“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
I know, you just got really excited because you think I quoted Abraham Lincoln, and he was a badass wrestler. Sadly, it turns out he never said that, but it’s still an epic quote. And Abe was a total badass.
Any athlete, especially a wrestler, is all too familiar with the one-sided ratio between preparation and performance. If anything, the famous axe quote is extremely generous. Wrestlers regularly train for literally hundreds or thousands of hours, preparing for only a few short and intense minutes on the mat. That’s it, that’s all you get. That brief moment in time is the culmination and measuring stick for all the training and preparation leading up to it. Or at least, that’s how it feels at the time. If you performed well, you’re on top of the world and it seems like all your hard work has paid off. When you lose or don’t quite win the way you wanted to, it all comes crashing down and it feels like you’ve wasted countless hours of training that you’ll never get back. Sound familiar? This is the emotional roller coaster many wrestlers fall victim to when we don’t have a good system in place for preparing, training, and tracking our progress. It’s called going through the motions, and putting luck, talent, and circumstance ahead of an intentional, focused drive for constant improvement.
Everyone has the same amount of time to prepare, and the same 6 or 7 minutes in a match to make it all count. So how do you make sure you’re stepping onto the mat as prepared and ready as you can possibly be? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or shortcut for that. However, here are a few guidelines to consider to get you on the right track:
It’s definitely important to try and model what the best of the best are doing, but realize everyone is at different stages in their training and every athlete has different goals. If you’re just starting out, you might not want to be on the same workout plan as Jordan Burroughs. By the same token, if you are training to be an NCAA champion, don’t pat yourself on the back for outworking only the 2nd and 3rd string guys on the team. You always want to be just a little outside of your comfort zone to encourage growth, but not so far outside that you become overwhelmed and get burnt out mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s easy to get distracted by what others are doing. Get with your coach, set your goals, make a game plan to reach them, and stick to it.
Yes, we all HATE to lose, and we love to win. However, a seasoned and well-trained athlete usually has the ability to step back and put things in perspective. They can take feedback from coaches, analyze their performance, and make adjustments going forward as needed. There is no energy wasted on pouting or dwelling on mistakes, they just keep looking forward. At the end of the day, the best know that they’ve done everything in their power to prepare when game time comes. Win or lose, the next match is always the most important match.
Well which one is it? It’s both and neither at the same time. If all you’re doing is showing up and are not engaged in the process, or see practice as a chore, you’re not helping yourself or your teammates. In fact, regularly practicing with an apathetic mindset can have a negative impact and develop bad habits. On the other hand, aiming for perfection all the time can make you afraid to make mistake in practice, or try anything new. Practice is meant for learning, and it should be fun. The best “students-of-the-game” use practice as an opportunity to put themselves into new and uncomfortable positions so that they can identify weaknesses and address them quickly. So perfect practice is not avoiding mistakes, but rather, a focused effort to give all of your attention to the present moment and very deliberately working to master whatever it is you’re working on.
This should be common sense, but it is certainly not common practice. The chances of retaining a new skill, and being able to apply it in competition after practicing it just once are almost exactly 0%. You have to drill it. Drill it over and over until you can do it in your sleep. But what’s more effective? Running 1,000 miles in one day (if that were humanly possible), or running one mile per day for 1000 days? It’s obvious, the first option would probably kill you, the second will likely make you faster, and better conditioned over time. Same is true for any type of training for wrestling; regular, consistent practice of a skill will produce far better results over time than if you try to cram, like you do before finals. Be patient, play the long game.
This is so ridiculously important; I don’t know where to begin. Training specifically for you sport, whether it’s wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, soccer, or powerwalk racing is the difference between peak performance and stumbling into the postseason in the wrong kind of shape, burnt out, and probably injured. Running 15 miles per day will no doubt make you a better runner, but it’s not doing anything for your double leg or your low single defense. Ask yourself these questions: what kind of strength does my sport require? Do I need aerobic or anaerobic endurance? What are the common injuries? What are the primary movements that get repeated over and over? How important is flexibility?
Once you have your short term and long terms goals laid out, you also need to have a way to measure and track your progress. No, I don’t mean they’re obsessively checking rankings and statistics. Leave that to superfans. What I mean is real, quantifiable data about changes in your endurance, strength, speed, and skill level. You can keep count of how many takedowns you get, your running speed at different distances, maximal or relative strength (for example, number of pushups vs. bench press max), and even your heart rate and recovery time. We live in a time where we have endless resources at our disposal for collecting these types of data. For example, many wrestlers and other athletes are now using heart rate monitors to track their workouts and make sure that they are achieving the desired intensity produce real results, and avoid overtraining.
Here’s the deal, wrestling IS the world’s toughest sport. Some days will simply and unequivocally suck. Period. When that happens, if your “why” is not bigger than the pain and struggle necessary for growth, you will crumble under the pressure. Everyone’s why is different. Don’t just say “I wanna be a national champ” just because it sounds ambitious. For some, your “why” may be simply to get in better shape, and have a winning season. Others have their sights set on Olympic Gold. Whatever it is, only you can decide. Once you have it, write down, and remind yourself of it daily. You own internal motivation is a thousand times more powerful than any encouragement, discouragement, or physical discomfort will ever be.
Now, you have six hours to chop down a tree. Start sharpening your axe!