Losing doesn’t upset coaches, says Jordan Krebs, head coach of the Tippecanoe Red Devil High School wrestling team in Tipp City, Ohio. It’s how a wrestler deals with losing that keeps coaches up at night
“All wrestlers will experience a tough loss,” notes Krebs. “It’s part of our sport. How kids respond afterwards is what’s most important. Short-term memory is key after a tough loss.”
Tough losses don’t just happen at the state tournament or in the big meet. The entire season is a series of highs and lows that wrestlers must know how to handle to avoid getting too confident or too dejected along the way. Krebs recalls a recent situation where a two-time district qualifier lost a wrestle-off to a junior varsity competitor, creating a situation where an experienced starter was dealing with a devastating loss, while a novice backup was simultaneously enjoying a huge win.
“After the match was completed the now former varsity wrestler was beside himself,” says Krebs. “He refused to show back up for practice. I wanted him to feel all the negative emotions on his own before coming back to practice. It was the wake-up call this wrestler needed to step up his effort to get better. Tough losses are crucial to developing a young wrestler’s mental toughness. And are reminders that nothing is given to you.”
While the loss stung for this wrestler, Krebs, his staff and the wrestler are working towards turning this situation into a positive.
“Wrestlers have to understand losing a tough match doesn’t change their abilities as a wrestler,” said Krebs. “Tough losses keep wrestlers grounded and focused on the end goal. It can also show what parts of our match management and technique needs improvement. Your biggest loss can be your best teacher.”
Jon McGovern, head coach of the University of Dubuque who trained for three years with legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable, says every loss provides a teachable moment, an opportunity to learn and improve. Using examples of those who overcame tough losses can provide proof that even the best of the best deal with setbacks.
“Share stories of successful wrestlers like Dan Gable,” suggests McGovern. For instance, Gable famously lost to Larry Owings and then used that defeat to motivate himself to become one of the greatest wrestlers, and then coaches, in our sport. Cael Sanderson injury defaulted in one match after losing another in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials, but came back to win Olympic gold in 2004. “Every competitor faces a series of struggles in the attainment of their goals. Along the way, the more you overcome the greater you become as a person.”
Zeke Jones, current U.S. Olympic Freestyle coach, often points out how losing to a female youth wrestler taught him valuable lessons that helped drive him toward later success and mold him as a person. From that experience, Jones learned to respect girls as wrestlers and at the same grow enough to become an eventual Olympic Silver Medalist, says McGovern. “For Jones, losses were actually lessons on perseverance, discipline, commitment and self resiliency, which he wouldn’t have gained had he won every match.”
Steve Knight, author of Winning STATE-Wrestling: The Athlete’s Guide to Competing Mentally Tough, says successful competitors all deal with a tough loss the same way: They don’t get smothered by it, they learn from it.
“The successful are not only confident, they’re mentally tough,” explains Knight. “The successful don’t just persevere, they adapt, and they don’t let a tough loss define them. Most important, if they didn’t back down and gave it everything they had, they smile inside and move on. Gritty, scrappy competitors don’t dwell on the past, they live for the next battle.”
McGovern says coaches and parents can help wrestlers through the process of moving past a tough loss simply by letting them know you are there for them. For moms and dads of youth wrestlers, patient, positive reinforcement after a disappointing loss can work wonders. It’s better to leave the coaching to the coaches.
As for coaches, McGovern recommends taking a forward-looking approach, one that emphasizing building, rather than dwelling upon, a hard-to-accept defeat. He counsels an approach that might say: “If you want to work together to formulate a plan to win that match or reach your goals I believe in you and I would be willing to help you with a training plan to help you reach it,” says McGovern. “Whether it was preparation, emotional energy, or a mental error, fix that area and focus on what you want to do next. Never ask for a weaker opponent, ask for a bigger and better you.”
The pain of a tough loss will never be forgotten, McGovern acknowledges. But by the same token, the lifelong lessons one takes away from that kind of defeat are what can mold better individuals in the long run, both as a wrestler and a person.
- Wrestlers have to be able to regroup mentally and come back for subsequent matches quickly. But there’s nothing wrong with mentally revisiting a tough loss later and becoming upset.
- Keep an open mind. Try to channel those feelings of disappointment into positive action that takes a wrestler step closer to their goals. Ignoring emotions felt from the loss is a mistake, they can be fuels a youth wrestler to stay motivated and hungry for the next challenge.
- After a wrestler’s tough loss, coaches can’t let their disappointment compound the problem. They need to show public validation for an honest effort, even if it isn’t successful. Always shake hands with competitors as they leave the mat. Win or lose, kids need that handshake and pat on the back.
- Know the right time to talk. After a tough loss, kids don’t want to hear what went wrong. They likely already know. But they will eventually need both their parents and coaches to encourage them and get them refocused and ready to go.