COLUMBIA — Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith likes to compare his wrestlers to the stock cars found on the NASCAR circuit.
These race cars, like his wrestlers, are expected to perform at the highest level, so the fuel that makes them run must be the highest octane possible.
Smith coaches more than wrestling, he coaches a lifestyle. He wants his athletes to live a life of complete discipline in order to achieve the highest success. He calls this lifestyle"Tiger style."
Smith said to be successful “you have to be committed to your sport, and committed to your academics. If you try to commit to anything else, like the party scene, one of the other two will be hindered.”
He says to properly train for a wrestling match requires an intense diet and workout regimen unmatched by any other sport in college athletics.
A typical workout will consist of rope climbs, hammer throws and flipping tractor tires. Then the wrestlers will go to the mat and work on their technique for an hour. When they're done, a dry shirt can not be found among the entire team. It's not uncommon to lose five pounds in a practice.
In order to train like this, a wrestler must have an incredibly disciplined diet. It would be easy if the wrestler could eat everything they wanted. However, wrestlers have to face the scale before they face any opponent on the mat.
Tigers heavyweight Devin Mellon says he will check the scale at least twice a day. That is in addition to the required weight checks the coaching staff holds a couple times a week. Smith prefers his wrestlers to train a few pounds over competition weight.
If a wrestler can't maintain his desired weight, working to cut or add pounds can distract from work on his technique.
In order to maintain weight, wrestlers have to eat four or five meals a day. Each meal consists of an assortment of fruits and vegetables, lean protein and an abundance of water.
The Mayo Clinic suggests the average person drink two liters of water a day. Missouri wrestler Brent Haynes says he drinks around two gallons a day.
When people think about cutting weight for a wrestling match, images of sauna suits and athletes starving themselves for days before a match usually come to mind. For Smith and many wrestling programs across the nation, this is ancient history.
“Compared to the rest of society, wrestlers are among the healthiest,” Smith said.
Wrestlers are tested for things like body fat and hydration and given a diet and workout plan that fits each of their needs.
“People look at our sport and think it’s so barbaric,” Smith said. “Wrestling is actually very scientific with counting calories and knowing which food does what for your body. They are training to live a healthy life.”
A healthy life requires more than being physically fit. "Tiger style" also trains the wrestler for the demanding mental side of being a student athlete. Wrestlers have two mandatory study halls a day, and have their grades checked frequently.
“There is so much stress built into the sport already, that if a wrestler is also worried about a test, that excess stress will spill over to the mat,” Smith said.
“It’s easy to start putting wrestling before school work,” Mellon said. “A degree is what we came here for, though, and that piece of paper always keeps me balanced.”
A college wrestler, especially one in a program as prestigious as Missouri's, deals with many distractions that a normal student does not have to worry about. They are always studying, training or recovering. Smith went as far as to describe the lifestyle as “Spartan-esque.”
However, there are still little breaks a wrestler has to take to forget about the constant training. On a nice day, Smith will sometimes take the team out of practice and play kickball in the parking lot. Three-time Big 12 Wrestler of the Week Alan Waters will sometimes succumb to an ice cream craving.
“It’s all about staying under control and knowing when it’s OK to break a diet,” Waters said.
Haynes remembers a time when he decided to go off his wrestling diet.
“After the Southern Scuffle wrestling tournament this year, I had a really good tournament,” Haynes said. “I was sitting with one of my teammates, and I thought I had earned a double cheeseburger. He agreed so we drove to McDonald's and scarfed down some of the best tasting cheeseburgers I’d ever had.”
In a sport like wrestling, athletes are constantly training, either physically or mentally. It’s a sport that’s not for everybody. Smith has seen a few of his wrestlers quit.
“Wrestling makes these athletes cross thresholds with their body and mind that they did not think was possible,” Smith said. “If they can reach that point, there is no limit to what these kids are capable of.”