5 Life Lessons From the Greatest Wrestler of All Time
Disclaimer: If you’re here looking for life lessons from The Undertaker or Hulk Hogan, you’ve come to the wrong place. Today, we’re talking about good old-fashioned, hard-nosed, REAL wrestling.
I spent 6 years of my life on wrestling mats. During that time, Dan Gable’s quotes were so commonly used by my coaches, parents, and teammates that in my mind he‘s always been a mystic figure of wrestling perfection.
The only problem with Dan Gable’s illustrious career on the wrestling mat was that it ended too soon. He was a 3-time state wrestling champion in Iowa, a 2-time NCAA champion at Iowa State, a world champion in 1971, and most famously, an Olympic gold medalist at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
He retired from competing at the ripe age of 23 to become an assistant coach at the University of Iowa. He later became head coach and led Iowa to 15 NCAA titles and 21 Big Ten championships.
Losing was not in his nature, to say the least. In his high school and college career combined, Gable only lost one match.
To put that in perspective, in my first year of wrestling I was 4–28.
Despite his dominance on the mat, Gable did experience his fair share of adversity in life. As a teenager growing up in Waterloo, IA, Gable’s sister Diane was murdered by a neighbor in town. Gable says in his book, A Wrestling Life, that it was his wrestling that brought the family back together.
Even if you’ve never wrestled, you can learn a lot from Gable’s journey from small-town Iowa to Olympic gold medalist. He was an example of discipline, dedication, and a special work ethic.
Here the 5 most powerful life lessons from the life of the greatest wrestling figure in American history:
1. The 30-Day Philosophy
Gable is a firm advocate of the “30-Day Philosophy”.
The 30-Day Philosophy is simple: Chase your goals 30 days at a time.
When you start after a new goal, you won’t see any progress after one day, two days, or perhaps even a week. However, after 30 days of disciplined work, you will likely begin to see and feel the beginnings of progress.
After 30 days, it’s time to begin again.
“Dedication” is much easier to obtain and sustain when it’s focused on specific micro-goals along the way to your main goal.
Lately, when I’ve been training for a jiu-jitsu event or looking to improve my at anything in life, I’ve been trying to apply this 30-day philosophy.
Anything longer than 30 days feels so distant that it isn’t real, and anything shorter feels as if it’s not enough time to make progress.
This philosophy gives you a happy medium to both make progress and avoid frustration. It also provides a sense of urgency.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step” — Chinese Proverb
Likewise, the journey to 10,000 hours of work at your craft begins with 30 days of commitment.
There’s only one condition:
“You have to stick to it.” — Dan Gable, A Wrestling Life
2. Stupid Practice Leads to Stupid Results
It’s pretty common knowledge that Dan Gable won an Olympic gold medal. It’s a bit less common knowledge that he gave up zero points on the way to his gold medal. It’s even less common to know that several months before the Olympics, Gable blew out his knee.
The injury came as a result of Gable’s ego. At the end of practice one day, a teammate called Gable out to wrestle. The man had never taken Gable down (few ever did), so Gable allowed his teammate to start in any position he wanted. They got in position and began to wrestle.
The round was over seconds after it began, with Gable lying on the mat clutching his knee in pain.
This story hits home for me because I had a similar experience in high school wrestling. Sure, I wasn’t ever going to be an Olympic wrestler, but I took myself seriously. I was also pretty decent at not getting pinned and utilizing my flexibility to fight off my back. I‘m also obnoxiously competitive by nature.
Once during a meaningless summertime practice, I allowed my teammate to start in any position he wanted to try and put me on my back. He chose a grip around my shoulder, and just seconds after my other teammate yelled “Go!” he began to crank. My shoulder popped right away.
To this day, that shoulder still isn’t right. Since then, I’ve also managed to sustain the same injury on the other shoulder due to similar circumstances.
Both Gable’s story and mine are situations that could have been avoided by literally just not being stupid. Injuries and accidents do happen, but sometimes they can be avoided by simply not being careless and leaving your ego at the door. If you train smart, you’ll fight smart.
Contrarily, stupid practice leads to stupid results.
3. Study the Best to Be the Best
To beat the best and become the best, you must study the best.
In Olympic wrestling during the Cold War era, the “best” were the wrestlers from the Soviet Union.
During a recent interview on Lex Fridman’s podcast, Gable spent a few minutes explaining how as he began his international wrestling career, the Soviets were the most technical wrestlers in the world.
After losing the 1970 NCAA finals, Gable spent a good bit of time studying the Soviet technical prowess to prepare him for the next level. This study, combined with the old-fashioned American grit he’d developed over a lifetime of hard work helped him evolve into an eventual world and Olympic champion.
This style adaptation also led to Gable’s famous catchphrase:
“I shoot, I score. He shoots, I score.”
If you want to be successful, study successful people. When trying to learn any skill, it’s vital to learn by watching. Theory can only take you so far.
4. Push Your Limits, And Then Push Them Again
Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile on May 6, 1954. This was one of the most astounding moments in sports history and it shattered the conventional wisdom of what the human body was capable of. It was also an example of incredibly hard work.
After Bannister broke the record, he promptly passed out.
As an enthusiast of pushing one’s self to the absolute limit, Gable was naturally enthralled by Bannister.
“The impossible is possible. It’s just that simple.” — Dan Gable
In his book, Gable wrote that he would everyday aim to train so hard that passing out was a real possibility. He never did actually pass out (though he believes he was close), and he considers this to be the greatest failure of his career, even more so than losing that NCAA title match.
Though Gable was as intense as possible for his training, as a coach, Gable was more careful with his athletes. He expected them to push to their limits and didn’t tolerate tomfoolery, but he also didn’t try to break them mentally.
Wrestling is a hard enough sport as it is. Trust me, you don’t need coaches to run you into the ground, you can get yourself there just fine. That’s why Gable was such a great coach: he built his athletes up, instead of breaking them down.
The results speak for themselves.
Coach Dan Gable didn’t judge his athletes on the titles they won, he judged them on the people they became once they left his program.
“Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
5. Never Forget Where You Came From
In Gable’s lifetime of grinding away on the wrestling mat, it may seem like he was a man who was obsessed with his work.
That’s just simply not true.
While he is obsessed with wrestling to this day, Gable loves spending time with his wife, family, and children. He’s also a fisherman. Instead of alienating himself from his family by burying himself in wrestling or coaching, he made wrestling his family.
“My wrestling and family go together. It’s always been that way, from day one with my mom and dad, my sister, my wife, four daughters, grandsons, son-in-laws.” — Dan Gable
But for Gable, wrestling is more personal than most. The death of his sister Diane as a child was something that he used to push himself to be the best wrestler he could be.
He did everything he could to help keep his family together in a situation that was supposed to break them apart.
He used his wrestling as an anchor to bring them together, and it worked. His parents never missed a meet, and they even installed a wrestling mat in his basement that he used to train with his friends after school… every day.
He wanted to be the best in the world, and he had a damn good reason why.
To an outsider, it might look like Gable’s titles were won because he did more push-ups and sit-ups than anyone could ever imagine. In reality, it takes a village to create a champion.
Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts. — Dan Gable
Wrestling is the hardest sport out there.
No sport requires you to put in such obsessive amounts of work on such minute details and no sport requires weight cutting on such a consistent basis.
Wrestling is inadvertently designed to break you. Even if you can keep up with the relentless training, the weight cutting and mental warfare are unlike any other sport.
There’s a reason nearly 30 UFC champions have a background in wrestling.
Dan Gable was uncommon in the sport where all the top performers are uncommon. His work ethic was unfathomable. His drive was heroic. He literally worked his way into legend status both on the mat and as a leader. In the wrestling world, he’s the GOAT.
He trained like a madman, but there was a method to his madness. He had philosophies, principles, and a code that guided him in his pursuit of success.
If you want to learn about that code, I can’t recommend A Wrestling Life enough.
“The 1st period is won by the best technician. The 2nd period is won by the kid in the best shape. The 3rd period is won by the kid with the biggest heart.” — Dan Gable