by Jacob Laux
As a child, like many children, I enjoyed playing sports. Through elementary school, soccer and basketball were my competitive outlets. Unlike most children (though probably quite like many readers here), I wasn’t particularly good at either. Certainly, I had the drive and desire to perform, but could never really excel in either sport, not in small part due to my propensity for physicality. What was the fun in a sport that penalized you for using your physical advantages?
In the eighth grade, I switched from soccer to football. I enjoyed the sport much more than I had enjoyed any other sport I played, but was still only a replacement level player. The physical tools and mental fortitude were there to develop me into a talented player, yet at the time I was just another helmet running sprints up the hill. Through my high school football career, I progressed from replacement level to a team leader, but never really became a star until college.
I’ve talked about football and soccer and basketball, but this is a story about wrestling. The summer before my freshman year of high school, a friend of mine encouraged me to come to open mats. Given my lackluster experience with basketball, I figured I’d give it a shot. That following winter, my record was 3–11. My friend quit after that season, but I stuck with it. My senior year, I finished 42–3, qualifying for the state tournament, the first qualifier my school had produced in 5 years.
In college, I was fortunate enough to be able to play both sports I loved. My freshman football season had me starting at three different positions throughout the season, as I filled in for different players. Despite being a rookie, I finished second on the team in tackles, though the team was a dismal 1–8. That winter, I wrestled well and finished 6th at the NCWA Nationals, the highest I would place in my career. More important, however, was practice that year. In my high school wrestling room, I was the all star. Nobody could really challenge me, even the coaches. I grew comfortable. When I got on the mat with a talented opponent, because I was not familiar with facing someone better than me, I was uncomfortable. I underperformed. I lost matches. In my college room, I had wrestlers and coaches that would clean the mats with me. I couldn’t seem to slip past my coach’s defense, and try as I may, I’d still find myself getting taken down again and again by the team’s 165 (I wrestled at 197).
That experience, while unpleasant at the time, held a high value I wouldn’t understand until later. I never grew comfortable facing an opponent better than me, and wouldn’t want to. I did, however, grow to be calm. It didn’t matter who my opponent was, what he was doing, or how many more wins against great opponents he had. It was all irrelevant. What did matter was the setups I was imagining, the shots I would take, my escapes, my breakdowns, my pinning combinations. If I lost, I lost doing the moves I knew best and trying my hardest to win. I’d drill more, condition harder, get better, and go to the next match.
The change in my mindset was the turning point in my football career. Up until my sophomore year of college, I looked the part but couldn’t play it. I was very strong, pretty fast, in solid shape, but played soft. What if the running back hit hard? What if I missed a tackle, or he ran me over? It led to me missing plays, being late to the action, and not playing to the level I was capable of. After my freshman wrestling season, though, I played differently. It no longer mattered if I was trying to tackle the conference player of the year or a freshman who was playing his first game. I trusted my technique and ability. Lo and behold, I made plays. Lots of plays. I went on to lead my team in tackles my sophomore, junior, and senior years, ending my career as holding the school’s record for career tackles by 56, a mark unlikely to be beaten in the foreseeable future. A simple shift in perception was all it took to elevate my play from good to great. A simple shift in perception that would never have occurred without wrestling.
Jacob Laux graduated from MIT in 2015 with degrees in Chemistry and Management Science. Jacob was a two-time NCWA All-American and a staple for the MIT football team, helping lead the team to a 6–3 record his senior year —the most wins since 1999 — and setting a school record for tackles. He currently works for Old Mission Capital.
Originally published at wrestlingstories.org.