Losing matches he should have won wasn’t Cooper Gardner’s biggest problem.
There were physical corrections that could be made in the wrestling room. It was the mental meltdown that followed. It started when he lost starting position near the end of his junior year and had to bump up a weight class from 145 to 152.
Then his performance at sectionals last year and missing qualifying for state for the first time in his career had him spiraling down an ugly, dark path.
“At first it kind of tore me apart and I stepped back for awhile, but the more I thought about it the more messed up I got,” said Gardner, a senior at Desert Vista. “I put up a wall and couldn’t go back to the wrestling room. I had a mental block and I was just in a bad place.”
It is something that happens more often than most would like to admit.
Young athletes, for the most part, are fearless.
Golfers think they can get to the green no matter how far off the fairway they are, basketball players take 3-pointers with the clock dwindling and quarterbacks step into the huddle before a last minute drive confident and ready to go.
But it isn’t always easy to shake off the failures.
Some are fine by the time they come out of the locker room and head home, others can’t sleep that night but clear their head by the time practice comes around and there are the few who struggle to rid themselves of that usually abrupt ending.
Gardner fell into that trap.
He was too smart for his own good. He rehashed every mistake and thought about it over and over again. It eventually built the wall he spoke about and had him staying home while his teammates returned to the wrestling room to prepare for the offseason.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said. “I had a terrible end to my junior year, the year all the colleges really look at you. I’m good enough to be a state placer, but I still haven’t done it. I hesitate (on the mat) and can’t just let it go like I can.”
Desert Vista coach David Gonzalez has been through this kind of thing before with other competitors.
“Every kid has to be coached differently,” he said. “Some need to be pumped up, slapped or yelled at. Others, like Cooper, need to be more relaxed and told to go have fun. When he does that, he is fine.”
Gonzalez gave Gardner, whose record is 5-2 at 145 pounds this season, some wrestling books by Beasy Hendrix, including ‘Wrestle your perfect match,’ in order to help him approach things differently.
Gardner eventually came back to the wrestling room and competed in freestyle events all summer and is wrestling at a high level as the team prepares for this weekend’s Moon Valley Invitational.
“I see a difference,” senior teammate Alex Bambic said. “We’ve been working together. He would get taken down and he would break (mentally) real easy. I talked to him about how he is a great wrestler but he doesn’t believe in himself sometimes and that’s when gets in trouble.”
Gardner knows all of this and done his best to take the right mental approach into each match, but the thing with a mental funk is it creeps up at any moment.
“I thought I was past it then I lost my first match of the year,” Gardner said of the loss to Chandler state qualifier Estevan Ulibarri. “He was a good kid, but I was like ‘Oh, great.’ (The mental aspect) still messes with me sometimes, but I had to throw it away. It could have been bad, but I was able to shake it off.”
The new approach has him focused on the last month of the year when he hopes to finally realize his goal of standing on the podium at the end of the state tournament.
“The rest of it is just practice,” Gardner said. “I’ve put in all of this time and there is only so much left. This is my senior year, it is my only option.”
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.