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Wrestlers brains wired to win

March 7, 2014
Crook County High School

By Grant Lucas / The Bulletin / @GrantLucas88

Published Feb 25, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Feb 25, 2014 at 11:27AM

 Just a few years ago, Tyler Berger’s mind would overheat.

Thoughts of how to properly train, how to diet and how to mentally prepare himself swirled through his head. He would overthink, and as the senior Crook County High wrestler says, “It slowed me down.”

It is as if Berger’s mind is composed of complex wiring, executing commands that have made him one of the most dominant high school wrestlers in Oregon.

A few years ago, that wiring was wadded and tangled, like Christmas lights stored in the attic. But now, after hours of work, months of practice and three years of fine-tuning, Berger’s cognitive wiring is precisely organized.

His mind, which once ran like an overloaded switchboard, now operates with the automated precision of a central processing unit.

“Now when I get on the mat, I’m not really thinking what I’m going to do,” says Berger, a three-time Class 5A state winner at Hermiston High School who transferred to Crook County last summer and has compiled a 42-0 record with 36 pins for the reigning Class 4A state champs. “My mind’s not really going. It’s just kind of on cruise.”

It all begins in the practice room, where Berger nurtures the mindset that he will not be scored upon and that no opponent is getting away from him. He looks to dominate in the practice room, and that approach pays off in competition — as shown by his average of just more than two minutes spent on the mat in his 36 wins by fall so far this season.

Berger studies himself by watching film of his performances, and he does the same for opponents. He visualizes each match, secluding himself and putting on headphones to listen to music, allowing himself to focus all his senses.

What will the match feel like? What will the crowd be like? What will my opponent do? What will my coaches be saying?

Berger imagines every potential situation, but each result is the same — Berger’s arm being raised by the official, declaring the senior Cowboy the winner. He goes through this routine before every match, envisioning where he will go on the mat, how he can get into his offense and how he will execute his attacks. But when he steps on the mat, the CPU takes over, and his body switches to autopilot.

“When I’m on the mat,” Berger says, “I stop thinking about it and just let my body do what it knows how to.”

Other wrestling standouts — like those who have qualified for this week’s state championships in Portland — can relate.

“It’s almost like you stop thinking,” Ridgeview’s Boomer Fleming adds. “It’s just attack and react. It’s muscle memory.”

Fleming, a two-time state champion himself (one at Class 5A Redmond High in 2012 and one at 4A Ridgeview last season), goes through a similar process, one he picked up attending wrestling camps as a kid. And one he developed through countless hours of practice and training.

“At times, I’ll go through an entire match in my head, where everything I do is perfect,” Fleming explains. “I envision myself having a perfect match. Other times, I try to envision just the first move, and right after the whistle I’m hitting my move perfectly.”

Most frequently, Fleming says, it is the latter scenario — a quick strike that leads to quicker results.

During his senior season with the Ravens, Fleming has posted a spotless 16-0 record. Fifteen of his victories have come by fall, and he has averaged fewer than 45 seconds on the mat per match.

“When I step on the mat, it’s more of a flip-the-switch attitude,” says Fleming. “Off the mat, I try to be someone totally different. I almost transform into a different attitude where I just want total dominance on the mat. I want to get off the mat as soon as I can to make my work easier.”

Kaleb Winebarger did not begin visualizing matches until this season after he visited a sports psychologist last year. The payoff has been plentiful, as the Mountain View junior has racked up a sparkling 34-5 record with 25 pins.

“I have to clear my head of everything and not worry about who it is I’m wrestling,” says Winebarger, who placed fourth at state last year and second at the 4A state meet with Mazama of Klamath Falls in 2012. “I just have to go out and think that I’m going to do this and this and this. I have to wrestle the match before I actually wrestle. It helps clear my mind. I don’t get as nervous anymore.”

Visualization has become natural for Winebarger. In a way, his cruise control begins minutes before each match, when his mind switches into gear to picture the upcoming contest. And it ends with his body, in Berger’s words, doing what it knows how to.

“It has definitely affected how I wrestle,” Winebarger says. “It feels a lot different. I feel a lot more confident walking onto the mat than I did before.”

It all begins within the complex wiring of each wrestler’s CPU. Possess all the physical ability and talent in the world, but without mental preparation and toughness — that intricate organization of wires in the mind of almost every successful wrestler — you will not last long.

“If you go out there on the mat without preparing yourself mentally, you don’t stand a chance,” Fleming says. “You not only have to see yourself winning, you have to have confidence that you can win.”

Fleming is convinced that mental toughness is “100 times” more difficult to develop than physical ability. And the importance of that toughness, he adds, is too great to measure.

“I think it’s probably one of the most important things for anything if you want to be successful,” Berger says. “If you go out with the mindset that you’re going to lose, you probably are going to lose.

“Even when I was younger, my freshman and sophomore years, when I was in a match that maybe the odds were against me, there was never a time when I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just going to survive this match,’ ” Berger says. “No, I go on the mat and I have the expectation to win. Sometimes I fall short, but there’s never a moment when I have a mental lapse or kind of let my mind get the better of me. Mental toughness — if you don’t have it, you’re not going to win.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com.

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