Johnson: Zadick helped refine clutch mentalities in U.S. Olympians

Updated: October 14, 2021

Photo: Bill Zadick, the head National Men’s Freestyle coach, received the awards that came with leading USA Wrestling to a second-place team finish at the 2021 World Championships in Oslo, Norway.

By Tim Johnson

USA Wrestling fans witnessed some of the greatest clutch moments in the history of the program at the Tokyo Olympics. Tamyra Mensah-Stock broke a barrier becoming the first black U.S. women’s wrestler to win Olympic gold. David Taylor and Gable Steveson grabbed gold with seconds to go. And there was so much more.

It was a lot of fun. Our wrestlers came through and we tweeted, texted, and talked about the climb up the podium.

But even as we enjoy playing those moments over and over again on our phones, it’s worth asking the question: Where do such clutch performances come from? How can we see more of those moments, not just in the Olympics but every area of life?

In wrestling, it is tempting to think of clutch performances as the result of one individual will that strikes intermittently and unexpectedly like a bolt of lightning.

To be sure, individual will is no small factor. No one wrestles in the Olympics who doesn’t have world-class determination.

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But what is just as important for wrestling (and life as it turns out) as the giftedness of an individual are the culture of wrestling rooms that cultivate a winning mindset in and out of the wrestling and weight rooms. The culture of a winning wrestling program so often shows itself with a takedown or reshot in the most important moments.

Said another way: behind every ten second comeback is a culture of character developed over decades.

A few years ago, I was inspired about how coaches create culture that leads to clutch performers when I visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and watched USA Wrestling’s head freestyle coach and World champion, Bill Zadick, teach technique to the USA’s most elite wrestlers, all vying to be the best in the world.

I can’t overstate how simple and fundamental the teaching is at the highest level of wrestling in the world. The respect Bill, a 2006 World champ, commands from all these elite athletes in the room is amazing. When Bill claps his hands to come to the middle of the room for a teaching session, he only has to clap once. When he dismisses wrestlers to go back out to their stations to practice the technique, that’s what happens … to a person … no fooling around … and yet, they’re all having fun … in a serious sort of way.

The key, as I’ve observed, to this phenomenon, is not only Bill’s humble, yet strong leadership, but that of the perceived athlete leaders in the room. Olympic and World champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder are “on it” and nobody else in the room wants to lag behind their example. Cultures that produce wrestlers who come through in the clutch feature discipline and determination.

So, in this training session that I was observing, Bill is teaching key points for the offensive man when you’re “in on the leg,” making sure “we score EVERY TIME in this position.”

Here are a few examples of Zadick’s messages:

  • “In this position DON’T GET EXTENDED! Stay tight with your head, tight against your opponent’s chest. This position allows you to cut the corner/find the angle and score most effectively. DO NOT give up on this position and get extended, or it’s over! (Of course, it’s never over, Bill says, but it becomes increasingly more difficult to regain the positional advantage). The more often you retreat the harder it is to regain ground lost. Do what you gotta do! FIGHT!!!
  • “You gotta FIGHT LIKE A DOG to stay in tight. You gotta understand where your power’s coming from … it’s more about physics than horsepower!”
  • “If you’re going to become a master scorer, you learn and practice diligently by steps (1,2,3, etc), but the execution must be seamless…AS ONE! … It’s all about creating muscle memory … reprogramming your reactions. Your wrestling, to be successful, must be continuous — a reapplying the fundamentals…AS ONE!”
  • “Staying tight…this position TAKES COURAGE! Do what you gotta do. Fight! The techniques are learned in steps but executed seamlessly…and remember, it’s more about physics than horsepower.”

At the end of the day, Bill shared, “These are things that worked for me, to make sure I was most effective in maximizing my scoring opportunity from this position. I’m showing you the best/most effective way to score from here and that’s what we want to do EVERY TIME!

But, if you have an effective way, by all means use it. But if it isn’t working to be effective, you better adjust or you’ll never score against the best. And that’s why we’re here. To prepare to be the best by beating the best.”

The Tokyo Olympics is over. And soon enough, so is every athletic career. But there is always a need for clutch performances. And those who have cultivated cultures of character will see competitors who come through in the clutch, not just on the mat but in all of life.

(Tim Johnson became Illinois’ first State Director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in August 1993. Earlier he served as the National Director for the American Sport Effectiveness Program (ASEP), a division of Human Kinetics Publishers in Champaign, and as the C.E.O. of the Metropolitan YMCA in Wichita, Kansas.  Additionally, Johnson worked as the Assistant Executive Director for USA Wrestling, the sport’s national governing body and as the Director of Wrestling for the XXIII Olympiad at Los Angeles in 1984. 

A native of Morning Sun, Iowa, Johnson currently resides in Champaign, Illinois with his wife of 36 years, Lisa. For the past 35 years, Tim has been the “voice of college wrestling.” During this time, Tim has broadcast nearly 500 college wrestling meets for Iowa Public TV, the Big Ten Network and ESPN. For the past 18 years, Tim, who is part of three Halls of Fame, has been part of the ESPN broadcast team for the NCAA Championships. In 2007 and 2008, Tim was honored as the NWCA’s Broadcaster of the Year and WIN Magazine’s Journalist of the Year.)