Against Gig Harbor High’s Trevor Zeitner in Thursday’s dual-meet in Purdy, Peninsula High School junior Nathan Johnson was closing in on a win by decision, up 7-5 on points late in the third and final round.
But Zeitner scored a takedown as time expired, knotting the score up at 7-7. The match was going to overtime.
Johnson remained calm, earning a takedown in the overtime period and winning the match with a 9-7 decision.
“I wasn’t really tired — it was more that I had to kick it into overdrive,” Johnson said. “I had to turn it on. He caught me off guard. I had to work extra hard to get that back.”
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It was a match that Johnson may have lost last season as a sophomore, when he lacked the confidence he has now.
“Last year, I went into every match thinking I was going to lose,” Johnson said.
Johnson certainly wasn’t in any kind of uncharted territory in his sophomore season. Many underclassmen struggle with confidence on the wrestling mat.
“Kids can really psych themselves out,” said Peninsula coach Mark Nickels. “The mental side is huge. It’s one of the biggest components of wrestling. “It’s OK to be anxious, it’s OK to be excited, but throw the nerves away. You’ve got to be confident about what you do, confident in your training and get out there. This is your time to perform. That’s easier said than done.”
Nickels’ advice to the promising Johnson? Trust in the training he was putting in every day.
“If you believe you’re able to do it, you’re going to do it,” Nickels said. “We don’t do a lot of live wrestling in the practice room. We put them in those situations that they know they’re going to be in, so they’re familiar with that. We tell them to just let their bodies respond. Stop being in your head and just wrestle. Your body knows what to do because you’ve done it 1,000 times in our wrestling room.”
Johnson has taken that advice to heart. This year, he has posted a 20-12 record.
“I’ve stopped really caring if I’m going to win or lose,” he said. “I’ve started going to the match thinking, ‘I’m going to wrestle the best I can.’ Once I started thinking like that, it started mattering less and less to me if they scored a point. It mattered to me if I left the match happy with how I wrestled.”
Johnson competed in freestyle wrestling in the summer. He showed up to every optional preseason practice. He attended camps in the summer. He has put himself into a position to be successful with his hard work and dedication to the sport. Now the confidence is catching up.
“You get better as you get more mature and more confident, and you tend to be more successful,” Nickels said.
How far can Johnson take it this season? He’s got his eyes set on the Tacoma Dome, for what it’s worth.
“I’m looking toward state — I’ve put in the work,” he said. “I realized I could be a good wrestler if I just push myself to be there. If you look at all the tournaments this year, I started wrestling better and better at each tournament. I’ve really regained my confidence.”