Levels to it: wrestling and learning

Kendrick Lamar once rapped, “It’s levels to it, you and I know,” while surrounded by many bald black men.

I was thinking about that recently after an interesting conversation I had with a friend and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training partner. A 200 pound former Penn State wrestler and a Harvard Chemistry PhD to be, he is an absolute force to be reckoned with on the mats.

(Penn State, if you’re not aware, is considered the best wrestling program in the country, winning the D1 Championship 4 straight years in a row).

After yet another round of being beaten up (nicely) by this friend, we started talking about his experience as a Penn State wrestler. He said something interesting, “When I first came to Penn State, I had no idea how to wrestle, just like pretty much everyone who comes on. It took me some time to learn.”

It was a weird thing for him to say. Penn State does not accept just anyone onto the wrestling team. They regularly attract the number 1 college wrestling picks in the country, and my friend was, himself, an outstanding high school wrestler in a really competitive league.

And yet, he had learned so much at Penn State that he considered himself an absolute novice at the beginning. How was that possible?

Well, like any skill, there are levels to wrestling. When your coach is a legendary Olympian, the level of high school wrestling can seem like no wrestling at all. It feels like you can’t ramp up to the next level, you need to step up.

So, at Penn State, my friend took that step up in wrestling. He became such a better wrestler (and very competitive on the national level) that he felt like it was the first time he really wrestled. He became a next level wrestler.

This made me interested as to how the coach, Cael Sanderson, makes guys take that step up. What’s the key to creating next level wrestlers?

I did some research and talked to my friend, and here’s what I found. First, gather a bunch of really talented guys a room. Then, closely bond them together through games and a mutual attitude of humility. Make them do hours upon hours of drilling and wrestling-specific exercise (Cael is really big on having all exercise relate back to wrestling), although give them time to cool off and relax as well.

Last, use your encylopedic knowledge of wrestling as you work with each of them one-on-one, training them in exactly how they should wrestle.

It seemed straightforward enough. There was one really interesting part though: how they drill. Wrestling drills are, traditionally, just doing what the coach tells you to do, over and over again. And that’s an important part of learning basic wrestling skills.

But, what Cael realized is that once you have a basic but comprehensive wrestling vocabulary, you can change the way you drill. Wrestling is not a team sport, it’s an individual sport. You don’t have to do the same thing as your teammates, you just have to do what works.

If you have the vocabulary, it’s fine to only drill your favorite techniques, as long as they work and cover the relevant situation. So, instead of only drilling their coach’s favorite techniques, a lot of their drills are individualistic. Each wrestler drills their own favorite techniques over, and over, and over again against a partner.

They drill their techniques with no resistance, some resistance, and total resistance. They get so many reps in that it becomes second nature. Eventually, having drilled these techniques so many times, they are instantly prepared for literally any counter strategy someone will throw at you and have an answer.

And that seems to be the secret of creating the best D1 program in the country: clever drilling, close team bonding, an amazing coach, and incredibly talented recruits.

Now, considering that most readers of this are not planning on going into college wrestling, what are the general lessons of learning from this?

  1. Close, one-on-one interaction and collaboration with other talented people is incredibly helpful for improving skills (witness the way people describe Bell Labs)
  2. A closely-bonded team that emphasizes humility is motivational
  3. Drill repeatedly what you want to improve in a variety of situations (easy, medium, and hard situations)
  4. An individual can focus on only learning their favorite strategies, as long as those strategies are comprehensive

The last lesson, and one that is sort of meta, is that learning strategies, like any strategy, works best with “export discipline”. You need to constantly test your strategy against outside programs.

In college wrestling, this was already built in when Cael Sanderson came along. By nature of the sport, you’re constantly testing your athletes against other athletes in regimented, one-on-one competitions.

Furthermore, it’s an easy place to implement new strategies if old ones aren’t working: an individual coach can come in, make sweeping changes, and start seeing pretty immediate results by the results of the competition. It’s also a very manageable size to test a strategy, as wrestling programs are small enough that a coach like Cael can work with each athlete individually to improve their learning.

I can only wish that it was possible to create the same export discipline in colleges, graduate programs, or the like. If they were forced to constantly test themselves publicly against other programs, then perhaps we’d see the same sort of innovative strategy implementation in them as well.

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