Matt Johnson used to lie awake at night thinking about his losses on the wrestling mat.
He couldn’t sleep after setbacks in junior high and early in his high school career at Philipsburg-Osceola. He compounded his frustration with poor eating habits. He didn’t have the mental toughness to handle losing, and he didn’t wrestle with confidence.
But this year, the Mounties senior isn’t allowing the losses to consume him.
“I just realized it wasn’t life and death,” said Johnson, who competes at 152/160 pounds. “It was just wrestling. If I go out there and win, that’s good. If I lose, it’s not the end of the world. If I give my best, then something good will happen.”
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With that newfound mentality, Johnson believes in himself when he steps on the mat. He’s put together an impressive campaign, leading the team with 24 takedowns and 12 sets of near-fall points to go with 12 wins. Johnson is working toward reaching the PIAA championships one year after his junior season was cut short by a nagging shoulder injury. He’s looking to dominate his opponents this year and working to score points from start to finish. And more often than not, he’s been overpowering.
“It’s like the other kid’s a first-year wrestler,” P-O teammate Tristan Beauseigneur said.
Added Mounties coach Brad Pataky: “He’s a very strong kid. If we can combine that physical strength with that mental strength, he can be unstoppable.”
At the end of a Mounties practice this past Monday, Johnson and his teammates pushed through the pain, past multiple sets of sprints and bear crawls. Johnson never wavered — Beauseigneur called him “the toughest partner” on the team.
The first day Beauseigneur trained with Johnson this year, he was wearing a sweatshirt to try to cut weight. Within 15 minutes, Beauseigneur was already exhausted and took the sweatshirt off. By the end of practice, Beauseigneur cut three pounds — doubling his goal of 1 1/2 pounds for the day.
Johnson viewed the grueling conditioning session at the end of Monday’s practice as a lesson in mental toughness, saying it served as preparation for finishing a close match with a takedown. After the team’s final sprint, Johnson and his teammates finished the workout by repeating the principles posted on the wall of the wrestling room: I am thankful for the opportunity to wrestle. I am aggressive and relentless. I have no fear of losing or making mistakes. I never ever give up. Johnson is embracing those principles from Wrestling Mindset, a program focused on training the mind through sets of worksheets on topics ranging from mental toughness to relaxing under pressure to confidence.
“These are their mental reps that they do every day,” said Wrestling Mindset coach Mike Moor, who has worked with P-O throughout the season. “They say these four core principles and that translates into their thought process. Their thought process is essentially what translates into their wrestling.
“If you want consistent performances, you need consistent thoughts and feelings and behaviors, and this is a way where they can have consistent thoughts on a daily basis.”
Johnson has that mentality, a different mentality, on the mat this season.
He was robbed of the opportunity to compete for a trip to the state tournament last year when he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in late December. He tried to come back a few weeks later, but he couldn’t even perform a push-up. He even felt pain when his arms moved while he was running. His season officially came to an end in February after an MRI revealed the tear.
“I think if he was healthy, he could have made a state tournament appearance last year,” Pataky said.
It was another disappointing end to a season for Johnson, who finished one match short of earning a PIAA berth as a sophomore. That’s when he treated his matches like “life and death” — a mentality that affected him even more in junior high. He couldn’t control his nerves during matches and burned all his energy early as a result. He couldn’t stop thinking about losses, and he can still recall the “worst” setback during his freshman campaign. He ended up getting pinned in a close match in the district semifinals.
“That just made me sick,” Johnson said.
He spent that night thinking about what he could have done better. He knew he had been undisciplined with his eating habits, snacking on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Starburst candies.
Three years later, Johnson isn’t making the same mistakes. He’s motivated by the crushing losses and the season-ending injury. He’s earned come-from-behind victories, keeping his composure and maintaining an aggressive approach. He’s sticking to a healthy diet, eating a lot of yogurt and steak.
And he’s developed a short memory as he chases after a spot in the state tournament.
“I think he’s got even a bigger goal, though,” Pataky said. “I think his biggest goal is to become the best that he can be because if he becomes the best that he can be, not only will he make it to states, but he’ll place at states. ... It comes across to me as he’s trying to make a statement.”