We have heard it time and time again: when it comes to wrestling, mental toughness is key. But I don’t think we recognize just how important it actually is. I personally understand the pressing significance of mental toughness as a result of my own experience as a wrestler. You see, I was not mentally tough. Growing up in a wrestling family located in the hub of Missouri wrestling, there was a tale of two boys. Both were accomplished young wrestlers, but each different in terms of technique and approach. There was me: the very skilled, technically sound wrestler, but whose mental toughness was severely lacking. And there was my brother, Richard: the not as skilled or technically sound wrestler, but whose mental toughness was incredibly strong.
It wasn’t until my adult years, looking back, that I truly grasped the significance of mental toughness. As a wrestling family, we would travel the country in order to compete in the best youth tournaments. Many other families did the same thing, and as a result, we ran into, and became very familiar with, many wrestlers from every part of the country. We knew who was in the category of “the best”. Many of these wrestlers grew up to be very successful on the mat, such as Dustin Schlatter, Brent Metcalf, Angel Escobedo, and Mack Reiter. Some seemed to disappear off the grid sometime before or after high school, such as Jimmy Matlock and John Flud. And here’s the thing: I literally feared having to wrestle some of these competitors as a kid (which is ironic because I myself was feared by others). My brother, on the other hand, always believed that the supposed “best” should fear to wrestle him. I thought he was crazy! I was convinced he was either delusional at worst, or acting mistakenly positive at best. But here’s the thing: Richard would usually rise to the occasion. He would either legitimately hang with these kids, or actually beat them! However, when I faced who I deemed to be the beasts of youth wrestling, I defeated myself before even walking onto the mat. In other words, I would convince myself that I didn’t stand a chance, and was content with simply surviving. This sort of approach literally disabled my ability to wrestle to my fullest potential.
My severely lacking mental toughness continued into my high school career. And my brother’s strong mental toughness continued with him; because as would be expected, we were both creating patterns. That is, when people teach themselves methods in which to approach anything in life, they most likely begin the process of creating patterns of behavior. And once these patterns are created, and have been established for quite some time, it’s very hard to break them.
For me, my wrestling skill and technique was top notch. But I was hardly ever challenged in youth or high school. As a youth, I garnered 6 state titles and 3 national titles. In high school, I was a two-time state champion (a state title in both Missouri and Minnesota as we moved to Minnesota prior to my sophomore year), and with only nine losses in my entire four years of high school wrestling. And the majority of those whom I lost to, I assumed were simply better than me. Just like I did as a youngster, I would defeat myself mentally before even stepping on the mat to face my opponent. Again, I was rarely challenged; but when I was, I would typically face defeat.
For my brother, his wrestling skill and technique improved. After all, you have to develop some sort of talent if you expect to continue with success in the sport. But nonetheless it was his mental toughness that was particularly remarkable. Richard was convinced that he could beat anybody and everybody. As a freshman backup to teammate and eventual four-time Minnesota state champion, Charlie Falck, he wrestled and beat Eric Sanders – a senior who would later in the season go on to win his 5th state title (in Minnesota you can compete in high school athletics starting in seventh grade). And once he stepped into the lineup as a sophomore, Richard went on to win three straight state championships, never losing to a Minnesota wrestler. His only losses came from out-of-state opponents, and were all very close matches, such as his double-overtime loss to four-time Iowa state champion, Mack Reiter.
It’s frustrating to think about. That is, how different my wrestling career could have been had I developed a stronger sense of mental toughness. Because here’s the thing: my lack of it contributed greatly to my eventual early exit from the sport. I quit my wrestling career after my freshman year of college. True, I was dealing with some personal issues as well as injuries that also contributed; but the sad truth is that, had I confronted my mental weakness and worked on growing strong in this area, I’m almost certain that I would have continued my career. What’s more is that I think I would have garnered some success. My wrestling skill was at a high level; and if I had the mental strength to help execute my abilities as a competitor, there’s simply no question that I would have been a force to be reckoned with. But in the end, it’s all conjecture, isn’t it?
My brother never continued on to greatness at the college level, either. But it had nothing to do with his abilities as a wrestler. Two things plagued him: injuries and a lack of educational responsibility. Richard lacked the same drive toward his education that he had for wrestling. In fact, no such drive existed. He was convinced that his wrestling would make up for his educational downfall. But unfortunately for Richard, no division 1 wrestling schools were willing or able to help him achieve acceptance into their school. The one school that was even a slight possibility was Cal State Bakersfield, which I had returned from the summer after my freshman year in college. Also, Richard was such an animal on the mat (and in life) that he often forgot to protect himself. He had more surgeries by the age of eighteen than anyone could have imagined: elbows, arms, shoulders, and knees. What’s more is that he never allowed himself the necessary recovery time. Richard was so impatient on account of his passion to compete that he would always return to the mat way too early. Eventually his lack of patience caught up with him, and his physical mobility declined. After several surgeries, the doctors told him that he would have to hang up the wrestling shoes if he had any desire to walk in his thirties. Richard listened.
Wrestlers must develop their technique. They must put in the work to become proficient in the sport. They must delve whole-heartedly into the necessary training in order to build their strength and conditioning. But if they lack mental toughness, its hindering capabilities will eventually catch up with them. I know from personal experience that my weak mental toughness eventually suffocated my ability and desire to compete.
You want to accomplish greatness in this sport? Then don’t sacrifice attention to your mental toughness.
Dedicated to my brother, Richard Fessler (10/2/1986 – 12/9/2020)