4 Lessons I Learned From Cael Sanderson After Covering Him For 4 Years
My own wrestling career was short-lived and uneventful.
I first pulled on a singlet when I was 5 years old and kept at it for six years, placing first in a tournament once and collecting a shelf full of third-place medals. I enjoyed the sport and liked how I was one of the few kids in my class who did it, but when you’re big for your age and start to meet kids three or four years older than you in your weight class, the sport loses its fun — unless, of course, you’re Mark Hall winning Minnesota high school state titles as a seventh grader.
After getting picked up and thrown by one too many eighth-graders, I decided to switch my wintertime focus over to basketball, where my size would surely be an advantage, when I was 11. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shoot. But this story isn’t about my struggles to find success in youth sports.
I didn’t think much about wrestling over the next few years, but as my cousin Christian, who’s a grade ahead of me (and now a Rutgers wrestler), started to rise on the New Jersey high school wrestling scene, I tagged along to some of his recruiting visits and high school matches and began to become intrigued with the sport again. Fortunately, my high school didn’t have wrestling, so I wasn’t tempted to strap on headgear and go back to getting my ass kicked. But it was on my mind.
When I came to Penn State and joined Onward State, I noticed that no one was on the wrestling beat, so I volunteered. I knew the team had been pretty successful and was excited for the opportunity, but didn’t expect it to be that big of a deal. It’d be a good way to prove myself so maybe one day I could cover football. Who cares about wrestling, anyway?
I soon found out how many actually do care — from the first emails I got from fans correcting a mistake in one of my stories and offering their own future lineup projections to the angry tweet I got from a grown man saying “Hope you don’t run into Cael anytime soon,” to the first time I heard the Rec Hall faithful exclaim “TWOOO!”
In addition to the memories I made on press row and the many stories I’m proud to have been able to tell, one of my favorite parts of this ride has been observing a larger-than-life legend up close. I’m sure it’s no secret how much I respect Cael Sanderson and am fascinated with him. After all, I’ve written an 8,000-word oral history about him, studied him during practice for another long post, and read every single one of his tweets for yet another. He’s an interesting figure and truly one of a kind. It was my privilege to document four years of what looks like it’ll be a very long coaching career.
After four years of interviewing Sanderson, trying to make sense of his cryptic, vague, and sometimes comical responses, and talking to those around him, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to learn from him in a few different ways. Below are a few things that I’ve picked up on about how he runs his teams, motivates the best athletes in the world, and manages to remain driven even when he seems to have conquered pretty much everything he could ever want.
Again, I’m no wrestler (these days at least), but I’ve still found these messages inspiring and meaningful in my own aspirations with this website and in my career and hope you feel the same.
Don’t Be Afraid To Fail.
You’d think the pressure to maintain the standard set by Penn State during the last decade would weigh on its athletes.
But even when his team was riding its historic 60-dual winning streak, neither Sanderson nor his wrestlers ever seemed fazed by the microscope or demand placed on them to continue the run. Instead, they’d say things like “I’m just going to go out there, do my best, and see what happens,” and, “The goal is the same no matter what, and that’s to be the best that we can be.”
Being fearless might seem like one of the more basic traits for a successful athlete, but the way Sanderson talks about this core value has always struck me. It seems as if to him, fearlessness isn’t so much having the courage to face the best competitors as it is understanding that the possibility of not attaining your desired outcome isn’t a reason to play it safe or not to try.
Here’s how Sanderson described three-time national champion Jason Nolf: “He’s not afraid to give up points. That’s the sign of a great wrestler because the sky’s the limit if you’re willing to try new things…Being fearless is very rare. You can’t really shake him up. If he gives up a takedown, he keeps wrestling. If he gives up two takedowns, he keeps wrestling.”
Sanderson has also used that F-word to describe two-time Hodge Trophy winner David Taylor and three-time NCAA champion Ed Ruth. He’s called Anthony Cassar a “confident and relaxed” competitor. And here’s what Bo Nickal, another three-time champ, told WIN Magazine about his own style: “I don’t define myself by wins and losses. Because of that, I’m able to compete more freely. I’ve never been afraid to go for certain moves.” Similarly, after his second of three NCAA titles, a match in which he was taken down, Zain Retherford said this: “Everyone gives up points here and there, gets put in a situation that we’re put in. So just embrace it and deal with the hand you’re given and just keep rolling.”
As you can see, across the board, even the best Penn State wrestlers don’t seem to be caught up with outcomes, good or bad. As a result, they’re able to take chances and rarely seem intimidated or to rely on adrenaline.
I think longtime radio announcer Jeff Byers put it best when I was fortunate enough to pick his brain over a two-hour lunch at Champs last year. During that time, he gave me one of the most candid glimpses of a program that’s known for minimizing what the public eye sees. (Aside: To quote sports information director Pat Donghia, “We’re not big on promoting ourselves. It feels a little skeezy.”)
“There’s a genuine excitement to challenge themselves and see how good they can be, win or lose,” Byers said. “They just have that ability to get back to work and focus the next day. Most athletes will tell you that’s what you want to do, but it’s easier to say and there aren’t a lot of guys who can truly do that.”
Be Aggressive Or Die Trying.
Penn State has ushered in a new era and style of wrestling where points are scored at an unprecedented clip and in impressive fashion, thanks to the team’s all-around aggressive approach. This style goes hand in hand with being fearless, as wrestlers like Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal, and Roman Bravo-Young wouldn’t be able to invent moves in the middle of matches to rack up points if they were afraid to try them.
But aside from the fearlessness required to experiment and take risks, this style speaks volumes about Sanderson’s coaching philosophy. It truly is go big or go home — especially when going big is the difference between scoring six points for your team with a fall versus three for a decision.
Again, Byers, who’s covered Penn State for three decades, has a pretty good perspective on this. Here’s more from “Ironhead,” who is one of the best wrestling play-by-play callers out there:
“There’s a genuine love and appreciation for the sport. I think there are a lot of coaches who will say ‘Let’s go out and be aggressive,’ but if it comes at the expense of wins, they might want to re-examine it. Cael has been very genuine and consistent in demanding that his kids go out and be aggressive. I’ve seen him praise a kid who might be down on himself after losing a 16-12 bout after going out and going for it. He’ll say ‘You keep wrestling like that, and we’ll be fine.’ I’ve seen kids win 2-1 battles against good opponents and Cael not be happy, because he doesn’t think the kid went out and wrestled to his full ability. Putting the emphasis on wrestling fully and not on winning is unique in being able to truly follow up and be consistent with that to the extent that he’ll be critical of a win and praise a loss.”
I think the most telling example of this mentality is the course of Vincenzo Joseph’s career.
Some of the most thrilling wins (2016 NCAA Finals vs. Isaiah Martinez, 2020 Iowa dual vs. Alex Marinelli) and most devastating losses (2018 Iowa dual vs. Marinelli, 2019 Big Ten Finals vs. Marinelli) of his career hinged on one big move when he’d get into a tie-up and one of the wrestlers would end up on his back.
That position was somewhat of a double-edged sword, as he lived and died by those tie-ups. Yet, even after Marinelli had already gotten the best of him twice, Joseph never seemed to let his previous shortcomings change his approach or make him shy away from attempting a big move. In his match against Marinelli in the Iowa dual this year, still never having beaten the Hawkeye, Joseph went into that familiar position and landed a throw that’d end up making the difference in the match.
That aggression and persistence, along with his fair dosage of fearlessness, are why he’s a two-time champion and among the greatest in program history and seem to be characteristic of the profile that Sanderson recruits and works to cultivate over the course of a career.
Have Fun & Enjoy The Process.
This is always the hardest one for outsiders (like me) to grasp. How could a program led by such a stoic figurehead and filled with wrestling-obsessed freaks of nature have fun? Wouldn’t you expect a practice to resemble a military boot camp with monotonous drilling and a sergeant barking orders?
However, in the limited glimpses I got into the team’s training at weekly media availabilities, I saw just how much fun the coaches and wrestlers always seemed to have. People were always smiling. The wrestling room playlist ranged from female country power ballads to Epic Sax Guy. While some wrestlers grappled, others were caught up in games of dodgeball and Spikeball.
“[Sanderson] wants the wrestling room to be a place where kids have fun,” Byers said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t work your tail off or that every day is a fun, easy day. He wants it to be a place where you feel good…It’s a place you’ll look at as a sanctuary and a home away from home where they can feel comfortable being themselves.”
Because of this foundation, it’s clear that the Lorenzo Wrestling Center has truly become a home for so many. And that Penn State wrestlers love not only wrestling, but also being part of their program and chasing its ambitious goals. Interviews would somehow always divert to how much Vincenzo Joseph and Nick Lee like each other, how Shakur Rasheed and Anthony Cassar enjoy tanning on Old Main Lawn “like toolbags,” how the team was staying entertained on road trips with different board games (I hear Rasheed is an absolute tycoon in Monopoly), and how Sanderson, who they all seem to both love and fear, is still playing Clash of Clans in the year 2020.
“[Sanderson’s] philosophy in general is that you should be enjoying it,” former wrestler and NCAA finalist Dan Vallimont said. “If you’re not enjoying wrestling, then why are you doing it?”
Always Be Grateful For The Opportunity.
I’ve poked fun at this several times over the years, but Penn State wrestlers are some of the most predictable interviews. It doesn’t matter what stage of the season it is or what you’re trying to get out of them, most questions about competition end the same way: how they’re just grateful for the opportunity.
Sanderson has built his program on gratitude. As Sanderson told Mike Poorman of StateCollege.com in 2017 when asked for one word that describes his personal philosophy, “Everything — peace of mind, happiness, getting the most out of what you have — springs off of the word ‘gratitude’…True gratitude is based on all things — success and failure. If I’m truly grateful, I’m going to maintain that regardless of the outcome. Otherwise, it’s not gratitude.”
That mentality has emanated throughout his program for the last decade. After his senior season and last shot at a second national title was cut short, Mark Hall wrote that “all I can think about is being eternally grateful.” And every wrestler you talk to — from national champions like Hall to backups like Luke Gardner to wrestlers like Kyle Conel, who only wrestled only a handful of matches in blue and white — shares the same mentality: They’re grateful for the opportunity.
These quotes rarely make for a good story, but in sum, they reflect how genuine Sanderson is with the ethos he instills and the great impact he has on his athletes’ lives.
“What Coach Cael does a great job of is teaching the mindset and teaching kids how to be successful in life, think the right way, and have gratitude,” Vallimont said. “Those are the things that outside of the room helped me succeed in life and in my marriage.”
As I mentioned earlier, I placed first at a youth wrestling tournament only once — back when I weighed 66 pounds. I remember being excited to win, but I also remember standing on the podium for pictures, thinking to myself about how all the other kids I had seen win before never smiled, so I didn’t. I wanted to look cool and thought surely, I’d have plenty of more opportunities to do this.
Unfortunately, I never did. At six years old, I wasn’t fully grateful for that moment. Maybe that’s why I never went far with wrestling. More likely, it was just because it wasn’t the path meant for me.
But I’d like to think that, 15 years later, I’ve learned a thing or two about gratitude during my four seasons covering Sanderson’s team. I’ve certainly been grateful for the opportunity.
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About the Author
We dance in 275, Penn State!
We dance in 275, Penn State!
Underwood is bringing her “The Denim & Rhinestones” tour to Happy Valley next spring.
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