On Quitting.

SocialClassChoice“I’m glad you came to talk to me, it’s a relief really”, my coach said.

I was sitting on the couch in the Cornell wrestling coach’s room.

I had walked on to the Cornell wrestling team two years back, a freshman nobody had heard of from California.  I wrestled three years in high school, was team MVP for three years, team captain for two, first in my league for two years, most wins in the high school history, so I figured I could do something like that in college too.

My senior year in high school was really exciting, I got written up in the paper for being named the most outstanding wrestler of the South San Francisco tournament.  I ranked first in my league, and I thought I could go all the way to the state tournament.

One week before Sectionals, I sub located my left shoulder in practice, tearing a tendon and damaging some of the cartilage in my shoulder.  (Note:  don’t try to out muscle a guy 20 lbs heavier than you…)  Needless to say I didn’t do very well in Sectionals, I was out in the first day, losing to two guys I had easily beaten weeks before.

The First Year

Still, I decided I would wrestle in college.  I got shoulder surgery, went through rehab, stayed in good shape, and went off to school in the fall.  I chose to go to Cornell because they had a great engineering school and a top 25 Division 1 wrestling team. I went to the first day of tryouts, got to know some of the team and decided I should try to make it.  The other guys on the team were amazing.  State champions from New York, Pennsylvania, Florida…  Had been wrestling since they were 5 or 6.  Dad’s had wrestled, had been to all the best camps, they were the real deal.

The first months were really tough, the conditioning was like nothing I had experienced before, the breadth of instruction and experience from which to learn was incredible.  Every day I was learning more about the skills, the mindset, the subtleties of body position, strategy, misdirection, and just pure grit it takes to be great.

Over the winter break I went back home and trained with my high school wrestling team to stay in shape.  The difference in ability between when I left and coming back was incredible, my high school coach was blown away and it solidified my intent to make it in college. I was making progress, I could get there.

I got back to school and started writing down my goals every morning.

I will become the first string 168 lbs Cornell wrestler.
I will place in the Eastern’s conference.
I will make it to the Nationals.
I will become a National Champion.

I filled pads of paper with these affirmations.

My first college match, I faced off against the guy who placed 4th in the nation the year before.  I didn’t know that.  I held my ground, sometimes not knowing the odds you’re up against allows you to succeed anyway.

For the first 45 seconds it felt even, then he picked me up, calmly put me a half nelson, and pinned me.  I hated losing, but my coach seemed impressed by the first 30 seconds at least…

I started to win some points in the practice room, I was learning a lot, and I had four more years to make it (I redshirted because of my shoulder surgery).

The Second Year

Something happened my sophomore year.  Something broke in my head.

At our first tournament of the year, I froze.  In my first match I lost to a guy I should have beaten.  I went into survival mode right from the start. I couldn’t breath, my heart was racing, I couldn’t think, I felt helpless and destined to lose.  I didn’t know how to fix it or who to talk to about it.  So I worked harder.

I was struggling to find a spot at 167 lbs, so decided to drop to 158 lbs where there was less of a challenge.  I was able to get there, but it was a struggle.  My calculus TA pulled me aside after class one day and asked if there was anything he could do for me, was I ill?  He had noticed my weight loss, my loss of skin color, my sunken eyes, did I need some extra help during this tough time?

It took me a while to realize he thought I was really sick, maybe a bad kidney or cancer or something.  I let him know I was a wrestler and this was just part of the job.  I had a tournament the next day and had to get close to weight so that sweating out the final 5 lbs in the morning wouldn’t be too bad.  He looked shocked, then embarrassed, then a little disgusted.  We didn’t talk much after that.

The First Win

I won a single match my sophomore year.  It was amazing.  It was the first match of my college career my parents would see and I wanted to show them how much I learned.  During warmups my partner was blown away, “You’re a different guy today, I’ve never seen you move this quick”.

I stepped into the ring, and let it all out.  I attacked hard. I let nothing affect me. I shot, attacked, angled, drove relentlessly, found an opportunity, locked him up, and pinned him.

My dad was ecstatic.  My coach was jumping up and down.  It was everything.

I never got that feeling back.  The rest of the year, I was tentative, trying to outsmart, being safe, trying to win by not losing.

When junior year rolled around, I realized I had lost the fire.  The idea of another year of that level of effort just didn’t seem worth it.  It felt like the right thing to do to quit, to explore that, even though I’d be letting down my high school coach, my wrestling friends, and all the commitments and affirmations I’d made.

The Talk

“I’m glad you came to talk to me, it’s a relief really”, my coach said.

“You work harder than most of the team, you’ve done everything we’ve asked of you, the thing is you just don’t have the talent.  You’re a great asset in the practice room, but you’re never going to make the first team.  I wish I could take your attitude and stick it in some of the other guys, but the other guys have the potential to make it to Nationals and I need to focus on them.”

The Point

I’ve been trying to process this experience for the last 17 years. I felt horrible after I quit.  I was a quitter. I hated my coach for telling me I wasn’t talented enough. I was incredibly proud of that win.

It was crazy to walk on my freshman year.  It violated everything I learned about wrestling to quit my junior year.

Looking back, these two choices taught me a lot. You can do crazy things by just trying. Trust yourself and try it out.  And you are not locked into anything, even if everything you’ve been taught tells you different. It’s all your choice.

3 thoughts on “On Quitting.

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