Athletes seeking to become champions in their chosen sport hope to find that desirable state of “being in the zone.” Sports psychologists often refer to this optimal state as “flow.” Flow involves a person’s complete focus on an activity. For instance, a cellist playing in an orchestra may find herself totally “lost in the moment” as the rest of the world seems to disappear. As you can see, flow is not limited to the field of sports.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow in the early 1970s. Similarly, sport psychologist, Dr. Jim Loehr, coined the term “mental toughness” in the 1980s. What does “being in the zone” involve? Many athletes have experienced a time where they were totally absorbed in their sport. The athlete was focused on the present, lost in the moment, and everything felt effortless. The athlete perhaps felt a sense of peace and no fear or anxiety. Many of us have seen a basketball player who just can’t seem to miss during a certain game. Many of us have seen wrestlers totally dominate a match in which everything they did seemed to go right. That is what the flow state is like.
How can a wrestler produce this sought after mental state? Here are some things to consider:
Do you love wrestling or is it just a hobby? Is wrestling a passion or just an activity to pass some time? For wrestling champions like Dan Gable and John Smith, wrestling was an all-consuming passion. How much do you value wrestling? How much of a priority is it in your life? Do you look forward to practice? Can you push yourself hard or does your coach need to push you? One of the best techniques for getting and staying motivated is goal setting. Yes, I know you have heard it before. However, you need to have clear goals to succeed. Do you want to be a state champion? Perhaps your goal is merely to be able to walk off the mat after each match knowing that you never gave up physically or mentally. You want to know that you gave it 100% and that you did everything within your power to win. Do approach a match wanting to win or not caring too much about the outcome? Champions have an absolute desire to win.
Paying the Price
In his book Wrestling Tough, Mike Chapman writes about “paying the price.” What price are you willing to pay to become a champion? Are you willing to push yourself hard in practice even when you’re feeling tired? Are you willing to drill moves repeatedly even if it becomes boring? Well, you need to drill repeatedly if you want moves to become second nature. Are you willing to put in extra practice time if that’s what it takes? Are you willing to work out on your own and really push yourself even if your coach is not there monitoring you? Essentially, I am asking you this: “Are you willing to work hard?” I didn’t always enjoy running sprints during practice but I did it as hard as I could anyway. If I had the opportunity to run in the gymnasium before classes began for the day, I took advantage of it. I worked out in my room some evenings even though I had just finished practice a couple hours earlier. I worked out during the summer. I pushed myself hard without anyone telling me to. I went to wrestling camps. What price are you willing to pay to become a champion?
Focus on the Process
How does one win a wrestling match or a tournament? Do you focus on the desired outcome? I don’t think so. You want to win. That’s a given. However, a wrestler can become too focused on winning or losing. Yes, you need an absolute desire to win. However, your focus should be on the process or the means of winning. You win a match by executing your moves and scoring points. You win a tournament by focusing on one match at a time. Keep your focus on wrestling well and executing all of your moves flawlessly. Then the desired outcome of winning will simply take care of itself.
Sometimes I would look at the bracket sheet before a tournament and think about wanting to win that tournament. But, I knew I had to take one match at a time and that by keeping my focus on each individual match I had a good chance of winning the tournament. A well known proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Focusing on a thousand miles is overwhelming, but taking a single step is easy. All of those individual steps lead to the desired outcome.
Are you confident in your abilities as a wrestler? Do you believe you can win the match even if your opponent is supposedly unbeatable? Do reflect on the strengths you have from time to time? You should. Do you reflect on past success performances occasionally? You should. One secret to confidence is knowing that your skills are good. You need to practice, practice, and practice some more until you have absolute confidence in your wrestling skills. In addition, confidence is high when you know that you are in good condition and can go all out for a six minute match. Dan Gable was expected to easily win the NCAA Wrestling Championships in 1970, but he lost his final match to Larry Owings. Alexander Karelin went undefeated for 13 years of international competition before losing his final match in the 2000 Olympics to Rulon Gardner. Anyone can be beaten. Be confident in your abilities and encourage your teammates as well. Remember that natural talent doesn’t always win. Often, the wrestlers who have worked the hardest and are confident in their abilities win matches.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali said, “To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.” You may also have heard the expression, “Fake it until you make it.” If you aren’t feeling confident, then at least act like you are. Sometimes, I would slap my headgear and run onto the mat as though I was ready to tear into my opponent even if I wasn’t necessarily feeling confident. You’ve watched wrestling matches involving great wrestlers. You’ve seen how they act and the athletic poise that they have. Try to emulate them if you aren’t feeling confident. Send a message to your subconscious mind that you are confident. I love watching Jet Li and Jason Statham movies. They always look so cool and composed when facing an adversary.
In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz states, “Our brain and nervous system cannot tell the difference between a ‘real’ experience, and one which is vividly imagined.” Practice mental rehearsal before a match. Visualize yourself executing your moves flawlessly and defeating your opponent. Replay past wrestling successes in your mind as well. If you vividly imagine winning a match, then your brain and nervous system believe that you have won the match. If visualizing your family or loved ones makes you feel motivated then do so. If visualizing a warrior confidently engaging in battle with his enemy motivates you, then use that mental image.
Obviously, you don’t want to use negative self-talk before a match. You don’t want to say, “I’m weak” or “I can’t beat this guy.” You want to use positive self-talk. You may say to yourself, “I am strong” and “I have great skills.” In addition, you may say to yourself, “I can beat this guy.” You may simply want to repeat one key word repeatedly to yourself. For example, you may want to say “Relentless” to yourself several times to remind yourself to be aggressive.
An athlete needs a certain amount of arousal. He doesn’t want to be under aroused or over aroused. If your heart is pounding before a match and you feel very nervous then try to do some deep breathing and relax. If you feel sluggish and unmotivated then try jumping rope or running around some to get your heart rate up. I read a story once about a biathlete. The biathlon combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The coach of this biathlete realized his athlete was not in the proper frame of mind. He told her to run to a tree and back. The tree was quite a ways off. The athlete didn’t understand why her coach wanted her to run to a tree and back and wasn’t very happy about it. But, she did as her coached asked her to do. When she got back from the tree she was smiling and her coach looked at her and said, “Now you are ready.” He knew she simply needed a little more physical arousal to be in the flow state.
Have you ever watched a tennis match? Have you noticed how tennis players often adjust the strings on their rackets between points? They may really be adjusting their strings, but it also keeps them focused on the moment. They aren’t staring into the crowd or thinking about unimportant matters. Can you stay focused during a match? Are you distracted by the crowd or by unimportant thoughts? If you make a mistake, can you let it go and refocus on what you need to do to get back on track? If you are taken down, instead of focusing on your mistake and thinking, “I really screwed up,” you could reframe your thought and think, “No problem, I have plenty of time to get back on track.” Then you could switch your focus to getting back to your base and getting an escape.
The Power of State
Many things can influence your psychological state. Beliefs, values, mental images, music, movies, and many other things can influence one’s state of mind. Do you believe you can win? Do you value hard work and being successful? Music “charges up” some athletes. If listening to AC/DC or the theme from the movie Rocky increases your energy, then listen to it before your competition. If watching a movie like Gladiator the night before a competition makes you feel motivated then watch it. Some athletes find it helps to meditate or listen to hypnosis recordings to get them focused and ready to wrestle.
Routines and Rituals
Some athletes find that having pre competition routines and rituals help them to perform better. Some like to use visualization. They may envision the moves they are going to do during the match. Some may envision themselves having their arm raised in victory. Some may envision themselves standing on the top of the podium in 1st place. Some like to shout and slap themselves. Others like to listen to the same song. Some wrestlers may have a lucky tee shirt. Some may pray before they wrestle. Some may repeat to themselves, “I will succeed. I will beat this guy.” I used to shake my coach’s hand before stepping onto the mat. Find a routine that works for you.
I watched a teammate walk confidently onto the mat, throw his opponent with a headlock, and get a pin. A week or two later he wrestled the same opponent and was beaten 12-0. What happened? Obviously, it had to do with mental toughness. My teammate was simply not in the same flow state he had been in during the previous match. During my senior year, I was pinned by an opponent a week before the conference tournament. But, I beat him in a dominating fashion in the conference finals because I absolutely believed I could beat him. I surprised many people. However, I wasn’t surprised because I was totally focused and had no doubt that I could win.
My nephew lost a match 11-0 to his opponent and then beat that same opponent 14-4 a week later. What happened? My nephew decided the way to win the match was to attack relentlessly from the start, which he did. I think his opponent was surprised and kind of lost his focus when he got behind. Things weren’t going like they had in the previous match. I think my nephew broke his spirit. In junior high, a friend and I both lost our first match in a youth wrestling tournament. He was ready to give up and leave because he didn’t want to get a green fifth place ribbon. I thought to myself, “What makes you think you’ll win your next two matches and even get fifth place?” His attitude shocked me. I still wanted to win my next two matches even if it did mean getting fifth place.
Some wrestlers get nervous when they have to wrestler a good wrestler. Getting to wrestle someone good should be viewed as an exciting challenge. What is so great about beating someone that offers very little challenge? Even if you have to wrestle an exceptional wrestler, you can still focus on doing your best and not being pinned. You do not have to give up before the match even starts.
There was a television show called “The Wonder Years” that focused primarily on a boy named Kevin Arnold. In one episode, Kevin decides to join the wrestling team because he was able to beat a few guys in gym class. He finds out that the wrestling team is a lot harder than wrestling in gym class. Kevin gets a chance to wrestle a match against a state champion. Kevin wants to give up and lay his shoulder on the mat and be pinned but something inside of him won’t let him give up. He survives the match without being pinned. After his match, Kevin’s coach points out the fact that Kevin was beaten 15-2. Kevin says, “Yeah, I told you I was good.” This is fiction of course. But, I think you get the point. Even if you are losing a match, you can keep doing your best and retain your pride and dignity by not giving up.
I am not a sport psychologist or a peak performance expert. You can search for articles online, read books, and watch videos to learn more about how to find that somewhat elusive state known as “being in the zone.”
- Wrestling Tough by Mike Chapman
- Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game by Sam Sheridan
- The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists by James Loehr and Chris Evert
- The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey (I realize this book is about tennis, but it is a classic book about peak performance and worth looking at)
Dan Gable has a DVD called Coaching Mental Toughness on the Mat.
As you can see, trying to get into the “zone” that produces peak performance is somewhat complicated. I hope that this article has helped you in that quest. No single perfect state produces peak performance. Every athlete may have a different route for finding the flow state. Some wrestle well when they are happy. Some wrestle well simply because they know that they are in great condition and have great skills. Some wrestle well because losing is deemed absolutely unacceptable to them and they want to settle for nothing less than victory. You need to find what works for you.