T-minus two days until the Division I NCAA wrestling nationals. Weight training has been cut back, drilling has been waned and practices have been shortened to periods of less than an hour in length. If anything takes precedent in the days leading up to wrestling’s version of March madness, it is the focus spent on keeping athletes happy and mentally fresh. Come Thursday, the men will be separated from the boys inside the Palace at Auburn Hills, Mich., and what will create this division is the result of a season long process set on developing mental toughness.
“We seriously try to put them in as much physical pain as we can, and then push them a little further,” said head coach Rob Koll. “That’s just so that they won’t break down at this point of the year when the matches are most important. That’s why we looked great at Easterns, where nobody got outscored in the third period. All the guys have to do is look forward to cutting weight.”
With nationals being the season’s only three-day tournament, the importance of being mentally tough is easy to recognize as each and every wrestler somehow battles despite suffering from scrapes, cuts, concussions and bruises.
“Being mentally tough is everything,” said assistant coach Cory Cooperman. “I always say that when you go to nationals, you better bring your camera. You look around and see everyone with black eyes, battered noses and there is always blood. People bite their tongues and everyone looks like they literally just got out of a war. There are some kids who are excellent wrestlers, but if you push the pace and get after them, they’ll break.”
With the nation’s elite all in the same room, all competing for the same spot atop the podium on wrestling’s biggest stage, wrestling epitomizes a dog-eat-dog world. It’s not so much the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
“From here on out it’s all mental,” said assistant coach Damion Hahn. “When you step out on that mat now, it’s all about who wants it more. It’s who is going to go out there and lay it all on the line that wins. You have to have a clear head and have that confidence to perform well and become an All-American. That’s important for all our guys.”
Although it has been going on all season long, even greater preparation is taken in how each wrestler eats, drinks and sleeps. It even goes as far as focusing on psychological tools to keep the wrestlers positive, happy and upbeat.
“We try to get them in and out of the room,” Koll said. “We make a very strong effort to get them out of practice before the sun goes down. You have to play with those psychological factors in order to keep the guys mentally sharp.”
If there is any dreaded word surrounding nationals and wrestling, it’s that of pressure. In a sport where rankings determine match ups and athletes compete for six months only to culminate to the point where a season comes to wrestling one match — only seven minutes — for a shot at a national title, doubt can be a crushing force. Despite the focus on keeping guys comfortable and the fact that the team is poised to finish in the top-5 at nationals for the third consecutive season, pressure is a welcomed word inside the Friedman Wrestling Center.
“I want them to think about it because winners thrive under pressure,” Koll said. “All these guys have performed at the highest level before, and if they couldn’t handle pressure and couldn’t excel under it, they wouldn’t be here. It’s really a fright or flight reflex and we really think of that pressure as a good thing. It brings out the best in winners and brings out the worst in people that don’t excel in this sport.”