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Respond vs. React: Good Sportsmanship Requires Keeping Composure

Wrestling, by its nature, is a one-on-one competition filled with emotional highs and lows, notes USA Wrestling Bronze Certified coach Trent McCormick. So it’s no surprise that when dealing with youth and high school age competitors, there may be moments at a match when a frustrated wrestler sneaks in an extra shove after the whistle, gets in an opponent’s face to try to intimidate them, or starts talking trash.

But how one either reacts or responds to these situations can go a long way in determining success, failure, and the development of good sportsmanship, adds McCormick, who was also USA Wrestling's 2009-2010 Kids/Cadet Person of the Year. Instantly react to an unfair shove and you could lose concentration, and, next thing you know, the match. Deliberately respond to a taunt, however, by simply walking away and there’s no chance of finding yourself getting docked a point and hurting your team and your reputation.

And that’s why, McCormick says, everyone involved in the sport should work together to help young wrestlers keep calm and cool during even the most heated situations.

"As I do with my own team, parents and coaches should discuss mental skills and strategies that you should attempt to apply to emotional situations that could occur on the mat," says McCormick, who is entering his 26th year as head coach of Indiana’s Yorktown High School, where he coaches his son Cael, a sophomore. "In addition to damaging their own image, inappropriate reactions on the mat can cost the team points and possibly result in sanctions or punishment for poor behavior."

As a former wrestler turned sports psychologist Gene Zannetti knows how important mental preparation is when attempting to succeed on the wrestling mat. Zannetti, who was an All-Ivy League Wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania, created Wrestling Mindset, a New Jersey-based organization that speaks to and works with high school and college coaches and competitors on how to improve a wrestler's mindset, build confidence, and stay focused under pressure.
“To build resiliency it's important to mentally simulate these situations in your mind before they happen in a match,” says Zannetti. “Visualize a bad call, or flagrant move from your opponent, or the crowd giving a strong reaction at a crucial point in the match. Rehearse how you will handle these situations and maintain your cool. Remember, when you wrestle, you must be simultaneously the most intense and calm person on the mat.”

Zannetti says that during a match a wrestler should get in the habit of taking deep breaths to regain composure, referencing how some great wrestlers often "shake it out" when they need to reset and recover quickly. Have a go-to gesture you do to remind yourself to reset and maintain your composure. Practice your "reset cue" in practice and matches.

Over the course of a wrestling career, competitors are going to be put in situations where they will be challenged like never before—mentally, physically and emotionally. In the big picture, this is another great opportunity to grow and learn, says McCormick.

"How we respond to this emotional roller coaster on the mat transcends the sport of wrestling and can teach wrestlers how to deal with ups and downs they will face throughout life," says McCormick. “That is not to say that every emotionally charged situation will be handled perfectly, but we should try to reflect on these instances and use them to improve on our behavior and response the next time we are confronted with a volatile situation."

And remember, if the opponent does something illegal or flagrant, know that they are either frustrated or have some serious doubts about beating you on the scoreboard,says Zannetti.

“Do not be derailed by your opponent’s attempts to throw you off. A loss will hurt him more than a slap in the face in retaliation would. Always focus on beating them on the scoreboard."

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