Courage is a Muscle

What doesn’t kill us make us stronger

–old adage sung recently by Kelly Clarkson
Wrestling kids from movie Fighting with  my Family
Wrestling teenagers from Fighting with My Family, photo at Rolling Stone

There’s a temptation with sports movies to call them derivative, Rocky knock-offs, as if Rocky invented the concept of striving, training, working past obstacles, and succeeding. All good sports stories—and today’s blog is about two of them—reflect life, which is striving, working past obstacles, building courage, and succeeding. Then struggling again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The key element to well-made movies about athletics isn’t just about the success at the end, but about the development of character by the participants along the way. How they get there is really the story. Two films I recently watched, 2011’s Best Documentary Undefeated and the recently-released Fighting With My Family, both did an exceptional job of demonstrating how this works.

Norwich wrestling family
The Knight wrestling family of Norwich, England, photo from

Raised to Wrestle

Fighting with My Family is a biopic about a female WWE wrestler who became the youngest to win the Diva’s Championship. That’s the tagline for Paige Knight’s Wikipedia entry, but of course that piece of information doesn’t make the movie and ultimately isn’t important to the moviegoing audience. Instead, what’s important is that Paige comes from a family of wrestlers from Northeast England, the gritty city of Norwich, home to breweries and canaries.

Mom and Pop met through wrestling—it’s a weird kind of love story involving drugs and guns that they relate, with gusto, to prospective in-laws. Naturally, the Knights raised their three children to wrestle, and they all wrestle each other, to the delight of locals holding beer cans in folding chairs, jeering at the tiny cement arena run by the parents, nestled between the tattoo parlor and the kebob and pizza house. Played by Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost and Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey, the parents translate their love for the sport into a way of life. They hand out flyers to people on the street and send audition tapes everywhere, until one catches the eye of the big dogs at the WWE. That’s when the two teenage kids, Zak Zodiac and Britani/Saraya/Paige, are given a shot to the big time.

While the movie prominently features the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) in promotional materials, his role is really an extended cameo. The real performances are turned in by two young stars–Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden. Florence as Paige has the more prominent role; ultimately, this movie is more about her struggle and rise to glory, than Zak’s, but his story and performance are a critical part of the narrative as well. The movie does an excellent job of emphasizing that important point, that for every winner there is a loser, who wanted it just as much, who trained almost as hard, and who continues to face challenges in life beyond the athletic contest. Dealing with those challenges afterwards can be as interesting a part of the story. If you had to choose which is more difficult or more important–becoming the youngest Diva Champion of the WWE or teaching a blind kid how to wrestle–you’d find it a hard selection.

Paige Action figures
Mom and Dad marketing Paige action figures, photo by Chicago Sun-Times

Wax On/Wax Off

Fighting with My Family also demonstrates that becoming successful is a combination of the struggle and encouragement. While it’s true, that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is encouragement and support from family and coaches.

Success, though, is dependent on the hard work. The training portion of the movie–where the athlete flips tires, runs up the museum steps, puts wax on/wax off, or learns how to move to the blind side–is the meaty and interesting technical part. We want to see that, to understand how someone develops the capabilities to succeed at that particular sport.

However, those techniques are more interesting when married to a development of character which is as important as building muscle, and in some sense works the same way. The body builds muscle through stress. Muscle is stressed from exercise until it breaks and tears, just a little. During rest, nutrients are sent to the site for repair until the muscle comes back stronger, as if preparing for a repeat of the stress. This is also how courage is created. When you experience a challenge emotionally–loneliness, fear, frustration–you can use it as a foundation to keep moving forward, even as the challenges increase. Courage builds just like a muscle, through practice, struggle, and repair.

Not Just Another Football Movie

Fighting with My Family, still in theaters, is “based on a true story,” but Undefeated is an actual true story from 2011, available on Netflix or at the library. This film won the Oscar for Best Documentary and tells the story of a beleaguered high school football team from a poor section of Memphis. Yes, it’s a football movie, and we’ve seen those done well before, from The Blind Side to Remember the Titans all the way back to Brian’s Song. What this football movie has is a coach, a big ol’ rednecked American, who imparts wisdom and demonstrates compassion to these kids in a way that speaks volume to the whole notion of “teacher.”

Money Brown in the movie Undefeated
“Money” Brown in Undefeated, photo by Spitfire Pictures

In fact, your cynicism and surety that you’ve already seen this done is what will catch you up short in this story. Like other movies, the film does focus on a few of the stand-out players–the small, smart one; the talented but academically changed one; and the troublemaker. Like other movies, we follow them through their season, as they try to move from a team that hasn’t won a game in 14 years to make the playoffs. However, because these are real kids with un-retouched stories, the expected struggles they encounter loom larger than story. When one player suffers a season-ending injury, he’s doesn’t become just a prop from a hospital bed, but a person whose struggles we want to watch. I’ve never been so much on the edge of my site watching someone visit a physical therapist.

Young men of character and discipline and commitment end up winning in life, and they end up winning football. When you flip it, and the foundation of what you’re doing is football, and you hope all that other stuff follows, then you think football build character. Which it does not. Football reveals character.

Coach Bill Courtney from Undefeated

Coach Bill Courtney and others go to extraordinary lengths to help these guys play, and, in doing so, to help them learn what they need to face the adult world. Courtney is forever going to so-and-so’s house to give someone a ride or talk someone else out of doing something foolish. Another coach agrees to let a player live with him on the weekends in order to tutor him, so he can eke out a passing grade on the ACT. It turns out, in fact, that the team is not undefeated playing football–that’s a spoiler but not a big one–they lose their first game. They aren’t undefeated as human beings, as many of the kids get into trouble constantly, risking their football life and their adult future. But what’s demonstrated here is that the unconditional love and support from others is the other platform that they can stand on; that’s what makes them undefeated. We build character, as coach says, through hardship, but we also build it because others help us along the way.

I was prompted by the stories to look up the main players in Undefeated, and their end story–their current story–is as complex and real as in the film. Struggles continue. Bad luck occurs as well as bad choices. They keep trying and keep striving. That’s true for Chavis, Money, and OC from Manassas High School, and it’s also true for Paige Knight of the famous Norwich wrestling family. The Knights were thrilled to have their story picked up, first for a documentary, and then produced in this feature film, which was backed by the Rock. But the fame didn’t solve their problems, as it never does. The real “true story” highlights how well the script captured the Knights as people and how they approached life rather than focusing on the successful achievement of a lifelong dream.

You may not particularly enjoy football, or wrestling for that matter. Don’t let that preclude you from watching either movie. Neither is about the sport. Neither is really about the winning, either.

Which is how it should be.

Coach Bill Courtney from the movie Undefeated
Coach Bill Courtney in Undefeated, photo by Spitfire Pictures

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