Sanderson: ‘Want to’ big part of winning

There are some compelling and quirky things going on inside Cael Sanderson’s head. And also very revealing, if you really listen.

Why, Sanderson asked during his Blair County Sports Hall of Fame speech Saturday night, would a mongoose try to eat a cobra? The mongoose, he noted, could eat all sorts of other little rodents or what have you, but instead decides to take on the big, bad cobra.


Because “it wants to,” Sanderson said.

Nothing more, nothing less.

OK, let me back up a bit.

Sanderson is one of the greatest figures in wrestling history, probably second to only legendary former Iowa coach and wrestler Dan Gable (and Sanderson likely will surpass Gable in a decade or so). Sanderson went 159-0 as a collegiate wrestler, won four national titles, earned Outstanding Wrestler honors at all four of his NCAA Tournaments, won an Olympic gold medal and has coached Penn State to seven national championships in the past eight years.

His accomplishments are nothing short of unbelievable, which made him an excellent choice to carry on the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame’s rich tradition of enormously successful individuals.

So, I asked Sanderson at the beginning of the evening: What drives you and motivates you to achieve such remarkable success?

“I don’t know,” Sanderson said.

He continued a second later, “I enjoy competing. … I just enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve always been a competitor.”

That’s an answer, sure, but not a very revealing answer.

But it wasn’t a big surprise, because Sanderson has a reputation for not being much of a talker, and he certainly doesn’t like talking about himself.

Flash forward a couple of hours, to when Sanderson took the stage at the Blair County Convention Center to deliver his keynote address. He initially laid out four areas he wanted to discuss about achieving success:

n Embrace adversity

n Check your ego

n Love your opponent

n Win if you want to

Sanderson proceeded to tell stories relating to each of those areas, and while he meandered a bit and showed some nerves, his tales, anecdotes and even Biblical scriptures revealed a lot about him. The stories weren’t exactly conventional, but then, conventional isn’t necessarily a word you’d use to describe one of the greatest athletes-turned-coaches that this country has ever seen.

One story Sanderson told was about how he motivates his wrestlers at Penn State. He and the other coaches don’t talk about hating the opponent, or how big of a rivalry it is, and they don’t tell the athletes things such as the whole world is against them.

Those are fleeting motivational tools, and Sanderson doesn’t believe in them.

“If you want to win, you don’t need a fancy why,” he said. “Just win because you want to.”

Amen to that.

It’s not a complicated idea. Actually, it is the essence of competition. Or even life. If you want something, do what you can to achieve it. Not to steal Nike’s slogan, but just do it.

That’s when Sanderson started to tell the mongoose eating the cobra story, which wrapped up his comments for the evening. It was such an unusual way of getting a point across, but coming from a person who couldn’t explain in his own words what drives and motivates him, the mongoose story was really an allegory to Cael Sanderson himself.

The mongoose can do whatever it wants to do — and it wants to eat the cobra. So it accepts the challenge head on and gets the job done.

Sanderson was the best wrestler ever, in large part because he wanted it badly enough and did everything he could in his power to achieve that goal. He uses those same principles in coaching his PSU wrestlers, helping them understand that laser sharp focus on the task at hand is the way to achieve victory.

Sanderson said he doesn’t really take time to reflect on championships already won, because at that point, it’s time to start focusing on winning the next one.

“It’s just a matter of never being satisfied,” he said. “That’s something that I was kind of raised on, but in a positive way. If things don’t go well, let’s find out why. And if things are going well, let’s find out and try to figure out how we can do a better job.”

Before his speech, Sanderson was asked where his competitive drive comes from.

“I’ve always competed,” he said. “My dad was a wrestling coach. My mom, she didn’t play sports but was extremely competitive, and I think I got a lot of that obviously from them. And also my parents, they didn’t really squash that in us by putting pressure on us to win or anything like that. It was just about be the best that you can be and all effort-based. So it just kind of fueled our fire to compete.”

Those last couple of thoughts are incredibly important when it comes to how parents raise their kids in sports. It cannot only be about winning.

“It’s tricky,” Sanderson said of the balance between competing hard versus having the pressure passed down from parents that winning is all that matters. “I think it can be a little different for each individual. Some individuals can be pushed harder, but I think the bottom line is the kids need to know it’s for them and not for the parents.

“It’s really easy for the kid to think that their parents’ happiness comes from whether they win or lose in a sporting event. That’s very damaging. It’s hard to reverse that when they grow up with that kind of a mentality. Most kids won’t make that. And parents probably don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing, but it happens a lot.”

Put all of Sanderson’s comments in context together, and it’s clear that he values the individual being able to find it within to perform at his or her highest level possible trying to achieve a goal. In a mano a mano sport such as wrestling, of course, that is always the primary objective, so it makes sense that Sanderson would view things in that light.

It worked for him as a competitor on the mat and certainly works for him as a coach. And as he spoke about those things Saturday night, it all finally started to answer the question of why he’s had such an incredible career.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.