Matt Lindland is an Olympic and World silver medalist (2000, ’01), former #1 ranked UFC middleweight, and the founder of famed MMA training center Team Quest in Oregon. You may know him best — or just as well — as the head coach of the United States Greco-Roman National Team since ’14. Lindland resides in Colorado Springs, CO with his wife, Angie.
With 2021 now having fully arrived, I can’t help but look back and reflect on the year 2020. All of the experiences we’ve had, all of the lessons learned. We were told to isolate and socially distance. I preferred to see it as solitude rather than isolation. And, solitude for me was time alone with my thoughts, and time with God in prayer and worship.
2020 was a unique year for a lot of folks. I don’t know about you specifically, but I’m sure you had faced some type of adversity, as well. The global pandemic has been a struggle affecting everyone’s lives.
I was no exception. I dealt with struggle and adversity right along with the rest of the world. I had a dear friend pass away on an adventure that turned into a nightmare. I also battled with prostate cancer. Bottom line, we all struggle and deal with pain; and when we are in pain, we must look to be embraced by God so that He can walk through the pain with us: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.” — Matthew 5:4
Life is amazing. I am truly grateful for all of the blessings I have received. But — 2020 was a tough year! I understand that there are many who endure worse struggles than I. Depression, isolation, addiction… They are all on the rise along with other hardships. I’m confident that you are dealing with, or have dealt with, some kind of adversity yourself.
It is important to have someone in your life who has been through pain of their own, a trusted person with whom you can speak and feel comfortable, like a coach or mentor. Find that someone in your life. It’s likely someone who has had many experiences and has enjoyed an interesting life.
These people are valuable. They are from whom we learn, because chances are, they have been in your shoes at one time or another. We all experience troubles, which is why it is critical to find refuge in Christ, for He is the only true Source of peace. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33
As a coach, it is your responsibility to serve and strive to be a blessing to those you lead. We have all suffered, and no one on Earth is exempt from life’s struggles. In the midst of conflict, reach out and find someone who you can connect with, with whom you can build a relationship and walk alongside. Someone who will guide you through all of life’s battles, big or small. Learn to seek the Lord through prayer. God puts people in our lives each season — and for a reason. And when we are hurting, prayer is the route we need to take. Prayer is the most important step towards the peace we so desperately require. It is also how we receive God’s love through His own people. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” — 1 John 4:12
Life isn’t fair, nor does life care about your human definition of fairness or justice. The world would just as soon crush us, just as it might propel us through the gauntlet. There is no escape. We must go through the adversity continuum. But that does not mean that any of us should merely try to survive adversity, or settle for a means to cope with it. Instead, we must learn to harness adversity, and use it to climb higher and grow stronger. That way, the next time adversity strikes, it actually helps us to achieve more, rather than holding us back.
This is how we build resolve. But it does not happen because of us, or because of anything that we are able to do on our own. Such a concept or attitude is fictitious, and nothing more than a guarantee that, eventually, the cycle of adversity will become too much for us to bear.
We were not created to shoulder our burdens alone in a vacuum. Talk to Father God. He delights in being our sounding board, and wants to ease our pain so that we may comfort others. “Praise be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Life is always presenting us with opportunities. Every time a road diverges, we are given a choice: a safe, smooth road; or a dangerous, bumpy road.
The first one might be quicker. Maybe it is devoid of toll booths, maybe the blacktop is regularly repaved. The only issue? There is usually a lot of traffic. It’s a popular highway. But once you pull off towards the exit, all of the sudden you will notice there are several intersections to encounter, each one with annoying, two-minute traffic lights.
The second one? That second road is different. It might not offer a straight shot to your destination. Potholes are felt every other mile. You also have to look out for detours. Traffic isn’t much of an issue. That’s a positive. The shocks on the car will probably take a little bit of a beating, but on the bright side, as soon as the exit appears, you will know that you’ve been through the worst of it.
The above example is a regular occurrence. Two roads are proposed to us throughout our lives, and during different times in our lives. One road will challenge us, and the other one really won’t. Most are compelled to choose the road that is safer, smoother, and more familiar. But in doing so, what perspectives might they gain which will allow them to become distinct, unique, and wiser than those who opted for the other road?
What will the person who never takes risks hope to gain that has any real value?
Choose the pain that comes with denying fleeting desires and follow Jesus to gain real life. “Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses life for me will save it.” — Luke 9:23-24
“Easy” or “smoother” are not better roads. Nor are they more rewarding. However, the road an elite athlete chooses is the hard one.
No question, there will be failure. There will be pain. There will be times when you question your decision, especially when watching former classmates and friends settle into nice homes, starting families, or receiving more recognition than you. You may feel envious of them during situations such as these. Sometimes, you’ll wish that you also took the easier path.
When this happens, which it will, you must remember: everything you are doing is adding up. You are the one putting in the work. You are lifting the heavy weights, putting in the reps. You are the one sacrificing a sedentary lifestyle, bad food, and other temporal comforts. Meanwhile, you are building a biography, as well. Elite athletes do lead interesting lives and glean vital lessons they can share in an effort to impact others.
Of course, it is not just elite athletes or World-level wrestlers who are familiar with taking the harder road. Anyone who pursues a lofty objective outside of the norm is going to encounter a similar degree of frustration or despondence on occasion. Even then, hardships are the furthest thing from belonging to an exclusive club. Every person faces their own customized batch of troubles; and as humans, we must call upon the Lord, because God wants us to ask Him to walk us through all of life’s various trials. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” — Jeremiah 29:13
The key is understanding that all of life’s experiences act as a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose. Everything that happens to us — turmoil, humiliations, misfortunes, perceived setbacks — all of it is heaved upon our laps to make us stronger and more resilient. In the Bible, we have plenty of examples that show God allowing His people to struggle and suffer for a specific purpose, only to have them come out of the experience improved and reinvigorated.
Whenever I think of a human suffering and struggling in order to achieve a worthy goal or, in this case, accomplish a Divine purpose, Paul is the first person who comes to mind. Paul faced many, many hardships along his travels. He was flogged, beaten, and jailed; he was beaten more, flogged more, and ultimately imprisoned until his eventual martyrdom.
But, even under such persecution and pain, Paul’s resolve never wavered. In fact, he became emboldened. Paul knew from Whom he received all of the comfort he could and would ever need. Because of this, he was steeped in humility — and yet, unfailingly courageous. Why? Because Paul understood that God allows us to struggle as a mechanism to humble our hearts and so that we remain dependent on Him. The result? We grow stronger thanks to God’s grace and love.
Here are Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth:
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
These Things I Have Seen
I’ve started businesses — and closed them. I’ve made money, and lost money. I’ve lived in multiple places and traveled the world. I have met great people and shaken hands with some bad people. I have followed amazing leaders as well as some who were a far cry from basic decency. I have been in rooms where important, influential decisions were made, and I’ve observed bureaucracy become swallowed up by incompetence from a front-row seat. Likewise, I have witnessed undeniable excellence and feats of unquestionable courage from the same vantage point.
I have also messed things up, and watched hopes and dreams shatter into pieces. I have experienced loss as well as the debilitating sorrow by which it is accompanied.
In other words, I have consistently been blessed and surprised beyond my wildest imagination.
Whatever happens in life can become useful, whether you are a wrestler, hedge fund manager, or firefighter; or whether we are talking about a sport, relationship, or business. Types of experiences may vary, but their significance doesn’t when it comes to how we should carry them forward in our lives. The word is useful, so make use of adversity. If a wrestler goes down with an injury or illness, they shouldn’t see it as time off the mat. They would do well to see it as an opportunity to slow down and reflect on where life is taking them. A mistake at work doesn’t have to automatically represent stress. If you look closely, it might be a great chance to conceive a new way to approach common problems, or reveal a different path.
Obstacles, particularly and most significantly through God’s loving works, quickly become opportunities.
And the more obstacles, experiences, and general adversity we encounter, the more equipped we are to handle a wider range of circumstances. Most importantly, they are a catalyst to seek the face of God and give glory to Him so that Christ’s power may work through us. It is through strife and pain that God makes us glorious in return. “I consider that our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” — Romans 8:18
The more we are willing to step out of our comfort zones and look for new experiences and opportunities, we acquire the knowledge and skills to solve new situations we have not faced before. This is equally true in MMA as it is in something like mathematics or science. Our insight into ourselves is constrained only by our inventory of previous experiences. We must be willing to take chances and gain wisdom through experiences. If we can act boldly and courageously, we also increase our ability to inspire and encourage others along the journey. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God: I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” — Isaiah 41:10
— and —
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:11
This is the kind of person I want to be. The kind who takes his experiences and turns them into wisdom so that I can learn and grow; and then to also be able to pass the lessons learned onto others. It is one reason why I plan on continuing to live an exciting life and finding more fuel for the fire, so that I may inspire people in my own life.
The ride thus far hasn’t always been smooth. Plenty of potholes and my fair share of bumps. But without the bumps, the lessons learned may have been much harder to come by, if at all.
When I finished college at Nebraska and moved back to Oregon, I coached high school for a stint. I had no coaching experience at the time, and little wisdom. Just ask Chael Sonnen, who was a high school sophomore when I first started. Or, ask my wife for that matter. I only stayed in Oregon for about a year before moving to Colorado in pursuit of my goal to become an Olympic Champion in Greco-Roman wrestling.
I grew so much during the three years I spent at the Olympic Training Center. So in 1996 after the Olympic Trials, I moved back to Lincoln for a coaching job at the University of Nebraska. During that season of my life, I gave my athletes everything I had — but there was not yet a ton of wisdom. I loved and cared for my students like a big brother, and coached them and mentored just that way.
I was thankful to have a call a few days ago with Justin Ruiz, the former All-American Cornhusker who would later earn a World bronze medal. He shared with me some of the lessons he had learned throughout our time together. We’ve known each other for years and years now. When I found out Justin was getting married, I offered him some counsel. He assured me that it was great advice that he still lives by today. That made me feel glad.
But although that might have been worthwhile advice, it does remind me of the maturity level I had as a 27-year-old coach when Justin was on the team. Just reflecting on that era in my life helps remind me how much I have grown in wisdom and maturity. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” — Proverbs 19:20
For added reference, a blog post by Justin describing my former coaching style can be found below.
“Failure can make you or break you.
“I remember years ago, as a freshman at the University of Nebraska, I wrestled a 30-minute match with one of my coaches. To give you an idea of how good he was, he only lost one match his senior year of college, he won an Olympic silver medal, and he also won a silver medal at the World Championships. Not to mention other national and international titles. So, what I am saying is, he was tough as could be.
“During that match he took me down, held me down for 15 minutes, let me go, took me down again, and held me down for another 15 minutes.
“It was the worst beating that I had ever taken up to that point in my life, but it was one of the best experiences for me, my wrestling career, and my life in general. I hated being stuck on the bottom so badly that I made up my mind to do whatever it took to not get beat like that again. I had to go to work.
“I had to learn new skills. I had to learn new mindsets. I had to learn to wrestle at a new level of intensity that I hadn’t wrestled at before, and I had to learn to not give up. Even when things were really bad, I had to learn to not give up. Over time that hard work paid off. I learned how to get away from people. I learned how to not be held down like that ever again. I got better.
“The obstacle never changed. There were plenty of wrestlers that I had to face that were tough as nails, but the difference was I had changed.
“This concept applies to any other obstacle that you or I may be facing right now. Maybe you’re getting your butt kicked in your relationships, maybe you’re getting beat in your finances, maybe you’re taking a massive beating in your health. These obstacles or challenges won’t change, but the good news is that you can change.
“You can make up your mind today in a moment that you are going to change, and then you can get to work. You can learn the skill sets and mind sets to get better at your relationships, at your finances, at your health.
“We live in an unprecedented time of awesomeness right now. Despite all of the challenges that the world is facing right now, you can still win. You can still come out on top. You just have to let your faith be bigger than your fear and work your butt off.”
Now in this season of my life I coach with a father’s heart for my athletes.
The question is What does coaching with a father’s heart look like?
For me, it means being a servant of Christ. To share His news and love His people. Sometimes, that love could be a hug. Other times, it could be a boot in the ass. It means committing to loving God and representing that outwardly. No boasting, no bragging. Only loving and serving.
My wife and I have raised two children and at various times in their lives, both have needed motivation and encouragement, to be pushed to the edge of their comfort zones in order to help them reach their full potential. The athletes I have the privilege to lead are no different. I want what is best for them in all circumstances, on and off the mat.
Coaching with the heart of our Father means following Christ and treating those of whom you are called upon to serve fairly and righteously. Everyone is unique, because God made each of us just a little differently in His image and likeness. Therefore, these men I have been called to lead are all image-bearers of God. These are men with whom I want to build solid relationships, and I want to serve them through God’s grace while giving Him the glory.
Our athletes are future leaders we are preparing to send out into the world. Wrestling careers end; and when you look, it is easy to notice that our society is scarce when it comes to Godly men. We need more of them. We need more Godly men. We need more leaders who are willing to invest in the future generations. Women need Godly husbands, too. And children need Godly fathers who love their children the same way that Christ loves the church.
Jesus teaches us that fatherly leadership comes from the Fatherly heart of God. That is why he teaches us to pray to Our Father.
Fatherhood is based on the heart of the Father God. In the Bible, Jesus referred to God as “Father” more than any other name. A father is one who is there for his sons and daughters. A father exacts authority over us — but first and foremost, a father is always there for his children and shows love and mercy.
Faith is trusting that you have a father whose kindness, mercy, and grace are lovingly displayed. A father who wants the best for his children. And for those of us who are fathers, one day we will stand before God and give an account of ourselves and how we behaved as leaders. In the meantime, we can either live in fear or live boldly in faith. God has not given us a spirit of fear; and His perfect love casts out fear. The spirit of fear is demonic. The enemy wants us to live in fear because he comes to kill, steal, and destroy.
Another question might be, Is God tough, or tender? The answer is “Yes.” God is there to comfort us in our struggles and through the tough times we face. He is also there to guide and correct us when we veer off His path. God provides guidelines, but He also provides liberty.
If I am coaching with a father’s heart, then my job is to guide my athletes and help them become Godly men. To share the Gospel by living my life as an example for others to follow. That’s what coaching with a father’s heart means to me. Showing grace when needed, and giving correction when that is appropriate, as well.
Above all, coaching with a father’s heart means the men who I am privileged to lead must know that they are trusted and respected.