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Controlling What you Can Control

By Matt Krumrie, 01/05/16, 5:00PM CST


Control what you can Control

This was an article that Matt Krumrie wrote for USA Wrestling:


Archived Feature: Controlling what you can control


As a wrestler, one of the most important lessons to learn is how to stay focused on those things you can control.

Hard work, diet and nutrition, and mental preparation: those fall into this category. But too often, wrestlers get distracted worrying about those things they can’t control, like how your opponent acts during a match, a loud or hostile crowd, a missed call from the official, or an unexpected injury during competition.

Just like mastering a single leg takedown, learning how to concentrate on what you can control takes practice and training, says Dr. Karen Cogan, a licensed psychologist who works with athletes for the United States Olympic Committee. While many athletes, wrestlers included, emphasize conditioning, weight-training, drilling and technique, they often overlook the mental aspects needed to be a successful athlete, says Cogan.

"Mental skills are things that need to be practiced just like physical skills," says Cogan. "If you never practice what it's like to overcome adversity, or what to do when things outside your control develop during competition, you can't expect to be able to successfully handle that type of situation because it is not familiar to you."

At the USOC, Cogan says being mentally engaged and controlling what you can control is preached as part of the athlete’s daily training regime.They specifically set up competitions and challenges in training that deal with how to adapt to the unexpected, like how to keep their emotions in check after a bad call.

"The athlete needs to learn how to filter out the distractions and understand what happens to their body," says Cogan. "That way they can adjust when things don't go as planned. In the majority of competitions, things don't go exactly as planned."

Wrestlers can't always control what the ref is going to do, or the other wrestler, but he or she can always give himself the best chance to win by preparing the right way physically and mentally, says Brandon Paulson, a 1996 Greco-Roman Olympic Silver Medalist and co-director of PINnacle Wrestling in Shoreview, Minnesota. When you are out on the mat, it's just a continuation of training, says Paulson. You will win and you will lose, and sometimes that is out of your control.

"During a match it is important to focus on what you need to do to score more points than the other wrestler," says Paulson. "You can't change what has already happened in a match, so focus on what you need to do for the remainder of the match to end up on top." 

Sometimes wrestlers get upset with how the other wrestler is competing, whether it’s stalling, unsportsmanlike conduct, or wrestling after the whistle. But if you’vet rained properly, these things don't bother you, says Paulson. Convince yourself that you are too tough to get distracted, and not to show weakness by letting your opponent influence the way you wrestle. 

A match from Paulson’s past, offers a good example of this mindset. At the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Paulson was leading 2–0 with 30 seconds left in regulation. Needing one more point to secure a win, Paulson started attacking to get the third point. But his opponent countered and hit an amazing throw.  As a result, Paulson found himself down 3–2 with little time left on the clock.

"I didn't hang my head, swear at myself, or give up," says Paulson. Instead, he told himself: “OK, now it’s time to score a point and put this in to overtime.  It wasn't a question of if, but of how.  My mind had been trained that no matter what happened, just keep trying to score more points than youropponent. I did score that one point, and put the match into overtime. “

Although Paulson went on to lose the match after nearly 17 grueling minutes, and the disappointment of that loss still hurts, he also looks back with pride knowing he was prepared as best he could be and that kept competing despite the circumstances. 

"I had a plan and executed my plan. I fought every second of every match. But, I didn't come out on top," says Paulson. “Losing isn't fun, but I can't imagine what my feelings would be if I hadn't controlled what I could control."

Jason Loukides, a 2001 World Team member and founder of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Y.E.S. Wrestling (Youth, Education and Sport), says coaches can help wrestlers prepare for things outside their control in practice. In practice, this could include having athletes compete with a simulated injury or against an opponent that continually grabs your singlet.

"Coaches can highlight this for what it is—mental toughness," says Loukides. "By praising athletes that demonstrate control in tough situations, kids willunderstand that it is part of the coach's value system. By creating opportunities for athletes to face adversity in practice, they can develop their own copingstrategies and build a history of overcoming difficulties."

One simple way to refocus and get back to baseline when the unexpected happens is to take a deep breath, says Cogan. Coaches and wrestlers can also use a cue word to help remind a competitor to stay focused, says Cogan. That word can be as simple as "focus," she says. The key is to tailor the message to each individual. A coach may see an athlete losing his composure and those cue words can be a simple reminder to help them get back to concentrating on what he or she can actually control.

Wrestlers are creatures of habit, adds Cogan. "To perfect this, practice it. What if you get called to wrestle 10 minutes before you are ready? If you prepare for that, you will be ready." 

Steve Knight, a former state and national powerlifting champion, is the author of Winning STATE-Wrestling: The Athlete's Guide to Competing Mentally Tough. He emphasizes that controlling one’s emotions during a match is a pragmatic process, not a mystical state. Athletes must be able to choose one thought over the other while they're in the competitive pressure cooker, he says.

“Competitors must have a process to master self-control, which is having the emotional stability to focus on one thought over another,” says Knight. “We’re either focused in the present, executing our match plan, or we’re dwelling on a past mistake or a bad call, or obsessing over what might happen in the future.” But all those “What ifs?” merely drain your mental focus, he says, and are ultimately counterproductive.

To be successful, it’s up to each wrestler to not only win the physical but mental battle as well. And focusing on controlling what you can control is key to earning those victories.