World Championship Training Philosophies of Ildar Hafizov & Alan Vera

greco-roman training philosophies, ildar hafizov and alan vera
Ildar Hafizov & Alan Vera -- Photos: Tony Rotundo

The objective might be the same. No, the objective is the same, which is to at bare minimum finish the World Championships with medals dangling around their necks. There are secondary goals attached, because that’s how it goes. Athletes derive motivation from more than one source when imagining what it will feel like once the mission is complete.

This is necessary. Training — meaning actual, legitimate, impassioned preparation leading to a World-level event — is exceedingly difficult. It occurs in phases for a reason. Concerns vary depending on timing, the athletes’ physical and mental makeups, injury management, and how to address perceived deficiencies — all while the US attempts to maintain a sense of uniformity during what is and has been a turbulent era in the program writ large.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

If all of the above matter, then so too does maturity. Experience. Perspective. 2022 United States World Team members Ildar Hafizov (60 kg, Army/WCAP) and Alan Vera (87 kg, NYAC) have been down this road before and compartmentalize their respective approaches according to numerous factors.

Both wrestlers are over the age of 30 (Hafizov is 34, Vera is 31), which helps, but also presents its own challenges. Human bodies that are repurposed as bendable battering rams for a couple of decades change after a while, thus requiring more upkeep as the years pass by. That Hafizov and Vera happen to be the two most technically proficient Greco-Roman wrestlers in the country is a slight advantage compared to most of their US Teammates, mainly due to the fact neither of them are originally from the country. Hafizov blossomed in Uzbekistan and has never participated in another style of wrestling. Vera, who defected from Cuba in ’16, has likewise been a Greco competitor dating back to adolescence. Although their own frames have endured beating after beating since their age-group days, at the very least they were able to bypass the punishing toll Greco reprogramming tends to take on post-collegiate Americans.

So here is the situation: training for the ’22 Worlds is in full swing with less than six weeks until the big show goes down in Belgrade. The manner in which both athletes view this current intensive training cycle through the lens of what is a combined 40+ years of experience speaks to the resolve necessary for such a grand undertaking. Their prolonged period of time spent as active international competitors has revealed to them myriad lessons learned in addition to reshaping insights within a lifestyle that demands nothing less than total commitment. What they have to share is authentic, educational, and sincere, as well as extraordinarily valuable for athletes and coaches who desire reaching the sport’s highest level.

World Championship Training Philosophies

Ildar Hafizov — 60 kg, Army/WCAP

Alan Vera — 87 kg, NYAC

Balancing home life while preparing for competition

Hafizov: When I’m training in Colorado and get to go home each day, I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife and kids. My wife supports me a lot with what I’m doing. She understands the whole system, the whole sport. And because she understands, I have a lot more freedom and can focus on my wrestling career. She supports me all of the time.

My older daughter is swimming. I take her to her swimming classes. I try to motivate her, but when I watch her swim it actually motivates me. I’m watching how she does it. To watch her as a ten-year-old compete in a race is pretty cool.

Vera: Not just in this sport, but also in life, you have to sacrifice. You must be dedicated. Especially for me, everything that I have means putting in really, really hard work. No matter what. Nobody is going to give me something for free, so I have to work for it.

You have to ask yourself ‘What do you want?’, and ‘What do you need?’ I want to be the World champ and the Olympic champ. This is what I want. But what do I need? I need to be training consistently, to get a coach, to have good partners, and to be working hard. With family time, not too much but also not too little, because family is very important. You need their support.

I will be training at the Olympic Training Center until September 1st. Then we will go to Europe. I think this is the best thing that could be happening to me, especially right now. When you have so much adversity, you try to fix it while working with what you have. Then we compete. And when I say “we”, that means the National Team. We didn’t compete in Europe this year except for one or two tournaments. Only one or two training camps for a week. All of these guys (from other countries), they compete for a whole year with so many training camps. Right now, we have to focus on these next six weeks, or less, until the Worlds. Okay, so that’s a long time; but for all of the athletes, it is really only six weeks. Take out the weekends, injury days, and recovery days, and it isn’t actually that long. So, every day counts. Going to Colorado Springs to train is the best thing that could be happening right now.

Learning from past training blocks for major tournaments

Vera: You need to focus on what is the most important tournament of the year. All of the other tournaments and training camps throughout the year have to be based on this tournament. What do I mean? For me right now, the main tournament is the World Championships. But in the US, you must be 100% for the (World or Olympic Team) Trials. If you don’t win the Trials, or Final X, then you are not allowed to compete at the Worlds because you don’t make the Team.

With this, you have to divide your calendar into two or three parts so that you can finally peak to your level, to your best shape. In my personal case, I learned from the beginning after 20 years in this sport that physical preparation is the first thing because you need to get your body ready for putting work on it. This is how you can prevent some injuries. Then you need to work on the mat to keep up the intensity with the physical exercise. The last part, the last two or three months, is working on the mat and fixing the details. 90% working on the mat. This includes tactics, technique, live wrestling situations, getting mentally prepared, and working together with the coach.

It’s true that the wrestlers are the ones who are competing, but the coach means a lot to the athletes. There are so many matches at the highest level that you can lose because of who is in your corner. I don’t want to blame some coaches, but I’ve seen matches like this. Look, we are all in the same weight class competing at the highest level. There can only be one winner and one loser. Who wins? The guy who makes less mistakes. My job as an athlete is to put in the work and wrestle. The job of a coach is to pay attention from the corner to what I’ve been doing right, and what I’ve been doing wrong. You cannot go through the tournament on your own. We have to be working together. That way, you, the coach, already know me. It should be like father and son. Parent and kid. Parents already know their kids because they are together all of the time.

Where we are right now, less than six weeks from the Worlds, it is the most important time to talk to the coaches. The technique? That’s only one part. Everyone already knows the gutwrench. Everyone knows the takedown, the push-out, the underhook, the throw. But not everyone knows the perfect moment for executing the technique. That is why now is when we need to be talking and improving, so that we can show it at the tournament. After that, it is good shape and good luck. Because in this sport, I’ve learned that you need to be good, but you need good luck, too. There are more than 30 competitors and only four medals.

Hafizov: Any competition you can learn from. Any competition, big or small. World Championships, Pan-Ams, or the Nationals. You can always learn, even little stuff. You can always adjust your wrestling. I always feel like I don’t have enough competitions, so to be confident I always tell coaches that we need to do that more, to go somewhere and get our butts kicked by different teams.

Experience overseas is way more advanced and you can learn a lot faster by getting your ass beat everyday in matches. You’re wrestling and you’re losing, and it is, Okay, I’m losing here, but you can adjust it. You can fix it right away. Sometimes, two weeks or ten days in a camp overseas can help you a lot more than spending half a year in the States where you are wrestling the same guy all of the time. This is a more important goal, to train over there that way you can become more advanced.

Right now when I am focusing on my wrestling, I am trying to fix my mistakes. I know that I have some, but I don’t have any competitions to test how things are working. I always have like, one competition a year and then we’re going to bigger events. Take last year, for example. I competed in Rome, went to Pan-Am Championships, and then the Olympics. It was only two competitions overseas that I did before the Olympics.

That’s not enough. It is the same this year. I just competed in Rome, which was the first overseas competition for me since last August (Tokyo Olympics). So, it is not enough. In the US, we have to travel because our Greco program is not in great shape. That is why I’m willing to go overseas and train. So that we can fix our mistakes.

ildar hafizov, etienne kinsinger

Hafizov, shown above throwing Etienne Kinsinger of Germany at the 2019 World Championships, believes that athletes can benefit from every tournament they enter. “Any competition you can learn from,” he says. “Any competition, big or small. World Championships, Pan-Ams, or the Nationals. You can always learn, even little stuff. You can always adjust your wrestling.” (Photo: Larry Slater)

Injuries, recovery, and managing the stress of both during training

Hafizov: I always think that recovery is very important when it comes to any injury. If I get injured at some point, I use the recovery time wisely. I always think about how I can recover and come back better. I’ll go and do rehab on the shoulders, knees, or whatever the injury is, and use that time instead of sitting on my butt. I’m always going somewhere, like the pool. I’ll swim. Water can take care of a lot, and pool conditioning is very similar to wrestling conditioning. You can be in-shape all the time. I was out for six months with my ACL injury and didn’t wrestle for five of those months. During that time, I didn’t lose anything conditioning-wise. Nothing. I didn’t lose muscle, was alright with my weight and good with my shape. When I was able to wrestle again, it came naturally. It became easier to come back all the time.

I think that injuries happen for a reason. They don’t happen for no reason. There are always signs before the injury. You feel something. If you are overtraining a little bit, an injury is probably coming soon unless you stop doing it. Right now, for instance, I’m in good shape. My wrestling, it’s alright. But in a couple of weeks if I feel something going wrong, I’ll pull myself back. At the Senior level, you can feel it. When you have to pull yourself back a little bit, go to the pool or go run. Go do something else instead of going on the mat and wrestling live. It will still help you. If I get injured, I’ll use that time for recovery and get off the mat. I won’t practice on the mat. It’s a good thing if you can come back and you’re hungry. It helps you improve yourself faster.

Vera: Hopefully, hopefully, I have been a healthy guy. Like I said before, I’ve been doing this sport for 20 years and didn’t have my first knee surgery until the worst moment. It was February/March of 2021. I had torn my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and my meniscus at the same time. We’re talking two months from the Olympic Trials. I wasn’t allowed to walk. It was the first real big injury in my life. It made me feel very upset.

Then it was the Olympic Trials. This was the moment I had been waiting for. It was for the Olympics, right? But if you prepare your body and are training consistently under the right coach, you still need the right timing. Because, it is not always the guy who does the most training, it can be the guy who is doing better. Remember — we are humans. We need the body to recharge. If you are overtraining, it is super bad. Overtraining can lead to injuries, and overtraining can be the injury because your body won’t be ready. So, then how do you prepare?

This is a traumatic sport. I’ve never seen a wrestler who is 100%. There always has to be some pain whether it is your shoulder, your neck, your knees, or your muscles because this is a really, really, really traumatic sport. A tournament only lasts a day, or a day-and-a-half. The training is what is the most difficult, and you need to know how to train with an injury. Why? Because you will be competing with the injury. It depends on how you manage the injury since you have to train with it, too.

Personally, I just try to follow the process. I try to keep training hard, but smart. You need to know when you can stop and still follow instructions from the coaches. If I am doing my job, then they have to be doing theirs. Also, listen to the medical staff and get advice from them because they have the knowledge, but you know your body. You must have good communication with them.

Is studying potential opponents a priority?

Vera: I usually did back in the day. The top six or five guys, they can do that. But if you are not one of the top five, or even one of the top ten guys, you cannot pay attention to them if you don’t win in the first or second round. You need to focus on yourself. You need to know who you are. You need to know your own strengths and weaknesses. You have to keep working and be you. No matter what. You need to do what you have to do and know who you are.

This is something that I learned over time. Opponents, especially top guys, they know every technique. But again, you need to know when is the right moment for that technique. Otherwise, you won’t hit it against a top-10 guy, never mind one of the top five or six guys.

My personal opinion is that you can watch a video and learn — but not study. Not unless you are one of the top two or three guys. This is my personal opinion. Everyone is different. You just have to focus on you, no matter what.

Hafizov: Not all the time. I’ll watch some of them, some of them who are good. I was watching the Russian (Sergey Emelin) before the Olympics but I still have to figure him out. His gutwrench was different, a different feel. When you watch on film and research, you’re not going to get the feeling that you would if you were actually wrestling. His gutwrench was way different than how it looked on video. It threw me off.

When I was watching the video of his gutwrench it was, Okay, low gut, no problem, I will be good on that. And I worked with Ellis (Coleman) on that for two months straight, defending the low gutwrench. I was good on that. But when I got put down against him (Emelin), he gutted me so easily, and in a very different way than on the video. I was frustrated. Then I knew that I actually needed to feel it instead of relying on video.

Films help you pick a side. Say you are watching video, you can see which side the opponent prefers, right or left. But you are not going to get the feeling of how he’s doing it. Educational films are always good, but you can’t just think about that move and expect it to be 100% right. It will be a little different.

How far out from a tournament to stop focusing on technical adjustments

Hafizov: I feel like two to three weeks before a competition is when you should start thinking about what you can do and how you can perform. How you are going to lift, how you are going to approach the beginning of a match. Before that, you’re thinking, How is my offense going to be? What are they doing? And, How are they doing it? But I think a couple of weeks before a tournament, you don’t need any adjustments for what they are doing. You need to start focusing on how you are going to perform. This is the most important thing that I have learned over the years. You just keep going and start doing your stuff.

Vera: On paper, things might look really nice but when you are on the mat it is different. I prepare, but I’m sure the other 30 guys are preparing, too. I would say two to three weeks out from the tournament that you’re not adding anything new to your body, to your knowledge. You only have to keep it up, to keep fresh, so you know what you have to do. You have different modes for preparation when you can learn and fix what you are doing; but during that last two to three weeks, your body already knows that information. By then, you can’t put in anything new. You just have to keep it up and keep working on it. You can work on situations. But the main thing is believing in yourself so that you are mentally ready to do what what you need to do.

Now, this is my opinion as an athlete. If you ask a coach the same thing, you might get a different answer. This is my view from my side of it. Here is a perfect example: if we write the number six on the floor, from my side it is the number six; but from the other side, a coach sees the number nine. We’re both right.

alan vera quote

Gathering advice from coaches and/or Teammates

Vera: You have to have a good relationship with your coach. So first off, I don’t have a personal coach. Over the past month-and-a-half, I have been training whenever I can with Zac Dominguez because I need to feel. I have knowledge and I’m an older athlete — but in the end, everyone has to do their jobs. My job is to wrestle and compete. I can’t pay attention to everything else.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. I can hear what you say, and I can improve. But I can listen. And when I listen, there is the positive advice like, Keep training, you can do it, you can get the medal. I just add all of these good comments to my workouts.

Last year, I was disappointed with my performance at the Worlds. But no one knew that I was coming back from a bad injury, from surgery, only three weeks before the tournament. I felt like I didn’t need to explain that to anyone because I didn’t want to use an excuse. Some people needed an explanation. Some people knew. But they don’t pay attention to the process, and the process is more difficult. If you get a good process, you get a good result.

The advice that I get is from my wife (Elena Pirozhkova). She has so much experience on this level. I get it from a few coaches. I don’ say “every coach”, I say just a few coaches because they have the knowledge and experience. You see what is happening right now with Greco. Believe it or not, the athletes, they can feel that. We had been working at the training camps as a National Team under a different situation. Now we have a new coach and everything needs to have a connection. We are getting new training, and we can feel it. It does not stop, which I believe it is the best thing for everyone. But we need time for adjustment, and we don’t have time to make that adjustment. We only have a month-and-a-half and then we’ve got to go.

Hafizov: I always get feedback when I come back from a competition. My wife always watches my matches online and she can tell me what I’m doing wrong. Most of the time, like 99.9% of the time, she’s right. Because, I’ll feel the same way.

After a competition, and before I talk to my wife, I’ll talk to Spenser (Mango). Usually, I am not talking to my teammates, I’m talking to the coaches. Teammates, they are trying to learn from me something. I’m not saying that I can’t learn anything from them, but at the same time, I want to be an example for them. I’m trying to motivate them. During competitions, I’m trying to tell them what they should be doing. I’m an older guy, so I can see a little more of what they are doing and adjust them right away if the coaches are busy with other matches.

Coming back, usually I will have a conversation with my wife, and Spenser. Of course Spenser. He always gives me good thoughts on what I’m doing right or what I’m doing wrong and what I need to do to fix it. He has always been a guy who I’ll ask, and he always gives me his honest opinion. I will tell him, I don’t care if you say bad things about me and how I wrestle, just tell me the truth. I need to hear it and I need to see it so I can fix it. I don’t want to hear, Oh, you did good, it was good wrestling. I don’t want to hear that. If I lost, it’s probably not a good match. I don’t need people coming to me saying, Oh, it was a great match, you only lost by one point. No — it’s not a great match if I lost by a point. It’s a great match if I win, or if I win by technical superiority. Then it is probably a good match, yes. But if a coach comes to me with, It was a good match, or, It was a bad draw, it is like, Don’t tell me something like that. A bad draw is not for me. I don’t care about bad draw or good draw. You come here to wrestle, right? To perform? So you should try to win. And if you’re not winning, you are probably doing something wrong. You need to fix it.

That is why I always ask Spenser for advice. What am I doing wrong? Tell me so I can fix it right now. I will always talk to Shon (Lewis) about how I wrestled, as well. He will give me the same thing as Spenser, though he might have different thoughts. He has a different opinion on some stuff. He might bring up something from before the competition that I was doing wrong. Something that he was seeing in practice. And sometimes for me it is, That’s a good point, I will think about it. Or, he might offer life advice.

I will never hesitate to ask. For younger athletes who are interested in that, they should never hesitate to learn from people, but especially their coaches. The coaches can see more, they can see deeper, and advise you further so that you can advance.

Do you visualize reaching the goal?

Hafizov: My wife is really into it and she is teaching me that. She will tell me, Visualize yourself on the podium, visualize yourself on the first-place stand with the medal. Do it, it’s working. And it is working. When you are visualizing, you can set the program for yourself to go further.

There were athletes back in Uzbekistan who wrestled with me and some were one year older or one year younger. They all finished wrestling seven years ago or eight years ago. For me, age is just a number. I don’t care if it is 34, 35, 36… It is how I feel on the inside. That’s why I am always visualizing myself going forward. If I have two kids, I have to go forward. I have to take care of a lot of stuff. Family stuff. I need to take care of it, which is why I’m motivating myself and visualizing myself in a better position everyday. And not just in wrestling, but in life.

Say you want something crazy. You want a new car, or if you want to buy a house. Start visualizing. It will happen. You won’t know how it happens, but it will happen. Some people might help you, some advice might help you. Maybe you will meet people who can help you to reach your goals. It is a very important thing. Not everyone will understand it. You have to be in it all of the time. You have to think about it. It can’t just be I want a gold medal, and then you forget about it for months. Then a couple of months later you think of it again, I want a gold medal again, or something else. No. You have to think about it. When you think, you have to keep working. Then, it will happen to happen, you know? Maybe not exactly in the way that you want it. Not ‘I wish for a million dollars’ and expect to get money from out of nowhere. But there might appear a way for you to get that money. It’s different. Visualizing is important, in my opinion. My wife is teaching me. It’s good stuff.

Vera: We are wrestling. It’s not math. You cannot step inside of a box with only four walls. You need to widen your range instead of thinking about one technique. Because then you’ll go to the Worlds and you might not have the opportunity for that one technique. Sometimes, you want orange juice; but if life gives you lemons, you have to make lemonade. You wanted the orange juice, but now you’ve got lemons. You had inside of your head, Oh, I can get up that tree, grab the oranges, and make orange juice. 

The main advice? Stay in shape, stay mentally prepared, and do the right things. No more, no less. We train for so many hours but compete for just minutes. It is really difficult. You need to keep focusing and do what you have to do at the right time. Nothing else. You have to wait for the right moment.

Am I excited? Yes. Do I want to get a medal? Yes. But I cannot compete in the Worlds right now, it is six weeks away. For now, I want to enjoy the process because I know that the day will come. And it will.

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