Finding the Zone: Realizing your Full Potential and Exceeding Expectations

In my competitive career I know I lost some matches due to nerves. Everyone has their own mental space they need to be before a match to perform at there best. Finding that space can be difficult.

When preparing for big matches less can be more. This can be especially true in tough duals. Maybe even more so in the semi-finals or finals of a big tournament. I have seen many wrestlers tire themselves out. They wear themselves out emotionally and physically. They often do this with too much preparation before big matches.

All wrestlers have had this happened to them. Feeling anxious or nerves for a tough match is only natural. These feelings can get the best of you. We have all seen the guy that paces for an hour before a match. Maybe you have been guilty of this yourself.

Staying on your feet and thinking of your match for too long will run your battery down. It will drain your energy before you ever step on the mat.

The Journey

Between my junior and senior year in college I learned a lot about mental preparation. My junior year I was an All-American for the second time but my performance was disappointing.  I felt the only reason I didn’t win a National Title was because of my mental match preparation skills.

Three experiences helped me improve my mental match preparation.

  • Watching the ’95 World Championships
  • Reading Mental Training for Peak Performance, Revised & Updated Edition
  • Going Through a Coaching Class my Senior Year

Before I learned what I did from these experiences, I struggled to find my best mental place before a match. Sometimes I would feel great and others times I wouldn’t. I had no set routine. I did not have complete faith any routine I did do. I was always trying to remember what I had done before a previous match where I had wrestled well.

1) 1995 World Championships (Calm Down)

The first thing I learned was while watching the 1995 World Championships. I saw that the top guys were not in an over-hyped frenzy before their tough matches. These were the best wrestlers in the world. They were wrestling in what I knew were the most important matches of their lives. Match after match I saw how calm they all looked when they went to wrestle. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t look like they were asleep. They looked calm, powerful and confident all at the same time. 

I was never one to go too crazy before my matches, but I did find myself getting on my feet and pumping myself up far too early before my matches. I had to figure out how to get myself to feel like these guys were feeling before my matches.

USA takes 1st place. 18 year old Buvaisar Saitiev wins his first World Title with Dave Schultz in his bracket

2) The Book (Rid Yourself of Negative Thoughts)

The second thing I learned was how to get rid of negative thoughts before a competition. I learned how to handle these types of thoughts from tactics in Mental Training for Peak Performance, Revised & Updated Edition. My NCAA champ teammate Terry Steiner suggested I read this book. I read it throughout my senior season. I starting adopting the techniques more towards the end of the year. The time leading up to the Big Tens and National Tournaments.mentaltraining_126583_700x700

Almost everyone has negative thoughts before they compete. Maybe you are thinking:

  • about your opponent’s offense too much
  • what if I don’t wrestle well
  • my legs feel tired
  • I don’t feel good

The author of this book gave different techniques to help push these types of thoughts out of your head. One of them that I used to clear my head of negative thoughts was the following.

Imagine a train going by with open boxcars. Anytime a negative thought would enter my head I would kick that thought into an open boxcar.  It was then carried away down the tracks.

I don’t even remember if that was an exact technique described in the book, but it is the one I developed for myself. I once read an article written by Olympic Champion Brandon Slay where he used the same sort of technique.

I once read an article written by Olympic Champion Brandon Slay where he used the same sort of technique. He would imagine himself at home plate. Anytime a negative thought would enter is mind he would imagine it was a big baseball and hit it out of the stadium.

You get the picture. No matter how goofy it may seem, you need to find a way that works for you to drive the negative thoughts our of your head. Make sure to always replace those negative thoughts with a positive one.

Examples of some things you can replace the negative thoughts with are:

  • picture yourself executing your best offense
  • imagine hustling during your match and feeling your opponent wear down
  • maybe even imagine yourself getting taken down and immediately getting an escape and taking your opponent back down
  • prepare yourself to react in a positive way to any adversity you might encounter during the match

3) The Class (Teach Yourself How To Relax)

The third thing I picked up was in a fall class my senior year. One day we had a sports psychologist come into class and go through some mental relaxation drills. She instructed us to close our eyes. She then walked us through different drills. These drills put your mind and body into a mode of complete relaxation.

First she had us feel each of our muscle groups relax and get heavy. She then walked us through a relaxing environment. That day she had us walking on the floor of the ocean and feeling weightless. She said you could imagine yourself on a beach or any place that would calm you. I remember coming out of that drill feeling like a million bucks. I had never actually fallen asleep, but I felt completely rejuvenated like I had taken the best nap of my life.

I had done some of these types of drills before. I had never done them on a regular basis.  I also never did them with complete confidence that I was doing the right thing.

I began my senior year knowing that if I wanted to get to the top I was going to have to develop my mental game. After putting all these things together and having confidence in what I had learned. I mastered a pre-match routine that, by the end of the season, delivered me to the right place before each of my matches.

My Pre-“Big” Match Routine
1) One hour before the tournament started or before a dual I would get a hard 30 minute warm up in. (Consisting of running, sprints, stretching, drilling, body weight exercises, hand fighting, and some live wrestling.) I always wanted to feel like I had wrestled a tough match by the time I was finished with my warm-up.

2) After my warm up I would re-hydrate and get something light to eat if I had time or felt I needed it.

3) Then I would sit down and relax for while. During tournaments I always had water or a watered down sports drink to sip on.

4) About 30-60 minutes before my match I would go somewhere quiet and go through my mental relaxation drills. At this time I would try to not think about wrestling. If I was thinking wrestling there was no way I was going to be able to relax.

5) I would usually tell one of my teammates to get me when I was three matches away from wrestling. This would allow me 15-20 minutes to do some stretching and a light warm-up. I would make sure I felt loose, strong and my feet were moving good. During this time is when I would think about wrestling. I would think of my best offense and how I wanted the match to go. I would also use my mental tactics to kick any negative thoughts out of my head. This is where I would let a feeling of calm, powerful and confident come over me. Just like I had seen the best guys in the World Championships do the summer before.

6) Right before I would go onto the mat I would shake Gables hand and smack myself on each side of the headgear. Keep in mind I had an old school sturdy headgear. When I did this it flipped a switch inside me and I would hustle to the middle of the mat knowing I was “In the Zone”.

Using this routine I actually fell asleep in the warm-up area before my NCAA Finals match in 1996. After the Grand March and a good warm-up I told Joe Williams, who was wrestling the match before, to get me up for a light warm-up when he was ready. When Joe came back to the warm-up area he had to wake me up. I woke up and felt great.


2 thoughts on “Finding the Zone: Realizing your Full Potential and Exceeding Expectations”

  1. Hogan,
    Thanks! I feel this is something everyone deals with. Some people are better at handling pressure situations then others, but it can be learned.

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