Roberts, much older & wiser, meets Hafizov again in Final X
Photo: Dalton Roberts (left) beat Ildar Hafizov at the 2023 U.S. Open...
Photo: Former college wrestlers Gene (left) and Jeff Zannetti saw their “Wrestling Mindset” business take off in 2012.
By John Klessinger
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution.”— Aristotle
I had yet to ask a question 45 minutes into the conversation. However, everything I wanted to know about Wrestling Mindset was already answered. Gene Zannetti and I talked for an hour. Gene is a ball of energy, passionate, and ambitious. He spoke confidently with a level of enthusiasm no different than when you see promotional videos for Wrestling Mindset. But, back up for one second, I did ask one question. “Gene, tell me a little about your background.”
From there, as if on cue, Gene told me a detailed and inspirational story of how Wrestling Mindset began and the growth and progression since then. The 45 minutes seemed like 10. Gene is engaging and articulate, naming dates and people similar to reading a good book.
Sport Psychology has become a big business. Almost every professional sports team and college athletic program has a sports psychologist on staff. The past decade has trickled down to high school and youth sports. At one time, the field was viewed only for either elite athletes or those who “had something wrong with them.”
No one wanted to be labeled a “head case.” It was frowned upon to have performance issues. To a certain extent, there is still a stigma about mental health. Fortunately, it is becoming more accepted and common amongst athletes to have struggles, self-esteem issues and mental barriers that affect their performance.
Enter Gene and Jeff Zannetti, two brothers from Edison, N.J. Gene and Jeff are two of the three Zannetti brothers of Gene and Geri Zannetti. All three of the brothers were wrestlers. Youngest brother Greg followed Gene and Jeff into wrestling. Growing up, the boys played football, baseball and wrestled. However, the family patriarch, Gene’s dad (Gene Jr.), liked wrestling the most.
As Gene puts it, Wrestling Mindset was a series of events. It started in the living room wrestling with their dad. Then a chance meeting with their first personal coach, Gerard Perez, the present-day owner of the Joker Wrestling Club, and later at Gene Lezark’s CJA Wrestling Club.
Success in wrestling-rich New Jersey landed all three brothers at Division I programs. Gene at Rutgers and Penn. Jeff at Penn and their youngest brother Greg also at Rutgers. The Zannetti brothers each earned state medals while in high school. Gene (third) and Jeff and Greg were New Jersey State runner-ups.
From a young age, the Zannetti brothers were exposed to the tools and strategies to increase their sports performance. Mom, Geri, loved self-help. She listened to cassette tapes from Tony Robbins. Dad, Gene Jr., would cut out inspirational articles for the boys. They would watch sports and wrestling together on television. He would emphasize listening to the interviews of the athletes. “Success leaves clues,” the younger Gene told me.
Like most families, the Zannetti brothers were told to think about a career that provides stability and an income to support a family. Gene’s dad was an accountant. In high school, Gene figured he would do the same thing. However, at the suggestion of a friend, Gene took a psychology class in high school. He loved it and decided from there to major in psychology at Rutgers.
Gene never liked to read. Or, as he said, “I hated reading.” But, all that changed when it came to reading about how the mind worked. Why did some succeed and others not? Gene was fascinated and began to consume himself in the field. He listened to his mom’s Tony Robbins tapes, took notes, and read books. Gene read Don Greene’s “Fight Your Fears and Win” book. And as a wrestler at Rutgers, he had the opportunity to hear talks on sports psychology.
Wrestling teammate and friend at Rutgers, Chris Ressa, encouraged Gene to read “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. Gene looked up to Chris, a Division I NCAA qualifier at Rutgers. After reading the book, he knew he wanted to own a sports psychology business. So Gene began taking business classes at Rutgers.
After three years at Rutgers, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. Penn had a Sport Psychology program and his brother Jeff was a freshman. So the move was logical for Gene. He and Jeff were very close and the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school with his brother was a no-brainer.
At Penn, Gene’s passion for sports psychology grew. He and Jeff were both ranked nationally for the Quakers. They were roommates who had a disco ball in their dorm room. Something they talked about as kids.
Gene graduated from Penn and went to Springfield College to get a master’s degree in Sport Psychology. He would earn his degree at Springfield and later attend LaSalle University as a doctoral student in psychology. At LaSalle, Gene encountered some adversity. He got a B- in one class, which did not meet the criteria and as a result was dropped from the program. So, he left LaSalle and went to Montclair State of New Jersey to pursue his second master’s degree in school counseling. At the same time, Jeff earned an economics degree from Penn.
As Gene told me, these events were “divine providence.” Gene worked in schools as a counselor and Jeff at Meryl Lynch as a financial planner. As their careers were becoming established, Gene’s dream of owning a Sport Psychology business didn’t fade. While pursuing his Master’s degree, he worked with athletes as a personal trainer and mindset coach. Finally, the tight-knit brothers decided to combine their experience in sports psychology and economics. They left their promising careers to create Z-Fanatical Fitness.
Jeff’s business expertise led the brothers to narrow down their focus. Gene said it was Jeff who determined they needed a “niche” so they changed the name to Wrestling Mindset. They developed a curriculum tying in Tony Robbins, Don Greene’s book, and his long-time mentor Dr. Rob Gilbert, a Sport Psychology professor at Montclair State. Before meeting Dr. Gilbert, Gene would call his success hotline. Later, he would become one of his students at Montclair State.
In 2012, they presented their program at the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Then, as you could say, the rest is history. Today they work with athletes from all sports and have expanded into the corporate world, working with companies like Mass Mutual and Northwestern Mutual.
What makes their story so fascinating is that it demonstrates the traits we desire as a wrestler. A dream, determination, and grit. The path that led to Wrestling Mindset was far from straight. But Gene held the vision, refused to give up and kept his eye on the prize. His partnership with Jeff has produced a product that has worked with thousands of athletes and non-athletes.
Wrestling Mindset has worked with Penn, Iowa State, Rutgers, and Michigan and nationally-ranked cheerleading and archery teams. They have worked with UFC fighters and members of the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic teams. In addition, they help students at Huntington Learning Center and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The company has grown from a two-person show to nearly 100 “mindset coaches” from all over the U.S.
He and Jeff have something special. It is unique. Gene said, “that’s gotta be extremely rare for brothers to be so close, so similar, but so different in a complementary way.”
Wrestling Mindset’s program offers a guided plan for anyone to develop the skills and tools necessary to excel. Some of the units in the curriculum are self-awareness, confidence, mental toughness and goal-setting. It is both comprehensive and engaging. In 2021-22 alone, their clients have won 56 high school state championships, 264 state medals, 70 qualified for collegiate national tourneys, and 17 won All-American honors. Wrestling Mindset works with teams and individuals ages seven and up.
Gene and I finished our talk by me asking him what advice he would give to wrestlers, parents, and coaches. Without hesitation, Gene said, “have your priorities in order, work hard and smart, and have fun.” His advice sums up what is required to be successful at anything. Not only as a wrestler. Although not directly stated by Gene but implied throughout our conversation, one could add: passion and enthusiasm, take some risks, believe in yourself, and attack your goals with relentless ambition.
“Excellence is never an accident,” Aristotle said. More than once, Gene referenced the Greek philosopher. So likewise, Wrestling Mindset’s success isn’t an accident. Instead, it reflects Gene and Jeff’s determination, desire and faith. Traits they learned early at home and on the wrestling mat. Now, it is their vehicle to help and inspire others to become the best versions of themselves.
(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”.)