Gable: Slay-Saitiev was example of confidence beating talent

Updated: August 15, 2014

Editor’s Note: Few wrestlers and coaches were as successful on the high school, college and Senior level as Dan Gable who won or coached wrestlers to countless championships and gold medals at the highest level. But he also sustained a historic loss as a college senior at Iowa State. Gable recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about how confidence plays a factor in winning and losing when it matters most. This is an expanded version of the Q&A that appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of WIN.

Dan Gable

Dan Gable

WIN: All great wrestlers will tell you they are confident in their abilities. What is true confidence?

GABLE: I believe there is a fine line in true confidence and it’s really about not worrying a lot about a lot of different things. When you step into the wrestling world, there is a major difference (than other sports). It’s one-on-one in a combative situation. It’s not like you are waiting for a ball or one of many team members. You are there alone against an opponent. Obviously, the more confident that you can be in what you do, it’s going to determine whether you can execute and have the ability to win more.

You have to look at the whole gamut and the individual makeup of every wrestler out there. For some kids, it may bother them, even if they say they are confident, by breaking things down or worrying about things more than they need to. They become less effective.

WIN: Can confidence overcome talent?

GABLE: Yes and one example was Brandon Slay vs. (World/Olympic champion Bouvaisa) Saitiev in the 2000 Olympics (where Slay won a pool match in overtime). It was an early-round match in that tournament. You had one guy who won and won and won championships all the time and was confident that he was going to win the tournament. You have the other guy who was probably not confident but he got ready. He did his proper warm-up, he focused on his match, while (Saitiev) was probably more focused on other matches or his teammates. He may have been used to not preparing and just going out. I’ve had kids who don’t have to go through the whole (preparation) gamut and they are still good.

However, there is a certain minimum that you do to make sure whatever confidence you do have works. Scientifically, confidence takes focus, concentration, warming up right, get your heart rate up and do all the things and your chances of winning are more higher. A really good wrestler can get by without doing all of that, unless he is going to have an opponent who is ready to go.

In my mind, Slay was ready to go and Saitiev took Slay for granted. The same thing happened to me (in the 1970 NCAA finals), when I took Larry Owings for granted. Taking someone for granted evens things up a little bit more and when that happens, you never know who is going to win.

WIN: Does lack of confidence mean a lack of focus?

GABLE: To a certain extent. Should I or someone like Saitiev have won the majority of times? Yes, but not against wrestlers like Owings or Slay at those moments. They were big events and some people perform better at times and beyond expectations when they are really determined and focused. I know I underestimated what I was doing (against Owings). Saitiev may have gotten more ready for Slay had it been in the finals.

You don’t overlook any match, no matter the importance if you really want to be effective. I know my confidence was shattered even before my match with Owings, especially a minute before the match because I started noticing things that I didn’t normally notice because I was not fully prepared. Saitiev suffered fatigue during his match with Slay so when that match went to overtime, he was not as good as he could be, while Slay was as good as he could be.

 WIN: Did you deal with more fatigue when you found yourself behind; something that you were not used to?

GABLE: I was not in control of that match. I was wrestling a good opponent and was not as good as I should have been. Confidence is really good to have in wrestling and if you don’t have it, you’re probably not going to win. But you can also build confidence during a match. There is confidence before a match and there is confidence during the match that you can get or lose because of certain things; whether it’s because of conditioning or whether it’s you find someone who is capable of beating you and are now in trouble. You are taking the focus off you and putting it on him.

WIN: Regarding developing confidence just before and during a match, is that where good coaching comes in?

GABLE: Coaching comes in exactly there. That doesn’t mean it’s going to come down to how you coach because you have other guys to get ready. The coaching you do in the wrestling room and the verbiage that you use every day has to be done ahead of time. That is what determines good coaching vs. bad coaching.

I hate mistakes. Even those are good learning things, but if they happen often, then you are not doing a good job as a coach. If kids are making the same mistakes because of the criteria that you are preaching, then you have not done a good job of getting it across. They may believe in you either so you may have to do some work on their credibility.

WIN: What was the difference for you, regarding confidence, between the 1968 Olympic Trials where you lost to Bobby Douglas and the 1972 Trials that you won. In 1968, you had not lost for a long time. In 1972, you had dealt with a loss to Owings. Why did you have more confidence in 1972?

GABLE: That’s because of my practice routine and the results of my competitions. When you go to practice and things are happening one way, your way and all of a sudden someone scores a takedown against you, you spend two hours that night in the steam room analyzing how you lost a takedown in practice.

When I became a coach, I learned and understood a lot more skills and was able to apply that to my athletes. Had I understood this earlier, I could have been more prepared and confident because I understood the philosophy of what I was doing. I also wanted my wrestlers to become smarter to what I was doing so they’d have the knowledge and add that to your confidence. One reason I was successful as a coach was that I was coaching coaches.

WIN: Why did it take so long for you to understand confidence?

GABLE: Because I just wanted to execute and didn’t care about why or the mechanics. A large percentage of the young wrestlers who wrestle in Fargo understand why they train the way that they do. If they did, it would help them a lot more because everyday when they are on their own, training in the summer away from everyone, they will still have a purpose.

WIN: When coaches teach confidence, what are the elements they are teaching?

GABLE: You are not really teaching confidence. You are teaching an understanding of a wrestler’s genetics and what they need to do to be good. When wrestlers understand themselves, then you can do the things that are more necessary as a coach (for the rest of the team). Wrestlers have to understand what their bodies can do, who they are and what they can do better. They don’t want to focus on what they lack but rather what they can build.

WIN: How long does it take for someone to understand their genetics in wrestling?

GABLE: It takes quite a while. You learn it by looking at your family. You look at it when you go to school when you learn something about chemistry or physics. The more educated you are, the easier it is for you to understand it. A training partner can also help you. He may kick the crap out of you during a practice but he is going to spend some time with you explaining why he is kicking the crap out of you.

 WIN: Is Jordan Burroughs the best example of someone who is confident and understands confidence?

GABLE: He does but what’s important for him now is if he can share that with teammates or those he may coach. I think that’s a real key that is hard to do. But I also think winners want to win in other areas of their life.

WIN: Tony Ramos will be competing at the World Championships for the first time. He appeared very confident in his ability to make the World Team. How does that carry over at the Worlds?

GABLE: Part of that will come off the mat. He’s already proven that he is the best in the United States, but he needs to go from there. I’m not sure what (the U.S. coaches) have planned for him but the more that he does and can believe in himself, the better he will do. I believe Tony is confident but I’m not sure he’s really shown how good he can really be because many of his matches at the Trials were all close. He needs to reach a point where there is no doubt in the outcome of his matches.