Relentless – Mental Toughness and Overcoming Adversity

It is definitely a challenge to be on your “A-game” all the time as an athlete. It is easy to compete and to win when you’re feeling great, but what about those times when you’re feeling less? What about having to overcome being sick, not feeling your best, being worn out or tired, or just feeling like you are performing at your B or even C-game? I found myself feeling that way on Friday. I asked my coach how it was possible that I be expected to be “A++” all the time. He said I wasn’t. He told me that I was capable of winning regardless of not feeling the best that day; that even if I felt like a B or C I could still come out on top. In the past I have had trouble believing that. In the past I have let being sick, feeling tired, the anxiety, and burn out get the best of me. Those were the days where I would not push as hard and when it came to battling for points out on the mat, I was quick to give up and let the other person have it. There was no grit, no mental toughness, and I did not have the stubbornness to keep pushing myself forward and stand my ground. Not on Friday. On Friday I overcame those feelings and persevered in a way I haven’t before. That is what I am most proud of about the FISU World University Team Trials on Friday.

Allow me to back track to two weeks ago and talk about the Olympic Team Training Camp at Brock University leading up to the competition. I was only back in Fredericton for 10 days before I had to re-pack all my things to head to the Niagara region for a training camp that included athletes from Canada (coast-to-coast), Germany, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and the U.S.A. We kicked things off at the camp on Wednesday morning with drilling and then had live wrestling at the evening session. We did six sets of three-minute wrestling with a 1:1 work/rest ratio. Then finished with six sets of 30-second ground wrestling situations. I had an awesome variety of training partners that made every round a challenge and test of my ability and endurance. Thursday’s practices were a similar format and my body felt the weight of the previous day’s workload. The morning drilling practice went well but I had to really push through the evening practice’s five sets of five-minute wrestling and six sets of 30-second offense-defense wrestling. During the live wrestling on Wednesday night I felt like a stud – I was scoring off of most of my attacks and I felt strong and confident. Thursday was far less satisfying and I left the practice feeling worn out and a little beat down. Thankfully Friday was off-mat training but I was still trying to mentally prepare myself for matches on Saturday. The plan was to mimic a tournament so I lined up three matches in the morning session and one match in the evening session to replicate having three preliminary bouts leading up to the finals. Overall I felt I wrestled very well. I scored off of the things I have been working on and I was finally able to score a 4-point takedown off of an inside leg trip to a pin which I have never been able to accomplish in a live wrestling situation before. Every training camp has its ups and downs but I was trying to focus on all of the positives and take away lessons that would make me a better wrestler. One thing that I was really proud of in my matches was my conditioning and ability to dictate the pace and outscore my opponents in all of the second rounds of the matches. Sunday was a well-earned rest day and then we were back at it first thing Monday morning. Monday and Tuesday were the same format as Wednesday and Thursday, but I was wanting to taper and reduce the training intensity in preparation for the competition. I was also feeling a little worn out and had some minor aches and pains to deal with. On top of that I felt super anxious about the trials coming up. My weight class had the most entries in the whole tournament, both men and women, and the number in my weight was almost as many as all of the other women’s weights combined. This was a little stressful and seemed daunting to me. Thankfully I have an awesome support staff and I was able to Skype with my sport psych on Tuesday to help manage the overwhelming emotions I was experiencing. He told me that I would arrive at the competition with the weight of all the hard roads I’ve taken behind me, not in front of me. He said that the matches would represent a small challenge in comparison to what I have been through this season, to be free to let my wrestling speak for itself, and to go take what I want. He encouraged me to give it all of my attention, my energy, and my courage because I would be challenged; but like always, I must accept that it is difficult and persevere nonetheless. Comforting words that helped me get¬†through those final practices. Wednesday I was able to do my own thing and focus on the workouts I wanted to do and get my weight down for Thursday’s weigh-ins. I felt like I had a good weight-cut on Thursday. I woke up with only 2.8kg to cut and following a morning workout I only had 1.4 when I arrived in Guelph. I finished off in the sauna and weigh-ins were routine.

This brings us back up to speed for Friday – competition day. I woke up with my usual nerves but my sleep wasn’t the best and I felt tired. I always wake up a couple times during the night before a competition, but not as frequently as I did that night. I couldn’t do anything to fix it and I had to just try my best to overcome the grogginess I was feeling. After all, I am no stranger to feeling tired. My stomach was a little upset but I attributed that to the anxiety. I had some coffee and breakfast to try to wake myself up and fuel for the challenge ahead. It did not sit well in my stomach so I prepared for the worst. I messaged my mom to bring Pepto with her to the tournament. Sadly, I have had to resort to this a few times in the past and I was dreading having to compete in such a state. Feelings of nausea on their own are unpleasant, imagine having to battle a six-minute wrestling bout trying not to hurl. One blessing was that my training partner was coming to the venue to warm-up with me for the tournament. She didn’t have any matches so the focus was just on me and my prep. It was very different going through a warm-up where you are the one who gets to take all of the attacks and do all of the scoring. It definitely had a positive effect on my preparation and my partner did a great job of helping me feel ready to start the day. I had a small boost in my confidence and she was working hard to make sure I was feeling as good as I could be. I am thankful for that. I was the first bout of the tournament so I didn’t have much time after warm-up to go chug some Pepto and put on my singlet. I was wrestling a familiar opponent who I knew would be coming at me hard. She has been a national champion and was a tough competitor, not to mention her and her coach had prepared a game plan for her match against me. It is definitely a more difficult challenge to wrestle an athlete who has scouted you with their coaches and prepared a specific game plan to beat you. You have to quickly adapt to the style of wrestling and resort to different movements and techniques in the middle of the match to overcome this. You have to think on your feet and be very tactical to combat their strategy. In this case I decided to switch my lead leg part of the way through the match. She had been attacking and successfully getting in and scoring on my left leg so I had to take that option away from her. Once I made this adjustment I was able to come out on top with a close 6-4 victory. After shaking hands with everyone I rushed to the garbage can. I coughed and spat a bit but told myself not to throw up. It was already bad enough I was seen hovering over the garbage trying not to be sick. It doesn’t look very good on you as an athlete and it can give your opponents a mental edge when you are already feeling less than optimal. If they see that you are weak they will attack harder. It gives them more confidence and drive. They smell blood and go for the kill. This was not the impression I wanted to give everyone at the tournament. After getting control over my stomach I did a quick cool down and headed back to the stands. I drank some more Pepto and took some Tylenol to combat the cramps and headache I was experiencing. I washed it down with Gatorade and some Pretzels. I was already getting nervous for my next match. It was the semi-final against a wrestler I have only wrestled once and lost to. She has also been a multiple time national medalist. We had only wrestled each other once over a year ago when I was at a tournament feeling sick just like I was for our re-match. The last time we wrestled I let feeling sick get the better of me. I did not scramble and when I shot in I would let her score on my attacks because I was too tired to fight for the takedown. I was afraid that history would repeat itself and I didn’t want to wrestle that next match. I told my coach about this and out in the hallway, underneath the bleachers, he gave me that pep talk about being able to win with my B or C-game. It was then that I made the decision to tell myself I felt good, even if I didn’t. I told myself “you feel good, you are ready” over and over again before that match. I told myself “you can do this” as I jumped around anxiously before stepping on the mat. I took a deep breath as the referee shook my hand. I shook my opponent’s hand and it was on. The whistle blew and I had to perform. We moved around and felt each other out. I focused on moving my feet staying active. I saw an opening and for the first time ever in a match I scored off of a high-crotch on the left leg. I got in so cleanly I was underneath her hips and I popped my head out as we fell into an arm-Turk and I worked to secure a cradle. I tried to keep the pressure on as I secured the position. I did not want to let her off her back. I have always struggled with pinning my opponents in these situations. I was patient, calculated in my movement. The time was ticking down as the first round was coming to an end. I had to finish it or we would start the second round standing again and the fight would continue. Like someone trying to defuse a bomb I was stressed by the seconds ticking down as I worked to end the match. With a couple seconds to spare the referee called the pin and blew the whistle. There was a sweet feeling of relief as I exhaled and released the hold. I stood up and as they raised my hand it hit me that I had made it to the finals. I went to cool down as the second semi-final in my weight class came onto the mat. The winner was last year’s national champion, Pan-American Games team member, and World Championships team member. We have a history of being very back and forth with her winning the majority of the bouts where I haven’t been on the top of my game. She had a history of optimizing on my poor performances. Not on Friday. I let her control me once and push me out of bounds for a single point. After that I went on to score eight unanswered points to take the victory and the spot on the World Team. I had done it. I accomplished my goal. Despite everything and feeling crummy and not being confident that I could do it – I overcame all of that. That is why I am proud of my performance on Friday. That is why I am so happy. Not just because of the result, but because of the performance and what it took to arrive there. I now know that I can still come out on top if I push myself. That even when I am not feeling the best I can still wrestle my butt off and be the best that day. I proved that to myself and I think that my sport psych said it best, “you also grew as a wrestler and a person, taking on challenge after challenge. The quality of your wrestling just grows deeper.” And so it will continue to do so. This was a huge milestone in my wrestling career but it will not be the last. I am going to keep learning and growing and pushing myself to be even better. In 10 days I depart for Madrid to compete in the Spanish Grand Prix and train the following week. This win also means that I will be representing Team Canada in the 53kg category at the World University Championships in Turkey this October.

Here are some photos that capture the past two weeks. Thank you to Monique (Eye 58 Photography) and Andrew Ross (49 North Wrestling) for the awesome shots!

 

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May 2016 Recap and What Lies Ahead for June

It has been a few weeks since I last posted so I figured it was time for an update. I’m sure many have been following along on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram but here is an elaboration of the highlights.

May 2016 was pretty exciting. I got to wrestle in Times Square, NYC, then I was off to Italy for a tournament and training camp, and I finished off the month with a bump up to 10th in the United World Wrestling Rankings. Let’s start where I last left off with my prep for New York. My last blog post (here) was just before I left to compete in the Big Apple. I was feeling nervous but excited to compete on the largest stage of my athletic career. Looking back on that moment, the nerves took over. It was very overwhelming. I walked up the steps onto an elevated stage in the middle of Times Square open to all of the elements, the cool breeze and roar of the crowd, the city that never sleeps buzzed with energy and the audience began to chat “U – S – A – U – S – A” as my opponent climbed to meet me. We were being broadcasted to the electronic billboards above, bright lights shining down on you that are almost blinding – it was an experience I will never forget. I couldn’t ever hear my coaches in the corner over all of the noise. I tried to block all of it out and focus on my breath. There were brief moments where I felt I was moving well, but my legs felt heavy and my opponent strong. She moved like no one else I had grappled with before. We scrambled and I felt glimpses of advantage but they slipped away as my opponent optimised on any error in body position on my part. She is the world champion for a reason and I fell short where I had hoped to shine. I wanted to wrestle better out of some positions and no wrestler is happy with defeat, but the event was for a good cause and the loss was to a worthy adversary. Beat the Streets aims to improve the lives and potential of New York City student-athletes through the benefits and skills acquired by participating in amateur wrestling. A lot of money was raised to support this goal at the event and Gala that followed. It was great to have women’s wrestling represented at this event and to be a role model for young athletes in the sport. I got to speak to some of the young women who were¬†beneficiaries of the program and had wrestled earlier in the day. It was awesome to hear from them and to see their enthusiasm of being able to take part in and watch this event. In the end I know that this experience will make me stronger and a better athlete. After all, a good wrestler never truly loses; they only win and learn. I learned a lot.

BTSNY

Less than a week after this event I packed my bags to ship off to Sardinia, Italy for the Sassari City Matteo Pellicone Memorial. I felt nervous, as I do for every competition, but it felt much more low-key and relaxed than New York the week previous. The event was still being live-streamed but the audience was just wrestlers again. I felt comfortable going back into a little bit of obscurity for a moment. My first match was against a fellow Canadian. I finished it in the second round with a single-leg takedown to cross-ankles for a technical-superiority (10-0). My second match and semi-final was against a Russian wrestler. This one I finished in similar style but much quicker with a 10-0 victory in 0:29. Then I prepared for the finals against a different Russian opponent. My coaches helped me scout a bit by watching the other semi-final match-up right after mine. This was only my second international final (my first was the Senior Pan-American Championships a couple months previous) and I was a little anxious. This event had each final match showcased with a light-show and dry ice entry to music as they announced each competitor. The match itself was under a spotlight on the center mat and the whole arena was focused on you. This surprisingly did not intimidate me after my experience in Time Square and I just took a deep breath and reminded myself that this is where I want to be from now on Рin the finals wrestling for gold. It was a challenging match against a skilled opponent and I finally wore her down and won 14-6. I was very happy with the result and how I wrestled that day. I ended up taking a group selfie of the podium which was filled with the entire Russian 53kg entries. Apologies for it being a little blurry.

Italy'16

I fully appreciated my rest day on Sunday, but it was back to work on Monday morning for training camp. There were some very good training partners I got to work with from France, Italy, Mongolia, Argentina, and Venezuela. I enjoy these camps and the opportunity to train with different styles, body-types, and weights. I’m leaving this Tuesday again for a training camp in St. Catherine’s, Ontario where I will do more of the same. United World Wrestling released their May Rankings for Women’s Freestyle earlier this month and I was bumped up to 10th. You can see the full article here.

In the coming months I have a lot of training and a couple of important tournaments. As I mentioned, I have a camp for 2 weeks in Ontario. After that I have the World University Championship team trials in Guelph. After that I am off to Madrid for the Spanish Grand Prix and training camp. Finally, I return to Canada for final Games prep. Lots of exciting things coming up, so keep following along on my journey! I’ll keep posting updates on social media and blog again when I can!