In keeping with our “Interview Series”, our next guest is my good friend, Steve Borja. A former National Qualifier at Virginia Tech, and current D1 coach at Franklin and Marshall, he has experience and wisdom to impart as both a high level competitor and coach. Here it is:
SW: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Accomplishments, current position, etc.
Steve: I was a Pennsylvania AAA state runner-up in 2001, undefeated state champion in 2002. I was a multiple time high school all-american. I received a full scholarship to Virginia Tech. In college I was a 4 year letter winner with a 86 wins, 35 of them bonus point victories. I placed in the top 3 at the Southern Scuffle twice, won the West Virginia open, Kent State open, and North Carolina open. I was also 2x first team All-ACC and in 2005 qualified for the NCAA tournament. I began coaching at DI Millersville University for 3 years, where I coached 6 NCAA qualifiers and 2 academic all-americans. I am in my first year as an assistant coach at DI Franklin & Marshall College.
SW: How long have you been involved in wrestling and coaching?
Steve: I’ve been involved with the sport of wrestling my entire life. My dad was a coach when I was born and I would follow him everywhere. I wrestled competitively until I was 24, and have been coaching for the past 6 years.
SW: When did you start strength training for wrestling? (This includes rope climbs/pullups/etc if you did them as a kid)
Steve: I began strength training my sophomore year of high school. I convinced myself to believe that strength training would stunt my growth until I started to mature (Editors note: This is not true! Check out why here.). I was also involved in many different sports/activities throughout my youth and adolescence. I didn’t quite know my body well enough to know how to sport specific strength train without it affecting my in-season performance.
SW: A lot of times I see athletes who take some time to “buy into” strength and conditioning and really see the benefit of it. When did you start taking it seriously as something that could make you a better athlete? Was there a specific event that made you a believer? (i.e. I’ve had kids say they start throwing people easier, they beat people they’d never beat before in sprints, they can finally touch the rim of a basketball goal, etc)
Steve: I didn’t buy into strength training until my junior year of college. Until then it was just something my coaches told me was important. Tom Brands, Doug Schwab, Wes Hand, Lee Fullhart, and Nik Fekete showed me why it was important. They were active in our strength program. Most of why I didn’t buy in was because of my weight issues. They helped me to realize that fully committing to a strength and conditioning program can be a huge asset in controlling your weight. (Editor’s note: As Steve said, weightlifting will not automatically make you put on weight-it is important to know and incorporate the proper program that will increase strength, power, and speed, but not weight)
SW: What are some of your favorite/most productive exercises you’ve used/had coaches use?
Steve: There are a few lifts that had a direct correlation with my success in certain positions. Rows with a variety of different bars/machines helped with pulling in the leg on my leg attacks. Curl to a press helped me incredibly with my underhook series. Adding a grip component to many of the lifts helped me out tremendously. Brands also emphasized the importance of doing many exercises in your wrestling stance, as well as envisioning how the exercise was going to be used in a live wrestling situation. Neck strength exercises were always included at the end of any work out, which is a necessity when it comes to wrestling.
SW: How important do you feel grip strength is in wrestling?
Steve: Grip strength is the great equalizer in the sport of wrestling. It can compensate for inadequacy in a lot of different positions (i.e. poor shots, poor technique on top, and defense from the neutral). Inversely, if there is a lack of grip strength, other types of strength can be nullified. You can have all the back/shoulder/arm strength in the world when you are in on a shot, but if you face an opponent with strong defense that puts a lot of pressure on your grip, you won’t likely finish.
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SW: Wrestling is a tough sport, what were some things you really liked in college that helped you recover that you feel helped a lot and you utilized the most? (Ice bath, foam roller, stretching, nutrition, sleep, etc)
Steve: I am obviously biased, but wrestling is THE toughest sport in the world. No other sport requires the amount of discipline across the board that wrestling does. That being said, I did not realize how important recovery was until I reached college, and more so now that I am coaching. If you want to compete at the highest level, proper active recovery is at the top of the list. When you are younger, your body recovers much quicker after workouts. As you get older, the workouts get more frequent and more intense, so more emphasis needs to be put on recovery. Getting in the ice bath was torture, but it saved my body in college. Saunas are an amazing tool if used correctly. Being introduced to a foam roller at my old age has been a good sent, and obviously stretching has moved higher up the list as I have gained weight and my muscles have tightened up. If you want to win titles at the highest levels, proper sleep and nutrition have to be in the front of your mind. Ultimately, it is not only about preventing injury, but your body being fully prepared to attack and get the most out of every workout.
SW: What does “Mental Toughness” mean to you? What is your definition?
Steve: Mental toughness has many different meanings to many different people. I think it is very hard to define. Everyone is “tough” when things are going smoothly, it is when people get out of their comfort zone that you start to see how “tough” they really are. If it is late in a workout, and you have been wrestling with a coach the entire go, you’re completely exhausted, the coach then puts you with a lighter underclassman that you routinely dominate, but he is fresh and has a mission to push the pace on you and score. How do you react when he starts handfighting with you and attacking from every position? Do you lie down, put your head on the mat and tell yourself that it’s ok because you are tired? Do you lose your composure and start to punch and kick (which would cost yourself and the team points in a live competition)? Or do you have so much pride in every situation of every workout that you are going to take the fight back to him and let him know that it is your room and you control how everything goes, as you continuously dominate positions and score points when you have nothing left to give. This is when true progress is made. That is the best way I can describe mental toughness.
SW: Do you have any “Strong Wrestler” stories? (I.e. Someone you’ve wrestled that was just insanely strong. Stories about Dan Hodge and how some would just feel absolutely crushed because of how strong he was)
Steve: Seeing as how I have talked entirely too much already, I will stick to 1 wrestler that stands out, although I wrestled numerous wrestlers that I could tell stories about. When I was a redshirt senior, Iowa State came in to wrestle us. I was ranked #4 and pretty confident, but I was a little worried about their freshman ranked #6. It ended up being 4x NCAA finalist, 2x NCAA champion, and Olympic Gold Medalist, Jake Varner. He led the match 1-0 going into the third, but I was completely drained from defending his top level handfighting. It was my choice and I chose down. No one in the country had ridden me so far, so I was sure I could get my escape, tie the match up and give myself a chance to take him down for the win. Instead, he slapped on a half (which I hadn’t been turned with since elementary school) and began to put pressure on my neck. Initially, I didn’t really know what he was doing, because he made no effort to turn me. Then, as the 2 minute period (which felt like 5 minutes) went on, I slowly felt my head go to the mat, and with 30 seconds left, I could no longer lift my head up, he turned me with ease and pinned me. Something I did not experience much in my wrestling career.
SW: Final question: If you could impart some words of wisdom on athletes who are seeking to become great, what would they be?
Steve: There is no specific recipe to become great, but more often than not it starts from within. Find something about the sport you are passionate about. Find out what motivates you. Focus your positive energy into these specific areas. For me, I loved wrestling live in the room. I had a lot of success in high school in the room, when I got to college this became much more of a challenge, and I struggled. I started by finding different work out partners, and coming in on my own. Then, I realized I needed to work on certain positions, so I picked up the frequency of my individual drills. Finally, I started to focus on strength training and diet, in order to become more explosive and optimize what I was getting out of drilling. In the end, it became a very positive domino effect, all brought out because I was extremely focused in one area of my training.