Mental Strength Training with Michigan Wrestling

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In this sport, where opponents are paired based on weight, victory is determined not by the bigger body, but by the bigger heart. The physical demands are trying, but the ability to deal with the pain, burn and fatigue in every muscle defines an athlete's mental toughness and commitment to winning.

The University of Michigan placed second in the 2005 NCAA National Wrestling Tournament. Led by senior captain and multiple-time national champ, Ryan Bertin, the Wolverines were stacked with gladiators. Under the guidance of head coach Joe McFarland, these men controlled the competition.

If your mind can beat your body, you're mentally tough, and "great wrestler" might be in your genes. University of Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland can take your mental toughness to a new level.

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In this sport, where opponents are paired based on weight, victory is determined not by the bigger body, but by the bigger heart. The physical demands are trying, but the ability to deal with the pain, burn and fatigue in every muscle defines an athlete's mental toughness and commitment to winning.

The University of Michigan placed second in the 2005 NCAA National Wrestling Tournament. Led by senior captain and multiple-time national champ, Ryan Bertin, the Wolverines were stacked with gladiators. Under the guidance of head coach Joe McFarland, these men controlled the competition.

Are you tough? Really tough? Not Hollywood-style torture-me-all-you-wantbut-I'll-never-talk tough, but real life tough. Tough in situations where most normal people buckle. Tough when it's your mind versus your body—when every muscle says, "Stop," but your mind says, "Flex or we're going to lose."

If your mind can beat your body, you're mentally tough, and "great wrestler" might be in your genes. University of Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland can take your mental toughness to a new level.

Conventional strength training and conditioning drills place extra stress on your body and force it to improve. Doing them at the end of practice adds an extra dimension of training—it develops mental toughness.

McFarland pushes his team through rope climbs and sandbag drills right before practice ends, when the Wolverines are fatigued.

"Rope climbing is great exercise for wrestlers," says McFarland,, "because it works your grip, forearms, back and stomach. All the pull movements benefit wresters. If you climb rope for five to seven minutes, it's a real bear."

As if forcing the Wolverines to pull themselves up ropes after a physically demanding practice isn't enough, McFarland tests their toughness even further.

He explains, "I have the guys start sitting on their butts so they can't use their legs. They have to pull themselves up keeping their bodies in a V position. Then they go back down and see how many they can get."

At the point of exhaustion, Michigan wrestlers catch a break: McFarland lets them use their legs. Most climb the 15-foot rope two or three times without legs, then squeeze out a couple more with the aid of their lower limbs. Top athletes climb five or six times without legs—proving the toughness-building effects of rope climbing.

McFarland also uses sandbags for mental training. "We have sandbags in the practice room that go from 25 pounds up to 45," he says. "We use them to do curls, shoulder presses and all kinds of exercises. We perform high reps and try to burn out at the end of practice. It's nonstop motion and great for wrestling, because you're doing a lot of pushing and pulling, which is done all the time in our sport."

In a partner system, one athlete rests while the other performs a continuous sandbag lift circuit for a grueling two minutes. To mimic the set the Wolverines use, choose four lifts with a sandbag and rep out as many as you can in 30-second increments. The unstable weight and lack of a true handle on the sandbag will push your grip to the limit. Once your forearms start burning, you'll find out if you have what it takes to hold on to your opponent in the waning moments of a big match.

Another drill in McFarland's mental boot camp is running arena stairs while holding sandbags. Adding weight makes the run a lot harder. It also helps the athletes gain a new appreciation for the level of pain their bodies can endure and still perform.

"The sandbags are great for working the grip and legs," McFarland says. "Unlike the weighted vests that some people use, the bags have to be carried the whole way."

Don't cheat yourself by throwing the sandbag over your shoulder or your arm. Hold the bags in front of you to make it really enjoyable.

"All of these drills are designed to develop mental toughness and help you to push through those same feelings you get in a tough match," McFarland says. "You get fatigued after four or five minutes and have to push through it."

During the season, McFarland mentally drills his wrestlers once a week, but never within 48 hours of a match. The body needs rest, and mental toughness won't help if the body is too broken down to move.

Commitment To Confidence

Intense. Driven. Motivated. Dedicated. Committed. Role model. This is Ryan Bertin, according to McFarland. Impressive compliments from a coach, but is Bertin really that great? Take a look at his collegiate wrestling career and make your own call.

  • Career record: 142-21
  • Two-time 157-pound national champ
  • Four-time All-American
  • Fifth on UM career wins list
  • 2005 Big Ten Wrestler of the Year
  • Two-time team captain
  • Three-time NWAC All-Academic

These achievements more than qualify Bertin as a wrestling phenomenon. So whatever McFarland said about him, STACK wanted to hear.

"Ryan is a success because of his complete commitment to the sport—everything from what he puts into his body to how hard he trains 12 months of the year," McFarland says. "He's the type of guy who gets up early in the morning and starts running and strength training. He's really developed his body so he can go out and wrestle a really hard seven minutes.

"All the little things you do as a wrestler add up. They develop your confidence. Knowing that you trained harder than everyone else; knowing that when everyone else was sleeping in over the summer, you were getting up and running; and knowing that when guys were taking time off, you were still in the weight room and on the mat—these are the keys to success."

Bertin knew that no one else in his weight class committed as much to wrestling, and he carried that knowledge with him on the mat. Besides being the leader in his weight class, Bertin captained his team. "He was a great captain because he led by example," McFarland says.. "Whatever we did—whether it was running, wrestling or lifting—Ryan just got after it. In the practice room, he was one of those guys who was always really intense and trained extremely hard. He was such a great role model."

Obviously, Bertin has freakish wrestling talent. But that isn't the only reason he was able to punish his opponents. "Ryan would be the first to tell you that he's no more talented than a lot of the guys in his weight class," McFarland says..

"He was so successful because of how hard he trained and how he poured himself into the sport. He knew coming in here that he wanted to be a multi-time national champ, and he knew what he needed to do to get there. He needed to outwork those other guys, and that's what he did."

Wrestler To The Core

Yes. Ruling your weight class results from refining your wrestling skills and working on cardio. But developing core strength is equally important.

"We do Olympic lifts like high pulls and cleans. We also do plyometric lifts like box jumps," says Joe McFarland, University of Michigan's head wrestling coach. "This combination has been really good for us, because wrestlers have to be explosive and maintain it for six minutes in high school and seven in college."

Many of the same muscles used in jumps and Olympic lifts are used during a match. "Wrestling is a lot of using your core," says McFarland. "Being down in your stance, penetrating through on a shot and coming up to lift your opponent in the air—all these movements use your core muscle groups and your explosiveness. And all can be improved through Olympic lifts and plyometrics." When beginning Olympic lifts, use a weight that allows you to complete 8 reps for 3 sets. Gradually increase weight and decrease to 5 reps for 3 sets. You should maintain a workout of 3 sets of 5 reps, but you can occasionally drop to 3 reps per set.

McFarland suggests a few different plyo exercises. Typically, his wrestlers perform 10 reps of each.

  • Jump forward onto a box; set yourself, then jump back down
  • Jump laterally onto a box; set yourself, then jump back down
  • Set up three, same-height boxes in a row. Jump:
    • onto the first box
    • between the first and second boxes
    • onto the second box
    • between the second and third boxes
    • onto the third box, and
    • off and out as far as possible

    Spend as little time as possible between jumps During the season, McFarland suggests doing Olympic and plyometric lifts on the same day once a week at least 48 hours before a match.


    Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

    Topics: WRESTLING | UPPER BODY | MENTAL TOUGHNESS