28 days that will change your life

J Robinson Intensive Wrestling Camps

Brian Jerzak

The temperature was over ninety degrees in late July. Wrestlers from around the country were engaged in one-on-one live wrestling. Not more than ten minutes passed and everyone on the mat was drenched in sweat, but they pressed on. At 15 minutes the whistle blew, the action stopped and each wrestler found his individually labeled water bottle for a two minute water break. After the two minute break the whistle blew again and the paired off wrestlers began again, this time for ten minutes. The intensity of the wrestling didn’t slow down as time went on. None of the wrestlers wanted to be responsible for making the group do 50 yard bear crawls or push-ups because he was not pulling his weight. Ten physically draining minutes pass and the whistle blows again. Two minutes of water and rest before the next whistle. Five minutes, break, five minutes, break, ten minutes, break, and finally one more grueling 15 minute live wrestling session.

After the final 15 minute session, the camp leader, who had been observing the action from the side, gathers up the sweat drenched wrestlers. He summarizes an earlier session the wrestlers had with a group of Navy SEALS giving them the collective group results of the swimming test the SEALS put them through. He then moves on to the final day’s workouts. He asked the wrestlers how many of them are worried about the 15 mile run that laid ahead of them the next and last day of the camp. About half of the wrestlers raised their hands. Then he asked how many of them think they can run seven and a half miles. Every one of the wrestlers’ hands went up. “All you have to do then,” the coach said, “is turn around and run back.”

I asked Ed Henry, a wrestler from Michigan who was preparing for his senior year of high school and was back for his third straight year at the camp, why he puts himself through this. I mentioned there must be a hundred wrestling camps he could choose, why choose this camp?

“Here you have no distractions. It is all about wrestling. Before my first year coming here, I was 18-32. After coming here one year I was 32-18. It (his big turn around) was all because of this camp. It gave me the confidence I needed to compete against the top guys. After wrestling with (among others) Cole Konrad and Rulan Gardner, I knew I could handle any wrestling situation I would get into.”

As another season concludes, another off season begins and with it the summer camp season. Why do athletes from all over the country give up 28 days of their summer to come to the J Robinson 28 day intensive camp? According to J Robinson, head coach of the Minnesota Gophers, and countless former camp survivors, it is not just to improve in the wrestling room and it is not just for the coveted “I Did It” t-shirt. It is because the 28 day intensive camp turns high school athletes into better high school wrestlers and more importantly gives them skills in life to turn high school kids into men.

The idea for a wrestling camp like few had seen got its start at the University of Iowa back in 1978. Robinson and his best friend at Iowa, John Marx, decided to start a camp so kids could “train the way we used to train”. Robinson said Marx, at the time the recruiting coordinator at Iowa, was the “idea guy” while Robinson, who in 1978 was an assistant coach at Iowa, handled the wrestling part of the camp. That first camp brought in 102 kids. Now 28 years later the camp has grown to over 3000 kids last year alone. The J Robinson camps have expanded into hockey and basketball and have camps spanning from the east coast to the west coast.

“I tell kids when they ask me about the 28 day camp, it’s going to be hard. Probably the hardest thing you have ever done, but if you finish you will be a better athlete.”

Henry supported Robinson’s statement, “I have been to intensive camps before. Their hardest day is every day here.”

“We (Robinson and Marx) wanted to run a camp like we used to train. We can do things here you can’t do in the regular season,” says Robinson. “You can push them to a different level.”

“How do you get kids tough?” Robinson continued, “Two cars are going 60 miles per hour down the highway. How do you catch them? When one car pulls over to the diner the other one doesn’t. During the season, everyone is working hard. Summer is when you can catch up. In the summer some kids pull off into the diner and some don’t.”

Instead of pulling over at the diner, the kids learn something Robinson‘s parents taught him, “They learn they can out work 90% of all Americans. You can be in the top 10% in anything if you don’t mind working. You don‘t have to be the smartest, the most physical, the best at everything, you just have to out work people.”

Because of all the work that goes into completing it, every Robinson camp loses 10 to 15 percent of its participants, but Robinson says that is OK. “If they don’t want to be at the camp, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean they are bad people. It is not for everyone.”

Robinson said in the past he tried to get all the kids to stay, but would spend hours trying to save two or three guys at the expense of the other 200.

“We don’t want to spend our time with people who don’t want to be here. We as a society,” he continued, “more and more are so concerned about the bottom ten percent that we don’t take care of the rest of the people who want to be there. It sounds kind of cruel, but you have to prioritize your time where you can do the most good.”

Sometimes people ask Robinson why work so hard and get in such good shape three or four months before the season starts. Robinson says that is one of the misconceptions about his camp. They work this hard to get into shape for the season, but the camp is about preparation.

Robinson says “Preparation changes expectation. When they go back (after the camp) they will expect to do better; they have a different confidence level. “

Along with confidence they learn a set of life skills that can become the basics not only for wrestling, but life.

“Society is teaching kids the wrong values. Society is teaching kids everyone is the same and needs to feel good. That’s not life. Society is setting kids up for failure.”

“The lines are definitive here, either do what you are supposed to do or you don’t graduate. You have to do your workbook every day. You have to line up every day. You have to do your laundry. You have to do it every day. You don’t get to eat seven apples on Sunday and that makes up for the week.”

In order to graduate and get the t-shirt you have to be responsible and accountable for your actions. Most of the points a wrestler needs to earn to graduate have nothing to do with wrestling skills and are under each wrestler’s control. Don’t be late. Do your journal. Have your name on your water bottle. Line up when told to line up. Shower before meals. These are things you have to do for 28 days no matter how tired you are from the days work outs, but are things all the kids have control over.

“This is the way the world is. It is not that harsh, but you are responsible and accountable for what you do. It is up to you.”

“We are trying to teach kids life skills. We redefine words for them. Discipline, sacrifice, dedication and hard work; these are just words to most kids. They don‘t have any life experiences to go with the words. (Society) complains about the young kids, they don’t have any of these skills; they are all skills. There is no place they can get them.”

At a J Robinson camp, the kids get them. They teach them that discipline is doing what you don’t want to do, when you don’t want to do it. At camp they don’t want to go, but they have to go – they learn they can do it. They teach them dedication; they have to stay the whole time, 28 days, not just one match or one tournament. They teach them sacrifice – they come here to wrestle. There is not a lot of playtime: eat, sleep, and wrestle. Their definition of work changes; Robinson said, “They have a definition of work and I have a definition of work. When they leave here their definition of work is a lot different.”

Learning these skills is the most important part of camp. “Learning to work is a skill,” said Robinson. “If you can teach them that skill in 28 days, you will give them something most people don’t have.”

When the kids complete the camp, they are given something that will carry over into the practice room.

“Send a kid to intensive camp; he comes back with all these skills: show up on time, work hard, all the things we stress, now all (coaches) have to do is teach them the wrestling skills.”

But the wrestling room is just where the benefits of the intensive camp start. The real value of the camp happens outside of the wrestling room.

Discipline, sacrifice, dedication and hard work are things everyone, athlete or not, can use to improve themselves. If people can experience what these words really mean then Robinson says, “It doesn’t matter what the medium is”.

Through the years Robinson has received many letters and emails from former campers thanking him for helping to teach them these words. They have come from people from all walks of life: the business world, the blue collar world and the military to name a few.

During the last 28 day intensive camp held in Minnesota, a group of Navy SEALS joined the camp to talk to the wrestlers. They had the wrestlers do part of the Trident Challenge. Stripped down to its essentials the part of the Challenge the intensive campers were to complete was a timed swimming test. During this test it became evident that not many of the guys were going to finish in the allotted time. One of the wrestlers came within just a few seconds of a qualifying time. Robinson said one of the camp staff asked the SEAL who was in charge of the drill, “You’re going to give it to him right?”

Robinson said, “The SEAL turned around and definitively said, ‘he didn’t make it’. That said it all. Here you have some of the elite people in the world; it has nothing to do with them feeling good. He didn’t make it. Next time try harder, that’s what life’s all about. You’re not a bad guy, you just didn’t make it. That is what we are trying to teach them – there is a standard.”

There is a standard at the J Robinson Camp and there is a standard in life. If completed, the J Robinson camp can give an athlete the foundation for the rest of their life. Ernie Larson, an author and psychologist, made a statement that Robinson says encapsulates the J Robinson Intensive Camp philosophy. Larson said, “What you see you learn. What you learn you practice. What you practice you become and what you become has consequences”.

Above all, that is what the staff at all the J Robinson camps is trying to teach kids. It rings true for wrestling, for athletics and most importantly it rings true for living life. If you are able to complete those 28 days on the wrestling mat you learn this philosophy and Robinson says, “It will be 28 days that change your life.”J Robinson Intensive Wrestling Camps: “28 days that will change your life”

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