From the Mat: Dealing with Pressure

There I was, sitting with one of my athletes after he went 0-2 in a tournament.  He obviously wasn’t happy, and well, he shouldn’t have been.  But I saw it; I saw it on his face.  And I saw it on the face of a couple other guys whose results weren’t as expected during the tournament.

I remember competing myself…and how much pressure I put on myself.  It’s natural; I think  it’s unrealistic to tell our athletes not to put pressure on themselves, and think that will solve things for them.  They all deal with it, and they all do it.  I get it – when I was competing, everything I did on the mat seemed like a life or death situation.  It was my world.  I wanted to get into the starting lineup; I wanted to get onto the podium.

It’s tough wrestling for our program: 20-plus straight years of top 4 finishes at the National Tournament, 11 time National Champions as a Team in the last 20 years; a run of 5 or more All-Americans for 20-plus years.  It’s a lot of pressure for our athletes, but they know that coming here; they come here because they want that, they want to be part of the success that comes with that.  But still, it’s a lot of pressure.

Between the self-inflicted pressures our athletes put on themselves, and the pressures that outside forces put on them: program tradition, parents, peers, a sports culture focused on winning, and so on, I wonder,

Are we as coaches imposing unneccessary pressure on our athletes?

Pressure isn’t a bad thing; sometimes you need to apply it, especially when an athlete becomes complacent, or starts to take on the role of the victim – when self-pitty, laziness sets in.  But I don’t think that’s the majority of the athletes we coach; I know it’s not the case for our guys at Augsburg.  They’re not on athletic scholarships – it’s Division III.  They’re there because they want to be, for the most part, and they’re working hard towards their goals, on and off the mat.

But those stresses and pressure of being a college student-athlete are enough….I think as a coach, we have to look honestly at ourselves and wonder, if we’re adding to that unnecessarily.  I remember when I started coaching, I thought every athlete needed to run through walls like me.  I pushed my athletes, and pushed myself as a coach….until I realized how exhausted I was, and how my athletes weren’t making any gains.  Pressure….leading to unrealistic expectations, leading to burnout.

Back to my athlete who went 0-2…..here’s now I responded.  “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.  Wrestling is supposed to be fun….it’s something you should enjoy.  I coach, I stay involved in the sport because I love it.  When the day ever comes I get to hate it, I’ll quit.  There are way too many other things that are important to me in this life, I don’t need wrestling if all it’s going to do is make me miserable.”

Maybe you agree or disagree with what I told him….but I believe what I said.  Wrestling is just that; something you love, but not life or death.  My self-worth, my being isn’t tied up in it.  And neither should we impose that on our athletes, ever.  In light of what’s been happening in the news lately, and what goes on around the world daily, I think that puts a wrestling match in perspective.

Coaches, use whatever self-reflective tool you need to hold yourself accountable.  For me, that’s my faith – that the work God calls us to in the world is supposed to be life-giving, both to ourselves and to others.  But as you evaluate your program here in whatever phase of the season you’re at (for us, it’s mid-season), make sure you evaluate yourself.

PS: There’s some other great thoughts around this subject and others from Mark Schwab, Assistant Wrestling Coach at University of Northern Iowa.  You can check out his blog here.

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Filed under Wrestling Devotions & Reflections

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