Feeding the mindset
This is a vast topic. I’ll give an overview of how to have a solid mental approach to the sport of wrestling in particular. Mental capability starts with enjoying what you are doing. To be clear, not all things in life are enjoyable and yet there is something to be learned from being proficient at things you might not like whether academic, athletic, emotional or practical. Wrestling is a very demanding sport and if you don’t enjoy most of it, it won’t be easy to be very good.
I’ve seen scores of kids pushed into wrestling, usually by dad. Being pushed into something this challenging when you don’t enjoy it is a disaster. If you create a progression for your kid to enjoy wrestling they will fare better than the pushed kid, both in the short term and the long term. Pushed kids usually wash out as they gain independence and rebel away from the sport. The worst-case scenario for all involved is at the college level when an athlete hits the wall and wants to abandon the sport. The dad blames the coach, the kid just wants to control his own life and the coach just wasted precious scholarship money. Kids that develop a healthy love of the sport usually end up coaching; they may even wrestle at the Fat & Bald in their later years.
“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ― Viktor E. Frankl.
Finding meaning in the challenge of a serious practice makes you so strong that the average person can’t understand or relate to it. You don’t need much ability to get into the routine of going to practice, being coachable, giving your best effort and having a good attitude. Mental strength starts with the easy stuff first, things within your control. Creating resilience in these areas isn’t always easy in the face of challenge. Lots of parents and coaches have told me over the years that some kids are born with it and others aren’t. There may be some merit to the genetic component. What I’ve observed is that kids I see with this edge at an early age have had more challenges in their home life. For one reason or another they have encountered more problems and solved them on their own which creates confidence and independence. These are the building blocks of mental strength and resilience.
If you want to help develop this trait for your youth wrestler identify some things that they want to do but can’t yet: Planks, pushups, jumps, etc. Now make a goal together and a work out plan to reach the goal. The younger the athlete the shorter term the plan should be. A commando pull-up to a hang, firing lats, should take less than 2 weeks of every other day 5-minute a day workouts. I’ve seen kids that couldn’t hold onto a hang bar on day one reach this goal in 10 sessions. After an initial success their young minds get opened up to this new idea of themselves.
My son just finished up his first year wrestling. He just told me that he wanted to be really strong next year. He’s already very strong for his age and size. All kids like to play to their strength. I told him yes but let’s also work on his technique too. Don’t be afraid to mix it up, strength, technique, flexibility etc. done correctly it all builds mental confidence and resilience.
Make a routine for your child or kids that you are coaching. Older kids can add technique, strength, flexibility, gymnastics moves, etc. to their goals. Picking some easy goals to start with helps this progression work. All these activities are multidimensional and help in building the athlete’s body but also confidence in working successfully towards a goal. Drawing on past success is a very helpful tool in developing and maintaining confidence. Confidence is the critical ingredient in the champion’s mindset that is so elusive and very different than “having to win for my dad”.
Once youth wrestlers have some baseline success off the mat it’s time to transfer this approach to the mat. Older wrestlers can start anywhere and just keep growing the success.
Watch at the 2:35 part of this NCAA finals match. Dake was dead to rights but never conceded anything. Marion’s attack brought out the best in Dake. This is one of the most resilient 10 seconds of wrestling that I’ve seen in my life. Expecting to win isn’t enough. Goals are good but it’s what you’re willing to do to reach those goals, the size of commitment has to equal the size of the goals. Dake knew that he could not only defend Marion’s attack but score off it because he’d most likely done it in practice at that pace and intensity versus a bigger guy.
Going through a practice routine that is harder than your average match helps build a match toughness that is hard to beat. For youth wrestlers this is tough. Hard practices can turn off youth wrestlers. Most kids love live wrestling and it is a great cardio builder. Disguise cardio or strength training in games and team competitions from races and tug of war to dodge ball. Focus on developing your style of wrestling. I try to teach aggressiveness and domination. Not all kids are built that way. Just like in other martial and combat sports some people are better at countering. There is plenty of scientific evidence that this is a physiological reality, once a coach sees this in a wrestler train them to that style.
Game day help to reduce distractions and stress.
Having a successful routine can help ease anxiety and doubt prior to a match. Routines allow you to focus on you and your game plan not wasting energy on how you’ll warm-up. Your practice routine should mirror your pre-match routine as much as possible. Having weigh-ins and simulated tournaments isn’t practical for most wrestling teams but you better believe that’s what senior level guys do to get ready for a qualifier, worlds or the Olympics. Warm-up, drilling and live wrestling is a normal practice routine, get in the habit of a similar routine prior to competition. No one stands around bouncing at practice yet it seems to be the number one form of pre-match warm-up for American youth-high-school wrestlers. Feeling good prior to the match is what the competitor wants (whether they know it or not) it allows for their best performance to materialize on the mat. Pressure and stress is the enemy. Kids already feel that, the coaches and parents job is to create a system and routine to keep those feelings and thoughts at bay. Unchecked stress destroys a kid’s enjoyment of the sport, confidence in him or herself, and removes focus on themselves and the game plan.
Every time a wrestler takes his goals to the next level the goal is just the starting point. What I’m most interested in is what they are willing to do to reach their goals? Everyone wants to be a state champ but are you willing to do the work? Detail every bit of the game plan to get to you goal. Training hard isn’t enough. Lots of people work hard not everyone works smart. Your technique might not be right, your mental approach might be holding you back, your pre-match warm-up might not allow for a best performance. I could go on and on, there are so many variables for peak performances that I can’t name them all here. Address areas that need work exactingly and specifically. Some of the best reinforcement learning comes from winning. Problems need to be identified and changes made from losing, but don’t dwell on losses. One of the biggest things I look for as a coach is did a wrestler quit while losing or did they give 100% the entire time? There is absolutely nothing to be gained from ruminating about a loss but not giving 100% all the time is a mental toughness red flag. Serious competitors need to have short memories when it comes to failure. Make changes when necessary and move on. Never quit.
Successful routines should be figured out for cutting weight, peaking for matches and tournaments, post weigh-in recovery, pre match warm ups, time between matches at tournaments and down or recovery time, goal setting and nutrition. Try to treat all matches with the same mental approach; don’t add stress, as the matches get “bigger”. Don’t take the stress that others want to put on you. Laugh them off and walk away from them. It will take some time to develop all these routines but its worth the time invested. A note to parent coaches, I’ve experienced more internal stress prior to some of my son’s matches than I care to admit. Wanting to throw up mat side isn’t a good thing. Stick to the routine that got you there and don’t share it with your child. Step out if necessary and get someone else to help you out.
As wrestling coverage grows it is easy for kids to start reading about themselves or just as likely dad starts reading press clippings. I’d say it’s possible to use negative comments as motivation but it is easy for outside negativity to creep into your subconscious and eat away at self-belief. On the flip side positive outside comments can be a freeway to over confidence. Which is just as problematic as under confidence. Focus on yourself and the path that you’re on. Only listen to your inner circle and yourself. Remember you’re going out on to the mat by yourself, ain’t no one else out there helping you. You’re never as bad as they say and you’re never as good as they say, unless you’re Jordan Burroughs.
Have fun, get busy and enjoy the ride. It won’t last forever.