Putting big moments in perspective helps wrestlers deal with that pressure

Updated: February 13, 2015

By Ben Peterson

My son Andy and I have talked about why we don’t always remember a lot about big events. We came up with a few possible explanations and I include them because I think you might find them instructive as you chase your expectations in any area of life, and especially athletics.

Others who have been blessed with similar high points in life seem to share a similar realization. They found that what others see as super events do not always provide the same vivid memories for themselves.ben peterson mug

The following are in no particular order since people’s reasons are different.

• Rationing Adrenaline. Many long-term athletes have learned to control their emotions. Athletes also understand how to ration their adrenaline and energy levels. There is nothing more memory enhancing than a big shot of adrenaline. But experienced athletes have generally learned how to keep their adrenaline levels stable. They have learned to allow short bursts of adrenaline that get the immediate job done while not allowing so much that the adrenaline gets them out of control or overly fatigued.

The Thrill of the New is also another big contributor to vivid memories. Scientists are starting to prove that there are few, if any, experiences in life more memorable and even pleasurable, than the moment of learning something new. It does not matter if it is in the classroom, in the practice room or with someone you are learning more about personally.

When you say, “aha, that makes sense,” or “wow, I never knew that before,” your brain files away not just the “aha” lesson, but also a lot of the details of your surroundings.

It’s like a dog getting a treat. It wants to recreate the situation because it assumes the treat will come again. But when it does, it is not as memorable because the dog did not experience anything new. By the time a wrestler gets to the “Big Event”, there are not a lot of new experiences, even on the mat.

Extremely seldom do you see even Olympians doing anything overly complicated. They are doing the same shot the same way they have done it thousands of times. If they do remember anything about a particular takedown it is more likely to be a setup or finish they had to improvise against that particular competitor rather than the actual takedown.

Many coaches make sure their wrestlers have a chance to roll around on the mats right after they get to a new gym rather than waiting until right before the official starting time. This gives the brain a chance to process most of the surroundings, including the mat surface, placement of clocks and anything else that might be a new experience and distracting during the match.

If given enough time to adjust, the mind should find everything about the surroundings completely boring by match time, leaving it to focus solely on the puzzle presented by the opponent!

Picturing success is a two-edged sword. There is a significant rise in books and coaches suggesting taking the time to visualize what success will feel like, what it will look like, and what it will take to get there. While this has been proven through much research to significantly increase the odds of you accomplishing what you imagine, it also takes away some of the Thrill of the New.

Many champions report feeling less emotion immediately after their actual success because they had imagined it so vividly so many times before. And not just the emotions and how it would feel, but how they would do it. How they might set up and finish their best takedown, or how they would control the pace to match their type of conditioning rather than their opponent’s.

Life moves on. After success in high school, John and I would daydream about our experiences and even retell them like fishermen do with big fish stories. Everything was so fresh and new and we were still figuring out the sport so there was much to learn and relearn and talk about. After the Olympics, we had a lot of other thoughts going through our heads, not to mention significantly more responsibilities taking up our time.

We are trained to look forward. When we were younger wrestlers, we simply spent more time thinking about the past. We still did so as older wrestlers, but not in the same way. We would think about a match or a situation long enough to get the lesson, and then move our focus to the next challenge more quickly than when we were younger.

Other things in life are just as thrilling and important, even if in a different way. Wrestling was obviously one of our top priorities, but John and I had experienced many thrilling moments outside of wrestling as well. When asked by a reporter if the Olympics were the greatest moment in his life, he could honestly answer that trusting Jesus Christ was a bigger moment for him. In addition to high points in our faith, we would both be moving on with coaching and eventually having a family.

We did not expect our success to “fix us.” In other words, we appreciated the experience for what it was, but not more. John  and I knew that being an Olympic medalist would change the trajectory of our lives, but we had developed a better sense of what those changes would not include.

The months after my first NCAA championship were some of the most miserable in my life. I had projected all kinds of expectations onto that accomplishment that it could not bring about. Sure, other people would look at me differently, but somewhere in the back of my mind I had allowed myself to wish that winning a championship would fix other things about me. I subconsciously expected it to make me less shy, for example.

In short, I thought an accomplishment in wrestling would fix things about me that could only be fixed through different habits or the help of God. And frankly, I needed to accept that some things about my self needed to be appreciated for what they already were.

As you just read this segment, I hope you found more than just some musings and ramblings. I hope you also found some ideas that can help you reach your own mountaintop experiences and handle them in stride!

(You can find other articles by John and Ben Peterson, the 1972 and 1976 Olympic gold medalists, at: campofchamps.org. Today, they run Camp of Champs. Contact them at: PO Box 222, Watertown, WI 53094; 800-505-5099 or ben@campofchamps.) n