As many of the state tournaments around the nation have come to a close, now is a great time for reflection. Over the years I have been to many different state tournaments, as a competitor, coach, recruiter, and fan. These experiences have led me to one ultimate conclusion.
Winning at the state tournament is much more of a mental feat than it is a physical one.
Obviously getting to these elite tournaments and doing well takes a great deal of physical skill and ability. However, those athletes who are mentally tough and confident in themselves will always outperform those who are not. It takes a great deal of mental toughness and resiliency to deal with the pressures and adversity that an event like the state tournament brings. Those that are able to deal with these issues and overcome them, will do well. Those that are not, will ultimately always fall short of their goals.
The state tournament is the culmination of an entire season and by which most of our athletes measure success. For many it is the final chapter of years of hard work and the pinnacle of their careers thus far. Thinking of this event in this way will no doubt generate much anxiety and fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of getting tired. Fear of losing. Fear of failure. Fear of disappointing coaches, family, friends, and fans. This is a lot of stress for a young high school athlete. Often times it is mostly self imposed pressure as they want to do well so badly.
All of these feelings are normal and expected. One should be nervous before a big event like the state tournament. If an athlete was not nervous, then it is likely that they do not care about the end result, or are just happy to be there. It is how one deals with these nerves that separates the good wrestlers from the great ones. Even the best athletes get nervous and have doubts. It is what they do with these feelings that makes all of the difference.
There are many ways to overcome match anxiety and each individual likely deals with it differently. However, in order to achieve one’s goals it is a necessary skill to develop. Some athletes need to keep things light and fun or they get overwhelmed. Much like Penn State’s wrestlers. They all seem to be focused on having fun and scoring points. Others need intense focus and to be hyped up in order to overcome the pressure. Regardless of the method, this is a skill that must be developed just like anything else.
Athletes need to put themselves in uncomfortable situations as often as possible and then find ways to deal with the stresses. Most of us try to avoid those things that cause stress or take us outside of our comfort zones. By doing this, we never grow or push ourselves to new levels of our ability. As wrestler, these situations can sometimes be mimicked in practice and during training. More often than not, it is something that only occurs during competition. It is difficult to replicate the atmosphere of intense competitions like the state tournament in the practice room. The more one competes and immerses themselves in that feeling of competition, the better able they will cope with it. The feelings of competition become second nature and athletes become used to the nerves, rather than scared by them.
At tournaments like State, it is easy to identify those wrestlers who are mentally prepared and confident in themselves. They walk around with a purpose and just seem determined to succeed. These athletes have a mental toughness about them in that they will not be denied their goals. They know what they want, they trust their training and abilities, and they are going to go out there and take it. They don’t get caught up in the environment or the big stage. And if they do, they use that energy to fuel themselves to a higher level. Not become overwhelmed and shut down. In the end, it’s just another wrestling match like so many before it.
On the other side of the spectrum, one can also point out those wrestlers who lack the mental preparedness and have the “deer in headlights” look. They are timid and unsure of what to do or how to act. When they step on the mat, they have more of a hopeful look, rather than an assuredness. These wrestlers will likely not wrestle up to their abilities. They may be one of the best athletes at the tournament. However, it will not happen for them as they have not trained mentally and are not confident in themselves. This is the worst way to lose and my heart goes out to those that allow the fear to control them. We have all been there and all not gotten what we wanted because we were too afraid.
Now is the time to begin changing the mentality. In the offseason one must work at flipping this mental switch. Make the choices to overcome adversity when it occurs in life, not just on the wrestling mat. This is a life skill that can drive success in all avenues of life and not simply in athletics. It takes preparation and training to achieve this mental ability. One must train hard in order to trust their training. One must also just believe in their abilities and have a confidence that they are good enough. Step onto the mat and compete. Step up to life’s challenges and let your abilities flow.
I’ll end this writing with an example of something that I always tell my athletes. It comes from the movie “For the Love of the Game”, which is a baseball movie about a pitcher. In the movie, while on the mound, the pitcher will always say to himself, “Clear the mechanism”. When he does this his mind goes blank and he no longer hears or sees anything except for the catcher and his mitt. The crowd is silenced. The batter is gone. The score is irrelevant. It’s just him and the catcher. I tell my athletes you can be nervous and anxious prior to the match all that you want. However, when you step on the mat and shake hands you need to think to yourself, “Clear the mechanism”. And after this point you just let it flow. No thinking, just reacting. Trust your skills and wrestle. Good things will happen!
If you trust your training, wrestle hard, and compete to the best of your ability, then you have nothing to be ashamed of at the end of the match, regardless of the outcome. You win some and you lose some. You did all that you could to win, and in my book, that’s enough for me. It should be for you, too!