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Authors: Sam Sheridan

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BOOK: Fighter's Mind, A
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“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
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
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
” 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.
BOOK: Fighter's Mind, A
11.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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