Lessons Learned in the Gym

“It teaches the strong to know when they are weak and the brave to face themselves when they are afraid. To be proud and unbowed in defeat yet humble and gentle in victory. And to master ourselves before we attempt to master others. And to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep. And to give the predominance of courage over timidity.”

~General Douglas MacArthur, on the virtues of competitive athletics.

Yesterday, the 2011 Missouri State Wrestling Championships concluded with the toughest battles of the year for many young men (and a handful of young women). Driving back across the state after the conclusion of a season is always a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. This year might have been a bit more intense. I competed in the sport of wrestling from the time I was ten. Ten years after that I began a coaching career that lasted for another twenty. Though I walked away from coaching two years ago, my younger brother stayed on to finish out these last two years. A first cousin of ours completed his career yesterday. He does not intend to pursue the sport in college. I’ve hardly missed a meet these past two years, but yesterday finally felt like a very real conclusion for me.

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Win or lose, when one of the boys in my family concludes a wrestling career, it is a curiously emotional thing. It is ingrained into the fabric of my family’s culture. I’m sure you’d have to be in it to get it, but I spent the better part of an evening in silence yesterday taking apart just why my family once again engaged in a festival of teary eyed embraces after Bryson’s last match. I’ve competed in many other sports throughout my life, but none dug into my psyche like that one. None of the others shaped my life quite like it.

My involvement in wrestling as a competitor and a coach these past thirty years may have taught me more real lessons about learning and life than anything else I have done. Here are a few of the things I know as a result…

  • There is no substitute for hard work.
  • A man’s strength cannot be seen on the outside.
  • Innovation without preparation is merely self gratification.
  • Rigorous challenges reveal as much character as they build.
  • There is nothing like a truly authentic assessment for milking every last drop of effort from a learner.
  • Even violence breeds respect when concluded with a handshake.
  • There’s nothing as brutal as the grip of someone who works on a farm.
  • Our country’s tendency to think of our brains as separate from our bodies is an unfortunate error.
  • The instructional model I favor today was honed while coaching kids to become powerful individuals.
  • No matter what you do, no matter how good you are, everyone needs a trusted coach to reach their full potential.
  • SMART goals work in the practice room too. Yes, I’m serious.
  • We all have unique strengths and weaknesses. Differentiating development along those lines leads to individual success and self-sufficiency.
  • Even in hand-to-hand combat, technology helps. Too much happens in those six minutes to not learn from video.
  • Reflection works. If you want learning to stick, that single behavior should be supported perhaps more than all others.
  • Success in something breeds a willingness to try other things.
  • All leaders have four basic functions:  They inspire, they empower, they encourage, and they teach. The better you are at the first of these, the less you must micromanage the latter.
  • There are few terms of endearment quite like that of coach.

Two years ago I made the decision to move away from wrestling and toward helping my district wrap our collective heads around the purposeful embrace of technology in the classroom. I’ll probably second guess that decision as long as I breathe.

I was careful to leave that team in better hands than when I found it myself. It was important to me to replace myself well before leaving. I feel like I did that, and now…  now it’s time to focus my energy surplus and continue to apply those lessons learned to every aspect of the future.

A final thought
There’s a reason your community might tend to vote for athletic initiatives in lieu of those of a more academic nature. While it is easy to poo-poo that away as a distaste for “education,” it might indicate something else. It might just indicate a willingness to support those things that are real. To be clear, not everyone’s experience with athletics is a rosy memory. However, if our academic pursuits were allowed to take aim at things beyond artificial exams and grade point averages, we might just move closer to where we’d like to be. If all learning were as real… if our focus were on creating real things and tackling real goals, then the inner struggle of hours upon hours of practice might seem worth it.

Think about those academic programs that are well-supported by your wider community. What might those have in common with extracurriculars? Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just a gym rat in need of a few push-ups.


Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. Love this post… and I know exactly how you feel. I miss coaching every single day. No matter what we accomplish at SLA, there is a part of me that still wants to go back and teach English and coach the two sports that found me at practice every morning at 6:30 am from September through June.

    The best teaching I’ve ever done was on the dusty fields and gyms of New York City.

    I really do still miss it.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad to know I’m not alone. Seriously. And what sports?… I seem to remember something about soccer. No?

  2. I cannot begin to comprehend the void that you’re feeling.. my best guess tells me I will experience my own personal void in the very near future… know that you have touched and helped mold many in the very directions that you emphasized in your post. I appreciate your insight personally and the character my son has gained from you..

    • Man… I can remember how badly that kid of yours loved to learn way back during freestyle adventures in the summer when he was in grade school. He was our youngest die-hard for sure. What was that, 6th grade? 5th?

      Tyler is exactly the sort of kid I’ll miss most. His quiet, cerebral way of studying the sport is impressive to say the least. I had a ton of fun watching him develop this year as a Freshman. 4th in state in a brutal weight class… and humble as they come. He’ll go as far as he dreams. Thanks for the kind words, Josh.

  3. Thank you for your post. It has allowed me to give shape to the a bit of a reflection that has been bouncing around in my own head:

    As a child, sport gave me the space to test values as my youth developed. Today, as a coach of many different teams, sport gives me the space to test the values that I now hold so dear, and strive to bring to life every day as a better friend, teacher, person, and model to my athletes.

    • You’re welcome. Best thing about blogging for sure: feeding off of the reflections of others to supercharge our own. What sports do you coach>?

      • I have been involved in hockey coaching for 17 years. Hockey was always my first love, and where my values were put through the fire. While I now train other coaches I still learn something about myself every season. When I started teaching though, I got involved with coaching rugby and volleyball in the school system. At my previous school I saw how much the wrestling program provided a sense of belonging for so many students (and honestly – helped the development of my rugby players). So when I moved to a new school that had no wrestling program I took a couple of coaching clinics and started a team. The wrestling coaches in my district (who are mostly the rugby folks as well) have been incredibly supportive, and it has been great to be a novice coach again, learning, and growing in a sport new to me. We just finished our second season, and our wrestling team continues to grow and the kids continue to smile. The wrestling room and the rugby pitch can offer a sense of belonging to certain students that may not find it in other parts of the school – and give them an introduction to sport that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

  4. Wonderful post!

    A few (scattered) thoughts:

    The mind/body division is a sham and a shame. If a healthy child never knows the joy of muscles ripping in sequence towards a shared goal, we’ve deprived that child of a complete education.

    The grip of one who has worked on a farm is no doubt brutal; I’d argue, though, that a few who’ve worked as dockworkers have similar grips.

    You can be right AND in need of a few push-ups.

    • WorkED as dockworkers, huh? Is this a threat? 😉

      I still haven’t caught up physically since a rather ugly neck surgery five years ago that left my head tacked on with titanium (wrestling’s not all roses). Boy, when I DO get caught up, folks will wonder why I’d had by brain switched down to low gear for the past nickel.

      Dying for Spring…

      • No worries.
        I’ve gone done gone soft.

        Still clam, though, and that counts for something….

  5. “All leaders have four basic functions: They inspire, they empower, they encourage, and they teach. The better you are at the first of these, the less you must micromanage the latter.”

    Of course, through my frame of reference, I was immediately struck by this quote. I think one I would add to this would be, “they model.” Think about what you did as a coach–what you do as a dad, uncle, cousin, brother–much of what I believe an effective leader does is model for others. It doesn’t take words…rather, it is the actions that speak louder.

    As the daughter of a coach, the wife of a coach, and an athlete and a former coach myself, I completely empathize with the emotion involved in the finality of a season. There is nothing that can replace the feeling you have when you take the uniform off for the last time. I watch kiddos do this year after year and it still doesn’t get any easier.

    I think we can only hope that the lessons they learned on the court, field, mat, etc…are ones that they use as they enter the world of adulthood.

    • Actually, the finality of this season is a bit bigger. It smells way too much of a goodbye and I’m not so good at those.

      Modeling, eh? Hmmmmm… when I think of modeling, I think of actions that touch two of the four mentioned. Some modeling rarely reaches beyond basic instruction. However, in such a comprehensive endeavor as competitive athletics, I wonder if a good bit of that modeling taps into the “inspiration” role. Thinking back to some of the better leaders I have followed… I think I learned more when they weren’t purposefully “teaching” but merely doing what they do.

      Modeling is a massive element though. I’ll have to spend some more time with that one.

  6. Excellent post. This is the sole reason my Master’s degree in Administration sits on a shelf collecting dust. I simply can’t get the coaching blood out of my veins. The things you hit on are exactly how I feel about coaching football. I especially love your last point. Instead of complaining about how much the community supports our football team, why not examine WHY they support it and copy that model in the classroom.

    • I know. So then if what we’re saying is reasonable here… then why is there little correlation between perennially-successful coaches, and dynamic classroom spaces during the school day?

      I think I just answered that question in my head. It’s all about the measure of success we use. We all know that it is tough to “lose” with a bumper crop of gifted athletes. Then again, there is more nuance to that than most folks will ever see. Perhaps state championships and state test scores have more in common than most might think upon first glance?

  7. >Perhaps I’m wrong.

    I don’t think you’re wrong, but I’m definitely one of the people who has been irritated (dare I say disgusted?) by the focus on athletics in schools. You help me see something I have no understanding of.

    I have neglected bodily strength in my life, as many women have. Perhaps when sports are framed in a more egalitarian way, and girls are encouraged to push themselves as much as boys are, that won’t happen so much.

    I think if I had had any interest in physical competition, wrestling might have been my sport. Or swimming. But how do you reach the people who aren’t good at these things to begin with? I loved school, partly because I was very good at the academics, but part of the reason I understand how destructive schools can be is my experience with music in school. I love to sing, but I’m a slow learner with that, and in elementary school I remember mouthing the words, pretending to sing, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

    • Sorry to be so late with this… I’m an absent blogger as of late. You certainly hit on a half dozen interesting things with this reply.

      First, let me be clear, that I too have been put off by an over-emphasis on athletics. In fact, I see less of an over-emphasis, and more of a willingness for traditional media outlets to trumpet athletic successes over intellectual or academic wins. That frustrates me still.

      Don’t you think girls growing up today have a strong pull toward athletic endeavors? Or is that just my reality? It seems like that inequality has been seriously leveled a great deal in the past generation or so.

      And I think you’re on to something with wrestling. You could argue this for any sport really, but one thing I love about wrestling is the fact that there really is no “favored” body type of skill set that dominates. Being super tall, or super muscular is not a prerequisite. Playing to your strengths, and strategically against your weaknesses (all the while developing new skills) allows anyone to succeed given the drive. I had one of my wrestlers lose twice to a female at the 112lb. weight class in the MO State Championships a couple of years ago. Yep- a female at 112lb. 3rd in the state. Impressive for sure.

  8. Sean, you are truly inspiring and such an inspiration for many. Although, not a Dixon by blood, the wrestling bug hit me hard when as a little girl going to watch all of you Dixon boys every weekend. Thank goodness my son has also intercepted “the bug”! I feel for Bryson as all of the other boys which hit that milestone of manhood and have nothing left but fond memories of their wrestling years. Wrestling as a sport teaches character, determination, success as well as defeat, and self perseverance; which so many of our boys are without these days. God speed to those who continue the tradition.

    • Hey Jessica! Thanks for stopping by to post a reply here. It’s fun to get feedback from people you know, who aren’t in the “eduworld.” You have a son wrestling? I didn’t know that. Very cool. You’ll have to keep me up to date with that. I’m sure I’ll get back into wrestling in some capacity as Eric’s little boy moves into it.

      Obviously, my hope for all emerging from that phse of their lives would be to view anything else they wish to do with the same lens. I hope they see that there is very little that a person can’t do with the right amount of resourcefulness and hard work. I know it had that effect on me. Thanks again. 😉

    • Really?

      By now I have heard from many in my family about how this one really pulled at them. That’s pretty easy to see, but I’d love to know what specific part of this post tugged on your nerves. And thanks for the kind words. They really do mean a lot to me.

  9. Mr. Nash,
    I loved your post; I found it through your Facebook account. There was one sentence fragment that really had me thinking..

    “..if our focus were on creating real things and tackling real goals, then the inner struggle of hours upon hours of practice might seem worth it.”

    & I couldn’t agree more with it.

    Also, the SMART goals. If it’s what I’m thinking of (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Oriented), then I learned about that in my Personal Finance class, & agree that it’s a great tool! I also think that PACED decisions (Problem, Alternatives, Criteria, Evaluation, Decision) is a great way to break down problems, no matter the difficulty or simplicity.

    Great post. I’ll probably be reading your blog more often.

    • As exciting as it is to have professional colleagues come to this blog and care enough to not only spend their valuable time reading, but to also craft some feedback…

      there is still something even more rewarding about having former students find their way back and care enough to leave a few words. That is pretty gratifying stuff for sure.

      Thanks, Ally. And yes, that is exactly what I meant by SMART goals. Thanks for adding in the problem-solving approach as well. I find it rather nice that your personal finance course has either embedded that framework within, or your individual teacher has. Do you have a sense of how that works in this case?

  10. I thoroughly enjoy my Personal Finance class. I really cling to the lessons knowing their importance in the future. I’m not a big math person, but I really enjoy learning about budgeting. I don’t know what I enjoy so much about it, but I love doing zero-based budgets & whatnot. Pretty nerdy, I know. (;

    If you’re referring to the SMART goals in the practice room, then I believe I do. Working towards those goals you set for yourself when training, & involving that criteria.

    Am I right? (:

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