Getting wrestlers ready to compete requires their preparation physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most of this preparation takes place in the practice room, but wise coaches should use every opportunity to help their wrestlers compete successfully.
Most young athletes have to be told that getting in shape means experiencing various levels of discomfort. No one likes to work to exhaustion, yet wrestling does require daily doses of fatigue. You may have discovered that working wrestlers too hard in practice discourages some kids, but working them too lightly leaves them physically unprepared for competitions. Is there a happy medium?
Wrestlers can find practice to be an enriching experience, regardless of its difficulty, if you . . .
(1) occasionally let team leaders run practice.
(2) provide examples of matches where their physical conditioning has resulted in victory.
(3) point out how tapping into physical reservoirs of energy produce power.
(4) monitor their effort and its value to learning and improvement.
(5) have them pretend that “Today is our last practice of the season. Make it your best!”
(6) use a variety of different drills.
I assert that providing information is the most neglected task of coaching. Prior to any competition, wrestlers need a consistent, structured approach that leaves them relaxed and prepared. Accomplish this with effective communication and be sure to address the following ten items:
How you expect them to behave on the bus, in the locker room, and on the mat.
Why they should never talk during the weigh-in, to their opponent, or toward the crowd.
How to check their alignment with the official.
When they should exit the locker room and line up for introductions.
How team members should support each other during the meet.
What to eat before and after the meet.
Why the captains rule the locker room if a coach is not present.
How to get focused prior to their matches.
When they should warm up.
Why it is important the last person they talk to before wrestling and the first person they talk to after wrestling is the coach.
Next, communicate effectively with individual wrestlers just prior to their matches. A veteran, Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame member coach relates an interesting story about the power of mental preparation: Minutes before one of his less-talented wrestlers was to step onto the mat against a wrestler who had already placed in the state tournament, he lied to his wrestler and said the opponent was mediocre and deserved to be pinned. “The kid believed me without hesitation,” he remembers, “and wrestled hard for six minutes trying to pin that other guy. After he won by a point, he apologized to me for not getting the pin. That’s when I told him the truth and why I lied. Had he known the true caliber of his opponent he might have mentally prepared himself to lose, but when he believed the other guy was lousy he really felt he could win. Instead of getting killed out there by a more highly-skilled opponent, he earned three team points in a dual meet where every point counted.”
A coach need not lie to prepare his wrestlers mentally for a competition, but he does have to use some psychology. One way to begin is to have your wrestlers model themselves after the most successful competitor in your area, in your league, or on your own team. How does he mentally prepare himself? How does he behave? What does he do? Champion wrestlers stay poised and under control even during the most stressful situations on the mat. They don’t fear the crowd, the challenge, or the opponent. Modeling is one way anyone learns, and following the example of a wrestler who always expects the best results and remains positive can be very effective.
Discussions about mental preparation should also take place during practice. It’s possible that some kids may not be excited about an upcoming match or its outcome. The coach needs to explain the special purpose of every meet – How does it differ from the others? How do the coaches expect the team to perform? Why is achievement especially important here? Without accepting a purpose or objective for a competition, the wrestlers may feel like they’re on a treadmill, working up a sweat but going nowhere.
An essential element to mental preparation is to remove the tension associated with taking a risk. The coach can create problem scenarios in practice – “You’re losing by three points, you’re in the neutral position, and there are only twenty seconds to go in the final period. What do you do?” – and invite his wrestlers to solve them, encouraging them to be unafraid to take the risk that could result in victory.
Here are six tips every coach should employ to complete his athletes’ mental preparation:
Make your wrestlers familiar with what may be unfamiliar to them (i.e., play loud music in practice to simulate crowd noise).
Stress that they always stay under control and concentrate during a competition.
Remind them about what they can and cannot eat to remove anxieties about making weight.
Be sure they are knowledgeable about the weigh-in imes, their opponent(s), and any other information associated with that competition (for example, if it is a double-elimination or single-elimination tournament).
Discuss their expectations and share the coaches’ expectations.
Demand they listen to coaches, captains, and officials.
Former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Stauback declares, “Every time I stepped on the field, I believed my team was going to walk off the winner, somehow, some way.” It is this kind of self-image we want our wrestlers to possess when they step onto the mat. However, most young people are victims of their own moods and emotions which hinder their ability to deal effectively with the stress of competition.
Emotions in any extreme only impair a wrestler’s ability to eliminate distractions or to perform technical skills. The strongest emotion is fear, especially the fear of an uncertain outcome. Therefore, it is important for you to explain that every competition involves uncertainty. This shouldn’t be feared. Instead, it should be enjoyed.
Winning in wrestling is especially exciting when it occurs against an opponent who possesses equal or greater ability. Your wrestlers can improve their emotional preparation if you assist them in administering a self-evaluation beforehand. Help them take pride and pleasure in their personal achievements and clarify their strong points.
The unfortunate reality is that most kids can list more of their weaknesses than their strengths, so the wise coach should comment on their winning qualities: “I like your hustle. That kind of effort will help you win this weekend” or “Your stand up is getting quicker. That’s why you’re leading the team in escapes over the last four matches” (Note that these statements are both affirmative and specific).
Before matches it is important to deal with their behavior (respectful and dignified) but avoid lecturing about their shortcomings. This only lessens your wrestlers’ acceptance of their ability to succeed. Instead, emphasize their strengths and boost their emotional self-esteem. Encourage teammates to support each other, that the team as “family” helps everyone succeed.
If team members still appear troubled or upset, release this psychological burden by sharing it with them. Talk it out. Counter any negative feelings by giving them reasons to be excited about the upcoming competition and reviewing team (and possibly individual) goals.
Especially troubling for many wrestlers are the close matches. These are the one or two point matches that make even the best of us tense. It is, however, up to the coach to prepare wrestlers for these kinds of matches, and if he does an effective job they should triumph most of the time.