"Steel sharpens steel” is an old saying; in sports, the saying means that the best get sharper (or better) by playing against the best. A wrestling article in the Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette on January 26, 1975 stated:
“Wisconsin has emerged as one of the strong new collegiate wrestling powers. Badgers coach Duane Kleven has scheduled the toughest foes possible, and his team is ranked No. 2 to Iowa nationally. He believes in putting his athletes up against the nation’s best—sort of the steel-sharpens-steel theory. ‘It’s a philosophy I pirated from Harold Nichols, Iowa State coach,’ Kleven explains. ‘It’s a matter of the athletes relating to a higher level.’”
Duane Kleven was the University of Wisconsin wrestling coach from 1970 to 1982, and Harold Nichols (1917-1997) was the Iowa State wrestling coach from 1954 to 1985. Wrestling Hall of Famer Leroy Kemp (who attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s) also has used the saying “steel sharpens steel.”
“Steel sharpens steel” has been less frequently used in other sports, such as football, track and swimming.
26 January 1975, Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette, “Red Peppers” by Gus Schrader, pg. 1D, col. 2:
Wisconsin has emerged as one of the strong new collegiate wrestling powers. Badgers coach Duane Kleven has scheduled the toughest foes possible, and his team is ranked No. 2 to Iowa nationally. He believes in putting his athletes up against the nation’s best—sort of the steel-sharpens-steel theory.
“It’s a philosophy I pirated from Harold Nichols, Iowa State coach,” Kleven explains. “It’s a matter of the athletes relating to a higher level. If you can survive a tough schedule long enough—and we did—there should be a chain reaction upward. We had some injuries, and the egos took a beating—the ego part goes for the coaching staff, too. But they started wrestling better against the good wrestlers and finally started beating them some of the time. It’s just a step-by-step mental progression.”
8 September 1985, Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette, “Red Peppers” by Gus Schrader, pg. 4C, col. 1:
Michigan’s Bo Schembechler says he thinks steel sharpens steel — that “your team benefits from playing tough non-conference games.”
13 July 1992, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), “EITER: Long climb to Olympics nears peak,” sec. 3, pg. 10, col. 1:
“They say steel sharpens steel, and it’s true,” Vanni said.
(Two-time Olympic wrestler Tim Vanni.—ed.)
7 November 1998, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), “Girls cross-country team makes great strides” by Roy Johnson (Lake Zurich High School), sec. 5, pg. 3, col. 4:
“They work hard not just for themselves, but for the benefit of the team. With so many great competitors within the team, the old saying ‘steel sharpens steel’ couldn’t fit any better.”
(Lake Zurich track coach Steve Pinchman.—ed.)
17 February 2005, Rockford (IL) Register Star, “Lone star wrestlers” by Matt Trowbridge, Prepsweekly, pg. 3, col. 1:
It’s no accident. Steel sharpens steel. And great wrestlers need great competition to sharpen their skills.
13 January 2013, 12:05pm
Steel Sharpens Steel: Katie Ledecky and Gillian Ryan’s Friendly Rivalry By Swimming World Intern Charlie Shea
By Swimming World Intern Charlie Shea
There are old sayings that “steel sharpens steel” and “you have to beat the best to be the best.”
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)
Doug Moe: ‘Foxcatcher’ character coached wrestling in Madison
November 10, 2014 5:30 am • DOUG MOE , 608-252-6446
“Steel sharpens steel,” Dave Schultz said, quoting Badgers wrestling great Lee Kemp.
TribLIVE (Pittsburgh, PA)
Norwin wrestling gets win over Penn-Trafford
By Nathan Smith
Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
“They say steel sharpens steel so we will be really sharp after that,” Closson said. “We put the schedule together this way to be so tough.”
Albany (NY) Times Union
Section II wrestlers help each other prepare for state tournament
After competing all season, area wrestlers team up
By Jason Franchuk
Published 9:27 pm, Saturday, February 21, 2015
Coach Shaun Neely’s Niskayuna room will host a practice this week, and he was eager to tell some of his Silver Warriors to stop by and check out what it takes to get to that next level. He was among several coaches at the Shen workout who also sported a notebook, taking a few training tips of drills and calisthenics to consider for next season.
“It’s like if you’re used to watching college basketball, and then you go see a pro team practice,” Neely said. “It’s just that next level. In wrestling, there’s an old saying: Steel sharpens steel. It’s great to see that here.”