The Hard Thing About Hard Things (and Then There’s Wrestling)

I attended a very unusual high school reunion last weekend near my hometown of Philadelphia. About 100 of us—aged 30 to 70-plus–gathered in a small auditorium to watch an advance screening of The Buckley Men, a documentary film about our beloved high school wrestling coach, Neil Buckley. “Neil” as everyone including his athletes called him, was the winningest high school wrestling coach in the U.S. when he passed away 25 years ago this week.

I certainly wasn’t the star of the team, but I was a four-year member of the program, won my share of matches and had a few brief cameos in the documentary. I also had the chance to reconnect with teammates including former Navy Seals, West Point grads, Air Force pilots, Pentagon anti-terrorism honchos, surgeons, Rhodes Scholars, a Major League Baseball team owner and scores of successful entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs.

Once theme kept coming up in the film—hard work. Most wrestlers agreed they never worked harder in their life than they did in Buckley’s 95-degree wrestling room, aka “The Pit.”

When you think about Buckley, you think about winning. True, he never had a losing season in 48 years as a head coach. His teams racked up 646 career wins along the way to numerous league, state and national championships, not to mention several Sports Illustrated profile stories. When you consider that high school wrestling teams didn’t have more than 15 to 18 matches per year at the time, Neil essentially went 15-2 every year for over 40 straight years! It’s even more remarkable that a 6th grade social studies teach who never wrestled could build such a powerhouse program at a tiny private high school with 80 kids per class and little or no recruiting help.

But the winning tradition was just a byproduct of the process.

If you know anything about high school wrestling in places like Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oklahoma, it’s a religion, not just a sport. Think football in Texas or basketball in New York City and you know what I mean. Wrestling is a violent, physically and mentally demanding sport that requires athletes to deprive themselves of food and fluids after grueling practices to “make weight” for the privilege of competing.

Why would anyone sign up for that, especially kids from mostly privileged backgrounds who could find easier and less painful ways to impress the Ivy League admissions officers?

Now, imagine a van full of mostly white preppies in jackets and ties rolling into a hostile gym at all-minority inner-city high school—and kicking their asses. Imagine the prepsters sauntering into a rural high school in the Pennsylvania hinterlands to take on jacked up farm boys, coal miner’s kids and steel worker’s sons hell-bent on taking their heads off. Imagine the shock when the hometown boys were the ones going home with the black eyes, bloody lips and bruised egos.

What was Neil’s secret?
He didn’t have many. But here are some clues:

Vision. Neil made wrestling cool. At how many other schools are wrestlers the big studs on campus? All the younger students looked up to the wrestling captains and wanted to be like them some day. He cultivated a deep pipeline of talent from the middle school and younger program he started at the school. Every kid wanted their name on one of the dozens of championship banners hanging from the rafters.

Delegation. Neil wasn’t a technical guru or a Machiavellian drill sergeant. He had scores of highly knowledgeable assistant coaches to run all aspects of the practices, match prep etc. He had scores of former wrestlers who came back to The Pit during college breaks to share tools of the trade they learned at the Division I level and beyond. Neil was the impeccably organized CEO and chief visionary officer who knew how to pull all the levers.

Accountability. Every wrestler had their full season results posted for all to see on a huge wooden board above the scoreboard. Every week, any wrestler in the program, regardless of age or ability could challenge any other for a spot on the varsity lineup. You never had to stop earning your spot.

Toughness. Neil was old school to say the least. There was no weight training, nutrition counseling or stretching in his program. Just an insane volume of jumping jacks, push-ups, rope climbing, wind-sprints, horizontal spinning and sparring. Match days were a welcome respite from practices. We knew we were in better shape than our opponents and never missed practices due to snow days, colds or injuries. You just knew that if you got into the third period of a tight match, you would always have more gas in the tank than your rival. Sooner or later he’d make a mistake and leave you open to execute a pinning combination, a reversal, or get some valuable “back points.”

Simplicity. In a sport like wrestling, it’s easy to get caught up in the advance techniques preached at all the off-season clinics and recruiting camps. Neil’s motto was simple: “Just learn a few moves, and know them really, really well so you never have to think about what you’re doing on the mat. Just react, see.”

Team. This word has become cliché today, but Neil created a special bond with every wrestler—from third string freshmen to varsity starters. Everyone mattered in The Pit and there was always a coach or teammate available to console a wrestler who just lost a match, or who was having a bad day at practice. He knew the team was only as strong as its weakest links and if too many athletes quit, the entire program would suffer. The team spent a week together every summer at an elite wrestling camp in the Pocono Mountains—training three times per day, getting tossed around by college and Olympic wrestlers and loving every minute of it.

Serenity. Neil never raised his voice or publicly humiliated an athlete for failing to perform. For each and every match, he would sit calmly on his stool, legs crossed, sunglasses always on, and give each athlete a firm handshake at the beginning of each match and the words: “Do your best. Get us some points.” His athletes didn’t always win, but they rarely lost their temper or choked under pressure.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and VC icon, Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz) wrote a great book a few years ago entitled The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. As you might expect, the book is chock full of anecdotes about overcoming insurmountable odds, never giving up and working harder than you ever thought possible. But there’s one passage that stuck with me: By far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology,” wrote Horowitz. “Organizational design, process design, metrics, hiring and firing were all relatively straightforward skills to master compared with keeping my mind in check. I thought I was tough going into it, but I wasn’t tough. I was soft. In the end, this is the most personal and important battle that any CEO will face.”

As any athlete or entrepreneur will tell you, there’s no tougher competitor than the one who lives inside your head. Neil understood that. My teammates understood that. And slowly over the years, I’ve come to understand it. In this age of life hacks, DoorDash, Uber and Amazon convenience, it’s always tempting to take the easiest path. But you will never beat that rival inside your head unless you learn to get outside your comfort zone, fail publicly on occasion and do things that are really, really hard.

Conclusion

Nietzsche said: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”  Neil opened every practice with the slightly less elegant observation: “You guys are just a bunch of Main Line station-wagon pussies.” No one wanted to be on the first squad in the history of the storied program to have a losing season. That’s a pretty powerful motivator.

 

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# wrestling #Neil Buckley #The Buckley Men #Mental toughness #Haverford



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