Headlocked: Inside the mind of AU wrestling

Headlocked: Inside the mind of AU wrestling

A look at the psychology behind the sport of wrestling and the challenges facing student-athletes today.

Darkness engulfed Bender Arena, but beneath the dim spotlight in the center of the wrestling mat, senior David Terao emerged. Dressed in his blue AU singlet, Terao faced his opponent, 125-pound Brant Leadbeter from the United States Naval Academy, and started to compete. The clocked ticked down. The referee watched carefully. Fans cheered from the stands. But Terao stayed focused.

Takedown after takedown, Terao ran up the score, all while fending off Leadbeter and attempting to remain upright and in control on the mat. Seven minutes later, Terao whipped off his headgear, shook hands with Leadbeter and raised his arms in victory. Another match, another win.

For the Hawaii native, competing one-on-one with an opponent on the mat as an entire crowd watches represents an opportunity for him to put on a show. Terao has represented AU at three NCAA championships so far in his career, and, as captain, he leads the team on and off the mat.

“As far as my competition mindset, I just think ‘score points and try to put on a show,’ I guess,” Terao said. “Definitely the more points the better, so that’s kind of how I go into it.”

AU head coach Teague Moore, who also wrestled as a lightweight athlete in college, connects with Terao’s mindset and praised him for his toughness and aggressive approach to every match.

Moore, a former NCAA champion from Oklahoma State University, said he experiences different nerves standing on the side of the mat than wearing the uniform himself, but he faces stress nonetheless, particularly when his first athlete takes the floor.

“In terms of coaching, there is stress and anxiety that comes with being the first guy out there, so I feel like I can talk to my first wrestler from a very personal standpoint because I did it so many times,” Moore said. “I feel like I can connect with that.”

The student and the master

Eighteen years before Tearo stepped on the mat for his duel against Leadbeter, Moore faced a similar challenge, but on a much bigger stage. Wrestling as a 118-pound starter for Oklahoma State University, over 15,000 eyes watched Moore as he moved across the floor in an effort to take down Eric Juergens of Iowa. In what he calls his “most nerve-wrecking event that [he] ever competed in,” Moore walked away with a 15-7 major decision victory and the experience of a lifetime.

“I was the first guy to go out, so I always looked at it as it’s my job to set the pace and the tempo for the team and my teammates and everything like that,” Moore said. “I would say leading up that match, my nerves, the anxiety, the stress, it was compounded by all of the things that were just going on.”

While Bender Arena doesn’t draw 15,000 fans, Moore said the lessons he learned while competing for such a large crowd can still be applied to his wrestlers at AU.

“Seeing yourself taking your opponent down, finding the near fall, pinning your opponent, being able to see that in your mind is so good leading up to the match because once match time comes, if you’ve played that image in your head enough, when you step out there, it helps eliminate some of that anxiety because you’ve been there before,” Moore said. “So mental imagery’s been a big one that we’ve been working on lately."

In an effort to further instill the concepts of mental toughness and athletic focus into his athletes, Moore enlisted the help of Brian Levenson, a sports psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland who specializes in working with athletes of all ages on mental preparation and performance.

“The guys meet with him once a month, but we have the ability to communicate with him daily with emails or phone calls,” Moore said. “I like to line it up so they see Brian, and the next couple of days they’re competing again, so it’s fresh in their mind and either the conversations that he’s having with them or dealing with some of the anxieties of competition, he gives them pretty good practices to be able to deal with that.”

Although the topics discussed during individual sessions vary by person, according to Levenson, the ultimate goal always revolves around helping the athlete reach his potential and gaining confidence for performance on and off the mat.

"We try to get them to put more focus on the process...
rather than putting all of their value as a wrestler on getting their hand raised, and, more importantly, their value as a person on getting their hand raised."

“I think it’s a really tough sport,” Levenson said regarding wrestling. “I think that guys put a lot of pressure on themselves to get the reward because they put the work in, so we try to get them to put more focus on the process, not the result, and feeling good about meeting their own expectations, rather than putting all of their value as a wrestler on getting their hand raised, and, more importantly, their value as a person on getting their hand raised.”

The brain game

Levenson came to AU near the start of Moore’s tenure and said he has worked with the wrestlers on both an individual and group basis since he started with the team.

“I’m just a resource for them that they can talk to, and I talk to Coach also throughout the year to help him get the most out of his athletes,” Levenson said. “I work with a lot of different teams at a lot of different levels, and when you have a coach like Coach Moore who’s passionate and energetic but also understands that the mental side impacts performance, it’s been fun to work with him.”

One of Levenson’s main mottos, “win the moment,” aligns closely with Moore’s coaching philosophy of training his athletes to “rise to the occasion when it really matters.” Moore said he spends time during practice studying his athletes and learning what motivates them on an individual level, and with Levenson’s help, his wrestlers approach each match with attention and enthusiasm.

“The best advice that I was ever given by a coach in terms of how to coach is that your team, if it’s made up of 22 wrestlers, that’s 22 guys that you’ve got to know because what may motivate David [Terao], can be the complete opposite of your middle weight, which can be completely different from the 197-pounder,” Moore said.

Teaching Terao

Terao met Levenson during his first year at AU, and the sports psychologist said he has seen tremendous growth in the senior athlete, both on the mat and as a leader. Levenson, however, shies away from attributing all of Terao’s success to psychology.

“It’s hard for me to take credit for it because I don’t have to train like David, I don’t have to go on the mat and deal with people grabbing at you and sparring at you,” Levenson said. “I think what David’s maturity over the years has been is he is so gifted and so talented and can do things that other people just can’t do on the mat.”

Terao said Levenson helps him and his team “stay honest” in regards to the work they put in outside of practice. Through sports psychology sessions with Levenson and grueling practices with Moore, Terao said he has learned to stay consistently motivated regardless of his energy level.

Thomas Nassif, an AU professor who teaches classes in stress management and sports psychology, defines sports psychology as an inner journey of discovering one’s passion and said that athletes who understand their source of motivation will likely experience greater joy in their chosen sport.

“Sports psychology is about life, and it’s about understanding what your motivation is and what you truly are seeking to get out of life,” Nassif said, “Through all of their athletic achievements, the trophies, the money, the fame, all of those external factors, extrinsic rewards so to speak, pale in comparison to the intrinsic reward of knowing oneself and understanding and remembering how powerful we really are at the core.”

Nassif teaches students and athletes in a variety of sports and academic majors, and he enjoys the process of educating young people and helping them discover their interests. While wrestlers may opt to take a class with Nassif, they also have the special opportunity to work with Levenson with matters related specifically to their sport. And for Terao, incorporating the elements of sports psychology into his practice routine has helped him reach new athletic levels.

Terao left Bender Arena on Jan. 16 a champion against his opponent from Navy, but Moore, Levenson and Terao will continue working together to carry that success through to the end of the NCAA Tournament, no matter what challenges, mental or physical, emerge between now and March.

sscovel@theeagleonline.com