The Word on Coaching: Penn State's Cael Sanderson on 'Gratitude'
July 16, 2017 8:00 PM
by Mike Poorman
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Of Gaelic origin, it means "Victorious people."

El is another word for a deity, a god.

Of course. Right.

Cael is also the one word that has dominated the collegiate wrestling world over the past two decades.

There was Cael The Wrestler, who went 159-0 at Iowa State from 1999-2002, with four NCAA titles and season records of 39-0, 40-0, 40-0 and 40-0.

Cael is the only wrestler in NCAA history to never lose a bout over four years — the No. 2 achievement in college sports history, according to Sports Illustrated. (Surpassed only by Jesse Owens' four world records in 45 minutes as an Ohio State Buckeye.)

Then there's Cael The Gold Medalist (84 kg, Athens, Greece, 2004). Who was preceded by the Cael Who Was On a Wheaties Box.

And now, and seemingly forever, there's Cael The Coach.

After three years as head coach at his alma mater, Cael came to Penn State on April 17, 2009. That was 3,012 days ago. (For comparison purposes only: It took 1,009,941 days to build Rome.)

Since then, Cael's Nittany Lions have won six NCAA championships, the most recent this past spring, when five of his wrestlers made the finals. And each won a national title, taking first in five consecutive bouts, from Zain Rutherford at 149 pounds to Bo Nickal at 184.

Under Cael's direction, Penn State has won six Big Ten titles and 103 of its last 117 matches, including the past 31 straight, dating back to Feb. 22, 2015.

The numbers are remarkable. Mind-boggling. Numbing.

But the statistics and the titles and the victories are not the true measure of Cael Sanderson. He would be the first to tell you that.

Not that he isn't grateful for all his successes and blessings, which include a tight-knit family — wife Kelly; sons Tate and Teag; brothers Cody (a Penn State assistant), Cole and Cyler (a Big Ten champion at PSU); and parents Debbie and Steve — and extends to his Penn State staff and wrestlers.

Cael is. Very much so. In fact, his word for the final word in this one-word series, is "gratitude."

But to get the measure of the man, spend some time with him.

In the days and weeks leading up to the following interview, I had the opportunity to chat with him a couple of times, off-the-record. We discussed John Wooden and Galatians and emotional discipline and life's purposes and fatherhood and commitment and how doing your best is just not good enough.

Not numbers. Not national championships. Not the move that earned him almost 200,000 YouTube views as an "ankle picking machine."

Heck, we didn't even talk about wrestling. 


The following interview with Sanderson is Part 7 and the final Q&A of our "The Word on Coaching" series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:

Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics — "Why?"

Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — "Commitment"

Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — "Heart"

Guy Gadowsky, Men’s Ice Hockey — "Environment"

 Erica Dambach, Women’s Soccer — "Standards"

James Franklin, Football — "Relationships"

Cael Sanderson, Wrestling — "Gratitude"                  


Sanderson: There are a lot of words that are important. But I do think the foundation for success is based on gratitude.

Everything — peace of mind, happiness, getting the most out of what you have — springs off of the word "gratitude." So let's go with gratitude. Are you saying for sports or for life? Or for the concentric circles of sports and life?

Sanderson: I think they're all the same. That's the great thing about wrestling, right? It's life in a microcosm. You learn what it takes and what it doesn't take. Gratitude is right at the foundation of all things. That's Biblical.

So, what does gratitude mean? I've thought a lot about it, for years and years. It just means that you think less about yourself. If I'm grateful, I'm going to think less about myself and more about others, and the opportunities I have.

"You count your blessings and then you make your blessings count." That's not my quote, but it's a powerful idea. It's really important.

True gratitude isn't just if you win. 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. How do you coach that?

Sanderson: No. 1, the most important thing is just living it. Example is always the best teacher. You have to spend a lot of time introducing the concept, the idea, and what it means.

We talk about it all the time. I think for a lot of kids — and maybe it's always been like this — it's a foreign idea to them. Especially when you are a superstar athlete and everybody is kind of serving you and it's about you. That's instead of taking a step back and saying, "Wow, look how blessed I am."

When you can take a step back and look at life like that, it can change your perspective. It takes the pressure off. You're just trying to get the most out of yourself and the most out of the blessings that you have. It takes the pressure off — don't you want some pressure?

Sanderson: We do want pressure. If you don't have pressure on you, you're not stretching, you're not pushing yourself. But gratitude is remembering that, "I do want the pressure. I do want the opportunity to compete for a national championship. I'm grateful that I have this pressure right now because if there is pressure it means I am not quite there yet."

It makes you remember that, "Hey, this is what I wanted. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was dreaming about this. And wow, now I'm here." You can't forget who you are and what you truly want.

And winning is what you really want to do. Gratitude helps you remember why you got into this to begin with. It's not about being cool or winning for any other reason — like picking up Twitter followers or anything like that. Who cares about that? If you're caring about those things, they will steer you away from your true goal. It's hard to talk about gratitude without mentioning humility.

Sanderson: There's no question that gratitude and humility go hand-in-hand. Those two terms are really going to help an individual become the best he can be. Because if you're grateful, you're humble. You're always seeking a better way. You're willing to be coached.

That's not a common trait. It's not. I coach college wrestling and I have been in the sport my entire life. There's a lot of different levels of coachability. Our best kids are the ones who buy in the most.

The first thing I said is that, "Gratitude is thinking of yourself less." That doesn't mean you think less of yourself. That's not my quote; I'm sure I read that somewhere. It means you think of others, you think about the team.

I know when I was rolling through college I had a streak going and I wanted to win every match. But most of the time, I was thinking about the team. Get a pin or a tech fall for the team, you know? I grew up with a team mentality. My dad was our coach (at Wasatch High School, in Heber City, Utah) and I watched it, I saw it. The team winning is the most important thing. If I can add to that, it's a different kind of pressure. It's a positive.

It doesn't mean you're not confident. Confidence comes from being prepared. Confidence also comes from gratitude and humility as well. Gratitude may be perceived as being passive instead of aggressive. So some people may be surprised that "gratitude" is so important to you because wrestling is such an aggressive sport.

Sanderson: But it makes sense to me. And I think it makes sense to most of the kids in our program. It makes sense to our kids who really, really want to be the best they can be, to be successful, to win championships.

A lot of that comes from their upbringing too. We need to get the right kind of kids who have a similar mentality. We're not going to take a kid and change him. We can guide him a little bit. With great kids, you think of their parents and the people around them.

You can help kids to realize that first and foremost they have choices. As (performance anxiety counselor and author) Bonnie Epstein would say, you're responsible for everything you do, say, think and feel.

You're not a victim to your thoughts. It's tough. Thoughts are tough. It's a battle. It's like a wrestling match in your head. But you can win those matches. Ultimately, we get to pick our attitude, we get to pick our perspective. We want to help them to understand that, that it's their choice. When we go into a big match or go into a practice, they get to choose the attitude they bring.

There's great power in realizing that's the truth. It's hard to accept it, too. Because now there are not any excuses. It's me. What I did, what I decided. We have a lot more power and control over our lives than we think. It's consistency and making good decisions. It's the small steps, where maybe we don't see the consequences or the benefits over a short amount of time. Those little steps come from gratitude.

In the long run, those things are the difference-makers — over months, a year, a lifetime. It's those little things. And it all starts with our attitude. Where does teaching these principles fit with coaching wrestlers and winning national championships?

Sanderson: We want to win. And my job at Penn State is to win. If I want to keep my job, we have to have success. But there are more important things. And doing things the right way — being honest, being consistent when things are both good and bad, where you stand — are more important.

I get it. Everyone is going to say those things. It's just a matter of do you actually do them?

I think coaching is that you have to take your own advice. It's really easy to sit up there and tell the kids, "You have to do this and that." But then I don't do it and our staff doesn't do it. Well, Coach Cody (Sanderson) and Coach Casey (Cunningham) and Coach (Jake) Varner and I ... everything we ask our guys to do — I'm not going to run sprints with them any more — but as far as the attitude, being positive, enjoying the process, focusing on things outside of winning, we're going to do those things.

When we get to the national tournament, we're the same. We're going to be the same person we are today, the same person we are every day because we're running on principles. And gratitude is a principle. Believing in effort is a principle. If you're not centered on principles, you're going to be all over the place.

We've had a lot of success. We've been very fortunate and grateful. But regardless, win or lose, we're going to be the same. We don't get after our kids when they lose. We also don't get out of control when they win. It's their career. They're the ones. It's up to them. We just try to help them and provide a culture and environment for them to be the best that they can.

They're the ones who have to go out there and score the points. They're the ones who have to be consistent every day. That makes it a fun challenge. We're very fortunate with the quality of the student-athletes we have. Right now, it's a special group. So being a successful coach is different than it was being a successful wrestler?

Sanderson: I was a head coach when I was 26 years old. I was in a position where it was a tough job. But at that point, you're just trying to validate that you can do the job and you can do a great job, and that you can make the transition from an athlete to a coach, because a lot of people don't. It's hard.

When you first jump into coaching, you have to be able to step back and see things differently. Coaching is so different. There are a lot of similarities — the hustling and the scrambling and the fighting. Fighting in a good way. Consistency.

But the way you view things and the pride that you put into what you're doing can't be locked into just whether your kids are winning or losing. That just doesn't work. You learn a lot as a coach. We've been fortunate enough to have success. The older you get and the more experience you have, you learn to enjoy it even more.

We want to win. Every day is a sprint. It's harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top. That's just the way it is. It's July and we haven't slowed down a bit since the nationals. And we're not going to slow down.

That's what we ask our kids to do, right?

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