So you think you’re done?

I remember walking in the middle of the night through a neighborhood in San Diego because I couldn’t sleep. I was visiting my older brother who was a marine stationed there. The day before, I had made the difficult phone call to the assistant wrestling coach at Cal State Bakersfield that I wouldn’t be returning. At first, I planned to transfer to Cal State Fullerton, a place that contained a nicer, more pleasing environment in sunny California. Bakersfield was more like to a desert than an oasis, and I thought that maybe putting myself in a better environment would be the trick to recovering from the slight depression I was experiencing as a division 1 college wrestler. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the environment didn’t matter. The issue wasn’t where I was wrestling; the issue was…wrestling. My whole life I had coasted through the sport by mere talent. I entered the college wrestling scene with two high school state titles, but with a pitiful work ethic. I had moments where I was inspired and devoted to working hard, but the inspiration would come and go, and my devotion would waver. To my surprise, I had entered a college program grounded in hard work. They specialized in turning satisfactory wrestlers into extraordinary ones simply by working harder than everyone else. Coach T.J. Kerr contained more of a traditional mindset when it came to wrestling. Strength and conditioning were the centerpiece. I wasn’t prepared for such a difficult integration in the wrestling room. I was barely surviving. The biggest issue for me was mental. I simply didn’t have the necessary mindset in order to succeed. And part of the reason was because I hadn’t built the aforementioned work ethic to begin with. When you know you’ve coasted for years, it’s difficult to pretend you’ve developed the necessary strength and endurance to compete at a high level. You know it’s a lie; and wrestling is no place for pretenders. So, after a year of merely surviving, I drained every last shred of life I had in the sport.

At first, I genuinely felt a sense of relief. Wrestling had been a central part of my life since I was six years old. I felt freedom – a freedom to do and be who I wanted without the burden of success on the mat as part of the equation. But, over time, the relief and subsequent freedom didn’t feel so great. Now that I was away from the sport, I had all the time in the world to reflect, to think back on my life as it led to the present. And as I did so, I couldn’t shake the idea that wrestling impacted my life in amazing ways. And as I realized the role that wrestling played in my life, I started to miss it. I realized that the pressure I put on myself to win, and the identity struggle I participated in throughout my wrestling journey was somewhat ridiculous. I could have just focused on being a better wrestler and growing in the sport. When I thought about it, I always loved wrestling. I was fascinated by it, a fan from the beginning. I remember sitting in the living room as a kid watching vhs tape recordings of NCAA and Olympic wrestling matches on repeat. I had watched the matches virtually hundreds of times, knew the outcomes like reruns of your favorite television show. But it didn’t matter that I knew every outcome. The excitement of watching and analyzing high level wrestling brought joy to my life. I remember trying to imitate the moves and technique in practices, and telling my practice partners: “this is how Sammie Henson does it.” But somewhere along the way, I allowed my identity and self-worth on the mat to take over my internal love for wrestling. And in the end, I lost my way.

I realized a few years down the road that my decision to quit wrestling was purely emotional. Throughout my career in wrestling I maintained a steady course of winning; and so wrestling made me feel good. But by the time I started college, winning transitioned into something less common for me. Even in the practice room, I couldn’t seem to win. And so wrestling no longer made me feel good. Add in my lack of a strong work ethic, and the whole situation with wrestling turned into a terrible problem for me. I didn’t feel good about myself, and I desperately wanted to feel good again. As a result, I quit.

So you think you’re done? Think again. Make sure that a decision to walk away from wrestling is not purely emotional. As much as possible, make sure to consider the big picture. Work past the emotions, consider the entirety of your life in the sport, what it has taught you, how it has shaped your life, and perhaps even reconnect with the love or passion you once had for it. I’ve heard it suggested that wrestling isn’t for everybody, and maybe that’s true. But, personally speaking as a quitter, I have a hard time completely accepting this. I strongly believe that, if you remove the focus on winning as well as the identity and self-worth struggle that accompanies it, the love and passion for wrestling comes alive.

To this day, I consider quitting wrestling to be one of the biggest regrets of my life. I’m quick to share this regret when speaking to high school and college wrestling programs around the country on my summer and fall tours. I have even since communicated this regret to the assistant coach who was the first to hear of my decision to quit fourteen years ago.

So you think you’re done? Well, before you make a quick decision, make sure that you’re making that decision with a clear mind, some wisdom, and with a full understanding of yourself and what you want out of life. Because, if you do in fact decide to quit, you want to do so with no regrets. It’s okay to move on from wrestling. Your value as a person is not tied to the mat. However, my fear is that my story hits too close to home for so many other wrestlers who decided to quit before they were actually ready to do so, that their decision was clearly based on emotion and fully wrapped up in a warped perspective where their identity and self-worth were unfortunately wrapped up in the equation.

To me, wrestling is such a blessing and a benefit  – both as an athlete, and as a person now engaging the challenges of life. I appreciate it as a sport, as well as everything that it has taught me.

So you think you’re done? Let’s talk.

What do you think?

Written by michaelfessler