Klingman: Usually, it takes 10 years to achieve excellence

Updated: February 13, 2019

Photo: John Peterson (left) and Lee Kemp first excelled in the state of Wisconsin before excelling on the World/Olympic stage in freetyle.

Note: The following column appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of WIN Magazine. To subscribe, go to WIN-Magazine.com or call 1-888-305-0606.

By Kyle Klingman

How long does it take to get good … really good?

Although the answer can vary, 10 years is a number that is consistent with high performers. That’s not just 10 years of putting in the time and hoping to improve. That’s 10 years of precise, defined work.

Lee Kemp, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion for Wisconsin (1976-78) and a three-time World champion (1978-79, 82), defies logic. He began wrestling in ninth grade and reached the NCAA championship finals five years later, finishing second to Iowa’s Chuck Yagla in the 150-pound finals before winning his first of three 158-pound titles the following season.

Kyle Klingman

John Peterson, silver medalist at the 1972 Olympics and gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics, is also a head scratcher. He placed fifth at the 1970 NAIA Wrestling Championships, made a World Team in 1971 (he didn’t place), and then earned a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics.

Peterson’s rise to greatness was the fastest and most improbable trajectory in U.S. wrestling history. His story should be studied by anyone looking to reach the top. Olympic coach Bill Farrell said Peterson was not improving by the day at training camp; he was improving by the minute. It would take exponential growth to develop at such a rapid pace.

Six years after a fifth-place finish at the NAIA Championships, Peterson throttled everyone at the 1976 Olympics … reaching a peak very few wrestlers have attained.

Peterson and Kemp developed quickly, but they both achieved greatness in a specific way. They placed themselves in an environment where they were consistently challenged by superior wrestlers.

Kemp skipped lunch at youth wrestling camps so he could spy on 1972 Olympic champion and clinician Dan Gable. He wanted to absorb, copy and implement.

The 10-year model for improvement is not specific to wrestling. It’s specific to everyone in every endeavor. And, truth be told, it might take longer than 10 years to get really good.

Ten years is the world’s way of testing a person’s commitment and his or her desire to reach the apex. Think of all the true freshmen that are forced to survive when they enter a college wrestling room.

There is a natural progression if you put in the right kind of work in the right kind of way. You start to improve without even knowing it. A person is allowed to cross a threshold into another realm because he or she stays the course. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a national championship. But it allows you to walk across the bridge, even if it is shaky.

Much of our current wrestling success is happening because the 10-year rule starts at a younger age. Regional Training Centers allow high school wrestlers to train with the best in the nation and in the world. The proliferation of quality high school wrestling clubs also contributes to our country’s rapid growth.

Think of the youth movement in wrestling over the past five years. Kyle Snyder won a World championship in 2015 at the age of 19 and an Olympic gold medal at 20. Two true freshmen — Iowa’s Spencer Lee and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis — won the NCAA Championships in 2018. The best college heavyweight in the country this winter is Minnesota’s Gable Stevenson … also a true freshman.

We have also witnessed how the 10-year rule can be delayed. Jordan Burroughs was a one-time state champion from New Jersey who came to the University of Nebraska as a raw and unproven talent. Burroughs had Kemp-like growth once he became a Husker.

He was average as a freshman, placed third at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore in 2008, first in 2009 and first in 2011. Since when Burroughs won his first NCAA championship in 2009 until now — a period of 10 years — he has made eight consecutive World/Olympic teams at 163 pounds and has won seven World medals, including four World Championships and the Olympic Games.

And, guess what? John Smith, winner of six consecutive World and Olympic titles from 1987-92, has something in common with Burroughs. Both took a year away from college wrestling during their careers.

Smith redshirted in 1986 on his own and Burroughs redshirted in 2010 due to an injury. Both credit that singular year as fundamental to improvement since they focused on honing their skills and developing their craft without competition getting in the way.

The 10-year formula works if you have the courage to stay the course. Years seven, eight and nine will be a test to see if you belong.

 (Klingman is the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.)