Being mindful on the mat

MU sports psychology student helps Tigers wrestling team develop mental edge
Sunday, December 10, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Inhaling and exhaling to the sounds of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, five Missouri wrestlers form a circle on the mat for a cool down after yanking and twisting at one another’s limbs for the past hour and a half.

The cooldown is a way to prevent the soreness of lactic acid buildups in the joints. But, this is not your normal cooldown run by coaches and assistants.


Renée Mapes, a student sports psychologist, leads the MU wrestling team through yoga exercises after the wrestling team’s practice Dec. 6 at Hearnes Center. Mapes started working with the team in 2003. (IKURU KUWAJIMA/Missourian)

A session of yoga led by Renee Mapes replaces the toe touches and lunges usually led by members of the Tiger coaching staff. Mapes, an MU doctoral student in sports psychology, has worked with the team for the past three years.

Yoga is just one of the ways she has brought her unique form of mental preparation to the Missouri wrestling team.

“It sounds like a lot of pyscho babble but tuning into your body is so important,” Mapes said. “Wrestling is very aggressive but it is also about being calm.”

Mapes began work with the Tigers during the 2003-04 season, wanting to observe a team that had not used a sports psychologist before. At first, she approached coach Brian Smith wanting nothing more than to watch the team. For a season, Mapes was merely an unfamiliar face to this group of grapplers.

“She came up to me and just wanted to observe and not say anything,” Smith said. “Just this person hanging out in the room.”

That first season, Mapes contributed little to discussions and made little contact with the wrestlers. Taking notes and learning about the team, Mapes revisited Smith at the end of the season with some ideas of how to improve the mental makeup of his squad.

“People think the sport is so physical, which it is,” Smith said. “But it is also a lot about the mental.”

Smith says he advocates mental preparation and advises that his wrestlers take a sports psychology course offered through the university. So, when Mapes came to him with ideas such as yoga exercises and group meetings, Smith put up few barriers and allowed her to run with her ideas.

“I don’t hold her back, and I want her to work more with the team,” Smith said. “I want her to be more comfortable with the team and them with her.”

But in order for Mapes to spark an interest in her ideas, she wanted to get to know the wrestlers. With a year under her belt, Mapes returned for the 2004-05 season and took on a more proactive role and learned more about the individual parts of the team rather than the whole.

This time around, Mapes met with individuals and got better acquainted with them both on and off the mat. The person just hanging out in the back of the room was slowly became a confidant and a member of the team.

“I wouldn’t have gone out and done that two years ago, because I wasn’t really a part of the team,” Mapes said. “Now, a lot of them talk about conflicts and confidence and wanting to be prepared on the mat.”

When setting up shop with the team, Mapes did not necessarily understand the mental toll that competition can take on wrestlers, admitting that she had to get used to the aggressive nature and competitiveness of their sport. Despite that, she incorporated psychological concepts into her work with the team.

Words such as visualization and imagery, normally brought up in introductory psychology class, were frequently heard in team discussions and found a place in the context of an otherwise rough sport.

“People think of it as soft and mental garbage, but great athletes that are going to be champions have the mental part,” Mapes said. “It’s the pretty good athletes that could stand to learn more about it.”

She also stresses to wrestlers to not let themselves be “broken” by their competition. Methods such as thinking ahead a few moves and showing no fatigue are some of the ways Mapes teaches the team how to keep a mental edge.

Conversations often stray from matters on the mat. Team members are students and people first in Mapes’ opinion and more times than not, conversations take a personal tone.

“They aren’t just athletes, they have other things going on in their lives,” Mapes said. “I have spent just as much time talking to them about what is going on with the girlfriend.”

Wrestlers enjoy the time because it is an opportunity to work through problems in other parts of their lives and to get an idea of what is on the minds of teammates.

“It’s an open forum where you can talk amongst other wrestlers about mental preparation before, during or after a match,” redshirt freshman Maxwell Askren said. “Such as how you are dealing with things.”

Smith, too, seeks the advice of Mapes when getting stressed on the job. Smith gets feedback from Mapes about what works and does not work for his team, but she also gives Smith advice on how to get his team going when usual methods do not work. Rather than lashing out on his team, Smith talks with Mapes to work off his frustration.

“I vent to her rather than the team when kids are not working hard,” Smith said. “We work on motivating different people in different ways.”

Being with the team for so long, Mapes is not really thought of as just the team psychologist anymore. Rather, she is a part of the common goal in the eyes of Smith.

“She’ll come to me with positive things but also with things that can help guys improve,” Smith said. “She is a part of this and working toward the common goal of helping the team win a national championship.”

Mapes is a few months away from receiving her counseling degree, making the 2006 season her final one. However, she is far from finished in her work. Mapes, who says she would “do this for free” for the rest of her life, is intrigued by the psychological environment of youth and college sports teams and wants to research them.

Her two and a half years with the Missouri wrestlers have not only served as good experience but a welcome distraction from the dissertations and mounds of classes doctoral students must endure.

She says the success of each individual wrestler is what she will take with her more than anything.

“They find success in their own way,” Mapes said. “It’s good to be with people pursuing greatness and helping them in any way I can.”

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