Klessinger: 11 Critical Keys to Winning on the Mat … and in Life

Updated: December 3, 2021

By John Klessinger

The high school wrestling season is rapidly approaching. Are you prepared? Have you done all the work necessary to be ready for the grind?

Arguably, a wrestling season is the most demanding sports season in the world. Outside of hard work, it takes discipline to make and maintain a weight class week after week. American wrestlers practice during the two biggest holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and face academic requirements during the multiple marking periods and two semesters. And, wrestlers start their days when it is dark and finish their days when it is dark. The winter is tough already without adding in wrestling. Add wrestling in, and it is the making of a long four months.

This column appeared in the recent issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the image of recent issue or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to the magazine.

Much of that four-month grind is what makes wrestling special. All of us who have been involved in the sport know the difficulty of a wrestling season. But, at the same time, we learned to embrace it and see it for something much bigger than tough practices, weight management, and long weekends. From wrestling, we became the people we are today.

If you want to have your best season ever, look at the list below. Then, adopt the habits that will take your wrestling to a higher level. It is the little things that separate the average from good and good from great.

  1. Get the most out of practice. Each day is an opportunity to get better. Improvement needs to be the focus at each practice. You don’t win or lose matches in practice. Take risks and practice what you are learning. Live wrestling is the time to experiment. It doesn’t matter if you give up points. Wrestle to win in practice. Hit moves and score points.

The last time I checked, no one was featured in WIN for being a great practice wrestler. Too often, wrestlers are afraid to take risks in practice, and then being cautious follows them into matches. Learn to wrestle freely in the room. This doesn’t mean you don’t wrestle hard and give up points without a fight. Practice is a great way to learn to be stingy. Make your teammates earn every point.

  1. Keep a journal. Record your successes. Write your season, career, academic and life goals in it. The journal does not need to be anything structured. Spend a little time each day writing about practices, matches, and events at school. Writing is a great way to focus your thoughts and attention. In the journal, write down your improvements. Sometimes we don’t realize that we have improved. We are too close to the situation to recognize that our high-crotch finishes have gotten better.

We are reluctant many times to talk about our doubts and concerns. Documenting your worries is an excellent way to develop space and distance from them. The mind can run wild at times. Too often, we believe everything what it is saying. In truth, most of the content running through your head is past conditioning and has no relevance to the present. Keeping a journal allows you to see all the thoughts running in your mind. From there, you will notice the repetition of thoughts that go through your head. They don’t mean anything. (see number 4).

  1. Commit to doing “one more” each day. Do one more stand-up, one more sprint. Each day, set aside a minute or two to do a little extra. Over time, the little extra becomes a lot. “One more” is like compound interest. The initial changes are minor or unnoticeable. After a few months, spending an additional three minutes on takedowns can mean the difference between a big win or a heartbreaking loss.
  2. Put your goals on display. The mind has a built-in system that helps you focus on particular subjects. If we didn’t have this system, we would become overwhelmed with everything in our awareness. Fortunately, our brains are very complex. The reticular activating system (RAS) filters information coming to your awareness.

The funny thing about it is it will focus on what it sees and hears most often. In turn, it will bring more of those things into your awareness. In other words, put your goals somewhere that they can be seen repeatedly on your bedroom walls or bathroom mirror. The more you see it, the more you are training your mind to look to move in that direction.

  1. Schedule rest and recovery. Like I said, the wrestling season is a grind. It will beat you down physically and mentally. Because of the nature of the sport, you need to rest appropriately. Take days off and even entire weekends from training. I know our “mantra” is to work hard and keep pushing yourself. I have lived that life. But, at some point, that philosophy is counterproductive. If we push too hard for too long, we break down. We develop nagging injuries and lose motivation. Most often, we wait too long to take a break. The damage is already done.
  2. At least once a week, do nothing with wrestling. Nothing! No active recovery. No watching wrestling. No talking about it. Let your mind and body heal a little. It will thank you with more energy and motivation later.
  3. Organize and prepare. Minimize the stresses in your life by getting school, food, and “life” taken care of in advance. Get all your practice clothes washed and ready for the week so you are not wasting time and energy getting them together each day. Pack your gear bag, make your lunch, and have everything for school ready the night before. A little discipline on the front end, physically and mentally, makes the back end much more manageable. No one likes to rush and hurry. You will also get a little more sleep in when all you need to do is get up, brush your teeth, and get ready for school.
  4. Take mental vacations. Daily, sit back for a few minutes and let your brain relax. Like number five, our mind becomes overworked with the happenings of the day. Surprisingly, only a few minutes of not thinking or doing something will benefit our energy and vitality. Close your eyes, allow your thoughts to float like wa- -ter going down a stream. If it helps you, visualize a river in your mind. See your thoughts pass by. Not only will this calm the mind and body, but it will show you the endless chatter that runs through us each day. It is a fantastic mental activity to refresh and recharge.
  5. Make a commitment to go 100%, 100% of the time. It is a declaration you make with yourself. 100% doesn’t always mean going full bore. It means to be engaged and focused on the task at hand. If you are conditioning, you will work your hardest. When the coach is showing technique, you are dialed in on what he is saying and doing. When drilling, it is conscious of hitting the moves correctly and effectively, not going through the motions. There is a time and a place to chill and relax. It shouldn’t be in the wrestling room during practice.
  6. Enrich yourself. Like writing in a journal, find ways to enhance your wrestling experience. Listen to podcasts on mindset. Read books. Watch YouTube videos that fill you with positive motivation. Some days, something a small as a two-minute video can distinguish between a great practice or a lackluster day.
  7. Expect highs and lows. Good days and bad days are a part of life. Some days you wake up loving life. Others, you are uninspired and wish you could lay in bed all day, especially during wrestling season. It is normal for your emotions and energy levels to go up and down. It is part of being human. There is no reason to worry or question things. Know it will happen and use it as an opportunity to get a little tougher by physically and mentally grinding through it. If you get out of the way, your low mood and motivation will pass like bad weather. It always does.

(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High in Maryland. Follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)