Lately, there have been questions raised about the merits of wrestling as a sport both on the collegiate and international level. While several prominent ex-wrestlers, such as Vladimir Putin and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have risen to wrestling's defense, I'd like to add the voice of an underrepresented constituency--the poor-to-mediocre high school wrestler. In fact, I owe much of my success in business to the failure and adversity I endured as a high school wrestler.
In case anyone challenges my credentials as a bad wrestler, I humbly share that my record in my first season was 1-10, (there was a vacancy in one opposing team's line-up, so I "won" the forfeit). Today as I lead a company generating more than $100 million in retail sales, I still rely on the lessons I learned fighting off my back.
Could there be a more entrepreneurial activity than wrestling? What other sport forces you to step into the arena virtually naked, and rely only on your mind and body to make things happen? And just as it is with an entrepreneurial business, while knowledge and skills are always helpful, mental toughness and a will to win are at least as important.
Wrestling taught me the importance of bouncing back from pain and failure. I got pounded my first season--back injuries, bloody noses and struggles to make weight while I was in the middle of a growth spurt. But I always managed to put up a fight and by senior year I had worked my way up to a .500 record. And yet as anyone who has endured high school wrestling will tell you, the impact of the sport is much more profound than win-loss numbers.
When I launched Honest Tea out of my house back in 1998, I started with very little resources, including no experience or contacts within the beverage industry. I begged dozens of distributors to deliver our drinks because it doesn't matter how tasty your drink is if people can't buy it. The few distributors who deigned to return my calls gave every excuse imaginable--our drinks weren't sweet enough, too expensive, too grassy. Early on, we were part-owners in a bottling plant that was bleeding hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the combination of rejection and failure was painful and threatened my life's savings, the fear and pain were trifling compared to those winter nights squeezing tennis balls in a steamy bathtub (to cut weight) and then staring up at the ceiling unable to sleep as I tried to figure out how I was going to avoid staring up at the ceiling from the mat the next day.
If we want to build a nation of resilient entrepreneurs, we need to raise young people who experience failure. With today's generation of helicopter parents protecting their kids from every kind of adversity, wrestling is one of those rare sanctioned opportunities for young people to experience humiliation, pain, disappointment, which aren't fun at the time but when administered in conjunction with a supportive coaching and parenting environment, can be life-defining.
When my oldest son decided to take up wrestling, I found myself going through all the same anxieties before his matches. His wrestling career was far more successful than mine, eventually taking 5th place in the Maryland state tournament. Of course I felt a sense of pride, and relief, but also a sense of remorse--there's no question he worked hard, but was he cheated of the privilege of suffering? I have a feeling he'll do fine--as U.S. national champion Dan Gable said, "Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."