Wrestling success should be measured beyond just winning

Updated: May 10, 2024

By Daniel Harding

The only thing that matters is the county/district/state/national tournament. I’ve heard that line — and even used that line — countless times before. 

The sentiment is that it’s what you achieve at the big end-of-the-year tournaments that everyone remembers. It’s an expression that’s stood the test of time for one reason and there’s a lot of truth to it. Standing on the big podium gets you the important medal, your name in the hometown paper or on a banner in the gym.  

This past season was filled with challenges for my high school team in Connecticut. After two seasons of growth and progress, we faced constant hurdles, from injuries and illness to issues in the classroom, at home and between the ears. It felt as if we could never quite get our feet planted beneath us; as a team we fell short of our goals. 

In the quiet calm that follows the wrestling season, I had the chance to get reacquainted with my dog on a long hike and reflect. I grappled with how to feel about our performance. 

Several really positive memories returned to me. One of my favorites of the season was when two of my wrestlers, whom I’d coached since youth wrestling, donned a pink and blue shirt and performed a choreographed wrestling match/gender reveal while my wife, son and I sat sweating in the corner. 

The blue wrestler pinned the pink one, signifying that we were having a second boy. The celebration that followed, complete with hugs, high-fives and a couple tears was a memory I will never forget. 

Then there was the inaugural Christmas party that my wife and I hosted. It was a standout night where I watched in horror as slices of pizza were stacked on plates like cordwood and devoured at a rate that made me wonder if the kids would ever make weight again. 

Another source of daily amusement this year came from our Bluetooth speaker in the practice room. During the first part of the season, I would routinely blast Christmas music. It started as a joke, hard drilling to the music of Mariah Carey or Michael Bublé is as ridiculous as it sounds but it helped bring some levity to the grind. 

After the holidays, I jokingly started playing sea shanties as a way of keeping things light while the intensity of our practices grew. At first the kids would laugh and roll their eyes. I got the last laugh when by the year’s end I asked them what kind of music they wanted to listen to and they’d say something like, “I guess the sea shanties are O.K. or whatever.” After one post-practice run around the school, they even broke out and started singing a shanty. At that moment, with a big smile on my face, I felt as proud as if they just won a state championship. 

Another thing I find comfort in is knowing the sport has helped to change the lives of our seniors. One worked through mental hurdles, another worked really hard to turn his grades around, another fought through injuries and battled back onto the mat. Of our seven seniors who concluded their careers, all left more disciplined and better prepared to face challenges beyond the mat. 

Memories made and lives changed. There’s no banner for that; they don’t give out medals for developing mental toughness or for building confidence, but maybe they should. Winning and the pursuit of greatness on the mat is important; I hope to see our program continue to grow. But when I think about the question, is the end-of-the-year tournament the only thing that matters? I know now the answer is no, not by a long shot. 

(Dan Harding is the editor-in-chief of Power & Motoryacht magazine and has coached youth and high school wrestling in Portland, Connecticut. He’s the author of the book Elite Youth Wrestling; you can connect with him on Instagram at @eliteyouthwrestling.)