The Art of Winning

Uncategorized Mar 09, 2017
By: Jake Tanenbaum

If you had
One shot
Or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it
Or just let it slip?

Eminem, "Lose Yourself"

You’re in the biggest match of your career. For some, maybe it’s the regional or sectional finals, maybe it’s in the blood round to get to the top 8 or top 6. Maybe it’s the state, national, or world finals. Or maybe it’s a job interview, first date, or even your wedding. Regardless, it’s the most important day/match of your life. And as Eminem says in his song “lose yourself” ‘you have one moment to capture everything you’ve ever wanted, are you going to capture it, or just let it slip?’

In order to understand the art of winning, we must first look at the art of failure, and its two evil cousins: choking and panicking.


“An honorable failure” as Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling books Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath defines it. Or according to Mr. Merriam-Webster: to lose one's composure and fail to perform effectively in a critical situation. We’ve all seen the wrestler we thought had it all, lose in critical situation which left us wondering ‘how could a guy/girl like that lose that match?’ But it happens.

Going back to the reference from above, Malcolm Gladwell deep dives into the art of choking and why it happens. He explains that choking is an honorable failure, because the athlete who chokes is so well prepared, that he or she should easily accomplish what they set out to do. However, the athlete fails to do so because they are “thinking too much”.

You may have experienced this before. You’re ready to go, it’s the biggest match of your career, and all of a sudden you think about your opponent, how good they are, how you don’t know if you can add up. So, you try to convince yourself that you’re better and you’ve trained harder, but now your mind is racing, thinking and trying to convince yourself that you’re good enough, instead of getting ‘in the zone’. And that is the difference between choking and performing at the highest level.

Imagine you’re in a match and there’s one minute left. You know your bread and butter move, whatever it may be. But now you’re thinking of hitting your bread and butter move, and instead of actually hitting it, you choke, you stand there and fail to accomplish it. That’s another definition of choking. Although you have hit that move hundreds or even thousands of times, your conscious thinking of hitting that move in a match inhibits you from actually doing it.

When you practice and drill repetitions, you are creating unconscious habits in your brain that allow you to perform that move without thinking. In motor learning, this is called a “generalised motor pattern” (most people confuse this with muscle memory). Nonetheless, you are able to perform this motor pattern based on how well you have drilled that specific move (also why you should drill perfect repetitions). However, when you start consciously thinking of hitting a move that you’ve already drilled into your subconscious, that is when choking may occur.


Panicking, on the other hand, is failure at its finest. It’s defined as: a sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior. To put in other terms, it’s when you fail to think. Choking, as we talked about before, is when you think too much. Now, panicking, is when you fail to think. But the biggest difference here isn’t thinking, it’s preparing. In choking, the athlete or person whom chokes is very well prepared, they just happen to think too much during pivotal moments. Panicking is the combination of not being prepared and not thinking in critical situations. For example, take a person who doesn’t know how to swim. A person gets in the water and instead of thinking how they could get out or stay afloat, they panic, they freak out and start flailing uncontrollably. This is how people drown.

In wrestling, that may look like someone who skipped practice for a week and then sets out to go into competition. They freeze up, get taken down, and pinned. That’s panick. There’s not much that person could have done other than survived, because they just weren’t prepared. This is why Gladwell refers to choking as an “honorable failure” and panicking as just “failure”.

Now that we’re done with the failing part, let’s look into the art of winning. For many top athletes, they talk about being in “the zone” when they perform their best. So, let’s take a deep dive into what the zone is and how to get there.

The Zone

You’re back in the biggest match of your career, or that job interview, that date with the most beautiful girl, or any other kind of big moment in your life. You’ve been here before too. This time, you rock it. You get the job, get the girl, win the match. You’re “on fire” “rolling” “in the zone”. Bottom line, you did it! This is where every athlete wants to be, but so few get to. What’s the difference between these athletes and the ones who prepare just the same, but can’t get into this state of mind?

For one, no one wants to panic or choke, it’s not fun, and you don’t win. So, in order not to panic, be prepared. In order not to choke, get in the zone. Panicking is easier to overcome, choking, a little harder. Everyone can control how much they prepare, but getting into the zone is a bit trickier. Here are 3 techniques that are proven to work:

1. Meditation

Meditation is becoming more and more popular and accepted in today’s world. Before, it was thought that only Buddhist monks were capable of performing these miraculous feats. However, everyone can. Meditation is simply being present, or in the moment. There are many articles on the benefits to long term health, as well as detailed articles going in depth about the various types of meditation. For example, there is loving kindness meditations, mindfulness meditations, bodily meditations, etc. We will dive into these in further articles, but for now we’ll keep it simple. Meditation could mean sitting peacefully, breathing deep into your abdomen, and just simply following the breath. You can do this in sets and repetitions, just like weight lifting. Treat your mind as a muscle, it needs to be worked as well. If you’re in for trying it out: do 3 sets of 9 deep breaths, breathe into your stomach, and just follow your breath and nothing else. Best results come from consistency, do it everyday.

2. Visualization

Many successful athletes visualise their success before it happens. This is another great method to perform at your highest level when it counts. To visualize, simply close your eyes and lay in a place that is peaceful and quiet, and see yourself performing what you set out to do. Visualize the moves you will hit, your hand getting raised, and your family and friends hugging you afterwards. All of these are important. In fact, it is said to be better to visualize yourself in your body, rather than outside of it, for best results. And it is also important to see every little detail, every smell, feel, taste, etc. of what is going on in that moment. It brings your mind to that place. In addition, feel those feelings you would have after you accomplish what you set out to do. Feel how good it is to win, to put in all that hard work, and for it to pay off. You should do this everyday as well.

3. Observation

This is very important. Many athletes choke because they get to the big stage, and they see all the people, sounds, noises, and it overwhelms them. This is easy to avoid if you witness the tournaments you will be at before you actually compete in them. States, nationals, and world level competitions are a lot different than practice. And some athletes thrive in these environments. A lot of that has to do with being in that specific place. If you are able to attend these tournaments growing up, or even a year or so before you are to compete in them, you will have a better understanding and experience of being in those situations.


Whether you got the results you wanted this post-season, or not: the above techniques are a guide to get you to where you want to be, or keep you there if you already are. There’s no doubt, that throughout your life, on or off the mat, you will be in pivotal moments where the adrenaline is pumping and the stakes are high. Continually work and practice on the mental side of things as much as the physical. This will keep you in the game and help you to win at all walks of life. Prepare, prepare, prepare: and then perform! Let it all go.

Subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll go in depth into meditation, visualization, and other techniques to get yourself or your athletes in “the zone”. That’s a wrap!



Photo credit to John Sachs.


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