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Wrestlers get in the zone before stepping on the mat

By Mike Chapman


For decades, sportswriters and fans have pondered why super athletes continue competing far past their prime when they seem to have all the financial security and adulation that they could possibly need. Why do many great boxers fight way beyond their peak? Why do many professional football players continue to play the game when the physical injuries pile up to the point that they will never be able to lead normal lives?

Perhaps they are desperately searching for that “landmark in memory for what life should be like.” That thought may be the powerful motivational tool lurking in the deep subconscious of every great athlete who has ever climbed into a ring, pulled on a football helmet, or stepped onto a wrestling mat!

The path begins when a young person first ponders what sport he or she will invest time, energy, and devotion to. The path goes through the following stages: building confidence, coming to terms with dedication and commitment, learning the essence of competition, and developing the will to win. Then he or she will work on desire and discipline, learn the art of preparation, and study the power of heart.

The path continues with the study of the attacking mind-set and how to pay the price of excellence. The athlete will want to understand the link between mental and physical toughness and come to terms with intensity and preparation. He or she will need to know how to deal with adversity and how to face odds that can, at times, be daunting.

After doing all that, the athlete may be ready to move into “the zone,” and to experience flow. What is flow? It all starts in the mind.

“The battle that will make you a champion is fought in your mind, not on the mat,” writes Steve Knight (2003) in his book Winning State.

The final step in the evolution of a great champion who has come to grips with the mental part of any sport is when he or she enters what is commonly called the zone.

“A person’s long-standing personality traits are less relevant to producing good athletic performances than are the individual states of mind, like anxiety or excitement, that the athlete can bring about at particular times for the purpose of readying,” wrote David R. Kauss in his book Peak Performance (1980). The state of mind that he was talking about has become known as the zone--a place where athletes go mentally to reach an optimal stage of performance and to allow their bodies to go beyond what normally may be expected of them.

The most successful athletes in all sports seem to have one trait in common--the ability to get into the zone when the need arises. Of course, it is not necessary to go there for all levels of competition. If one can win without going there, then nearly all athletes will choose to do just that--win without going into the zone. But there are occasions throughout a career when the athlete simply must elevate his or her mental state to another level of awareness to claim victory. From Chris Evert to Muhammad Ali, from Dan Marino to Michael Jordan, the ability to push oneself into the zone is the key to attaining the highest level of success.

“Ninety percent of my game is mental,” said Chris Evert. “It’s my concentration that has gotten me this far. I won’t even call a friend on the day of a match. I’m scared of disrupting my concentration. I don’t allow any competition with tennis” (Ferguson 1990, 5-38).

Evert was protecting herself so that she could concentrate on the game ahead, another way of getting into the zone.

“You get into the feeling like you are in a zone,” said Dan Marino, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage, while talking about his best games with the Miami Dolphins. “You can’t be stopped. It’s a good feeling but it never lasts. People catch up to you and that’s when you have to do something different.”

Like Marino, Ahmad Rashad had a long, successful career in the National Football League. He has remained in excellent shape many years past his football days by playing high-level tennis. He has also had the opportunity to observe many of the world’s finest athletes compete through his job as a television sports announcer and sidelines commentator.

“In sports, the more you can stay inside yourself, the more chance you have to win or to be successful,” he said. “As soon as you start dealing with the player on the other side of the net, you’ve got a big problem.”

Perhaps that is just another way to define the zone--which is to say that the athlete who can remain inside himself or herself and wrestle the match to perfection, regardless of what the foe can do or is doing, will have the best chance to succeed.

A perfect case of that example--and one of the best examples of entering the zone in all sports history--occurred on February 25, 1964. On that night a young, fast-talking heavyweight contender named Cassius Clay took on Sonny Liston, one of the most feared heavyweight champions in boxing history. Liston had an aura of invincibility and a formidable appearance that unnerved even veteran boxing observers. He had won the title with a devastating first-round knockout of Floyd Patterson and then had defended his title with another brutal first-round knockout of Patterson.

Going into the fight, Clay was 19-0 but a seven-to-one underdog. He had been taunting Liston for months, calling him names and saying that he was too ugly to be champion. At the weigh-in, Clay appeared to have lost his mind completely, yelling, screaming, and waving his finger in the face of Liston, who regarded him with cold contempt.

“The famous scene at the weigh-in was something out of the Mad Hatter,” wrote famed sports commentator Howard Cosell years later. “Sugar Ray Robinson restraining him, Drew Brown, one of his trainers, who called himself Bundini, restraining him. All the while Clay going through this act of apparent insanity, gesturing and screaming at Liston. The blood pressure was way up. Everyone who saw him wondered if he had truly popped his cork, out of fear” (Chapman 1981, 55).

It was later reported that even those closest to Clay were extremely worried about his outburst, thinking that he had gone over the edge with fear of facing Liston. Several observers suggested the fight be postponed until Clay could gather his emotions. But it was all a ruse by Clay, the master tactician. He had studied Liston for years and gotten a solid read on his personality. Clay’s plan was to work himself up into an incredible state of arousal and challenge Liston’s manhood. He figured that Liston would enter the ring in a state of rage and fight with uncontrolled anger, exhausting himself emotionally.

An hour before the fight, Cosell saw Clay standing at the back of the arena, calmly watching his younger brother in a preliminary bout. Cosell approached him, shocked at how composed he was. When he asked Clay about the incredible change in his demeanor since the weigh-in, Clay told him that it was all an act, a way to intimidate Liston and prepare himself.

When the fight started, Clay came out fast, firing his jabs and making Liston miss with wild swings. By the end of the first round, Clay was composed and controlled, and gave Liston a lesson in boxing. In the fifth round, he opened a cut under the champion’s left eye and sent blood pouring down his face. Unaccustomed to fighting past the first three or four rounds, Liston grew dis-heartened and then became physically and emotionally weary. Clay had defeated him mentally with his arousal techniques and then physically in the ring. Liston surrendered between the sixth and seventh rounds, sitting on his stool--and Cassius Clay was the new heavyweight champion of the world.

“In the moment of truth, the great athletes lose total self--awareness and even lack of consciousness of what’s going on,” said Bruce Ogilvie, sports psychologist (Clarkson 1999, 39).

Was Ali there, in the zone, inside that “moment of truth”? Many wrestlers have found their home in that moment--from Milo in ancient Krotona, to Robin Reed in Paris in 1924, to Dan Gable in 1972, to John Smith in 1992, to Tom Brands in 1996. But the question is, how do they get into the zone? Do they reach flow and then ease into the zone without being aware of it? Or do they consciously set a goal of getting into the zone?

A book written by Stephen Holland (1983) called Talkin’ Dan Gable contains a fascinating glimpse into Dan Gable’s psyche. In the book, Gable expressed what he felt when he walked into a wrestling room:

“You’re in a trance. You’re in another world. It’s just like you’re on drugs. I don’t know what drugs are like but it must be something like that. Once I step into the wrestling room I change completely from one level to another. I’m gone. My body tingles. And I’ve got to shake all the time. All of a sudden, I’ve been in a state of hyperness for almost four hours. When it’s done, I can’t get out, I’m so drained” (Holland 1983, 1).

Perhaps Gable’s mind and body are so tuned into the sport that he enters some form of the zone every time he walks into a wrestling room, and then goes into a higher level of the zone when it’s time to compete. Or maybe it’s just his amazing intensity boiling over. After all, his intensity has become a part of wrestling folklore around the world. They talk about it in Russia and -England, in California and Illinois, in Florida and New York, wherever people discuss wrestling. After winning an Olympic gold medal at 125.5 pounds in Los Angeles, a Japanese wrestler came to Iowa City to train. “I want to learn the Gable spirit,” he said.

This is an excerpt from Wrestling Tough.




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