Archived Feature - Mismatched: Preparing as an Underdog
A coach talks with his athlete during the 2015 ASICS/Vaughan Cadet National Greco-Roman finals. Every athlete is an underdog at some time, and the mental game is important. Photo by John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com
Every wrestler has faced the challenge of being an underdog. They open the youth tournament against a crosstown rival they have lost to in three straight matches. They advance to the tournament semi-finals, knowing the top-ranked wrestler in the state is next. They head into wrestle-offs against a teammate they just can't defeat. They prepare for a dual meet against a powerhouse that never seems to lose.
Accepting the challenge as an underdog is not as much about physical skills as it is about mental preparation, says Jim Harshaw, a former Division I All-America wrestler at the University of Virginia who is now coach of the Cavalier Wrestling Club in Charlottesville, VA.
"Focus on the process, not the outcome," says Harshaw. "You can't control winning and losing. You control what you do—how you eat, how you practice, if you set up your shots, if you explode off the bottom. Those are processes that, if done to the best of your ability, will increase your odds of winning. If you think of those, you'll increase your odds of winning. If you think of winning, then you take your mind off of the processes that will help you actually achieve victory."
Harshaw knows what it's like to be the underdog. It’s a role he had played even before he stepped on the mat his freshman year at Virginia. "I failed at achieving my goals in high school," he recalls. "I never got on the podium, so when I arrived at Virginia and was part of a top 10 recruiting class and roommates with a Pennsylvania state champion (Matt Roth), I certainly felt like the underdog," he explains. "So I worked and I worked and I worked. I was voted the team’s hardest worker my sophomore, junior and senior seasons. I won three ACC championships and became an All-American. All of the nights, weekends and summers of training and competing throughout high school finally came to fruition later in my college career. Hard work never goes unrewarded."
In wrestling, from the youth to the high school ranks, word spreads quickly about the top wrestlers and teams—the perceived favorites. Blocking that out, as difficult as it might be, is important, says Gene Zannetti, owner of Wrestling Mindset, a New Jersey-based organization that works with coaches and competitors on how to improve a wrestler's confidence and stay focused under pressure.
"Avoid the fan mentality," says Zannetti. "Don't worry about wins, rankings, previous results or the opinions of others. If they went strictly by who is ranked higher then they wouldn’t actually wrestle the match.”
Meaghan M. McCarthy, a sports psychologist who owns Southern California-based M3 Sport Psych, has worked with individual, club, and high school wrestling teams. Like Harshaw, she says the focus should never be solely on winning.
"Wrestling is very intense—physically, mentally, and emotionally," says McCarthy. "When a hard-fought match is lost, it can be very difficult to find success. A good habit to establish whether you are an underdog or not is to debrief your performance and pick out three aspects that were positive, and one aspect that your want to improve upon. It’s easy for athletes to pick themselves apart, it comes from their competitive drive. That will wear on your confidence after a while whether you realize it or not. Finding three positives to one negative is a good ratio to keep. This also helps you see that you are successful."
McCarthy says coaches and parents can help in the process—if a wrestler is labeled an underdog, make sure that all the positive qualities and characteristics of an underdog are being emphasized.
"The characteristic of an underdog is typically a fighter, someone who believes in himself or herself when few else do," says McCarthy. "Some athletes even prefer being the underdog because there is sometimes less focus on them and less pressure. They also tend to like the element of surprise when they begin performing better than expected.”
Harshaw went on to coach at Slippery Rock, a small Division I-school in Pennsylvania, and he recalls a time when his team upset a higher-ranked Kent State team in a dual meet. "We prepared to beat a team that was better, on paper, than we were," Harshaw says. "They took us lightly and held back a few starters and we were fortunate enough to be able to take advantage. The lesson there was to never fold because you don't know the situation of your opponent. They may take you lightly. They may be injured or sick. They make one big mistake. Be there to take advantage."
Zannetti says wrestlers should put together a plan for every match, and to never get too high or low based on the opponent. "Continue to wrestle your own way and look to be the one to dictate the pace," he says. "Do not concede to wrestle [your opponent’s] way because they are more accomplished. Remember, they cannot bring their medals with them on the mat."
Five tips to help a wrestler prepare as an underdog
Keep your poise: A wrestler with poise is a dangerous one. Don't panic when you get taken down, when the ref makes a questionable call, or even when you see the logo on the opposing singlet. Just keep pushing for every single second of the match and then some. Do the little things—such as beating your opponent back to the center after going out of bounds.
Find motivational tactics: Have your wrestlers watch Vision Quest, Rocky, Miracle, or any other inspirational movie. Listen to songs that encourage you to achieve what might seem impossible. Write down your favorites motivational quotes and read them regularly.
Focus on mental preparation: Pulling off a big upset happens long before the match begins. Work on your mindset and mental preparation throughout the season and off-season as much as your technique. If your mind is trained and ready, then you will be able to overcome odds. Train yourself to believe.
Focus on a few winnable situations: Talk to your coach and develop a strategy and follow that throughout the match. Set small, achievable goals throughout the match, such as scoring a takedown in the first period, winning a period, or keeping it close to have a chance at the end.
Do what works best for you: Everyone has to figure out his or her own way to best prepare for a match. For some, it's putting on music and getting fired up. For Harshaw, he would find a quiet hallway and read the newspaper until about four minutes before he prepared to step on the mat. Try different things and find out what helps you achieve your peak competitive state. Then do that every time. Just because a teammate does it one way, doesn’t mean you have to do it that way.
Note: This archived feature first appeared in USA Wrestling's newsletter in January 2014.