Pinning Down a Work-Life Balance on the Way to Nationals

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Wrestling coach wearing an orange shirt stands between two male wrestlers who have qualified for national tournament

Joe Smith, Assistant professor of farm animal medicine and surgery, joined UTCVM during COVID and spent a LOT of time at the hospital with little time for life outside work or for himself. As restrictions began to lift, Smith, a former collegiate wrestler and 2-time qualifier for nationals turned back to the sport he loves and volunteered for the Wrestling Club at the University of Tennessee. “I wanted to give back to a sport that has given me so much,” says Smith. “I still have close teammates from undergrad and veterinary school and keep in touch with many of the parents and coaches.”

But why veterinary medicine and wrestling? “They both involve problem-solving skills. In farm animal, I teach veterinary students how to maneuver large animals so they don’t get hurt.  I teach wrestlers how to maneuver bodies that may be bigger than their own so they don’t get hurt,” jokes Smith, adding that both are great workouts, physically and mentally. “On the mat, opponents come in all shapes, sizes, ability levels—and any combination of all three. If someone is better than you are physically, then you learn to use other techniques. It is a mental game of chess that keeps your brain and muscles engaged for the entire match.”

Coach Smith is showing another wrestler a technique on the wrestling mat
Coach Smith demonstrates a wrestling move during practice.

Budget is a problem for the team that competes against teams with scholarships, full-time coaches, and in many cases dedicated practice space. At Tennessee, the wrestling space is shared with the climbing wall and the team can practice three times weekly if nothing else is going on.

In the 2021/22 year, Smith worked with three other coaches. Births and new jobs left Smith as the sole coach in the 2023/24 year. “It’s an opportunity for me to get out of my little corner on the UTIA campus and see what’s going on across the bridge. I also get to work with undergrads, too.” And lots of them. This year there were over 30 wrestlers in the room—at all skill levels. “I run practices to accommodate all skill levels and work to keep fun and instructional. That can be a challenge.” At a tournament in Virginia, two Tennessee wrestlers, both unranked, placed 7th and qualified for the national tournament. Robbie Huber and Austin Pugh will be representing the Wrestling Club in Shreveport, Louisiana March 14 – 16. Both are freshmen.

“They are learning, as freshmen, that hard work and applying yourself pays off. Just think how that can be extrapolated throughout the rest of their collegiate experience. Wrestling contributes to their identity.” The Beacon published a story on the team in December.

Smith is excited to have a solid core coming back for the 2024/25 season. “Sure, we will still have to practice at a local Jiu Jitsu gym when the mats on campus aren’t available, but at all odds, I want to figure out how to make this work in the system we have and I will remain an advocate for these wrestlers.” Reach out to Smith if you want more information about the team or for ways to support them. The team’s Instagram is @vol_wrestling.