoes, a flat surface, a circle, and two athletes.

But even with its huge worldwide following, the wrestling community was also recently humbled on the world stage. The International Olympic Committee cut wrestling from its core sports in February 2013.1 Shock exploded around the world, even from non-wrestlers. After all, wrestling is the oldest and purest sport. Even God wrestled (see Genesis 32:23-33).

Faced with this setback, wrestlers did not wallow in self-pity. Instead, we did what we always have: we competed. Wrestling faced off against baseball/softball, squash, karate, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu and roller sports for a slot as a provisional sport.2 As an international community, we did some healthy reflection, seeking to improve our sport and share it with others. The international governing body (FILA) changed some of the rules to increase understanding. FILA also held organizational meetings to improve advertising and outreach. Most importantly, however, they increased visibility and diplomacy. Countries like the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Turkey cooperated on unprecedented levels for love of the sport.

Last September, the International Olympic Committee announced that they would once again include wrestling in the 2020 Olympics as a provisional sport. FILA and other organizations have vowed to continue refining rules in the hope of increasing interest and understandability, with the goal of it being reinstated as a core sport. The hope is that this recent humbling will serve as an engine for change and improvement.

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But the humility involved in wrestling is most visible on the local level, and I’m not just talking about the uniforms (which, as you can see from this photo, don’t hide much).

I often turn to my dad for help in both wrestling and in writing. When we were talking about this essay, he said something I think is right on: “Humility recognizes the giftedness of our lives as given to us by God. True humility celebrates and acts upon our giftedness. We push and stretch ourselves. In true humility we recognize that God has gifted us.”

In my own wrestling and especially coaching, I’ve encountered several types of wrestlers, each of which embodies humility in a different way. The first group are athletes who don’t make the basketball team, but still want to try a sport. They are seekers, path-builders, and adventurers. The humiliation of not making their desired team is the beginning, not the end of their story. Rather than be sad about it, they realize they have athletic potential and develop it in other productive ways. This group tries something totally foreign and unexpected and discovers new gifts and opportunities.

The second group is similar. They know they might not be the best wrestlers on the team, but they come out anyway. They get daily beatings from the toughest kids on the team. Yet they treat each other with respect and dignity, bonded together by the fierce and grueling workouts and mental fatigue. They forge strong ties during the three months they lack both daylight and adequate caloric intake. These familial bonds often make these athletes the most caring, giving people around.

Teammates are essential in any sport, but especially in the ring. Even though it’s an individual competition, wrestlers cannot improve unless others constantly challenge them. The best teammates force the starters to push themselves, grinding out hours of practice until both are ready to fall over. Teammates make champions. I think of my own teammate, Jake Livergood, who did not start many varsity matches or tournaments. But he worked like an animal helping the rest of us get ready for them. Without Jake, I never would have qualified for the Missouri state tournament in my junior year. What better demonstration of humility and generosity than to toil to help others attain a glory that will not be their own?

Finally there are those destined for championships and medals. They are the elite athletes of high schools, universities, and even the world. They put to shame running backs, shortstops, defensemen, and midfielders alike. And yet they live in the humility of obscurity, since even most sports fans don’t know their names. The ones we do know about have become UFC fighters or switched to the NFL, such as Ray Lewis, Larry Czonka, or Warren Sapp. But what about Dan Gable, Kyle Dake, Cael Sanderson, Helen Maroulis, or Rulon Gardner? These athletes compete for love of the sport and inspired future generations of grapplers.

Right now, you may be saying to yourself, “Ken, this doesn’t sound very humble. In fact, it sounds more like pride than humility.” In a way you’re right. I’m extremely proud to be a wrestler and part of the community. Many of us have chips on our shoulders. These chips don’t form because of our own desire for fame or glory, but for love of the sport. We want others to love the sport just as much as we do. This kind pride does not compete with humility, but complements it. When I was talking with my dad, he said, “Classically it is hubris that flaunts our gifts or claims too much credit and forgets they are gifts. Hubris makes us believe that we have achieved them all on our own.” We as wrestlers achieve nothing on our own, but only through our teammates, coaches, and families. We achieve nothing without gifts and givers. We have pride because we share those gifts with others. Herein lies our humility.

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Just a few months ago, I came across a story that demonstrates all of this perfectly. It is a tale from Minnesota, home of some of the best wrestlers in the country (what else can you do to keep warm during a Minnesota winter?). Malik Stewart faced off against Mitchell McKee in the Class 3A state championship match. In an article published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, McKee stated he was wrestling in the state tournament in honor of his dad who is battling cancer. Mitchell had hoped that his father would see him wrestle in the state tournament. Not only did his father watch McKee wrestle in the tournament, but he saw his son win the state championship against Stewart firsthand.

After the match, Stewart did something that stunned the crowd. Rather than being angry over his loss and storming out of the arena, he walked over to Mitchell’s dad, who was sitting ringside, and hugged him. You see, Malik Stewart’s own father had died when Malik was young. He understood the gravity of the moment and what the victory meant for both Mitchell and his father. He understood humility.

Better still, he lived it.

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To learn more about the sport, check out: Team USA Wrestling | Beat the Streets (a program to reintroduce wrestling to inner city students and offer safe, healthy after school programs) | National Registry for Wrestling | Wrestling and Diplomacy

Cover photo by US Army via Flickr.

  1. To make room for things like – wait for it – ribbon dancing. That one stung.
  2. The International Olympic Committee votes on the inclusion of provisional sports for each Olympics. Core sports remain through all the games.

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