Gene Zannetti is a friend and an old wrestling teammate at UPenn. After college he pursued a M.S. in Sports Psychology and founded a company centered around performance mindset. He has worked with many high school and collegiate wrestling teams. Gene is one of the most inspirational people I know. His energy and dynamism are such that if I ever had a room full of people and no speaker, I know I could count on Gene to step up and entertain the crowd on a moments notice.
I have to admit that when I competed in wrestling, I didn’t give much credence to sports psychologists. I always thought they were trying to turn lead into gold. As if they believed they could replace hard training and technique with some kind of hocus pocus alchemy. I was quite wrong.
While I ignored their lessons, I walked into the snares of psychology many times. Since launching my MMA career, I have spent countless hours reflecting on the mental aspects of the game. Going into a fight is unnerving and scary, and I have had to confront these issues head-on. Knowing Gene would have an interesting perspective, I reached out to him with the following questions.
Knowing what you know now about mindset, are there any big changes you would have made to your own wrestling career?
Plenty. I wish I knew more about the mental game. I was always mentally tough, goal oriented, and motivated. But I’m talking about the peak performance aspects – treating every match the same, avoiding reading papers/rankings, focusing on improving every day instead of titles and wins.
What originally got you interested in sports psychology?
When I learned that sport psychology is the study of teaching people how to bring out their best by using their greatest tool: their mind. What could be more interesting than that?
I never feel that I performed to the level of my abilities at the NCAA tournament. What do you say to people who struggle with big matches?
This is most people. It says nothing about you as an individual. So number one, don’t link that to your sense of self.
Treat all matches the same. Or as close to this as possible. Don’t make any match special. Nine out of ten times, special kills performance. You wrestle live every day so don’t change much for matches.
Know that you are great no matter what outcome occurs. You have this evidence already in past accomplishments and past matches with quality competition. A title or win may look good to others and make you feel good. But the reality is, if you win or lose, you’re still the same quality wrestler. We live in an outcome driven society. But we’ve all beaten guys that we could’ve lost to under different conditions (is that person a worse wrestler?). Outcomes are kind of arbitrary when you think about it. Considering everyone’s health, mindset, feelings that day, environment, location, ref calls, and injuries there are many factors.
Your wrestler was upset in the very first round of the state tournament and has to wrestle back. What is the first thing you tell him?
Forget about it. Happiness is nothing more than having a poor memory – if you can’t remember what happened yesterday you feel pretty good today.
Life isn’t always as good as it seems and it’s not as bad as it seems, but somewhere in between reality falls. We can’t change the past all we can do is act in the present and make a great future. Remember the Good Lord put eyes in front of your head not the back, so you can see where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Imagine trying to drive a car while looking through the rear view mirror.
We cannot let that opponent beat us twice by dwelling in the past and wallowing in self-pity. Take some time to regroup and then shake it off and forget about it completely. Storm through the wrestle backs. Most people aren’t tough enough to recover from a setback, but it’s at these moments you find out who you really are – that’s what psychologists go by.
Don’t worry about outcome. Whatever happens happens and you got the loss out of you. You bounce back and do the best you can.
How do you learn from a loss without dwelling on it?
I recommend you review the same things after every match – three things you did well (physically/mentally/technically), and three things you want to improve. It keeps you grounded and realistic. Why only learn from a loss? You want to learn from every match. Then once you have your answers, forget the outcome because each match is about making improvements. Not winning. If you keep improving, titles and wins will occur naturally. Don’t get hung up on them. This is easier said than done. This has to be given a lot of thought. Mental maturity is key.
I’ve always thought that fear and nervousness are healthy and should not be eliminated but rather regulated. How does one find the optimal level?
Think of the three best matches you ever wrestled (Note, I didn’t say necessarily wins).
How did you feel before and during those matches (be as detailed and specific as possible)?
Same with your three worst matches (not necessarily loses).
Find the common themes between best performances and do the same for worst performances. That should give you a good idea where your mind and emotions should be before you compete every time.
How important is having fun? If you have lost that love of the sport, can you get it back?
Fun is everything. If you have fun doing something it won’t cause stress and increased cortisol levels, which absolutely have physical implications to your health.
You don’t wrestle to win. You can win at darts, ping-pong, video games, or soccer, and if you don’t like what you’re doing you should be doing something else. Life is too short.
My first mindset client ever was a dad who told me his kid wasn’t motivated. I tried to appeal to him every which way. The kid’s heart just wasn’t into it. I told him to quit and he did. And I don’t blame him. I felt bad at the time, and even cried a little (this was my first client ever), but I knew in my heart I advised him well.
The big thing is being sure of your motives. Walking away is fine, as long you’re not doing it out of fear of an outcome or avoidance of hard work. If that’s the case then that’s what you need to work on. If it’s still in your heart, why not continue?
What is the best way to follow your lessons further?
Wrestling Mindset and Z-Fanatical Fitness. At the end of the day this is my life. I made it into a business, but only because this is first my life – helping people through performance success information. I’d like people to buy our products yes, but deep down, if my information can be used to help people improve, live their dreams, and being mental well being, then I’m happy.
You can see more of Gene’s work at Wrestling Mindset.