Timothy R. Clark: An interview with Cael Sanderson

Published: Monday, April 18 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

World-class athletes don’t necessarily make world-class coaches. Many can’t make the psychological shift that comes with the new role. They struggle in the transition from contributing through self to contributing through others. But there are a few who make the transition beautifully.

Exhibit one is Cael Sanderson, who I had the privilege of interviewing recently. The pride of Heber City, Utah, and the most celebrated collegiate wrestler in American history, Cael captured gold at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. He compiled a perfect record of 159 wins and 0 losses at Iowa State and won four consecutive national titles. When he placed his shoes in the center of the mat and called it a career, it was the end of an era.

Then came the transition. The young man traded his singlet for a whistle. Cael the world champion became Cael the coach. Following in the footsteps of his father, mentor and coach, Steve Sanderson, he entered the profession, first at his alma mater, Iowa State. Two years ago, he was recruited away and became the head coach at Penn State. Last month, in only his second year as head coach, Penn State won the NCAA national championship, the first wrestling title for the Nittany Lions in 58 years.

I asked Cael if as a coach he focused on any particular aspect of the sport, such as physical conditioning, technique, or mental toughness. “They all grow together,” he said. “You can’t separate them. Mental toughness comes from knowing you’re prepared technically and physically. There’s no way to work on one and not the others.”

In the field of athletics, especially, there’s a relentless search for advantage, that mysterious, elusive edge that nobody else has. In the course of our interview, it became clear that coach Sanderson’s edge is hidden in plain sight — consistency and simplicity. “I see coaches start out with lots of energy and enthusiasm, but with time the realities bear down on them and they get tired and lose their belief. In coaching, you can’t fake anything. My style of influence is very simple. I love the kids and believe in them. I’m not loud. I don’t memorize inspirational quotes. I believe in being positive and in sharing my passion for the sport. Ultimately, you have to build trust. My wrestlers can see right through me if I’m not taking my own advice as a coach.”

Coach Sanderson carries with him a rare disposition, an extraordinary mixture of humility and exceptional self-confidence. Where some coaches crave attention, coach Sanderson’s deep sense of self-assurance deflects it. His low ego-needs allow him to build performance capacity in his coaching staff and wrestlers faster than the competition. “We take turns running practice. When my assistants run practice, I’m often on the mat working with the guys one on one.”

If Cael possesses a competitive weapon, it’s his understated, genuine and collaborative style. He creates a serious and yet relaxed and fun atmosphere where learning accelerates. “As a coach, you have to be humble enough to learn, then teach, then get out of the way. I constantly learn from other coaches, other programs and other wrestlers. If you have too much pride, you won’t learn. If you have contention for other programs, you won’t learn. Don’t hate who you want to beat. If you do, you’ll see things the way you want to see them instead of the way they really are.” Sage advice for a 31-year-old head coach who has rocketed to the summit of the coaching profession.

When I asked him about losing, he said, “Losses are learning events. And when you lose, you have to dislike losing so much that you won’t blame anything or anyone but yourself.” Then I got to thinking: Here’s a person who never lost a match. So I had to ask, “How did you learn if you missed out on those precious learning events?”

“I guess you can learn from winning, too!” came the ready response.

A humble, confident coach who practices simplicity and consistency. It makes me think of the old saying: “Says easy. Does hard.” Cael Sanderson is on to something.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners.com

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