What’s the best way to overcome a wrestling loss? Don’t quit

Updated: April 7, 2023

Photo: Strength trainer Zach Even-Esh has worked with many different wrestlers at The Underground Strength Gym in Manasquan, New Jersey. In the summer of 2012, Even-Esh (second from left) trained Purdue wrestlers Tommy Churchyard (left) and Camden Eppert (right) as well as Mario Mason of Rutgers.

By Zach Even-Esh

Handling a loss is extremely challenging; often more so mentally than physically. These setbacks can come in the form of a serious injury, a surgery, a major loss in a pivotal tournament or match, the loss of a family member, loved one or the end of a relationship (friendship, dating, leaving a team, etc). 

As wrestlers, we all will eventually lose. In life, loss and setbacks will happen. It happens to the best of the best. Olympic champions have lost, state and national champions have lost. I know that for me personally, losing every wrestle-off as a freshman in 1989-90 has driven me to greater heights in everything I do. 

It was embarrassing and painful yet it pushed me to train extremely hard and to outwork everyone else. Near the end of my freshman year, I started beating some of the guys in the practice room. I was having a great day and in between matches, one of the kids said the entire team was betting every week on when I would quit. When he said that to me, I remember thinking myself, I didn’t know quitting was allowed!

Today, quitting is becoming the norm rather than the rarity. Certainly, there are times when we must pivot and change our path. But, quitting and just giving up without effort is not what we do as wrestlers. We must pivot and attack. 

As a rising sophomore, I attended the first ever John Smith intensive wrestling camp in New Jersey. I was in a camp of about 24 wrestlers, every one of them was a state or national champ or placer. I was completely out of my element and every day was tougher and tougher. Deep down I wanted to quit so badly because I was getting destroyed, but I refused to quit. I kept showing up no matter how badly I was beaten in training. 

We drilled so many low singles that my shirts were stained with blood from bloody collar bones. That camp changed my life and I went from 0-15 as a freshman to 10-5 as a sophomore. The lessons in work ethic from that camp and my high school wrestling coaches have never left me to this day, over 30 years later. 

I am still fueled to this day with a burning desire to win and when life or work or business gets tough, I approach it like a wrestler. I refuse to quit and I will win, no matter what! 

Cael Sanderson described wrestling as a game during his recent NCAA press conference and shared a message that was quite interesting and different than what we normally hear. Cael said that wrestling, winning or losing does not define him, his team or his wrestlers. They are more so identifying and inspired by how valuable they are as a teammate, brother, son, etc. 

There is a focus on something bigger than winning a title, something bigger than being a great coach. Instead, Cael said he is there to serve the kids so they can reach their goals beyond the mat. Not just wrestling goals, but life goals. 

This is a powerful way of thinking and removes the boundaries we often create with being so wrestling focused and not going beyond the mat. This type of thinking helps you take the focus off yourself and in turn, you want to get your teammates better. The only way to make your teammates better is for you to get better. Being a great teammate inspires you to be a great individual and a great leader. You have no other option. 

So, how does one bounce back from a setback or loss? 

I certainly don’t have the perfect answer or solution to how to deal with a loss or setback because every circumstance is unique. But, through my 20-plus years of strength and conditioning coaching and over 30 years of wrestling, I know this much: you cannot hide from your struggles. You must face them head on or they will haunt you and exhaust you. You must get back to work in a strategic manner that puts your mind in a positive state. 

I heard something from a prominent business coach over 10 years ago and it applies to life and sports, certainly not just business. He said that the ultimate way for an entrepreneur to stress him / herself out is to avoid progress, to remain the same. Lack of growth will stress you out. 

So, get back to work. Doing something physical will boost your mental state. Connect with a coach or a trusted training partner who will give you honest feedback and ask them where you went wrong. Ask them how they think you can improve. How should you adjust your training? Perhaps you need a different environment. Perhaps you need to change your training partners or coaches. But absolutely, you must return to face those struggles. This will empower you to turn your obstacles into opportunity. Your struggles can give you strength and you can turn tragedy into triumph. 

Sitting on the couch and sulking will make you feel worse because there is no growth sitting on a couch. Today, I see wrestlers who get a small injury and a doctor tells them, “Do nothing for six weeks.”  This advice is the worst thing for an athlete. Movement creates blood flow. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients and pushes out the old, dead cells and brings to life new cells. The brain gets excited and you build momentum because you are taking action. 

Strategic action is where your newfound power will come from. What went wrong? How can we fix it? What is one thing I can do today, right now to get better and move forward? The worst thing to do is stop or give up. You will regret it for a lifetime. Get back in the fight and do the work. You’re a wrestler, a gladiator. We don’t quit. 

(Zach Even-Esh is the founder of The Underground Strength Gym, author of “The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength” and serves as a consultant. For more information, go to https://ZachEven-Esh.com and https://UndergroundStrengthCoach.com.)