Wrestling As An Underdog - Prepare For a Tough Opponent with These 7 Tips

By Matt Krumrie | Aug. 01, 2018, 10:36 a.m. (ET)

Let it fly!

That's what Joshua Phillips did in the section tournament as a sophomore at University High School in Normal, Illinois. That's when Phillips faced the No. 4-ranked wrestler in the state—an opponent he had already lost to three times that same season. This time though, a berth to the state tournament was on the line.

Phillips, only a sophomore, had one more shot against the highly ranked, more experienced senior. And he beat him. Because as he says, he took the advice of his coaches and "let it fly."

"In this sectional match, my coaches told me that I had nothing to lose and to just 'let it fly,’" said Phillips. "It was literally going to be somebody's last match of the season. So, who cared? It really was a 'no one expects you to win, so go out there and try every takedown you can for six minutes mentality. Just have fun and show people what you can do.' I shrugged my shoulders, said 'why not' and ended up winning 11-4. It was a crazy upset and I ended up going to state as a sophomore."

Phillips went on to win a state title two years later as a senior. He then wrestled at Central Michigan University (2002-2004) and is now an assistant coach at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Phillips also received a Ph.D. in Speech Communication from Southern Illinois University in 2014 and is an assistant teaching professor at Penn State Brandywine (near Philadelphia).

Before that sectional match as a sophomore though, Phillips wasn't as confident, or aggressive, and it showed in the way he competed.

"Each match I just tried to hold on and play defense hoping to get a takedown in the final seconds," said Phillips. "But he was too good and controlled me. All the matches were close, but he was definitely in control."

That upset win as a sophomore was the turning point in his career, said Phillips. The next two years he wrestled aggressively and won consistently because he attacked his opponent, and scored points. As a senior in 2002, Phillips won the Class A 160-pound state title while scoring 22 points (winning 22-11), setting an Illinois state record for most points in a finals win at 160 pounds. In that match Phillips scored 10 takedowns and one reversal—while also cutting his opponent and letting him escape 11 times.

"I tell this story to my wrestlers today because it was a major shift for how I approached the sport," said Phillips. "It doesn't make sense to practice hundreds of takedowns every practice to only take two shots a match—even if you're scared or the underdog. You're either going to win or lose. So, might as well go hard for six minutes. I try and get my kids to understand that if they trust themselves and realize they have nothing to lose, they can let it fly and put big points up against top opponents."

Trust your training

Coaches and wrestlers should focus on their game plan, and not spend time worrying about what the opponent is going to do, says Joe Uccellini, Co-State Head Coach/Cadet Director for New York USA Wrestling and owner of the Curby 3 Style Wrestling Club in Troy, New York.

"Trust your training," says Uccellini. "If you believe in the coach and in your preparation the match is just the presentation. Go out and execute the game plan."

The reality is though, that coaches, wrestlers, and parents all know when they are facing a top-ranked opponent, or team, or someone who has had success, or is among the top wrestlers one will face. So it's only natural for a wrestler, coach or even parent to suggest they should do something different to prepare for this type of match.

"To take pressure off of our athletes we direct their focus to the technique not to who he/she is wrestling," said Uccellini. "When teaching technique, we always reinforce that we are teaching technique that works on the best wrestlers at the highest levels."

So accept the challenge and opportunity, don’t fear it.

"You are out there doing what you love to do," says Uccellini. "Leave it all on the mat. Win and lose the same way. Stay humble and learn from either outcome."

Trusting one's training, and the process, is something wrestling coaches hammer home to youth and high school wrestlers throughout the country, practice after practice, year after year.

"Never prepare differently based on the strength of an opponent," said Mike Hagerty, a Coaching Education Director with USA Wrestling who has also been a USA World Team coach six times.

"Creating routines that are repeated before and after competitions is critical for long-term success," says Hagerty. "There is nothing positive about changing your routines based on a coaches or athlete's perception of an opponent. A great warmup and pre-match routine goes a long way in settling any nerves or anxiety about the upcoming match."

In fact, "coaching up" by placing more emphasis on one match because of an opponent’s rank, reputation, or past success, can even backfire, says Hagerty.

"My experience tells me that very few athletes need to be coached up," says Hagerty, a longtime coach at Blue Springs High School in Blue Springs, Missouri, and a member of the Missouri Wrestling Association Hall of Fame and the Missouri USA Wrestling Hall of Fame. "Most need just the opposite...so thinking that a coach needs to do more or say more because of the perception that it is a tough match doesn't hold water. Do what works consistently. As a coach, it is your job to build as much confidence as possible in every athlete. Athletes will quickly detect that something is different if you start offering new or different advice prior to any one match. All matches are important, so prepare the same way for all of them."

Troy Nickerson, head coach at Northern Colorado University, agrees. At Northern Colorado, he says, the focus isn't on an opponent’s rankings or results, but instead on his wrestlers wrestling the perfect match.

"Wrestlers need to trust their training and skills and let the rest take care of itself," says Nickerson, who was a four-time All-American and 2009 NCAA 125-pound national champion at Cornell University.

"If we wrestled as hard as we could for the entire match, then the results will follow," says Nickerson. "Tactically, it is important to know how you are going to start the match as an underdog. It is critical to initiate the pace from the first whistle to keep things in your wheelhouse."

It's all about advanced preparation, said Mike DeRoehn, head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Wrestlers need to strike a delicate balance between being "ready to go" physically and mentally.

"When they are well-trained in terms of functional strength, sport specific conditioning, and their personal skill set of techniques are as sharp as can be, we can remind them to mentally trust in your training," says DeRoehn.

Clarity through preparation

As UW-Platteville wrestlers head towards postseason tournaments—where they will face those top opponents, DeRoehn has each student-athlete fill out an individual match plan. This provides them with the critical mental skill of clarity. When the first whistle blows, they know where they want their hands, what tie-ups to create, when to attack, and so on, says DeRoehn.

"The objective is to have the student-athletes so well prepared, that they can fully buy into the concept of 'my opponent is nameless and faceless,'" says DeRoehn. "The goal is to be prepared enough to go out there and 'execute my best attacks, to score my points and make it my match' regardless of opponent. If they try to change things up because they're wrestling 'someone good' they typically freeze up and don't execute.”

Before each match DeRoehn reminds his wrestlers to "Surrender the outcome, have fun, score points and fight your butt off," he says. "When they trust their training and let go of the outcome, it frees them up to wrestle to the best of their individual ability. When athletes do that, they typically wrestle free, loose, and let it fly, fighting from every position, which leads to offensive points on the board and their best chance of victory.”

That's certainly what Phillips did.

"It's all mental," added Phillips. "Kids need to be willing to go out as an underdog and just fly around with the big boys and see what happens."

How to prepare when facing a tough opponent

Tips from Joe Uccellini, Co-State Head Coach/Cadet Director for New York USA Wrestling and owner of the Curby 3 Style Wrestling Club in Troy, New York:

  1. Win the initial positions to make sure that we are wrestling in positions of advantage.
  2. Pull the trigger: When the opportunity to score presents itself "trust the training" and execute technique correctly and at high speeds.
  3. Practice with partners that you can beat easily, that you are even with, and that beat you easily. There is something to be gained in all situations.
  4. Learn how to wrestle close (Greco-Roman, upper body/freestyle/folkstyle). If kids can wrestle in these positions they can wrestle anywhere.
  5. Train in cycles: Wrestlers don't need to peak all year round. Build 4-6-week training camps leading into big tournaments. Use the offseason/non training camps to focus on technique and go to local tourneys to test technique.
  6. Keep a notebook. We forget so much information that is thrown in front of us. Most if not all great wrestlers said they kept a notebook.
  7. Have fun: Wrestlers are most dangerous when they are "enjoying the fight."