An Interview with Jim Harshaw
by Sam Shames
Jim Harshaw is a man on a mission. The former Division I All-American at the University of Virginia wants to help motivated former wrestlers reach their potential by clarifying their purpose and taking action. Harshaw knows that wrestlers are programmed for hard work, but that many have never learned how to apply the work ethic they developed on the mat to their goals beyond wrestling. Over the course of his career as a serial entrepreneur, executive director of a non-profit, development officer at the University of Virginia, and Division I head, Harshaw has learned to translate the intensity he brought to the wrestling mat to his life beyond it. Now he wants to share those lessons with you, through his Wrestling with Greatness Podcast.
In the podcast, Harshaw uncovers the secrets of the most successful people on the planet who wrestled and reveals how they translated their wrestling experience into greatness across their life. Harshaw’s goal is to discover actionable insights that anyone can incorporate into their daily lives and become more successful.
We caught up with Jim to learn more about his new podcast, his wrestling career, and how he discovered how to leverage his wrestling experience for broader success.
Wrestling Stories: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s go ahead and jump right in, so tell me how did you get started wrestling?
Jim Harshaw: I grew up in Pittsburgh where everyone wrestled. It’s what you do as a kid, so I did what everyone else did and started wrestling when I was six years old. I was a pretty timid kid and was afraid of the ball in baseball and soccer, but somehow wrestling stuck with me and clicked. Teague Moore (1998 NCAA Champion for Oklahoma State) was in my youth program, and I became really close friends with a lot of my youth teammates, one of whom is still my best friend today. After wrestling for a few years, I realized that the harder I worked the more I won.
WS: It seems like every wrestler has that moment where they realize the only thing holding them back from being successful is their willingness to work hard. That realization often leads to increased intensity. When did you get serious about wrestling?
JH: It was late middle school for me. I started wrestling Freestyle and Greco during the offseason and was pretty much wrestling year round. I loved Freestyle and Greco as much as Folkstyle and would travel to different practices around the region. I got wresle with Ty Moore, a 4x PA State Champion, and my junior year I qualified for a national team by winning a Greco Tournament. I traveled to Turkey to complete internationally, and I wrestled at both the Cadet and Junior nationals at Fargo for both freestyle and Greco. At this point, it was just total immersion in the sport.
WS: I’ve seen that total immersion often comes from having a clear goal. What were your goals for high school wrestling?
JH: One of things I regret is not having bigger dreams and goals. I always thought that bigger dreams were for other people. I eventually set my goal to be a state champion, but I failed miserably and didn’t even place at states. But I was good enough to be recruited to the University of Virginia, and that was really the first place I set a clear goal. One of my coaches, Jon McGovern convinced me that I could be a national champion and got me walking, talking, and living like a national champion.
WS: You ended up being an All-American in college, was there a single match where you turned the corner and knew you could All-American?
JH: I had a breakthrough my senior year when I realized that I couldn’t work any harder and that I just had to do what I can do and go out and have fun. I remember a match in Vegas with Isaac Wood. We had a super tough match that I ended up winning, and I just remember that it was so much fun! Later that season at the NCAA tournament, I was in the blood round and was in the zone. I felt like I was wrestling for my life and beat the 4th ranked guy in the country.
WS: How did you get the confidence to believe that you can beat the number 4th ranked guy in the country?
JH: My sophomore year at the NCAA tournament I had to wrestle Lincoln McIlravy (3x NCAA Champion from the University of Iowa), and coach McGovern convinced me that I was going to beat McIlravy to the point where I not only believed it, but I knew it. I ended up getting dismantled in the match, but had an epiphany. I realized that my best chance to win came from believing and that believing was never going to hurt. The very next match I beat the 6 seed.
I also believe that to win matches you need to increase the seed of doubt in your opponent’s mind, and that you can gain confidence by doing things like running him out of bounds and beating him back to the center of the mat. I was also blessed to work with a sports psychologist and learned to cope with self-doubt by visualizing. Self-doubt comes from worrying about losing, and you can get rid of that worry by focusing not on winning but on performing your best for 7 minutes. For me this meant focusing on attacking first, shooting in the first 10 seconds of a match, riding hard on top, and exploding up off the bottom.
WS: So it seems like you figured how to really control thoughts when you were competing and develop the right mindset. What did it take to translate that mentality to your life beyond the wrestling room?
JH: I never really learned how to translate those lessons into the real world when I was competiting, but as I have slowly learned since and been inspired to help people do the same. That’s why I started the Wrestling with Greatness Podcast and JimHarshaw.net. I know wrestlers have a tremendous work ethic, but it’s only by working smarter that you can truly reach your full potential. You need to learn to use your work ethic effectively by 1) asking yourself what you really want out of life — professionally, personally, etc…, and 2) creating the positive environment where you can achieve these goals by surrounding yourself with the right people and putting the right messages in your head. One way I started doing this is by listening to motivational podcasts instead of ESPN radio. I also started a mastermind group, which I talk about in my first podcast, and created a mantra to control my self-talk. I repeat my mantra every day on the drive to work. Once you’ve taken those two steps, step three is to execute, and wrestlers excel at execution, so my goal is just to help them execute in the right way.
WS: It seems like you've really distilled this down to a system. What inspired you to begin doing this research?
JH: There were two times in my life when I had major learning experience The first was my junior year of college after losing at the NCAA tournament I was sitting in the locker room in tears wondering why I can’t get to this next level. I was working as hard and as smart as a human being possibly can, and that was when it hit me that I need to focus on the process not the outcome. I can control the process but not the outcome, so I needed to let go of the outcome.
The second realization was that I wasn't applying the lessons that made me successful on the wrestling mat to my life. That realization was more gradual, but I slowly started applying some of those lessons over the years and have been doing it much more lately. Recently I’ve been doing these tests on myself. Here’s an example: my whole life I’ve been telling myself I wasn’t a runner. This past January I said I am going to change how I talk and told myself I wanted to run a half marathon. I went through the goal setting process, created the positive mindset, and talked and trained with the right people. I said my mantra out loud, and then I ran the race and loved every step of the way. That was proof to me that I can set goals and achieve them.
Another test I did was to improve my public speaking. Once again, I created the goal, developed the mindset, joined my local Toastmasters, and culminated by giving a TEDx talk.
WS: One of the biggest obstacles people face in trying to achieve goals like that is overcoming self-doubt and adversity. What was a moment in your career when you really faced and overcame that self-doubt?
JH: It was between my junior and senior year when I let go of losing and started to focus on the process. In sports, you are always chasing the next thing and you never really get there since even when you reach a place you always want to get to the next level. I entered college not knowing if I could even wrestle at this level since everyone else in the room was a state or national champions. I told myself I was in over my head, and all this self-doubt ruled me and held me back. I was saying these things deep down in my soul, and when you realize that you don’t have to say these things, you can change your words. I am still learning that and unpacking that lesson.
The flip side is that the adversity I faced made success so much sweeter because I could see how changing my mindset took me from bottom to top. I saw how stopping doubting myself made the difference.
WS: It seems like there are just so many lessons you’ve taken away from your time wrestling, and that you are still finding new ways to apply them to your life.
JH: So many lessons from wrestling don’t really sink in until later in your life, in your mid-twenties for me. Today I am 39 years old, and I have conversations with younger wrestlers and tell them that this is going to click for them later on. I look back on my experiences as a wrestler and value them more and more over time. The further away you get from an experience, the more perspective you have and the more you can learn from it.
WS: Now that you have kids and they are starting wrestling, how have you applied that perspective?
JH: My nine year-old son wrestles and I am constantly fighting back the crazy dad inside me that wants him to wrestle 12 months of the year and be a national champion. My perspective helps me use common sense and let him drive it. This past year was so much fun because he really took to the sport and wanted to compete more. Because I coached collegiately for seven years, I can boil things down to the basics and help show him what he needs to know.
More broadly, I want all my kids to wrestle because I believe it teaches the lessons we’ve talked about better than anything else. Of course, there are other ways to learn too, but I think wrestling is the best way to learn.
WS: Absolutely! One last question: Who is one former wrestler who you would love to get on the Podcast who is known more for their success of the mat?
JH: Tim Ferriss. He is the author of the Four Hour Work Week and wrestled in high school and for Princeton. He has written three New York Times best sellers and is just an incredible human being because he really pushes peak performance in his life.
WS: Jim, thank you so much for speaking with us today. How can our readers learn more about your work and listen to the podcast?
JH: Thank you for having me. They can check out jimharshaw.net and can subscribe to the Wrestling with Greatness Podcast on iTunes.