Klessinger: Here’s how you can put negative thoughts aside and focus on winning

Updated: September 15, 2021

Photo: John Klessinger (left) is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless” and continue to read his columns in past and future issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN.

By John Klessinger

I have had a glimpse of carefree wrestling when competing. The time in a match when you are not concerned about winning or losing. As weird as it seems, time kind of slows down. You are hyper-alert, you react without thinking, and overly calm. I remember a few matches when it happened.

I remember back to my junior year in high school in the consolation finals
of the Lititz Lions Holiday Tournament.
I was the top seed and lost in the semi- finals. I came back through the wrestle backs possessed. I wrestled better in the wrestlebacks even though I was angry and disappointed. I didn’t care if I won or lost. I just wrestled. Nothing I did was conscious. Everything seemed automatic. In the third-place match, I pinned a good kid in the second period with seemingly little effort.

In my sophomore year in the sectional tournament, I was also the top seed and lost in the semis. In the third- and fourth- place match, I scored a major decision. The following week in the District III tournament, that same wrestler I majored went on to place fourth in the district. I lost my first match and was eliminated from the competition.

Or at the state tournament my senior year, I lost again in the semis. I came back to place third. The next two matches I wrestled were two of my best matches of the season. I defeated a wrestler who beat me the week before in the district finals and an outstanding wrestler from Western PA for third.

“A Coach’s Manual: Everything You Need to be a Successful Coach,” a 238-page book filled with real-life examples of the ins and outs of coaching and leadership over his 25 years as a coach, was released in February.

Collegiately, I could share similar occurrences of wrestling my best after tough losses. Even today, while working out with kids I coach, I still have some of those glimpses. Admittedly, I still have a competitive streak in me. Hopefully, I will never lose that.

I haven’t competed in a “real” match for over 20 years, but still, when I live wrestle with my team, I want to win. There have been times when I let my guard down, and my body seemingly instinctively takes over. I’ve done things that surprised me, leaving me wondering, “wow, I can’t believe I just did that.”

If you see a pattern, you are correct. During most of my competitive career, I would lose big matches. My mind would get in the way and I would focus on the outcome. When I lost in the semifinals,
I was often devastated. I would lose my cool and act in unfavorable ways to my- self, team, coaches, and family. I wanted to win so bad and hated losing.

As if on cue, a crazy thing happened almost always after a loss. I would relax and let go of expectations. At that point, I was wrestling because I loved it and no longer felt pressure to get first place.

Only recently have I come to finally understand why and how this happened. I have been working with athletes for so long in many sports, trying to help them with the same problems that I had. Over the years, I have picked up numerous strategies to help them. Each was effective, but none of them seemed to “fix” their performance anxieties.

I am not a sports psychologist. I am
a coach who wants to help his athletes be better. That’s my motivation to continue to learn more. I have read hundreds of books over the past 20 years and transformed my own thinking.

What happens when we perform poorly? Your subconscious stores painful events in a memory bank to avoid it in
the future. Maybe losing a match caused embarrassment or feelings of anger and disappointment. Therefore, the events that caused distress in the past gets connected to a similar event happening now. Using myself as an example, the anxiety I felt (fear of losing) activated my fight-flight response to protect me from experiencing more pain.

I would become flooded with fear, worry, and performance paralysis leading to a downward spiral of negative internal dialogue. “I am going to lose.” “What
am I going to do.” “I am better than this guy.” Before I knew it, I was helpless and unable to do things I practiced thou- sands of times. In the sports world, I was “pressing.” My over-active conscious brain overrode the muscle memory of the subconscious mind.

What’s the solution?

Beyond developing a positive mindset of gratitude, positive self-talk, and improving mental toughness, we need
to learn to wrestle with a mindful brain. When we are aware, we are present and not filled with thoughts of the past or future — where our worries and negative thinking resides. We allow negative thoughts to pass by without judgment. We do not give them attention and direct our focus on movement, scoring points, and effort.

When we do this, we will have more of those “glimpses” of what is commonly referred to as the “zone.” After I lost, I stopped worrying about the result. Or more accurately stated, I stopped listening to the negative voices in my head.
I stopped caring for a brief time about winning and losing and wrestled. And, many times, I did my best wrestling.

How do we do this?

We practice. “Repetition is the mother of skill.” Like single-leg takedowns,
it needs repeatedly practiced. Learn to “watch” your thoughts. Sit in a chair and take 10-20 breaths. Focus only on the inhale and exhale. Without a doubt, after a few breaths, your mind will start “running.” “This is boring.” “What’s the point of this.”

Now, watch your thoughts. Let them pass like leaves blowing on a windy fall day. From doing this, you are training yourself to observe your thoughts without getting lost in your own internal dialogue.

With practice, you become aware
of the endless thoughts floating in your brain. Then, you practice being “present” when you are drilling and live wrestling. Whether something good or bad happened, let the thoughts flow by and turn your focus to what is happening right in front of you. If you’ve properly trained, your body will know what to do. When I let go of the expectations and thoughts of winning and losing, I relaxed and wrestled my best matches. I got out of my own head and let my training take over.

What can you do today?

  1. Practice mindfulness, awareness, and being present. Spend two to three minutes a couple times a day being aware of the present moment. In time, you begin to see the endless stream of thoughts we have each day. When people say focus on the process not the outcome, they mean be present and not worry about the past or future.
  2. Practice being mindful while wrestling and training — drilling, lifting weights, and live wrestling.
  3. Always work on self-talk, being grateful, and consistently put yourself in uncomfortable situations. As David Gog- gins says, “callous your mind” by doing hard things.
  4. Develop some mantras to tell your- self when your Monkey Mind is overactive. I regularly say, “this is fun” and “this is a great day” during challenging workouts or situations. It reminds me I have control over my attitude and perspective even during the toughest of times.