I first read this article back in 2004 when Mike Alesch sent it to me. Anything he ever said or sent to me was taken completely to heart… It is a great read even for non-wrestlers. You have to find reasons why you should win, not reasons why you should lose!!
Randy Lewis is a former Olympic Champion, and also relative of Jeff Kerber (4x Undefeated Iowa State Champion), and my good friend Justin Kerber (currently ranked #5 in the nation for Cornell University).
Randy Lewis on wrestling’s mental edge.
By Randy Lewis
|In my first article, The Toughest Kid On The Block, I told the story of how I was able to get mentally ready to compete and believe in myself, even when facing the best wrestlers in the world. One thing I was always aware of, even in fifth grade, was that before you step out on the mat, you have to give yourself at least one good reason to believe that you can win.
Also, the more reasons you can find to believe that you can win, the easier it becomes to win. Throughout my wrestling career, I always tried to give myself as many reasons to win as I could. For the first eleven years of my career, this was very easy for me to do. For the next couple of years, it became much more difficult.
When I first started wrestling in fifth grade, I was able to win for two reasons, because I could do more pull-ups than my opponents could, and because I thought I was the toughest kid on my block. After that, I continued to win, and my reasons for winning became more varied.
In my mind, there are three things you need to be successful in wrestling. They are strength, technique and conditioning. Fortunately, all three are areas where anyone can get better. Anyone with the desire can get in better shape, they can get stronger, and they can improve their technique. What I set out to do, to be successful every time I wrestled, was knowing that I was in better shape, physically stronger, and had better technique and skills than anyone I wrestled.
It was easy to believe I could win when I had the advantage in all three areas. The only way to get that advantage was to go to wrestling camps, lift weights, and wrestle and train as hard as possible. In high school, I ran cross-country, so when the season started, I was already in great shape. When I wrestled, I wrestled at an extremely high pace that few others could match.
Coming from South Dakota, I spent much of the summer competing in tournaments against the best kids in the country. I went to camps learning from the top coaches – learning early how to win. I believed in myself, and was on my way to a very successful career.
By the time I entered the University of Iowa, I experienced success at every level. I had won five AAU age-group national titles, the USWF Junior Nationals, three high school state titles, and an Espoir World Championship.
At Iowa, the success continued. My true freshman year I placed second in the NCAA’s, and that summer went on to make the world team, beating five former world team members in the process. My sophomore and junior years I went undefeated against collegiate competition and won back-to-back NCAA titles.
My junior year in college, I also made the 1980 Olympic Team, but was unable to compete because of the boycott. I am not telling you all of this to brag, (well, maybe a little), but to let you know how confident I had become in my abilities. This confidence came because I had always stepped out on the mat knowing for certain that I was more prepared than my opponents were.
I stayed in great shape year round, and had spent years working with the best coaches and training with the best workout partners in the country. Like my dad told me when I was young, the more things that you do right and the fewer things wrong the better your chances of success.
Having done everything I could to prepare myself for success, it was very easy for me to step out on the mat with confidence. The only time I did not totally believe in myself was against the Russians, and I finally got over that hump, which I wrote about in the article The Toughest Kid on the Block.
Basically, I had spent my entire wrestling career winning almost every time I competed. My confidence was at an all-time high. This was a big reason for my success. Heading into my senior year of college, I was in great shape, and full of confidence.
After winning the super-tough Midlands tournament for the 3rd time, I went into January of 1981 undefeated against collegiate competition for three years. I was ready to win my third straight NCAA title. I was wrong. I would not win another tournament in the next two years.
In January of that year, in a dual meet against NCAA champion Jim Gibbons of Iowa State, I suffered a severely dislocated elbow. (The match has been shown on CSTV repeatedly and is sickening to watch.) It was a brutal injury. I ended up wrestling in the Big Ten Tournament (placing second) and the NCAA Championships placing 7th that year. Over the next two years, I wrestled in several tournaments, but I did not win any of them. I was shattered. In tatters.
I had a series of injuries including knees, back, shoulders and more. Over that two-year period, I only had one phase where I was able to work out for a month straight without taking at least one week off. It seemed like every time I competed, I had only been on the mat for a week or two before the whistle blew. I had believed in myself and won in the past because I had always been totally prepared. I had never been injured and was always in great shape.
I am not using these two years of injuries as an excuse, but rather to show how I was not mentally strong. I did not believe in myself enough to win, when everything was not perfect.
I didn’t lose in the NCAA tournament my senior year because I dislocated my elbow, and I didn’t lose every tournament I wrestled in for the next two years because of other injuries. I lost because I was not mentally tough enough to believe in myself. During that time, when I stepped on the mat I doubted myself, thinking how can I win when I have only been on the mat for two weeks in the last two months.
I doubted my shape, my wrestling skills, and my mental toughness. I forgot to give myself reasons to believe I could win. I hoped I would win instead of knowing that I would win. I had forgotten how to win. I needed to learn how to win again. During this time my legendary coach Dan Gable brought me into his office.
Gable told me I was too good of a wrestler and too much of a winner to be losing like I was. I told him I never felt like I was more prepared than my opponents were because I was constantly coming off of injuries.
Gable said that was just an excuse. He said I needed to go into my matches with reasons to win not reasons to lose. He was right.
In 1984, before the final wrestleoffs to make the Olympic team, I had injured my knee. For three weeks before the trials, all I could do was ride the bikes and lift weights. I didn’t know if my knee was going to be okay or not. Gable told me not to worry about my knee. He knew me well enough to know that if I tested my knee and it hurt, I would lose.
At this point in my career, it was all mental. I did not test my knee at all, knowing that if it hurt in practice I would lose. I went into the trials just assuming that my knee would hold up, and if there was pain I probably wouldn’t feel it in a match as I would in practice. I went into the final trials giving myself reasons to win, not reasons to lose.
I was still in great shape, my strength was real good, my wrestling skills and techniques were great, and I had been a winner my whole life. Three weeks off the mat shouldn’t matter. My knee held up fine, and I went on to make the Olympic Team and win the gold medal that year. The trials were the first time that I was able to win coming off of an injury, something I was not mentally tough enough to do before.
Gable had helped me become mentally tough so I believed could win. I learned that you always need to give yourself a reason to win, and for over two years I had not done that. I had found reasons to lose instead of reasons to win. I’d like to finish this article by telling one more story about a reason to win.
In 1988, in the finals of the Olympic Trials, wrestling against current OSU head coach and six-time world champion John Smith, I injured my knee, completely tearing my PCL. Five months later, in December, I got back on the mat. I had been training for about a week when USA wrestling called and asked me if I wanted to wrestle in a dual meet against the Russians in Tempe, Arizona on Dec. 30th.
I asked what I would have to weigh, and they told me 143 pounds. I weighed 163 at the time but I said okay. I was to wrestle the Olympic silver medallist, Stepan Sarkisian who I had wrestled twice before, going one and one.
The day before weigh-inns, I was eleven pounds over. I saw Sarkisian and he looked huge. Sometimes at these Russian duals they are not real strict on weigh-ins, so I asked if we had to make weight for sure. I double checked with the officials and told them to make sure the Russians all have to make weight too. I had to work real hard to make weight the next day. Real, real hard.
At noon on the 29th, we weighed in. I stepped on the scale and weighed 143. Sarkisian stepped on the scale and weighed 150. The officials let it go. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe they made me lose all that weight and let Sarkisian weigh in seven pounds over.
The Russians were laughing at me. My face was all sucked in and I was totally dehydrated.
I made up my mind right then that I may be all sucked down right now, but tomorrow night I was going to be bigger and stronger than Sarkisian. That would be my reason to win. In the next 30 hours I put back on 16 pounds, and I weighed 159 before I stepped on the mat to wrestle the Russian.
Sarkisian was the biggest, strongest 136-pounder I had ever seen, but by the time we stepped on the mat before our match I was bigger. And stronger. And tougher. And meaner. When we lined up before the match, Sarkisian looked at me and said, “Randy, today you are very big, yesterday you were very small.” My face was full, and my arms and legs had regained their size also.
I looked at Sarkisian and flexed my bicep and said “Yes, today I am very big and very strong, I weigh 159 pounds, very big.” I had just given myself my reason to win. We had a wild match with the lead changing three times. We were both exhausted near the end of the match when with 20-seconds left and Sarkisian leading 5-4, I got in on a bear hug. Sarkisian tried a headlock and it ended up being a slip throw.
That year the rules were no points for a slip throw, but you got to stay on top and attempt a turn. With five seconds left I put every ounce of energy I had into a gut wrench against the strongest guy I had ever wrestled. On that night, I was bigger, and I was stronger, and I got the gut wrench for two points and won 6-5. I still had enough energy to jump up and raise my arms to the screaming crowd of over 6000.
I will tell you this; it was one of the most satisfying wins of my career.