While wrestling is a team sport, the reality is it’s only one wrestler versus another when a match begins. In that sense, wrestling really is an individual sport, and like other individual sports the pressure to succeed can be that much more difficult when compared to traditional team sports as there is “no place to hide” on the mat. Consequently, it is not uncommon for wrestlers to struggle with confidence development, while at the same time learning mental toughness skills to help with reducing negative anxiety and “choking.” (AHPS)
In my career I have worked with countless Olympic, college, high school, and youth-level wrestlers and have witnessed firsthand how debilitating and destructive negative anxiety can be on an otherwise talented wrestler. Some wrestlers excel in the wrestling room, only to freeze up in matches – frustrating themselves, their coaches, and even fans of the program who know they can perform better than what they show when the whistle blows.
While there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to eliminating negative nerves while increasing self-confidence (a variable closely linked to athletic performance success according to sport psychology studies), there are 2 very important times when wrestlers can dramatically improve their wrestling abilities and chances for success:
1.) Pre-match. Every wrestler should have a unique pre-match routine designed to ease nerves, improve focus, and increase self-confidence. When I work with wrestlers I remind them of the importance of developing a pre-match routine and being proactive (rather than reactive) before matches. Since our minds can only think of one thing at a time, it’s imperative that wrestlers do things to “lock in” rather than stand behind the bench and allow irrelevant, outside distractions to steal their attention (like a hostile crowd). The pre-match routine is not something magical, but instead a series of things the wrestler can think about (i.e. using imagery to see his first move in the match) and physically do (i.e. like taking deep breaths to keep anxiety in check). Other ideas to help with pre-match focus might include reviewing personal goals in a journal, listening to inspirational music, or using positive self-talk to help increase confidence.
In my opinion there is no excuse for athletes (not just wrestlers) to begin a sports contest unprepared — since the athlete controls his/her surroundings and what he/she thinks and does, it really is a matter of making intelligent choices and using proven mental toughness skills (like imagery, self-talk, and breathing) to get in the zone moments before a match begins. After the first whistle it’s “game on” and anything can happen, but theres no reason to not be able to start a match off on the right foot.
2.) Post-match. Reviewing a winning match usually isn’t too tough for wrestlers to do (that’s the fun part!), but what about after a loss? Successful wrestlers (like successful people) quickly get the emotions out and then go right back to the drawing board and engage in the Socratic Method (ask the right questions and you will get the right answers). It’s important to learn from losses and use the new information gained as a teachable moment — but it’s also sometimes difficult to fight through emotions in order to do this (maybe that’s why there’s only so many champions). Rather than become upset and try to quickly forget about a loss, why not become a sponge and soak in all the different things that can be improved upon the next time out? Since the wrestling season is more like a race than a sprint, it behooves wrestlers to continue to learn and grow so they can finish the season peaking at the top of their game.
Learning from losses (or victories) is the first step, but it’s just as important to document the information learned as our memories are not that great when it comes to storing key information. All wrestlers should consider keeping a journal throughout the wrestling season, and go back to specific entries that prove to be the most meaningful regularly throughout the season. Keeping a journal helps wrestlers learn from mistakes, develop self-confidence, and re-live positive emotions from earlier in the season (especially helpful in times of a slump or burnout).
For more information on how to improve mental toughness for wrestling success, check out my new DVD Wrestling Your Best: Developing a Mind of Steel for Wrestling Success (introduction video above), as well as our Sport Performance Assessment – Wrestling app for the iphone, ipad, and ipod.
My Game My Life journals – key for keeping track of a wrestling season!