From noted psychologist, confidence is essential for quick mental recovery

Updated: August 20, 2014

By Bryan Van Kley

August marked the 15th anniversary of my first National Wrestling Coaches Association Convention. Starting as WIN publisher in the fall of 1998, I remember that next summer’s convention in the Washington D.C. area well. One of the afternoons, all the attendees of the convention broke up into groups and went to Capitol Hill. We left information at representatives’ offices or talked with them when possible about Title IX and its ill-intended affects on wrestling.

However, what I remember even more about that convention was a speech given by Dr. Debbie Wilson, a sports psychologist from George Mason (now assoc. A.D.). The former Ohio State head women’s basketball coach spoke about the importance of a quick mental recovery time in wrestling and managing emotions in sports. The subject fascinated me and I wrote my first column for WIN Magazine about it. I knew that much of what she talked about was what held me back in sports. And in turn, those with confidence — like Tony Ramos, who won his first World Team Trials just months after winning his first NCAA title — used it to be successful.

I’m certain most high school, youth and even some college wrestlers struggle with the same kinds of things mentally. And as coaches, I’m confident this coaching advice from a person who led her teams to three Big Ten titles in eight years will be very thought provoking. Here are few excerpts from that November, 1999, column in WIN:

Mental Recovery & Self Confidence

Dr. Debbie Wilson

Dr. Debbie Wilson

“There is no way I can beat this guy. He’s stronger and faster than me and a lot more talented. I shouldn’t be on the same mat with him,” we’ve all directly or indirectly said to ourselves. Or, “how could I mess up that double leg. I’ve done it before. I guess I’m just not good enough.” This is a typical example of the negative self talk which goes through the head at some point of almost every wrestler.

Most wrestlers are not blessed with a large amount of talent, drive and a host of other intangible things which he or she will need to be extremely successful. What all athletes do have is the ability to “manage their emotions” in such a way which will put them in the optimal position to achieve, regardless of ability.

Dr. Wilson stressed the importance of mental recovery in the sport.

“Recovery is the single most important thing. This means their confidence and mental ability to put it on the line after a negative experience comes back quickly,” she said. “Everybody makes mistakes. How you deal with it is what matters.”

Wilson said the time it takes to overcome a negative experience is what separates average athletes from elite ones. This negative experience may be something as simple as messing up a stand-up off the whistle. She said the average high school athlete takes 10-15 minutes to mentally recover from a mistake in competition. It takes the typical college standout one to four seconds. What a huge difference!

She said the average wrestler needs four to five positive affirmations in a particular situation to overcome a negative experience. That negative thought may come internally or from some over-zealous coach in the corner who thinks he’s helping his wrestler by chewing him out. She also said in order for somebody to have an automatic positive reaction to a mistake, an athlete needs to have gone through that same positive mental situation between 1,000 to 2,000 times. That is staggering.

“Children are taught to deal with emotions by dwelling on mistakes. It is that way in society,” Dr. Wilson said. “An athlete has to know where the support is when they fall, and they will fall, over and over again. But, how they interpret that anxiety they have is driven by choice.”

The coach who is helpful when each particular athlete “falls” is accomplishing one of the toughest things in sports. That coach is being an encouraging friend when a young person desperately needs it. That positive affirmation from the idolized coach will help them mentally recover and give them the best chance to win. Dr. Wilson said that is essential.

“The coaches need to lend their own sense of confidence that an athlete can do this — that (confidence) can be verbal or non verbal. Saying things like ‘I’ll be watching you’ in a positive way, or a simple pat on the back can make a world of difference,” she said.

However, Wilson said some athletes thrive in those high-pressure situations and recover immediately after negative events or mistakes.

“Good athletes have come to terms with their own anxiety. A good athlete is someone who ‘skips along the edge of a cliff.’ They love living on the edge.”

I wasn’t ever an elite wrestler in high school or college. But, I was competitive considering the athletic ability God blessed me with. I now know one big area which held me back was negative self talk. I only reached that point of confident, optimum performance a few times in high school and college because I was relaxed and not afraid of making a mistake or losing. The rest of the time, I was too busy analyzing what I had done wrong in the previous move, practice or play or was simply hesitant for fear of making a mistake. It can’t be that way! It will hold back any athlete or team from achieving their potential.

Parents and coaches….here’s where the tough work begins for a majority of us. Kids will struggle in this area for years. As their mentors in one role or another, we have the delicate job of instructing them to continual higher levels of skill through constructive criticism and coaching while also building them up and letting them know it’s totally OK to mess up, fail entirely and lose. As WIN columnist Steve Fraser writes about on page 12 in this issue, it is all part of the process. But the more we can foster that free-spirit, “trigger-pulling mentality” as Steve puts it, the more fun wrestlers will have in the sport and the quicker they’ll improve.

                  (I’d love to hear your story as an athlete or coach about mental recovery or how you’ve helped your athletes deal with a fear of losing or making mistakes. With permission, WIN will publish some of them in a letters to the editor section of an upcoming issue. E-mail them to me at