Knowing an opponent’s credentials can be very dangerous

Updated: February 1, 2023

Photo: Tristan Warner (left) was a three-time NCAA qualifier (2012, 2014 and 2015) from Old Dominion University and two-time NCAA Elite 89 award winner for possessing the highest GPA of any competitor at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

By Tristan Warner

I recently sat down with a student-athlete to conduct film review from a recent holiday tournament and took note of the way he mercilessly attacked his first-round opponent — an intimidated underclassman — in a way which I had never seen before. 

Fake, snap, level change, club, half-shot, another fake, another snap, force opponent’s bad shot, pancake, pin. In 30 seconds, the match was over. 

Albeit against an inferior opponent, I couldn’t help but daydream about how unstoppable this student-athlete could be — and will be — if he tenaciously and aggressively attacks the returning state champion or a nationally-ranked foe in the same manner: with little regard for fallibility, or more commonly referred to as “fear of failure.”

Of course, that is not to say that student-athletes should wrestle recklessly, but controlled relentlessness can wear down an opponent physically and mentally, regardless of his or her caliber.

It is a transformation that has everything to do with mentality and nothing to do with technique: the conscious decision to approach all opponents the same way regardless of their pedigree. 

Easier said than done, granted. 

This simple yet profound revelation took me back to the summer before my fifth-year senior year at Old Dominion University. 

Entering my final season of eligibility after returning from two NCAA Championships empty-handed … and nowhere close to my goal of becoming an All-American … I took the time to restructure what my goal really was. 

I knew I could live with myself falling short of All-American honors in my final season only if I knew I exhausted every single ounce of effort I possibly had. Thus, the goal became to conclude my 18-year career on the mats with one simple mantra: no regrets. 

This meant fully dedicating myself to every facet of preparation that goes into competing as a student-athlete in the sport of wrestling, whether it be diet, sleep, technique, strength training, mentality, etc. 

I came to the realization — under the guidance of my coaching staff — that the most glaring inhibitor of my own success was my tendency to think too much. And the main reason for that problem was that I knew too much. 

And not in a good way. 

Since the age of five, I have been a superfan of wrestling, memorizing all the names, stats, and scores. A lifelong hobby and passion, it became problematic when the names, stats, and scores that I was memorizing belonged to my own opponents. 

So alas, it wasn’t that I knew too much technique or anything practical that would have actually helped me win more wrestling matches. It was that I filled my brain with excess fluff that only weighed on my psyche. 

The transitive property of order — A>B, B>C, therefore A>C — has no place in wrestling, or any sport for that matter. But it is difficult not to analyze the results among common opponents and form conjectures about how the match might shake out based on past results.  

Stepping onto the mat with so much mental baggage is like wearing a weighted vest over top of a singlet. 

So, in summation, the promise I made to myself was to completely stay off the computer my fifth-year senior season and wrestle each match with as much naivety as possible. That is, I went out with a clean mental slate and no knowledge of who my opponent was or what their stats looked like. 

And though I fell short of my All-American goal, I had by far my most successful season, and more importantly, enjoyed the sport in a way I hadn’t ever before. Wrestling was fun when the focus was on scoring points and not nervously trying to scheme solutions on how to beat someone I “wasn’t supposed to beat” on paper. 

Speaking from my own experience, wrestling an opponent you know nothing about versus one whose career stats are embedded within your subconscious is like hopping up on a pull-up bar with just body weight as opposed to a weight belt with a 45-pound plate dangling between your legs. 

The ability to compete freely, wrestle one’s own match, and focus chiefly on one’s own game plan is liberating, and avoiding number crunching and research can be a major step toward such competitive freedom.  

Student-athletes should trust their coaches to provide them with any scouting or scenarios they need to be concerned with, if any, regarding a specific opponent, but it is always better to focus on being the best version of oneself, on the wrestling mat included. 

To be clear, student-athletes should not feel the need to shy away from being a fan of the sport. After all, the sport is truly a spectacle worth watching, being excited about and marveling over. 

In fact, some of the best learning opportunities the sport has to offer can be obtained through simply watching and studying wrestling at all levels. 

And while my own remedy of completely averting the wrestling “interwebs” may have been extreme, to this day I try to encourage student-athletes to have fun with the sport, above all else. 

The mission should be to approach every nameless, faceless opponent that steps across the line the same way: do what you do best and do it relentlessly. 

(Tristan Warner is a former PIAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier for Old Dominion. The two-time Elite 89 Award recipient and CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American lives in Shippensburg, Pa.)