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Wrestler combine physical and mental toughness for optimal perfromance

By Mike Chapman


“The mind and the body are one,” said expert Jim Loehr, who is founder of LGR Performance Systems, a motivational training center located in Orlando, Florida. “Mental toughness is not just something you can sit in a room and visualize and all of a sudden you are mentally tough. The ability to handle physical stress takes us right into the ability to handle mental and emotional stress” (Tolson 2000, 41).

All wrestlers have experienced pain at various levels, mentally and physically. Often they are tied together. Wrestlers must deal with countless injuries, ranging from twisted fingers to broken noses, from damaged knees to separated shoulders. No athlete who has been in the sport for long will escape an injury of some type. They come in all forms and shapes, and in various degrees of discomfort and seriousness.

Ronnie Clinton was one of the most gifted wrestlers of his era. Coming from Ponca City High School, he made a name for himself at Oklahoma State University with his surfer-style good looks and his smooth mat style. As a sophomore in 1960, he was NCAA runner-up at 167 pounds. But the Oklahoma State lineup was packed from top to bottom with tremendous wrestlers, and in his junior year he could not crack the lineup at his regular weight. He jumped up two entire weight classes and finished third at the 1961 NCAA championships at 191 pounds. His ability to compete effectively nearly 23 pounds above the spot at which he wanted to be was testament to his resolve, commitment, and mental toughness.

But the truest test to Clinton’s toughness didn’t come until the final match of his senior year. Back at 167 pounds, he was on target for the NCAA title that had thus far eluded him. The NCAA champion-ships were on his home campus in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In the Saturday night finals, he was facing Terry Isaacson, a talented athlete from Iowa who was also a star quarterback on the football team for the Air Force Academy.

On the night before the finals, a freak accident almost put Clinton out of the tournament. While he was shaving, his hand slipped and fell onto a mirror, shattering the glass. The result was a badly cut palm on his right hand, one that required numerous stitches. Less than 24 hours later, Clinton was on the mat, facing Isaacson, and facing his last chance to become an NCAA champion. Ironically, Isaacson had sustained a two-inch eyebrow cut in a previous round, and the cut reopened in the match with Clinton. Both Clinton and Isaacson were bleeding profusely, and the match was stopped numerous times for extended periods for both to be treated. Discussion occurred in both corners and with the official about injury default and extended injury and blood time.

Clinton could hardly squeeze his hand during the entire match. With blood soaking through his bandages, Clinton posted a narrow, hard-fought victory. He had shown that he was not only a slick and exciting wrestler but also a mentally tough and determined one. He had wrestled extremely tough when the need arose, blocking out the physical pain and mental doubts that must have accompanied him on the mat, to perform at his highest level.

“I believe each wrestler thought the other would give up and throw in the towel but neither did,” recalled Wayne Baughman. “It was a gutsy match. I remember it well because I was warming up just one more match away from my final and my anxiety level was being prolonged by their match.”

In 1988 Rob Koll of the University of North Carolina was facing his final opportunity to become an NCAA champion, following in the footsteps of his famous father, Bill, who won three titles in the late 1940s at Iowa State Teachers College. Rob had placed third the previous year and was determined to go out on top. But he severely injured his knee in a first-round match at the NCAA meet in Ames, Iowa.

“I heard a tearing sound and it really swelled up,” Koll admitted later. “But I said they’d have to tear my leg off to make me quit.”

Instead of folding, he got tougher as the tourney wore on. Battered and limping, he scored a pin in the finals and received his first-place medal from none other than his father, who was asked to present the awards to all those in the 158-pound class that year.

“Records also are frequently the product of playing through pain,” wrote Thomas Tutko in Sports Psyching. “In track and field events, and in swimming particularly, an athlete’s high pain threshold may be as significant as his basic ability” (Tutko and Tosi 1976, 24).

Six-time world and Olympic champion John Smith became familiar with pain during his sensational freestyle career. He suffered from broken fingers, sprained ankles, torn rib cartilage, a separated shoulder, damaged knee ligaments, cauliflower ears, and extremely painful hip pointers. But Smith knew, as do other high-achieving wrestlers, that injuries are part of the game and that a wrestler must learn to live with them and block them out.

While covering the 1988 Olympics for the Chicago Tribune, writer John Husar captured what winning a gold medal can cost a wrestler like John Smith.

“His nose had been broken Tuesday by the Bulgarian and Smith said he had never bled so much,” wrote Husar. “His bent and stubby fingers that had been broken four or five times apiece were jammed anew and swollen, and his right shoulder was crying for arthroscopic surgery. But none of that hurt as much, he said, as the rawness on his backside, where he wore away the skin sitting nightly in his rubber suit on the stationary bike.”

“‘Aw, it’s nothing, really,’ he assured a knot of incredulous re-porters. ‘All athletes go through this type of stuff. Aches and pains come with sport. You’ve just gotta adapt to ’em’” (Husar 1988, 12).

Adapt he did, and again in 1992, when he was searching for his second Olympic gold medal. This time, Smith was facing a different type of injury.

“I had a staph infection hit me in January and it tore me up,” said Smith in 2004. “My whole head was swollen, and I had bald spots on my head, too. It just gradually got worse. I suffered from fatigue. After just 15 minutes of drilling, I would be exhausted.

“During some practices, it felt like my head was going to explode. It took everything I had to mentally get through the Olympic trials and the Olympics. It would have been easy for some guys to just walk away at that point, to settle for something less. But I couldn’t do that.

“I remember writers coming up and acting surprised that I could keep going, and I thought, ‘What’s the big deal? It comes with the territory.’ I’ve just always assumed injuries are part of the game.”

In that respect, he was akin to Dan Gable, who entered the 1972 Olympics in Munich with a severely damaged left knee. In the first match, Gable’s foe from Yugoslavia headbutted him, opening a gash that required seven stitches to close.

“Sure, it hurt,” said Gable years later. “But so what? The point of wrestling is that it hurts and you overcome that. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t supposed to hurt.”

Pain is part of the game at the highest levels. The finest athletes have learned to accept it and to ignore it, in many respects.

“All of the great athletes I have known have an almost un-limited horizon for pain,” wrote photograph-artist Roger Riger in his memorable book The Athlete. “Pain is their enemy, but they never admit it, never discuss it. Athletes at the height of their power must endure pain beyond their imagination and what they thought was their capacity for suffering in order to achieve their maximum performance” (Riger 1980, 152).

This is an excerpt from Wrestling Tough.




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Wrestling Tough
A unique look at the “stuff” that has characterized the greatest competitors to ever take the mat.
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