Similar themes came up time and time again during the post-match interviews of the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships. For the 125-pound champion to the heavyweights, there were clearly some common threads in the way these guys mentally prepare for the mat. It’s possible to think this is merely a coincidence, but it’s much more likely that these mindset qualities are a prerequisite for succeeding at the highest levels.
By reverse-engineering these qualities in your mindset and your lifestyle, your chances of winning more matches and improving over time can greatly increase. Let’s break down some of the common mental qualities we saw from this year’s NCAA wrestling champions.
1. Others Believing in Them Helped Them Believe in Themselves
The effect that a strong support system can have on a wrestler’s mentality is tremendous. It all comes down to surrounding yourself with capable people who believe in your potential.
Spencer Lee, the 125-pound national champion from the University of Iowa, praised his great team and how they helped him believe in himself. He also mentions that his coaches, family and friends all believed in him. This led to Lee’s rare accomplishment of winning a national title as a true freshman.
Zahid Valencia, the 174-pound national champion from Arizona State University, sang similar praises. “I’ve just been blessed with great parents, great family [and] great teammates.”
Seth Gross, the 133-pound national champion from South Dakota State University, initially had a rough start in collegiate wrestling by finishing just one season at the University of Iowa before being dismissed from the program. He eventually got the opportunity to redeem himself at South Dakota State, as their coaches saw great potential in Gross and were willing to give him another shot. According to Gross, “[Former SDSU Head] Coach Bono was willing to give me a second chance. I can’t thank him enough.”
Yianni Diakohmihalis, the 141-pound national champion from Cornell, mentioned being grateful to assistant coach Mike Grey for mentoring him throughout his freshman year (in addition to Lee, Diakohmihalis was the only other true freshman champion this year). Diakomihalis banged up his knee in the quarterfinals where he defeated the returning two-time national champion Dean Heil. He recalls coach Grey saying, “Hey, you got it. Don’t let it faze you. Nothing changes. You’re still fighting hard.” Despite later finding out that Diakomihalis had torn his ACL, Grey told him what he needed to hear in order to compete at his best in one of the deepest weight classes at the national tournament that year.
2. An Attacking Mindset
Lee talked about getting to his offense and building his lead. Diakomihalis talked about how he believed in his own scoring potential. Valencia is known for having one of the highest attack rates in NCAA wrestling. Those attacking mindsets allowed them to dictate the tempos of their matches and put points on the scoreboard. In fact, just about every one of this year’s NCAA champions are known for an attacking style.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that you ignore working on your defense. Solid defense keeps you from getting destroyed in the big matches, but generating offense is what allows you to win those matches. Successful athletes and world-class performers alike tend to embrace a “get-after-it” mindset and dictating the match on their terms.
3. Having Fun on the Mat
The team championship title went to Penn State University, who had four national champions in Zain Retherford at 149 pounds, Jason Nolf at 157 pounds, Vincenzo Joseph at 165 pounds, and Bo Nickal at 184 pounds.
Penn State wrestlers always seem to talk about having fun while they wrestle. This isn’t just lip service, as these PSU wrestlers embrace their own individual styles and truly shine in their own ways on the big stage. In other words, they make it look fun. In his finals match, Nickal took a huge risk in initiating a throw that very briefly put him on his own back. However, it paid off as he ended up pinning his opponent in the first period and locking up the team title for Penn State University. Despite having the team title on the line, Nickal stayed true to his own style and found success for himself and the team because of it.
NCAA champion wrestlers believe in themselves and their abilities, and they’re quick to point out how important the mental aspect of the sport is to their success on the mat. As Rocky once told Adonis Creed,”See this guy here? That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever gonna have to face. I believe it’s true in the ring, and I believe it’s true in life.”
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