The Fighter’s Mind
Inside the Mental Gameby Sam Sheridan
From the author of the critically-acclaimed best-seller A Fighter’s Heart comes an unprecedented look inside the minds of the world’s top fighters and trainers.
In his acclaimed national best seller, A Fighter’s Heart, Sam Sheridan took readers with him as he stepped through the ropes into the dangerous world of professional fighting. From a muay Thai bout in Bangkok to Rio, where he trained with jiu-jitsu royalty, to Iowa, where he matched up against the toughest mixed martial arts stars, Sheridan threw himself into a quest to understand how and why we fight.
In The Fighter’s Mind, Sheridan does for the brain what his first book did for the body. Every athlete knows that physical skill and conditioning are only a small part of what makes a champion. Sheridan heard time and again (in Yogi Berra fashion) that “fighting is ninety percent mental, half the time.” But what do fighters and trainers mean, exactly? Fighting—two guys in a ring smashing each other—is the ultimate physical endeavor. Are they spouting an empty cliché, or is there something more to it?
To uncover the secrets of mental strength and success, Sheridan interviewed dozens of the world’s most fascinating and dangerous men. He spoke at length with celebrated trainers Freddie Roach and Greg Jackson; champion fighters Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, and Marcelo Garcia; ultrarunner David Horton; chess prodigy (and the inspiration for Searching for Bobby Fischer) turned tai chi expert Josh Waitzkin; and the legendary wrestler Dan Gable, among others. What are their secrets? How do they stay committed through years of training, craft a game plan, and adjust to the realities of the ring? How do they hold strong to their identity, recover from crushing defeat, and rein in their ego after victory? How do they project strength when weak, and remain mentally tough despite incredible physical pain?
This captivating book, bursting at the seams with incredible stories and fascinating insight will appeal to all readers, not just the large core of fighting fans. After all, as Sheridan writes in The Fighter’s Mind, “we’re all fighting something.”
“Another must read. . . . Sheridan never gets bogged down in psychology, rendering his book accessible even to non-fight fans. The lessons handed down from the book’s subjects are fleshed out on their own and by Sheridan, painting a complete picture of the pain and joy it takes to get to the top, stay there, and eventually surrender the crown.” —Danny Acosta, FIGHT! Magazine
“Fantastic . . . One of the best MMA books I’ve ever read, and I’ve certainly read my fair share.” —Eric O’Brien, “Way of the Warrior,” ESPN radio
“[Sheridan’s] written two of literature’s best books on fighting: A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind.” —Field and Stream
“You don’t have to care about fighting, or even know that MMA stands for mixed martial arts, to find insights into human behavior in Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind.” —David M. Shribman, Bloomberg
“In tasking himself with peeling back the layers of a complex and multifaceted activity, [Sheridan is] raising the bar for everyone else. . . . If you want a better grip on a sport even some of its participants may not fully understand, his work is quickly becoming required reading.” —Jake Rossen, ESPN.com
“The Fighter’s Mind is an entertaining and enlightening read and is a worthy addition to any MMA fan’s bookshelf.” —Dave Doyle, Yahoo! Sports
“Sheridan wrote one of my favorite books of recent times, The Fighter’s Heart, and is one of those writers who could write about getting the oil changed in his car and still make it riveting . . . So it comes as no surprise that The Fighter’s Mind is a terrific read.” —Jeff Fox, MMA Manifesto
“Sheridan’s two books are now required reading for our fighters. At most every gathering I tell them to be sure to get the books, because other than the Bible, they are the best fight books ever written.” —Denny Holzbauer, 6-time World Champion kick boxer and founder of American Bushido-Kai Karate Association
“A must-read for fight fans.” —Evan Holober, The Queensberry Rules
“Tirelessly curious and game, deftly sidestepping pretentiousness and macho posturing and all the other usual traps that snare writers who delve into the form and meaning of fighting, Sam Sheridan seeks out fearsome teachers and comes away with a rare prize: a deep understanding of the mental aspect of the fighter’s craft and what it can teach us about how—and how not—to live.” —Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time, An Education at the Fights
“Having opened up professional fighting worldwide in the best-selling A Fighter’s Heart, former Merchant Marine and Harvard grad Sheridan here plumbs the mental side of the sport. . . . this should be a knockout with fight fans.” —Library Journal
“As accurate and perceptive an account of what makes top fighters tick as I have seen. Sam Sheridan is a great observer and with his profiles of some the top names in MMA, he cuts through the clutter and highlights what it is about these men’s psychologies and thought processes that has made them so dominant. There is so much valuable information in this book that I read it once and then went back through it again with a highlighter. The chapter on legendary trainer Greg Jackson alone makes the book worth purchasing.” —Donovan Craig, Editor In Chief, FIGHT! Magazine
“Sheridan follows his successful A Fighter’s Heart with a wide-ranging exploration of how great fighters succeed. . . . Like its predecessor, this book should find an audience well beyond the ring.” —Alan Moores, Booklist
“Relevant for fighters and non-fighters alike, [The Fighter’s Mind] creates new bridges between the fight community and the rest of the world.” —Lockflow.com
“In Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind you are taken on a journey that starts in the mind of wrestling great Dan Gable and meanders through the inner psyche of today’s fighters. Paradoxically, the knowledge illuminated from this fascinating journey remains timeless and true, reflecting the wisdom of the archetypal ancient warrior—truly a great contribution to the field of mental athletic peak performance.” —Michael Lardon, M.D., sports psychologist and author of Finding Your Zone
Fire and Brimstone
College wrestling, to its participants and its fans, is not so much a sport as a secret religion, a calling, a fanatical sect that captures you body and soul. —Kenneth Turan
As I drove through a snowy wasteland to Waterloo, Iowa, I could feel the emptiness stretching away, across Canada, to the North Pole. It was cold, about three degrees without wind chill, and the snow fell dense and light, too cold and windy for it to stick to the windswept road. Thin snakes of curling snow twisted back and forth across the highway. Bodaciously cold. The rental car was cozy, my little cocoon of traveling heaven.
Waterloo is a small industrial town, and my destination was easy to find, right off the highway. The car crunched through the ice in the parking lot, empty save for one other car. I parked near it for warmth.
The Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum was chilled and clean.
It felt deserted, complete with echoing footsteps. And then a thin, serious young man came out, Kyle Klingman, whom I knew only electronically. He helped run the museum (though he’s since moved on) and he was my link to the greatest living American wrestler, Dan Gable. Interestingly, Kyle is not a wrestler, but he had the burning intensity of something, some kind of athlete. I later found out he was an ultrarunner.
I wandered through the museum, catching up on wrestling, pro wrestling history, and all things Gable. Actually, I was pretending to catch up; in reality I knew very little about collegiate or Olympic wrestling, the wealth of names. Signed pictures of Olympians covered the walls. The museum was bigger than I expected, and well organized, although there wasn’t much but photos. The pro wrestling section was small but fascinating, a little-known slice of history. It hadn’t always been dominated by fake, theatrical matches. There was a large picture, a black-and-white framed photo of a stadium in the 1930s, packed with 14,000: folks in suit and tie, ladies in hats, all for a wrestling match. Kyle informed me that into the ’50s some pro wrestlers would actually wrestle for real, in private, to decide who was better, and then they would “work” (fake) the public event, with the real winner prevailing in “the work.” Otherwise, an overly technical match might be boring for the crowd.
I sat in Frank Gotch’s favorite chair. Gotch was the “greatest American wrestler ever,” competing at the turn of the century when professional wrestling was primarily real. Wrestlers traveled the world and competed in bullfight rings in Spain and stadiums in Russia; Gotch was considered an icon in the early days of the twentieth century and wrestled in front of a crowd of 30,000 at Comiskey Park.
Gotch had studied under Farmer Burns, another great American catch-wrestler. These guys were doing submission wrestling with key locks and chokes before the Gracies learned jiu-jitsu. Burns wrote things that sound suspiciously like Eastern philosophy; he advocated the practice of deep, studied breathing, flowing like a river—meditation by another name.
I realized long ago that modern MMA had been deeply shaped by American wrestlers, who had found a professional avenue for their refined and savage arts. I was here at the beating heart of American wrestling to explore the wrestler mentality, with the hands down greatest living American wrestler. Many of the fighters I was interested in, Pat Miletich and Randy Couture, had set out to emulate Dan Gable. So here I was.
Gotch’s leather chair was comfortable, with excellent lower back support. If I’m ever a millionaire I’ll have a furniture maker copy that chair for me. A burly older man came out to say hello. His name was Mike Chapman and he’d read my book. He was an interesting guy, a professional journalist who’d written sixteen books, a combat sport enthusiast who’d practiced wrestling, judo, and sambo, and a historian—he’d just written a book about Achilles.
Mike and Kyle were excited I was interviewing Gable the next day. They had set the whole thing up, as I could never get Gable to respond to a phone call. Kyle and Mike wondered if I was nervous about meeting Gable. I hadn’t been before but now I was getting there.
Dan Gable is nothing less than a living legend. He seemed unbeatable as a young wrestler. He went 18301 in high school and college, pinning twenty-five consecutive opponents. He won gold at the 1972 Olympics without getting a single point scored on him. If you don’t know wrestling it’s very hard to appreciate the surreal quality to that achievement. It’s one thing to win a gold medal; it’s something entirely different to dominate a sport as completely as that. It demonstrates not only greatness but a kind of monstrous determination, a drive to a killer instinct on a completely different level.
As a coach, he won twenty-one consecutive Big Ten titles and nine consecutive NCAA titles (with a total of fifteen) from 1978-1986, in what is known as the “Gable Era.” Gable wasn’t just great—he was dominating, not only as a wrestler, but as a coach, too. And that domination was very famously and publicly born of insanely hard work. Dan Gable trained much, much, much harder than everyone else. He worked out five or six times a day; he ran from class to class with ankle weights strapped on. He’s the definition of driven. For Dan “more is more.” His drive, his fanatical devotion to the blue-collar philosophy that “harder work means better results,” coupled with his unprecedented success has made him a mythical figure in his own time. Hard men gush like teenage girls when they talk about him.
At its heart, wrestling is about intensity and pure conditioning. There is always a body on you, continuously in contact. The whole point is to dominate physically, and there aren’t a lot of ways to rest in a match—basically you’re going the whole time, all six or nine minutes. Wrestling is more tiring than fighting because it’s pure, and it’s more exhausting than grappling because it’s so positional. It’s a battle of will, and nothing destroys will like fatigue. Mike Van Arsdale, an Olympic wrestler who fought extensively in MMA, told me how much harder wrestling is, cardiovascularly, than fighting. In wrestling, you’re not going to get punched, you’ll just be dominated. Of course technique and strategy figure in but they are distant stars to strength and conditioning.
What Gable brought to the table—what made him different—was his fanatical drive. It allowed him to push a dominating, tireless, relentless pace in practice and in matches. “Fanatical” is a clichéd concept in sports, but for Gable it seems like one of the only appropriate descriptions. He pushed so hard no one could keep up. He brought a whole new level of conditioning to the sport. He improved constantly, he studied diligently, he refined his game. Through example, Gable brought all that intensity along with him into his coaching career, and it paid off: his teams dominated and annihilated the competition for most of his career.
I drove back down to Iowa City the next morning for my interview with the great man, through a complete white-out blizzard. Seven inches fell in a couple of hours. My friends and family would have been scared if they could have seen it. Only three or four really close calls. Who needs coffee when you’ve got adrenaline? But I wasn’t going to miss my interview, not now. Gable would have driven through the snow.
The Gable homestead is a beautiful place, twenty-odd acres in the country. Most of Iowa is flat but where Gable lives there are rolling hills, timber, a sense of wilderness. I parked and walked across the snow to his office, a cabin he had built out back of the house. He had a fire glowing in the iron-and-glass woodstove. I was jealous—it would make a great writing studio, with a big full bathroom, a sauna, and a small gym.
By now I was a little intimidated to meet the man. For wrestlers, Dan Gable is Jesus and Buddha. Douglas Looney, in Sports Illustrated, had called him “America’s Ultimate Winner.” Wrestlers will say he’s the Greatest American Athlete in History and they will be fighting serious—wild-eyed—when they say it. Wrestlers carry Dan Gable in their hearts. I didn’t know what to expect, and I wondered if he’d be annoyed by some snot-nosed nonwrestler asking questions.
The man himself is just that, just a man dealing with his legend. Dan is of medium size and build, still thick in the shoulders and hands, his hair gone thinning and nearly bald, big glasses, light Irish complexion. He’s in his fifties and has had to pay the price for his unrelenting workout routines and wrestling schedules, with dozens of minor and major surgeries, hip replacements.
He shook my hand and launched into a quick, decisive interrogation. Who was I, where was I from, what was I doing, where did I live now? I had the sense that Gable was holding me up to the light like a jeweler, examining me carefully with those big eyes behind his thick glasses. He needed information to assess me, and he got it quickly and without stopping—he was intense and it was no act. In fact, there was almost an air of apology to it, as if he was aware that some consider him too intense, but he couldn’t do anything about it.
He gave me a tour of his house, showed me some things he’d won, the Gold Medal. We ambled back to his office, woodstove ticking warmly, and sat down. Dan launched into the interview, without me asking a question. In fact, I think I managed one question during the whole interview. He told me what was what, and I hoped my tape recorder was working.
Dan wanted to be clear. “Here’s where I come from,” he said with no prelude. “I’m a little fanatical. I’m on the extreme. If we had a thousand athletes and ranked them, and number one is the most disciplined and extreme, well, I’d be ranked right up there. I never changed my career, and my whole life was preparation for my profession.”
Dan started in at the YMCA at four years old and mentions that he was already a little fanatical. He swam as a kid and won local meets; he played every sport that little kids play and then he found wrestling. “I had a mom and dad who were intent on making this kid special, on giving him good advice. I heard good things from everyone around me.” It was “do as I say, not as I do,” but “their credibility stayed high because it was a blue-collar town, everything was pretty routine—smoking and drinking and family fights.” Frank Gifford wrote a book in 1976 about courage, in which he profiled Dan Gable. Gifford recounts how Dan’s mother, when she found out that Dan was nervous about an upcoming wrestling match (at age twelve), said loudly to him that she would take away his wrestling shoes and get him some ballet slippers. She was apparently famous for comments like that.
In junior high, Dan went from the Y into school athletics. He had great success in other sports—he was the quarterback on an undefeated football team—but “wrestling was an unbelievable commodity in Waterloo at that particular time, so I was closest to that.” There were some big name coaches in town, and kids were winning state championships. Dan fondly recounts how his eighth-grade math teacher (who was also a wrestling coach) got him on the right track with his academics. “But my academics was my wrestling—my other academics were an education for me, sure, but I wasn’t going to have to use any of that. Not like I was going to use my wrestling. I had my major going from the beginning.”
We sat companionably in front of the fire but I rarely got a word in. Dan has a terrible earnestness, a ferocity of concentration that swells into an almost frightening intensity and then fades back to normal. It warms my heart to realize that his interview is like his wrestling: it’s relentless. His voice is rough, coughing and growling.
As a kid he was something of a terror, with dozens of tales of “Dennis the Menace”-type shenanigans—chasing cats up trees and over the roof, feuding and battling with his parents and the world around him. In an interview with ESPN, Dan laconically said to the interviewer, “When I was a little kid, if I came in here I’d be looking to tear the place apart.” Gifford wrote, in his purple prose, “When Dan was a boy he was well on his way to becoming a Class A monster . . . his language was blue and his misdeeds violent.”
In high school, during his sophomore summer, while Dan and his parents were away on a fishing trip, Dan’s older and only sister, Diane, was raped and murdered at the family home. A lot is made out of this tragedy, how it drove Dan, but I suspect that Dan’s character was already firmly in place. The terrible, unthinkable horror simply revealed a little more of his iron nature. Dan took it personally. He kept his parents from selling the house and moved into Diane’s room. He’d already lost his sister, and he decided he wouldn’t lose his house. He fed the event to the hunger inside him.
Between his tenth-grade year and all the way through college, Dan won 181 wrestling matches. He was considered unbeatable. And then, in 1970, for his last match ever in college, for his third NCAA title, the unthinkable: Dan lost to Larry Owings, a good, tough sophomore from the University of Washington. Gable went on to a pinnacle of greatness, but thirty-eight years later he is still thinking about Owings.
“No matter what you do, you never forget certain things. People think that loss is over and done with?” He snorts derisively. “That’s never over, that goes to my grave with me . . .” he trails off, then continues, mellower, wiser. “Even though I have kind of figured it out, I know how I should have won that match. But that’s not the most important factor. The most important thing is: Could I have won that match and gone on to the levels I reached in the Olympics and coaching?” Here Dan is haunted, his thoughts far away. “I should have been able to do that, but I haven’t convinced myself I could have.”
These things plague him even now. He has a further, secret confession to make. “Here’s something I realized in the last two months: I’ve been disappointed in my athletic career by a few things. Beyond losing that Owings match, I was always somewhat disappointed in the way I won the world championships and the Olympic games. Even though I was unscored on, in the last two minutes of that match I coasted.”
Dan is incredulous, having a hard time believing it himself. Yes, it’s true. The shame of it, coasting.
“I have been trying to figure out why I coasted to victory, because as a coach I don’t preach that. I always say when you get up, build-build-build on your lead.” He sighs, disturbed deeply by his own allegations.
“It goes back to this Owings match, when I didn’t wrestle a good match. I was distracted, hearing things around me in the stands. I fought my way back into the match, came from behind, and pulled ahead. I was ahead by two points with thirty seconds left. But me, winning by two points? C’mon, I win by fifteen points or a pin!” The disgust rises in his voice. “I pin people! It wasn’t good enough to win, I had to pin him. So I went for the pin again. However”—and Dan grows wise again—”I didn’t read the match. I didn’t read the history of it. Twice before I’d tried to pin him and he’d escaped both times. I’d use arm bars and he had real loose shoulders and he could gumby out of there. It was just natural for me to try to dominate.” He growls, exasperated, “Yeah, coaching was involved but it was just my way. I went for the fall. He had the opportunity to score and he did by escaping. There was the referee’s call but I lost that match. What did that match do for me? CHOOM!” He makes his arm take off like a rocket. “It shot me up. I improved in the year following that loss as much as I had in the previous seven years.
“But now, here’s the point. In the finals of the World, in ’71, the last period, I’m up by five points, and the athlete I’m competing against stops wrestling. Now it could have been a false thing, trying to lull me, but I had been really working on my mentality since the Owings match. When you’re beating somebody, you keep adding on. But now, when he shut down, I shut down, too. I coasted to victory. The only way he could win was if I gave him the opportunity to pin me. So I didn’t give it to him. At the time I couldn’t say why. When I wondered at it afterward, and analyzed it, me being overly aggressive was the only way I could lose. That Owings match taught me to do what I had to do to ENSURE victory.”
Dan is not sure if he’s happy with this version of history. He shakes his head and talks about “taking a knee” in football—taking the safe way out, to protect a victory—and he gets very angry with himself, with the world. “Taking a knee is NOT MY WAY! It’s not my way! That’s what I preach, that’s what I demand, that aggressiveness.”
There’s part of the price Gable pays for being such an intense perfectionist—he’s somewhat dissatisfied with one of the most perfect performances in the history of sports.
When Dan started coaching at the University of Iowa he was introduced to a whole new slew of problems. He was just the assistant coach, and although it was competitive, the University of Iowa was not a wrestling powerhouse. Iowa State (where Dan had gone), Oklahoma State, those were the big dogs.
“I had athletes with the same talent I’d been around my whole life, and I figured they’d be as good. In the competitions we started with the easier teams, and I saw tremendous performances. So I told the head coach to raise his expectations, because his were much lower than mine. I told him he wasn’t seeing it. He said, ‘Just wait and see,’ and when we finally got into competition with someone who was rated higher than us, I think it was Michigan, the athletes didn’t represent themselves. They didn’t wrestle well. Now, for me, when you go against higher competition you get MORE out of yourself. In the quarterfinals of the Olympics you got to be a little better, and then even better in the semis, and so on. You step it up as the season progresses. Now this team wasn’t representing itself. And it wasn’t a fluke—it happened again against the higher competition. I started to think about mentality. I’d always had it, but we didn’t have a good example in the room.” He could see these kids thought they were working hard, thought they trained tough, but there were depths unplumbed.
Gable used himself as that example—because part of it, that extremism, is showing what is possible. He said, “I’m just off the Olympics, besides being a coach I’ll get out there, and work harder in the room to show it.” He needed living proof of what incredibly self-motivated people could do, and as he got older he had to find it in his wrestlers, hone it, and bring it out because a few individuals like that will raise the level of the whole team.
It’s like the nuclear bomb in the years before anyone had made one. The secrets of the first atom bomb weren’t technical, not really—everyone in the scientific world knew how to make one, more or less; the theory was public. It was just whether the thing itself was possible; that was the secret. Could it work? Would it ignite the atmosphere in a chain reaction, destroying the world? Gable played a similar role with his first teams, even with his Olympic teams. He showed them what they were capable of. Gifford wrote, “Face to face with Gable, they were able to see what had to be done.”
To Dan, there is no top end, no limit. You can always add new levels, and the guys who realize this go on to do amazing things. Dan gets fired up about this. He talks about the four-minute mile—how the journalists of the day were convinced the four-minute mile was the limit of human speed. In 1954, Roger Bannister crashed that wall and ran under four minutes because he believed overtraining to be a myth. Bannister said, “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.” The following year, a few dozen athletes broke the barrier, this barrier that had previously been thought of as scientifically impossible. It reminds me of what the monks in Thailand had said, that the longer you meditate the more you realize pain is just an illusion.
Gable is a true believer and, more to the point, he’s proven it. Gifford writes, “Dan talks in ‘odd’ phrases. Odd in that they are sometimes clichés. Only, when Dan says them, the moss falls off because they come from the lips of a man who has demonstrated since boyhood that he means every one of them.” In a way, that is the point of this whole book.
Dan gets up and walks me over to a picture of a horse race. It’s Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes in 1973. Secretariat is so far ahead of the other horses, thirty-one lengths, that they don’t even appear to be running in the same race. When you watch the race, you see Secretariat way out in front, pulling away. And then he keeps on pulling away, pulling away. This is what Dan is all about, confounding experts, performing at levels that no one dared yet imagine. There’s always another level. People may not understand it, may not be able to grasp it, but there’s always another level.
As a coach at the University of Iowa, Gable built a wrestling powerhouse and led the team to fifteen NCAA victories. I spoke with Tom Brands, one of his standout wrestlers who is now the head wrestling coach at Iowa. Tom (and his brother Terry) were outstanding wrestlers in the Gable era. Tom was a four-time all-American, a three-time NCAA champ, and won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. He won basically every award there is to win.
Tom said of Gable, “It’s complicated but it’s simple. He steered you as you needed it. He says this all the time, ‘I can make pumpkin pie out of cow manure.’” What becomes clear in talking to Tom is that Gable studied his wrestlers the way he’d once studied opponents. “He would push the right buttons, eventually,” said Tom. “It wasn’t innate, I think it was trial and error, hard work, study, he’d eventually figure a guy out, what he really needed.”
Tom tells a story about Gable and apples. Tom was a red-shirt freshman, and in a gruesomely hard practice. Gable was toward the end of his coaching career, perched high on the bleachers and eating apples from a box. He was really pushing his varsity wrestlers, with two-on-ones and other killers, and he kept saying, “This is the last one of these,” but the torture never seemed to end. One of his wrestlers started breaking, pushed past his mental endurance by Gable and what he was asking for; he started wanting to quit. The wrestler began screaming at Dan, “You’re a liar, you said that was the last one, I thought you were a man of your word!” Dan didn’t say anything, but he started throwing apples at him. Tom recalls wrestling with apples everywhere, apples underfoot and under bodies—because practice didn’t end—with this one wrestler screaming and crying, “going off the deep end.” The wrestler having the meltdown didn’t get it. Dan just kept pelting him with apples. Gable wasn’t insulted. “He wasn’t in your face, ‘that’s not how you talk to me,’ but you could see that if you were talking like that, you’re out of line. You’re not as tough as you need to be. This was the test and you can’t handle it. You’re failing, right now, and you don’t even realize it.”
As head coach, Tom Brands has won the NCAA championship and word is that all the other sports at Iowa are doing better—inspired by the example of intensity.
Gable knew he couldn’t expect everyone to wrestle and train as he had. “A lot of people make that mistake. They’ve been successful so they try to apply it straight on to everybody else. A lot of great athletes don’t make great coaches, because they’re already fixed on what they were doing to be great, as individuals. Because I’ve been a fanatic and an extremist, I know it works well and for me. But I’ve made adjustments for a whole range of people.”
Tom gets a little frustrated by some of my questions. He thinks I’m looking for that one moment when Gable took him and said the key words that changed his life. Those words aren’t there (and I’m not expecting them). Tom conjectured for me, “He created an energy through mystery. He’s a serious guy, but these things are mysterious. What makes the real tough guys tick? We don’t know, except they’re badass sunofaguns. They’re fanatics. It’s not simple, it’s complicated.” Tom thinks about it.
“You learn the number one thing—it’s about making guys feel good about their future and the direction that they’re going. One time at a tournament, as a real freshman, my brother and I both lost both our matches—I got pinned—and Gable put us in the corner and pointed his finger at us and scolded us. But it was so positive, because we were just freshman and he let us know we were valuable to what he was doing, that he counted on us. It was so gratifying. He expected more from us.”
Gable expects more from you, and he convinces wrestlers to expect more from themselves. His standard is set to the highest level. It reminds me of the old expression “to make a man trustworthy you must trust him.”
Tom goes on to say, “A lot of coaches will tell their guys, ‘you gotta believe in me, trust my system and believe in it,’ but the bottom line is, it’s about the damn coaches believing in the athletes. Gable believed in me, in my brother, in all these other guys.”
It’s how Dan made pumpkin pie.
In his tenth year as head coach at the University of Iowa, Dan was going to break all the records. It was being dubbed “Season X” and T-shirts were printed, the proverbial champagne was iced. In a shocking turn his team came in second in the country.
“We crumbled on the edge of that championship, we went from first to second, but we were losers. Sure, we were second out of a hundred and ten teams, but if you’re on top, then anything coming down feels like a loss. I got hate mail the next day, saying I’d lost my touch, that the team will never be good again.”
He ruminated, “I went back and really tried to figure out what happened. I think the downfall of the X season lies much earlier, five years earlier, in ’83. We had the top-recruited class in the nation, for the first time ever.” Dan means that his team had gone out and found the best high school wrestlers in the country. That’s what having a legendary coach will do—it will bring the best young wrestlers, who will sacrifice a lot just to be in the room with Dan Gable.
“Well, those guys, they could carry us through with talent. And the work level fell off. And I fell for that. I was scared of doing something wrong. And the next year, we didn’t have quite the same class, but it was still very good. Now, up until ’87 we were still winning, but they weren’t the extremists. Now, they worked hard, but not to the level that raises everyone up. Not to the level that affects the people below them.
“It comes back to dealing with adversity. Too much adversity, too much losing, and it becomes the ‘same old same old.’ It becomes a habit—it’s not devastating. But if you only lose once in a while, at rare CRUCIAL times, you can build to a much higher level. You can use that as fuel.” Dan was forced to relearn what his harsh mistress, greatness, demanded.
“My best wrestlers, most of them, were winning before they came here. They might not know any holds, or have a lot of skill, but they’d go all out, beat somebody up and run them into the ground. They knew how to win before they knew how to wrestle. That’s the critical thing. And then we take them and mold them and teach them, and in a few years they’re amazing. It’s easier to teach the skills than the mentality.”
I asked Dan if there was any way to teach the mentality—it’s part of the mystery that Tom Brands was alluding to. Dan nods, that’s the point. “I don’t give up on kids that don’t have it, but I have them surrounded by kids who DO have it. Without examples, it won’t happen. And there’s not many out there who have it. A lot of them have the science, but only a few have the mentality. I would count five or six kids in all my years coaching that really fall into that mentality or character. But they influence others. They win matches before they get on the mat. And what’s really good is when the whole team gets labeled that way.” They start to see where the standard is, and those below rise to meet it and are vastly improved even if they don’t get all the way there.
“We’ve had that as a team, when we’d win the meet before the meet. I can’t ever tell you that all ten athletes were all that. Of the ten maybe four or five would really have that mentality. And that’s unusual. Usually it’s one or two that can really bring that extreme-level influence. These guys who just know how to win.”
“Would you call that the killer instinct?” I ask. He nods.
“Killer instinct, a little bit. You can’t make up for time lost. If you miss a practice it’s gone. But I do think—one of these guys that I’m talking about—CAN, because of the LEVEL OF EFFORT AND INTENSITY THAT THEY CAN ACTUALLY PUT INTO A SINGLE PRACTICE!” his voice has grown again, almost to shouting. Then he subsides and continues in a normal voice.
“They can get so much out of themselves in a practice, they’ll make up that lost time. The effort that’s coming out of their body is so great, they’re at such a level. I had a kid who could make up a week in one practice. He could make it up, very few can do it, and that’s that mentality that I’m talking about.”
Dan goes thoughtful again, musing out loud. “Is it just the body? But I look at those guys that I’m talking about, and not all of them had that incredible physical gift. At least two that I can think of are doing what I’m talking about, weren’t physical specimens—which takes it down to one area—between the ears.”
That’s what I’m after, and I pursue it. But Dan won’t or can’t elaborate. You just have to keep your eyes open and look for it. “Because I’m like that, maybe I can pick it out easier. But it’s not an easy thing to recognize. In our sport, for somebody just to make it through a difficult practice is pretty extreme for other people to imagine. But then you have those few guys who are really unique this way. It’s impossible for people to understand them. People think that they’re working hard, and they are, but there are other levels. You’ve got to have all the support, and the environment, and you have to have an imagination that’s unreal.”
I was reminded of the stories of Dan’s childhood, where he would pretend to be a famous ballplayer and talk about how “real” it felt to him. Imagination is a crucial component, oft overlooked. If you can’t imagine running a four-minute mile, how can you ever run it? Gandhi said, ‘men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability.”
Dan continued, “People don’t want to work hard. They want to get to the top without really paying the price. I just read a story where they interviewed these people who wanted to be great, and the question was: If you could go to the Olympics, be guaranteed a gold medal and then die two years later, would you do it? And fifty percent answered yes!”
Dan is disgusted, and incredulous. For so many reasons. He goes into a hypothetical, which takes on the air of a farce.
“If I was going to wrestle in the finals of the Olympics against a Russian, which I did, and if I knew he had been trained specifically to beat me, which he had—but then if I knew the guy was on steroids, that would HELP me. Whereas some might think “oh, he’s cheating” or he’s got an unfair advantage, for me you didn’t pay the price. You’re not as committed as I am. It’ll tear him apart. He may be strong, but all I have to do during that nine minutes of wrestling is loosen one single wire in his brain, make him do something that isn’t perfect, and he’ll fall apart. That’s what I feel.
“Breaking somebody is the goal. You get him to quit trying to win, he tries to survive. It’s there a lot, but often people don’t see it. You have to have done it quite a few times or you’ll miss the key point, because he can come back,” Dan warns me. “Once he shows signs of breaking, if you don’t take advantage, there’s a chance of him coming back. So keep pressure on at all times.”
Then Dan laughs a little. “But there’s a catch-22. It’s not as black and white as black and white. Sometimes you shouldn’t attack to win, and it’s hard to have both instincts. For the Owings match, I couldn’t have understood it without going through it. But then I had the instinct in the Olympics. And I used it to eliminate the chance of losing, pretty much.”
The Gable museum had a viewing room where an ESPN special on Gable was shown. It was a basic overview. His triumphs were documented, his tragedies more so. There was a fascinating blurb by some talking head, saying, “As Dan got more famous, as he became known to more and more people, his focus was all the time becoming narrower, more purely about wrestling.” Gable had won gold at the ’72 Olympics in Munich, without a single point scored against him, one of the dominant performances in sporting history. Three days later, Munich descended into tragedy, with terrorist attacks, the hostage crisis, and the eventual deaths of the Israeli athletes. When Gable got off the plane back in the United States, a reporter shoved a camera in his face and asked him about the atmosphere in Munich. Dan responded lightly, that the weather was about the same as it was here. He was embarrassed when he realized his mistake, but Dan Gable’s world had shrunk to himself and wrestling, to the head of pin.