Wrestling with faith: discipling on the mat

Elijah Hickman | Banner

Wrestling has some unique spiritual history, having been mentioned in Genesis 32:34 when Jacob wrestles God through the night, which makes it all the more appropriate for a wrestling coach to disciple his players.

Leonard Zalensky, head coach of the California Baptist University wrestling team, notes a similar spiritual motif.

“About 80% of wrestlers who succeed have a spiritual foundation that allows them to keep fighting,” Zalensky said.

He attributes this to an existential moment produced by putting everything one has into the sport.

“In wrestling, you are doing your own thing and are called out to perform,” Zalensky said. “That could be a rewarding experience or it could be a humiliating experience, which will turn into a soul-searching experience. In those hard times I get to call them aside and have a personal conversation with them.”

Zalensky said that the best way to help guide someone is to try to be a good example. If he does this, it can transfer back to one’s life.

They fight because they have a tenacity that is spiritually prompted. If he notices an athlete who is struggling with various issues without faith, Zalensky said he believes they are more likely to give up.

“Being able to base your life on the foundation of the Bible allows one to get where they want to get in wrestling rather than focusing solely on man’s wisdom,” Zalensky said.

The educational field agrees with these sentiments, promoting acceptance of individuals which leads to trust and a desire to reflect the personal choices of the coach.

“From an educational perspective, kindly correcting people can have a major impact on gaining their trust which helps to present opportunities to share the gospel,” said Kaylea Snapp, senior elementary education major.

Wrestling athletes have noticed a similar phenomenon and understand how it impacts their lives.

“There are a number of coaches (who) have impacted my life,” said Antonio Saldate, redshirt wrestler and junior business administration major. “The best lesson I was ever taught was to give it my all. When you give it your all, putting you heart out there on the mat, there is nothing to regret.”

Saldate’s positive experiences with the impact of coaches have inspired him to become a coach to middle school and high school boys.

“I plan to coach kids in middle school and high school,”  Saldate said. “I’d like to pray at the end of my practices, glorifying God, showing kids how they could praise him on and off the mat.” 

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