Wow, what an NCAA Tournament. In the above picture is Jesse Jantzen (right, I’m the old guy on the left) a guy who definitely got the job done at the NCAA Tournament back in 2004. Jesse was so dominant his senior year there was little doubt he would win it. Most of the time it doesn’t work like that. The line between failure and success is so thin it’s hard to determine exactly what will give the athlete that fine edge for success on the culminating weekend. Penn State does what they do with a special spirit and resilience that is impressive. But let’s not forget how talented they are and getting it done in the glare of the lights has a lot to do with talent. I think what’s more impressive is the poise and grace of the two freshman champions. Granted, these young men have a ton of mat time and have performed on the world stage but there is nothing like the finals of the NCAA Tournament for intensity and pressure and being your best at that moment say’s something about their mental makeup. I have been fortunate enough to watch both of these young men win Cadet World Championships and their calm under pressure is something they seem to have mastered. I guess it’s only pressure if you see it that way eh?
Victor Frankl said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
I would agree with this profound statement in part and add at the end “surrender to the process.” The “mindful” practice of focus is such a driving force on how we look at pressure, competition, emotions and the management of those components in the context of a very competitive and unruly world. I use the word unruly because as an athlete we may not control what is said to us by coaches, parents, teammates and of course the media but our filtration and reaction to those “unruly” events are critical.
As a high school coach I marvel at the skill and competitiveness of the NCAA Tournament and try to take a few things from it each year. It’s easy to be in awe of the high level of competitiveness and how incredibly tough individuals are. Everything is heightened at this level but in most respects the coaches and athletes are dealing with the same parameters as we as high school participants do at our respective high school state tournaments. There are, of course technical trends coaches see and want to emphasize back in their practice rooms. It’s easy to think just because we are coaches we see the sport as a coach. When we walk through the doors of the arena we most certainly become fans and as fans it’s easy to judge and critique without in-depth knowledge or understanding. I try to remind myself that these guys struggle with the same stuff I as a wrestler struggled with and that my teenage athletes deal with. Getting athletes to that fine line when they step into that highly charged atmosphere of an NCAA Tournament or high school state championship is a product of good coaching and psychology.
At this year’s state tournament my team lost seven one point matches on the first day. This was the difference between making a run at a state championship and taking fourth. Since that weekend I have asked myself why on the daily. On the trip to Cleveland it was discussed between my assistant and I numerous times. We are searching for answers. Some of it is coaching ego where we believe we can have that big of an impact and some of it has to do with talent. When we had really talented kids with great skill and preparation it was easy to say we peeked at the right time. But then there are the other parts of the puzzle we definitely have direct control over. Practice structure, competition structure and schedule, time off, individual psychology, focus, mindset and a myriad of other things come to mind when trying to break down what brings out the best in athletes on that final weekend of the season.
Teams and individuals that reach peak performance have some identifiable traits that coaches can strive to within their respective programs. Confidence, a keen focus on the task at hand, positive energy and a spirit of fun seem to be universal for those teams that reach or even exceed their potential at the definitive moment. If our focus on a daily basis is on these very same traits throughout the process I believe our mental approach will be better trained to handle the pressure down the stretch. My kids this year lacked some of these traits and I truly believe it helped determine some of the outcome. We need to look at that culture and ensure we are truly committed to the process and a mindful approach with our daily dialogue and behavior as coaches and teammates. Taking a snap shot of a part of a tournament is probably not the best way to assess overall performance and preparation but looking back it’s easy to ask the “what if’s” had we won all seven rather than lost. Just focusing on that one stat we cannot identify specific areas of weakness. My initial knee jerk reaction was “mental toughness” but it also behooves us to look at the psychological and technical aspect of what took place.
After taking a step back from it and trying to remove the emotion I could see that the majority of our losses were due to being deficient in the bottom position and a lack of mat strategy or what some would call “savvy.”
The problems on bottom are quantitative and a very tangible issue. This is preparation and comes directly back to the coach. I also believe we didn’t have that fun, competitive hungry spirit that peak teams have. This is an element that is not so quantitative but one as a seasoned coach I believe to be real and fixable starting with culture. In some way our culture of fun, ferocious competitors failed us. With that said, I leave you with a quote from the preeminent author of our generation.
“You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard….How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.”
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest