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Break Your Opponent

Consider the cliché that all have heard and many agree with: wrestling is 90% mental and 10% physical.  If we feel this truism to be representational of the balance required to be a successful competitor then, it is essential for us to consider how this concept influences our efforts to overwhelm and defeat our opponent.

Break is a common term in amateur wrestling - a term used to describe a noticeable shift in one wrestler’s mental and physical demeanor.  This break seems to manifest itself as something mostly physical, as when the body reaches its breaking point - a point when the heart and lungs cannot supply the body with enough oxygen and glycogen required to maintain the physical demands of a “high-paced” match.

The belief that breaking an opponent is purely or mostly physical is, however, inconsistent with the widely accepted cliché which most of us subscribe to.  If, on the macro level wrestling is 90% mental, then it should hold true in the majority of specific (micro) situations as well.  Breaking or overwhelming your opponent then should follow a similar proportion of influence, it is 90% mental and 10% physical.

The eighth-degree black belt, yogi, and author H.E. Davey alludes to this concept, saying:

“The mind moves the body, and the body follows the mind. Logically then, negative thought patterns harm not only the mind but also the body. What we actually do builds up to affect the subconscious mind and in turn affects the conscious mind and all reactions.”

What Davey is saying, which can be applied to wrestling, is that our mental frameworks, desires, fears, excitements and thoughts create our physical state.  When our mental state and our mindset becomes resistant to action or resistance to change, our performance begins to slip.

Business professor from the University of Minnesota, Sophie Leroy, has introduced the term attention residue.   She uses this term to describe the lag in performance which happens when we move from one task to another.  Our attention and focus do not instantaneously transition but instead are left, in part, on the previous situation.  This residue from the past builds up and our performance begins to suffer.  She states from these experiments that, “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,”.  Noting also that the more intense the attention residue, the poorer performance becomes (1).

This concept can be observed at length in wrestling.  The wrestler who can move from one position to the next without grasping to slow the match down, without entertaining the desire to go back to the point of a mistake, without allowing frustration to impede and without resisting the changes inevitable in any match - will wrestle with a noticeable lightness and flow.  

When something “bad” occurs in a match many wrestlers remain affected by it for the remainder of the match, the more significant the mistake, the more attention residue that sticks.  The mentally toughest wrestlers are conversely able to move their attention forward, onto the things that they have at least some control over - the past not being one of them.  Lingering thoughts of what happened in the previous scramble or situation will only cause worse performance for each scramble or exchange to come.

Of course, there are some technical and physical constraints that cannot be ignored.  Action requires energy, strength and skill.  Without the many hours of accrued skill and the muscle memory developed to perform the next hold or exchange, we are at a large disadvantage.  But, as H.E. Davey pointed out earlier, the body follows the mind.  Accordingly then, we must admit that the only way to acquire the muscle memory of smooth transitions is with a mindset that allows us to move from one thing to the next without snagging and clinging, leaving little or no residue behind.

Where the concept of attention residue can be seen most clearly is in a battle between two closely competitive wrestlers.  What determines the outcome of two technically similar wrestlers is then the ability to chain-wrestle, to transition, to move, with nonresistance, from defense to offense, from counter to counter, from neutral, to bottom, to top without any mental residue holding one’s attention on the previous exchange or the previous situation.  

Hesitation will destroy the performance of any great athlete.  When our thoughts linger in the past it creates hesitation in the present, leading to a downward spiral in focus and performance.

Since attention residue is essentially wasted focus, the opponent who minimizes attention residue will benefit from being able to employ their full potential of thought and awareness on the situation at hand, not lagging behind in the past.  The same concept is observed when a wrestler who is winning early in the match “shuts down” and begins trying to slow, essentially avoiding change and action.  

What we see time and time again is when wrestlers shut down, they wrestle at a fraction of their potential.  When a wrestler feels they have something to lose, they become a different athlete - tightening mentally and physically.  They try to hold onto what they have now but in the process of holding on to the win or the position, they halt the fluid transition needed to continue wrestling their best.

Most coaches will agree that physical fatigue is more often caused by mental tightness and anxiety than from physical actions.  When the score is tight, staying loose and fluid is the toughest challenge.

The famous businessman, author and self-improvement icon Dale Carnegie echoed the thoughts of business professor Sophie Leroy and martial artist H.E. Davey’s when he said,

“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.”

In wrestling as well, it is our hesitations, our anxieties of the unescapable uncertainties to come that manifest themselves as fatigue.  The wrestler able to maintain the mental disposition enabling action, and meet the ever changing climate with excitement, energy and nonresistance will be the hardest to break.  Unless complete control and dominance is maintained, many of even the most physically fit wrestlers will break, not from fatigue as in so much as from the overwhelming distress of losing control.  Unable to bend, they will break.

When you wrestle, worrying about what may happen or what has happened, considering the possibility of losing either points or the match will accrue an ineffective mental residue in our thinking.  The frustrated wrestler always performs poorly and is the first to crash from fatigue.  

Nonresistance will lead you to your highest potential, your seamless transitions.  You will close out matches finding scoring opportunities instead of avoiding them.  You will be so involved in the match you won’t recognize the physical toll being paid until the match is over.

Practicing nonresistance in training will undoubtedly lead to more productive practices.  You may begin allowing yourself more freedom to take risk, more freedom to wrestle in unfamiliar positions, and in the process your learning curve will ascend towards steeper growth.  

Whether in a wrestling, martial arts, yoga, meditation, business, self-improvement or life, practicing nonresistance can lead you to a better performance.  Train the mind, if it can scramble so can you, if it can chain wrestle so can you.

Train your mind for nonresistance - the meta-skill vital in overwhelming your opponent.

By: Joe Nord

(1)  Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing. (p. 41-43)

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