Klessinger: Even the best in the sport learn to fight self-doubt

Updated: February 24, 2022

Photo: Cael Sanderson, the sport’s only four-time undefeated NCAA champ, admitted later he fought his own self-doubt while making history in 2002.

By John Klessinger

The wrestling postseason is upon us. It is the most exciting time in wrestling. First, there are high school state tournaments, then NCAA-qualifying tournaments and finally the NCAA Division I national tournament. A wrestling junkie like myself gets giddy with an excitement similar to a small child before Christmas.

For the wrestlers, many years of training all come down to a few weeks of intense competition. Goals that were set years prior will be fulfilled or gone forever. The postseason is a high-stakes game for many wrestlers across the country. That “game” comes with doubt, fear, and nervousness. Young men and women sit in their bedrooms late and struggle to sleep. The tension and anticipation are great. They wonder if they did enough. Did they train hard enough? Are they prepared as much as they can possibly be?

It is a mental battle every wrestler has dealt with at one time or another. After four months of a grinding season, their bodies are tired. More so, though, mentally, they need a break from the stress they placed on themselves. Those worries are both good and bad. They keep us humble and hungry, working hard each day. But they also wear us down emotionally.

Over the past two years as a columnist for WIN magazine, I have written numerous articles on mental toughness and mindset training. Those two aspects of wrestling are the separators from the good and great. A person who can manage their emotions in wrestling has a far better chance of succeeding than one who struggles with their self doubt.  

We all have some self-doubt. Even the greatest ones in our sport have doubts and worries about failing. Shortly after Cael Sanderson’s fourth NCAA title and an undefeated collegiate career, I heard him speak at a small hotel conference room in Lancaster, Pa. Cael was the headline clinician at the Millersville University Wrestling Camp. Along with his former Iowa State head coach Bobby Douglas, he came to Lancaster for the four-day camp. Cael showed the campers (and coaches) his famous ankle pick and knee-pull single.

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

The campers were enthralled with him. Sanderson had a quiet and calm disposition about himself; no different than what you see today on the sidelines of a Penn State wrestling match. On the last night of camp, Sanderson spoke to a crowd of a few hundred people in the hotel conference room. He answered question after question. 

Cael had a softer side that surprised us all. He spoke of art and painting that took his mind off the pressure that grew larger and larger after each win and undefeated NCAA title season. 

The question was asked, “What are some things you did to mentally deal with the pressure of being the first four-time undefeated NCAA champion? Cael said, to my surprise, that he had doubt and the internal chatter about failing. He had the same self-doubt we all have. 

Yet, Cael expressed vulnerability and grace. He openly admitted he struggled with the same things we all do. 

As I left the hotel, I was surprised by what Sanderson said. I figured he was one of those anomalies. The ones in life that have no fear or insecurities. The tiny few that didn’t “wrestle” with doubts and fears of failing. Since then, I have heard many stories of successful athletes who deal with self-doubt in their heads. They are human like us. The difference, though, is that they have learned a way to manage the negative voice in their head, telling them that “they aren’t good enough or talented enough.” 

Like no other sport, wrestling puts your psychological muscles to the test every time you step out on a mat. I have said it many times. You have two wrestlers with similar skills, talents, and coaching; the one who will win is the one who has learned to manage their mindset better. It is a big part of the sport. Big enough that companies like Wrestling Mindset were created to help wrestlers (and athletes outside of wrestling) learn strategies to manage stress and handle adversity.

Before we talk about dealing with the stress of the post-season, let me get a little “science-y” and explain what happens in our nervous system when experiencing performance anxiety. 

First, we have the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for all the functions in the body that we do not have to control, such as breathing, digestion, beating our heart, blood pressure, sweating, and speaking.

The autonomic nervous system has two parts — the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. 

The parasympathetic nervous system functions to calm us down by slowing down our heart rate and decreasing blood pressure. In addition, it brings the mind and body back to their natural state after a dangerous or traumatic event (homeostasis). 

The sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) prepares your body to run from danger or fight back. It’s also activated in response to mental or physical stress. 

During the fight-or-flight response, blood pressure increases, and blood flow increases to muscles, lungs, and other areas. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released to make us stronger and faster. Glucose is rapidly released to be burned for quick energy. 

Hmmm, you ever notice you get tired quickly when you are nervous or overly hyped up?

Why does this matter? When you are in danger, stressed out, fearful, scared, excited, etc., your sympathetic or fight/flight response is activated. To a certain extent, we want this when we wrestle. It gets us ready to battle. 

However, when “excitement” or “readiness” is overloaded by fear or nervousness, it does the opposite. Your mind and body go into a state of freezing or shuts down. This is not good for your performance in wrestling, school, or anything in life. Instead of helping you in a match, it paralyzes you. 

What can we do to prevent or limit the sympathetic nervous system’s response and keep our parasympathetic working efficiently? 

Notice the internal feelings of the body. Do you feel tense? Is your mind “talking” incessantly? Are you arguing with doubtful thoughts? “It’s only another match.” “I am not nervous. I am excited (convincing yourself that you are not nervous).”

We feel the physical effects first. For example, we experience “butterflies” and tension in our jaw, neck, stomach, or shoulders. Next, your mind goes into action, trying to calm yourself down. However, you are “stoking” the fire when doing this. You are adding focus and attention to the problem instead of managing it.

Noticing these changes in your body goes a long way to calm yourself down. It changes your response from focus and attention to awareness. For example, “Ok, I feel my jaw is tight, and my mind is starting to speed up with negative thoughts.” In other words, it creates a little distance from the situation.

Relax your shoulders, jaw, stomach, and other areas of the body that feel tense. Go through each muscle and deliberately “let go” of the tension. Feel your jaw loosen. Allow the stiffness in your shoulders to drop and relax. 

Doing this relaxes you and directs your focus and attention away from nervousness.

Do some breathing exercises. There are many out there. Two that I like are 4-7-8 and box breathing. 

Breath in through the belly for a count of four. Hold your breath for seven. Exhale slowly on a count of eight. Do this five to ten times. In your mind, count each part. One, two, three, four………….

Box breathing, also called rescue breathing — is used by the Navy SEAL teams as a calming strategy before an intense situation. For example, breath in five, hold five, exhale five, and hold five again. 

In your mind, imagine a box. See in your mind when you breath in for five, the line going from the top left corner to the top right. Then, when you hold and count, the line goes from the top right down to the bottom right of the box. It calms you and gives you a visual focus directing your attention away from nervousness. 

Release and let the energy go. Don’t fight it. “What you resist persists.” Don’t analyze it when you feel nervous or fearful. It is part of being human. You get scared, doubtful, and insecure in intense situations. 

The SEALs, high-level wrestlers, and professional athletes all have the same responses as us. They manage it better! 

Releasing it is accepting that it happens and letting your body (parasympathetic nervous system) do its job and get out of the way. I recently heard something very true about dealing with our mindset. The same mind that created the problem- “oh no, what if I lose” also tries to fix the problem, “ok, you need to relax and start your self-talk.”

Interestingly, when we stop fighting ourselves and instead let go and recognize this is part of being human, all of the fears and doubts will often leave on their own. The left hand is no longer fighting with the right hand. 

Instead, you practice self-compassion and develop a deeper understanding of how and why you hinder your performance when the pressure is on. 

Knowing how the nervous system works will go a long way in helping you manage pre-match nervousness and anxiety. “Recognition is 90 percent of the solution.” Once we “get” what is going on, it allows us space to work on the problem. 

(John Klessinger 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”.) n