Dear Fargo Wrestlers...

katherine's fargo throwback- 2003

katherine's fargo throwback- 2003

Fargo! The crown jewel of our nation’s national high school tournaments. A huge undertaking for all involved. I've watched girls prepping, planning, excitement's the biggest (figuratively and by actual size) tournament of the year for high school athletes who continue on to freestyle and greco. For a small percentage, it's triumph and success, and for others, it's heartbreak and disappointment. The first year I coached Fargo, I had just competed three and a half months prior at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Switching gears on my perspective was a challenge. I had just spent a career completely focusing on myself and my own training. You don't always remember the similar struggles of your youth, especially when you spend years conditioning yourself to a mindset always focused on moving forward and improving. However it was exciting to support young athletes through this huge event, as I had just done the same.

When you arrive at the national tournament, the seasoned Fargo coaches stand out. They know the stats of the wrestlers, who’s beaten who, and why so-and-so shouldn't lose to so-and-so. It was hard to bring myself to the same state of mind. I knew the stats were important to these athletes, but as a coach with my long athletic career perspective, I saw it as an advantage to be unfamiliar with everyone's record. I was able to stay grounded in the moment along with my athlete, and I believe they appreciated the redirection of focus. The more the coach is focused on what should have happened, the less they are focused on the process for the athlete. It is immensely important for the coach to stay in the moment. It’s a false notion that you need to tell your athlete everything about their next opponent. Give them key points on offense and defense, then allow them to put their focus back to their warm up, back to their process.

My advice for coaches: help your athletes understand the importance of properly preparing for a big tournament, and how those skills will transfer into every aspect of life. Teach them how to move forward quickly, win or lose. It's important to not ride the high highs, or the low lows. It is easy to get caught up in all encompassing magnitude of the Junior and Cadet Nationals. It’s important to bring yourself back to the ground, so you're athletes can also see that it's not the end-all-be-all.

Some of these young athletes will continue on and have college careers, some will decide to go even further and test out an international career, and some will be done after their senior year. When I competed at Fargo, I thought this tournament would decide my future. I thought it would give me the perspective of what level I was on, and how I could move forward with my career as a wrestler. Fighting through mostly disappointing performances at Fargo became the true test of how my career would be shaped. I was the one who continued even when I wasn't on the top of the podium.

The lesson for the athlete: use the experience, excitement, victories, and heartbreaks to fuel your next move. Never allow one tournament to shape the choices you make, or the path you take. Wrestling is a sport about not only inches, but centimeters. Success at Fargo can create opportunities, but only you can take full advantage of what is presented.

Jenna Burkert: What's Your Why?

photo: richard immel

photo: richard immel

What is your why? Can you even remember anymore? When you do something for so long, its almost inevitable for your 'why' to come into question. Your why is the reason behind your effort. It is what keeps you driven, if you don’t have a why you may be weak when things get hard. 

Take me for example, I have been wrestling for nineteen years. Now 25-years-old, that’s almost my whole life. I say that with a laugh, can you believe I have laced up my wrestling shoes almost every day for nineteen years? Well I have, but not without the reminder of my 'why.' I emphasize the number of years because it's a long time to keep motivated. I’d be a liar if I told you I never wanted to quit. There have been days that I was so sore, so beat up from practices and workouts, that heck yea I wanted to quit. After those hard days I had to work hard to remind myself why I still compete in wrestling. 

My why is my pure love for the sport. 

My why is the countless hours I have dedicated to become the best.

My why is because at almost 5 years old I saw the Winter Olympics on tv, and knew I had to be there. It didn't matter to me that wrestling wasn't in those Winter Olympics, because the Olympic movement is what set the fire in my eyes and ignited the passion in my heart. I knew I wanted to be the best, and the very best competed at the Olympics. 

photo: tony rotundo

photo: tony rotundo

On the hard days, weeks, and months, I have to remind myself of why I began wrestling in the first place. Your own personal why can be anything. When you fall down seven times, it's the why that gets you up on the eighth time. Some of my greatest victories came right after huge challenges which had made me question if I should leave the sport. Digging through those thoughts helped me realize I didn't want to give up on my goals. At some point, I won’t be able to keep competing and I will have to retire. This reality helps ensure I make the most of every time I am able to step on the mat. I don’t know a single athlete who have never had thoughts about quitting. Take comfort knowing it is okay to question if you want to continue on. Maybe that’s a sign you need a break, or time to do cross-training. Whether you are wrestling or competing in any sport, your why is your biggest weapon. 

Life is hard. Those three words are the honest truth. There are going to be many hard times in your life. It may be sports, school, relationships, or maybe even filing your taxes. Something out there will make you question if you can do it. Your why is your back bone, and it’s the strength that will help you continue on. With social media dominating our every move, it's easy to think everyone else lives perfect, happy lives. This is deceiving and is never the full truth. We don’t see the struggles or the bad days, we only see an image or a ten second video.

I’ll give you guys an example of life throwing curveballs. Three and a half weeks before this year’s U.S. Open, I fractured my ankle along with a high ankle sprain. Let me tell you, my heart ached and I was absolutely devastated. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. As I sat in the hospital listening to the orthopedic surgeon tell me the news, I couldn't stop shaking my head. The doctor told me I would be in a boot, and I most likely should not compete at nationals. With the qualification system requiring us to compete at the U.S. Open, I knew I had to compete because missing nationals would end my season. My eyes fill up with tears, but I knew I had to find a way to be at nationals. I walked out of that room with my mind set on competing. My physical therapist and athletic trainers came up with a plan heading into the open. I would have to be extremely cautious and the most disciplined I had ever been. I had rehab exercises before and after every workout, and I taped up for wrestling practice. If I wasn’t on the mat, I religiously wore my boot. Fast forward, I ended up placing third at nationals, going on to win the world team trials, and then ultimately fell short at Final X. Despite not representing the U.S. at worlds this year, I overcame so much and I stand with my head held high. It’s tough doing what I did, I had to compete with little to no strength in my ankle to push off, but I found a way. I may not have made the world team this year, but I proved to myself just how strong I am. I will rise again, and just like they say, the sun still comes up the next day. So, keep pushing, chase those dreams, and always believe in yourself. 

Life is tough, but so are you.

Jenna Burkert is a 4x National Team Member, 3x Junior World Team Member, and a 2014 & 2018 Senior World Team Member. She wrestles for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and was 4th at the Military Worlds in 2017. She was 5th at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games as the only female representing the U.S. 

Jenna wants you to reach out to her through social media! She loves working with and answer young athlete's questions, so send them her way!



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Lee Allen: Brain Neuroplasticity and Athletes

Katherine shai being coached by her father, lee allen

Katherine shai being coached by her father, lee allen


As a professional athlete, I am extremely fortunate to have had a father who was not only a successful wrestler and coach, but also an avid researcher on subjects pertaining to advancing the athlete. He read and wrote extensively on topics like the one below, and strongly believed in the power of the mind. After losing my dad in 2012, my family and I take pride in sharing and publishing his work. Since I was a child, I remember my father helping me work on easing my nerves and frustrations by using a breathing technique and counting down from 10. I remember him utilizing this same technique to ease his fears when he was in the hospital due to health and his breathing was challenged. He clearly had learned that skills from wrestling will transfer into the rest of life. I found this article years later, I hope you enjoy.

-Katherine Shai, founder LuchaFIT


Brain Neuroplasticity and the Application to Wrestling

by Lee Allen

There have been major breakthroughs in the knowledge of how the brain works and our ability to study that process. For years philosophers, psychologists and the medical community thought that the body and its brain functioned like a machine. With the advancement of the computer many said “that is it, that is how the brain works!”

The idea that the brain becomes hard wired with experience and repetition without possible change is now discredited. Early visionaries such as Socrates were closer to the truth. Socrates stated, “I think you can actually exercise the organ of thought the way people exercise when they do gymnastics.” Yet it took hundreds of years before science caught up to those ideas.   

lee allen wrestling at the 1960 olympic games in rome, italy

lee allen wrestling at the 1960 olympic games in rome, italy

The more recent discovery that the brain is adaptable and malleable is the most important advancement in the last 400 years. Breakthroughs in our ability to study the brain indicate that it is elastic and in fact can develop new neurons with new connections at an advanced age.

There have been some very amazing case studies of therapists working with stroke patients who have re-learned the skills of walking, talking, driving, typing and many other complex skills. They have been able to do this in spite of the fact that the area of the brain that controls movement & speech, when autopsied, still showed damage that couldn't account for the recovery.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to restructure itself due to training or practice. While it is accepted that change takes place through experience, learning and behavior, it is now known that thought and imagination can bring about change as well.

Data suggests a two way street.  We are not stuck with what we have. The Dali Lama suggests that in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead. Systematic spiritual practice along with disciplined activities results in changes in the very structure of the brain.

The film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” delves into Quantum Physics which puts many of the foundations of science on its ear. The very physical existence of the atom is now in question.

We are the product of our emotions. Our receptor cells are all fed by proteins. If the cells are continually bombarded with certain emotional messages, a sister cell will divide with more receptor sites that supports that emotional response. We are truly how we live.  

This mind body connection has great implications for our sport of wrestling. Michael Murphy who is an author and professor at Stanford has done work on mental training. He has worked with many Olympic Athletes and pro golfers. He studied in India with The Dalai Lama who raised the question “can the mind change the brain?”

The book written by Murphy in 1992, “The Future of the Body,” is considered to be a classic in sports literature. His topics include extraordinary human functions such as healing, hypnosis, martial arts, yogic techniques, telepathy, clairvoyance and superhuman feats.

1999 USA National champions

1999 USA National champions

The discovery that the brain is “plastic” with the ability to reorganize itself so that other areas of the brain can take on different responsibilities makes it necessary for us to reexamine our ideas about activities and how we learn skills. We have underestimated the ability of the human brain to adapt, change and influence physical performance.

The revelation that a thought can remap our brains has coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” With this concept in mind, there is no limit to what we can accomplish in a very complex activity like wrestling. These abilities allow us to use our brains in ways we are yet to discover.

When different neurons activate at the same time as a response to an event, the neurons become associated with one another and the connection becomes stronger. Inversely, when we respond to an activity, we must make the right choice or bad habits are reinforced.

We are easily distracted by the routines of the day. Not only must we focus on the mind body connection we also must be able to focus on the task at hand. At practice we must develop the ability to put all mundane issues aside so we can perform at an optimum level or we run the risk of associating the unpleasant daily tasks foremost on our minds with the skills we are trying to master. This will result in a negative feeling about the wrestling practice or the skill being performed.

Research shows when you surround a habit you would like to change in a positive context, you can bring about positive outcomes. This means linking new habits (even habits deemed difficult or challenging) to an environment or situation you enjoy will help support a transformation. Using music, selecting a pleasant environment while visualizing or imagining a pleasant favorite place encourages the desired change.

When we know that desired change is indeed possible, we are able to focus on ways we want to grow. Now we no longer need to question if change is possible for us. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit”-Aristotle

Pathways not utilized with the learning task will be utilized by other pathways. “Use it or lose it”. Perhaps that is why we see gifted wrestlers become distracted, breakdown, or fall short of their potential. If we let negative thoughts and self doubt encroach into our thought process we are mapping our brains with new conflicting messages.

Excellent performance requires more than physical ability. Without the right mental approach, a talented wrestler will simply be one of many. Goals are not achievable until one forms the right habits. With the right mental approach it is possible to be the best in the world.

With the knowledge that science has verified the importance of the mind body connection practitioners of alternative spiritual practices such as yoga, Buddhism, and visualization are now validated.

Many wrestlers are convinced they learn better with methods which they are most comfortable. Open yourself to other ideas and precepts. Visualization and alternative spiritual methods gives us the opportunity to utilize all the senses and will open up new possibilities for learning. Give it a chance. Make the mind body connection.

Lee Allen

BS University of
Oregon MA San Francisco State

Oregon Hall of Fame, 
California Hall of Fame, & National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Lee Dale Allen was born on December 28, 1934. Originally from St. Francis, Kansas, Allen and his family moved to Sandy, Oregon (near Portland, Oregon) during the Dust Bowl in 1938. Being a star athlete in high school (winning four state titles), and college level (attending University of Oregon), Allen competed in two Olympics (1956, 1960). He is one of two of the only American wrestlers to make an Olympic Team in both Freestyle (1956) and Greco-Roman (1960). Allen was named the assistant coach of the 1972 and the 1976 USA Greco-Roman Olympic Team and was named the Head Coach for the 1980 Olympic Greco-Roman Olympic Team, which was later boycotted (1980 Olympic Boycott). Finally settling down in El Granada, California, he coached Skyline College in San Bruno for over 30 years, helped start BAWA (Bay Area Wrestling Association) and began the first women's wrestling program at Menlo College. He earned a Coach of the Year award in 2009 presented by the WCWA (Women’s College Wrestling Association). In May 2010, Allen announced his retirement as Head Woman's Wrestling Coach at Menlo College. Allen passed on June 11, 2012.

Defeating Impostor Syndrome as Female Coaches

L.A. Jennings and athlete, photo by bordertown

L.A. Jennings and athlete, photo by bordertown

Wrestling has a problem: women aren't coming back to coach. And when they do, they face an uphill battle because they fail to internalize their own accomplishments. This is called Imposter Syndrome, a term coined in 1978 by a clinical psychologist. It has become a buzzword in recent years, and couldn't be more relevant to the sport of women's wrestling. 

What is imposter syndrome exactly? It is the feeling that you don't belong, don't deserve to get that promotion, or be the coach to that athlete in the corner. It is common amongst 70% of the population, but more common among minority groups. It is extremely prevalent in athletes, as the constant drive for perfection causes fraudulent thoughts. There is always something more to achieve, higher to gain, a way to work harder. When it feels like the work is never done, it is easy to become dissatisfied and dismissive of accomplishments. This, on top of being a female in a male dominated sport, is the perfect storm for imposter syndrome. 

How it relates to wrestling

In the wrestling world, and in other male dominated sports, we have certain expectations about who is in the athlete's corner. Most of the time, we see men in the corner operating as the coach. This causes females to feel they need to prove themselves. First as athletes, then as coaches. We start believing that we can't possibly be as accomplished as those around us (successful males wrestlers and coaches). It feels easier not to try, and to leave the possibility of success to others instead. We fail to imagine how deeply flawed others actually are. We paint of picture of what a wrestling coach should look like, and then we say... "that's not me." We know ourselves from the inside, but we only know others from the outside which is filtered information. When it is difficult to internalize your own accomplishments, the prevalent emotion is the fear of being exposed as a "fraud." 

These feelings can paralyze women with wrestling experience and intimidate them from coming back into a coaching position. Not only did they have to battle to have the opportunity to wrestle (possibly as the only female on an all-male team team), but coaching becomes yet another battle full of the same anticipations of skill.

You don't have enough experience 

As women we often downplay our experience. Research shows women are more likely to internalize failure and criticism than their male counterparts. When the opportunities for females don't look the same as male wrestlers or coaches have had, it can feel like accomplishments were out of luck and not hard work. That the achievement had nothing to do with talent. Could this be the reason some women do not return to their sport to coach?


L.A. Jennings is a professor, competitive fighter, gym owner, coach, and author. She has had extensive experience in the world of expectations and dealing with her own fraudulent feelings. The reactions from the combat community were often dismissive or reluctant of her accomplishments. As a coach, Jennings was often asked to leave the competition preparation areas. It was assumed that she was a girlfriend of a competitor and not a coach. Those reactions created an internal self doubt that perpetuated a dialogue about not belonging: 

"My feelings are based on other's reactions, and then I start second guessing myself. We have this power and authority (as females) to be there, yet we still feel nervous being in the corner."

-L.A. Jennings, Owner, Train. Fight. Win. MMA Gym


The idea of our mistakes revealing something negative about our abilities is often the root of the problem. Those with perfectionist tendencies fall victim to imposter syndrome more easily. When we have certain expectations of what makes a "perfect" coach, we tend to nit-pick and compare ourselves to our internalized expectations, or feel like we aren't the right person for the job. Jacque Davis, girls Program Director for Beat the Streets New York and National Team Head Coach, has often had feelings of comparison while making sure she is properly preparing her athletes: "I feel paralyzed about making a mistake and it effecting them. 

Did I hand fight with them too much, did I not try and make them laugh enough, did they need to get a better sweat?"

-Jacque Davis, Head Coach BTSNY, Junior World Team Coach, College All-American


How do we defeat it?

When noticing feelings of intimidation or when questioning capabilities, look at the athletes who trust you and your judgement. L.A. Jennings reminds herself about her athlete's reasons they want her in the corner, "I look at my fighter who trusts me and i know they wouldn't put their time and energy into training with me if they didn't think I was appropriate for cornering them. They trust me and they are here for a reason."

Self doubt is internalized. Look at the external factors that exist, because they often help distinguish what you are perpetuating internally and how others actually see you as a professional. It takes a leap of faith to recognize that others feel just as anxious as you do. Hold yourself accountable when you find the inner voice saying you don't belong. Hold others accountable when they hide behind what they may deem as modesty. Their lack of self-recognition is a form of imposter syndrome. When you "air your dirty laundry" of mistakes and lessons for others, you empower yourself to empower others. Confront and call out the things that may isolate others from doing what they are actually passionate about. When we command authority of our internal language, we can see the shift in our world and how we perceive ourselves. 

The Secret to Conquering Your Fears

photo by justin hoch

photo by justin hoch

It's easy for many of us to name of few things we're terrified of. Whether it's public speaking, vegetables, or competition, it's the great equalizer that we all have to deal with. Our mind is a powerful asset that helps us grind through a tough practice, but just as easily can be the reason for losing a competition. A technique that has become more and more popular as of recent is called "mindfulness." The concept of the mindfulness is not to push away or ignore our fears, but instead recognize their existence and learn to live with them. No problem has ever been solved by ignoring it. You learn to understand that your fear is a roommate hanging out in your brain, and it's okay if they stay. You will learn how to live together.

One big misconception is that when you reach a certain skill level, those fears go away. The bad news is that the fears will never go away, so it is to your advantage that you learn to live with them. Even Olympic Champion Helen Maroulis who's proven that she's the best in the world, admitted she deals with intense fears. This is an excerpt from her journal entry in Rio de Janeiro, just before competition:

“I can’t stop crying. I’m making myself sick. For the first time in my life, I explained to Terry [my Coach] what my anxiety was like. What it felt like to be afraid of irrational things. I was always afraid to tell him, because I was afraid he wouldn’t think I was mentally capable of a gold medal. And at the Olympics, I didn’t want to look weak..."
-Helen Maroulis

(from an interview with Sports Illustrated)
Click to read the full article.


What you should know

The concept of mindfulness is to train our minds to notice each time a thought pattern begins. When you are able to recognize this happening, you can quickly bring yourself back to the present moment. We are most effective in our matches when our mind is open to the present moment in order to react efficiently. 

Mindfulness is not about perfection. This is exactly what makes it great for athletes, and especially for wrestlers. We don't need to do a perfect takedown, we need to remain calm in the present moment to see the takedown to its full completion, no matter how that looks. The more you challenge your mind to notice when you are "drifting," the easier it becomes to stay "in the moment" during high-stress events. Some athletes use a verbal queues to bring themselves back to the present moment, others use physical queues like adjusting their uniform. Start playing with a queue in practice that helps your refocus your attention. 

How do you start

It is up to you to put aside 5 minutes of your day to focus on mindfulness. You can download an app like Headspace or Oak, or set a timer on your phone to do it on your own. Take just a few minutes to start noticing your breath. As thoughts enter, acknowledge them, and bring your attention back to your breath. It's okay to struggle, as this is a practice and never a goal. Increase your time in seated mindfulness meditation as you feel more comfortable. Challenge yourself to be patient and continue to remind yourself to put your focus back on your breath, no matter how many times your mind drifts. 

How do you apply it to life as an athlete

It can be very tempting to control every aspect of your training. We control how hard we push in our workouts, we work on controlling our opponents, our nutrition, or sleep... what about our minds? We ironically do not have as much control over our minds as previously believed. So a mindfulness practice is the ability to learn how to understand our mind. What we can control, however, is where we decide to put our attention. 

Since mindfulness helps clear the mental clutter, athletes can learn how to prevent more mental clutter from entering. Athletes are consistently dealing with thoughts of self doubt, worry, and questioning their actions towards a path of success. Mindfulness allows room for those thoughts, and helps you guide your attention back to what is most important: the moment. Ever heard of someone who was able to compete "in the zone?" The concept of "not thinking" is actually the ability to freely bring their thoughts back to the moment, without judging what does come up. This is a no judgement zone! They simply have chosen not to act on the thoughts that are saying "you can't win this match."  

A skill for life 

Its been proven that our mental health affects our physical well being. As you continue through life being involved in wrestling or not, this is a skill that you can roll over to any aspect of life. The stresses you deal with in wrestling can often be just a small reflection of the mental toughness you learn that helps you through the stresses of life. Use mindfulness as tool, just as you will use the lessons from wrestling to help you through life.