Matt Perryman

Alexander Karelin’s PhD in suplexology

By Matt Perryman

The other day I realized I don’t know enough about Alexander Karelin’s approach to training.

Karelin was a beast of a man back in the 80s and 90s, Russia’s three-time Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling. His signature move was lifting and tossing 300 pound men.

While researching his training, I discovered there is little to learn. Russian athletes then as now rarely spoke of their training, and this went double back in those days.

I suspect that’s a product my Americanized pill-head mindset looking for secrets and rapid-fire solutions, anyhow. The reality is that Karelin is more bear than human. Between that and growing up in harsh Siberian tundra, it’s unlikely there are any “Russian training secrets” beyond doing hard things on a daily basis without compromise.

What I did discover about him is much more interesting.

Since hanging up his career after his first and only loss in the 2000 Olympics (and only by a slim margin then), he went on to earn a degree in law, become a Senator for his home district Novosibirsk, and he’s known to be quite close to Putin. Whatever your thoughts on Russia (I don’t want to hear them so don’t send them), that’s an impressive list of lifetime accomplishments.

The best part was learning that he also has a PhD in exercise science, and he wrote his dissertation on the suplex.

I had a good laugh imagining how his doctoral defense went down. It involved Karelin shirtless and oiled up.

Anyhow, all this brought to mind another of my preoccupations, which is why we bother getting good at things at all. Karelin’s an accomplished man who lives an accomplished life. There’s a purpose there that we can see and understand.

It made me wonder if I can say the same. Can any of us? Whether we’re talking about wrasslin’ or writing or anything in between, why do we care about the skills we pursue?

I often hear the complaint that I think too much and do too little. Maybe. As if the complainer has any idea of how my life beyond these daily missives which I complete in under 30 minutes.

The point is, you can be as practical git-er-done as you want to be, but what are you doing it for?

Every practical tip, tactic, hack, skill, and plan of action is done in order to achieve something.

You build things. Great. What for?

If your answer is “it brings me satisfaction, and I love helping people”, fantastic. You’ve passed the test.

Sometimes, often, there’s only a bad answer. You’re doing a thing for reasons you don’t know and can’t articulate. You’re doing it because you feel trapped and see no alternative. You’re doing it because everyone around you does it and there’s an expectation.

If you don’t know why, then why are you doing it?

Why do you pretend to care if you aren’t satisfied?

Every practical goal has a higher purpose.

Every skill aims at what the author Kathy Sierra calls a higher compelling context. Nobody wants to use a camera to be good at using a camera. They care about camera skills in order to take beautiful, remarkable photos. And they care about that goal in order to hear the admiration of friends and the jealousy of rivals.

Why? and What for? are two of the most important and practical questions you’ll ever ask, even if you don’t end up a three-time gold medalist.

Matt Perryman 

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