Blog entry #17 – Practice Toughness

This has been a long week for the Berzerkers. Our run started with a long trip to Montana featuring two days of tough competition and ended with back to back nights of away dual matches culminating with a late Thursday night arrival home after two tough team losses. I front loaded our schedule in December out of necessity to see some specific opponents and attend a couple key tournaments knowing it wouldn’t be easy. There is a level of individual and collective toughness that is necessary to compete at a high level over such a grueling stretch. This part of our journey is all a test regardless and the outcome on the scoreboard is insignificant compared to how we as a team handle these challenges and what we take from it in terms of growth. Going into this stretch is like buckling your seat belt because there’s going to be a few jolts getting from zero to a hundred in such a short distance. By Wednesday night I could see the teams tank getting pretty emotionally empty. Like any difficult endeavor wrestling requires passion and emotion to get to that fine line of excellence. We knew going in what the challenge was and what was needed but still didn’t have that extra “toughness” that was required. I can’t count how many times as a coach I’ve said you need to be tough or toughen up or this is gonna be tough without ever defining what I really mean when I use the term “tough.”

We define our sport by the word Toughness. As coaches and participants we drape ourselves in a cloak of perceived mental and physical rigor that we believe few others are willing to burden. When we describe a great wrestler we refer to them most often as “tough.” When we don’t succeed we usually reason that we were not tough enough or our opponent was just tougher than us. To be honest I can’t say if our opponents were any tougher than we were the other night but I can tell you they had better energy, intensity, in some cases technique and strength and ultimately more points on the scoreboard but I must admit I left the gym with the initial thought that we were not very tough. I’ve really contemplated this “toughness” issue and it’s led me to postulate on what the term toughness really means. It’s so much a part of our sport and our code as wrestlers we have three very visible references to it in our practice room alone.

Toughness by definition is:

tough

[tuhf]

adjective, tough·er, tough·est.

1 strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.

Pretty simple, but I think we or at least I put a lot more meaning into this one word, so much so I believe specific sports create their own individual definition of what toughness means. For example, I view toughness in part as the ability to toil or endure the monotony required in a sport where part of its practice requires repetition. In football you may use the term as how well a guy takes or delivers a hit. How about those individuals who are disciplined enough to set and live by strict priorities, isn’t this toughness? Is moral integrity part of toughness or how about the grit to keep getting up when you’ve been knocked down time and time again? Dealing with both success and failure in a way that continues growth requires both maturity and a certain level of toughness in my opinion. The human nature or psychology of “fight or flight” will contribute to wether we are perceived as tough or even weak. The caveman that hung around to fight the tiger was only as tough as a piece of chuck roast in the end while the caveman who ran and survived stakes his claim for toughness on being durable and a survivor. So, toughness is a broad term we throw around in the wrestling room like a Suples’ dummy and can mean many things to many people. The term toughness is like the concept of love – we know it when we feel it but it’s hard to describe. I do however, love toughness.

In recent years I have tried to define what I mean by toughness to my team. Good communication is good coaching and I want my charges to fully understand what it means to be tough in the Lake Stevens Wrestling Program. We practice toughness daily and I define to the wrestlers what this means. It means we come prepared to the wrestling room with the discipline to focus and be present. We wrestle through nagging injuries and practice dealing with hardship. We sacrifice for others and at times put our needs aside to assist others. We never quit no matter how bad the beating. We keep our chin up and refrain from self pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. We show self-control and poise in the face of extreme adversity or antagonism. We never make excuses or blame someone else for our failures. We do our best, exhibited by our actions (this is important – don’t tell. Show!) no matter what the situation.

That’s a lot of meaning for one word but since we should be transparent in what we say and what we say is usually what we think it behooves us to define exactly what we are thinking when we utter the word toughness.

Blog entry #16 – Counting coup….

Our travels this weekend took us east to the start of the Great Plains and ancient war fields of the Crow Nation. We wrestled in the Sydney Eagle Invitational in Sydney Montana a short two hour flight and five hour bus ride from Seattle.

Indian tribes from as far west as the Pacific Coast and east to the Missouri River Valley utilized the ancient practice of counting coup. Counting coup was a method Indians gained prestige as warriors by acts of bravery against the enemy. During the season individual wrestlers will take small steps in much the same way. I always evaluate who made a positive step toward improvement or becoming a vital part of a state championship run. It may be a kid who places for the first time in a tough weight bracket or knocks off a state placer. It may be as simple as competing for a hard six minutes or moving up a weight class and taking one for the team. Counting coup could also be an act of leadership or selflessness. Whatever the case these positive steps are a great teachable moment and chance to acknowledge when an athlete is making improvements. It’s easy to leave a long weekend tired and defeated if all you’re worried about is outcome but if you approach the sport from a process based focus the victory is in the learning.

This being the first weekend to count coup of the season I really boned in on some bright spots for our team. So much of the sport is mental and you hear people say that all the time but rarely do we have a concrete approach to improving the mental challenges of the wrestlers. Mental changes are also the hardest things to change in my opinion. It’s easy to except mental challenges of your athletes as “That’s just the way he/she is” or “they are who they are” and move on. What a terrible pigeon hole to put a kid in. I believe as long as a kid keeps showing up there’s always an opportunity to help them overcome the mental hurdles that may be standing in the way of success. We’ve all coached the kid who is talented, skilled, works hard and practices well but when they get in competition they can’t seem to be that person. Coup is so important for these types of kids. Little steps of confidence and moments of self actualization can go a long way toward overcoming what’s happening in their mind once it comes to competition.

In one of my early posts I shared my struggles with being a nervous athlete and how I came to coach from a process based approach. Even though I won more than I lost I really responded to steady acknowledgement of little victories to keep my head above the mental flood plane. One of my athletes this weekend who has battled confidence issues among other things I was really hoping would catch some coup. He works hard, is talented, has wrestled for a long time but just can’t get past himself to cut loose, let go of baggage and scrap. After his first match this weekend (a loss) I shared with him how he constantly looked over at me during matches. When something out of sorts took place like giving up a takedown or not cutting clean from underneath he would glance at me. I shared with him that I felt like he was constantly looking for approval or disapproval and that he was in a constant state of self analysis and self judgement. It’s an engrained habit for this young man and to simply say, “hey quit critiquing yourself during matches” is just too simplistic of an answer. During competition is not the time to go through a critique. Compete without judgement or the fear of failure. This negative behavior shows in his wrestling when the slightest thing out of the ordinary occurs he momentarily stops. He could take a perfect shot and in the battle to finish just let go of the leg. We ask why in the world would you let go of the leg when the guy just sprawled on you but for him it’s a series of math problems where he is constantly checking to see if he got the answer right mid-equation. So, in an attempt to find a way to help him focus through a sport that is not black and white but very gray and there is no time to stop and self-critique I came up with a mantra. I discussed with him what I was seeing in his wrestling and the momentary gaps. I told him a match was a series of problem solving activities. For many athletes who don’t suffer from this in-competition self analysis they just flow from situation to situation never thinking about what went wrong. It’s their fight instinct and survival take over. For others like my athlete they don’t respond the same the fly when faced with the adrenaline rush. It is probably unfathomable to even have some thought of analysis in their brain for the fight response athlete but for this kid it’s a real flight situation and a major hurdle in his path to success or even enjoying the act of the sport. My mantra from the corner this weekend was “solve the next problem.” In other words this is code for “focus on the here and now, don’t worry about what went right or wrong and let’s deal with where we are at right now.”

After the tournament I felt like this may be one usable mental warfare tool in what is a private and personal battle. He responded positively and in that counted coup. We talked, like we have so many times before that this issue was not going to be solved in a day or week and it will take more practice and diligence than learning a new move or wrestling technique but it is surly fixable. There must be hope.

According to ancient Crow tradition warriors who counted coup are permitted to wear an eagle feather in their hair. If the warrior is wounded in the act they are required to paint the feather red signifying their sacrifice. There are many red feathers earned in wrestling and this weekend we put a few red feathers in our hair.