This elite Iowa high school wrestler has a secret for building mental strength — playing golf

Feb, 2024

It was the Iowa boys wrestling class 3A state semifinals and Southeast Polk’s Carter Pearson and Norwalk’s Tyler Harper were set to square off.

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Pearson was undoubtedly the heavy favorite, sitting as the No. 1 seed, 40-1 on the season and one of the hottest names in recruiting circles in his sophomore year.

Across from him, however, was Harper, who earned the No. 4 seed in his first appearance in the boys state tournament. Despite this being his first time, he was undeterred in his pursuit to make a run in the tournament.

It showed in the match, as Harper engaged in some hand fighting and dumped Pearson down for a pin in just 18 seconds to advance to the 106-pound final.

“I knew if I was on the bottom half of the bracket, I would make it to the finals,” Harper said after beating Pearson. “I made it either way, but it was just a tougher opponent to go through (on the top half of the bracket).”

Pearson went on to finish in third place at 106 pounds and Harper finished second behind Iowa City West’s Alexander Pierce. After the loss, Pearson was admittedly devastated. He saw a chance to win his first state title slip from his fingers.

“It was really unexpected,” Pearson said. “It really sucked, but I had to start working hard so stuff like that doesn’t happen again.”

His wrestling skills and technique weren’t the issue. The majority of his offseason work didn’t have to be done there. For Pearson, it was the mental aspect of the sport that he needed to work on. Particularly his confidence.

So what did Pearson do to work on that? He turned to his other passion: golf.

“You’ve got to be mentally strong”

Anyone who plays golf regularly knows how frustrating it can be. That drive off the tee into the woods, the putt that didn’t have enough juice to make the hole or a shot into the pond are all enough to make a person channel their inner “Happy Gilmore.” So, it might be a bit confusing why Pearson turned to golf to help improve his mental game.

In reality, it makes a ton of sense when you consider the comparables between golf and wrestling. Five hours on the course isn’t all that different from an all-day tournament and whether you are out on the green or on the wrestling mat, you’re on your own. You don’t have a teammate who can clean up your mistake, it’s you vs. the world.

“It helps a lot,” Pearson said. “You gotta be mentally strong and can’t let things get to you.”

Pearson has always had the itch to golf, but he didn’t officially join the golf team at Southeast Polk until his sophomore year. Scott Powell, his golf coach, said he’s got as much talent as any of his teammates. Despite being a smaller guy, he can drive the ball about 275 yards, flexing a bit of that wrestling strength he’s gained over the years.

“He’s definitely not afraid to go for it,” Powell said. “He’s the one that if there’s a debate on hitting a driver or something else, he’s hitting a driver. He’s a go-for-it kind of kid and he can hit the ball quite a way, especially for his size.”

He’s also an incredibly cerebral athlete on the course and the mat. He’s got over a 4.0 grade-point average according to his coaches, so it makes quite a bit of sense. In both wrestling and golf, he sees shots and opportunities that others don’t. Whether it’s a crafty chip onto the putting green or seeing a vulnerability in an opposing wrestler, his mix of power and vision makes him very difficult to compete against.

“Carter can see the obstacles that are in front of him and piece together a good plan for what’s the best way to attack that,” Powell said. “At the end of the day, he might save him a stroke or two and be the difference in a top-five finish or a top-20 finish and that’s kind of what separated him from some of the other guys this year.”

The focus for him was always going to be on wrestling and still is, but he joined golf looking to take his mind off wrestling and try to prevent burnout. Unfortunately for him, the golf postseason and the traditional ramp-up for the wrestling season coincide. In his first year on the golf team, Powell said Pearson had a difficult time in that balancing act toward the latter half of the season. As a result, he wasn’t on the final team that participated at the state tournament.

But after an offseason of work in wrestling and golf this summer, Powell’s choice for the lineup was a no-brainer.

“Last year, Carter was a guy fighting for a spot,” Powell said. “This year, there was a there’s no way you could leave Carter out of the lineup. He cemented himself.”

He did so by shooting a career-low 71 on 18 holes, averaging 78 per outing this season. His performances helped push the team to a third-place finish at the state tournament.

His biggest area of growth? His mental dexterity.

“I’d say a year or two ago, that was a bigger problem,” Powell said. “We might take that bigger number on a hole here or there. This year, he’s done a much better job. His talent has always been there, but now we’re doing a better job of thinking through around staying level with it.”

The dividends of that growth on the golf course are now paying off on the wrestling mat. He’s entering the state tournament at 35-0 at 120 pounds this year, with the most impressive outing of his career coming at the state dual tournament just over a week ago.

Tied at zero entering the second period of the final match, Pearson had a tough ride on Bettendorf’s Jake Knight for nearly a minute, but Knight managed to escape. In overtime, Pearson had Knight in a front headlock with about 20 seconds to go. Knight suddenly tried a very risky move by shooting to Pearson’s left leg, so Pearson capitalized by toppling him over for a win by fall.

“I was riding tough on top earlier, so he probably didn’t want to go back down,” Pearson said. “He had to try something, but I just got it done.”

Making a one-time state champion feel like he needs to take a shot to prevent being on bottom again is leaps and bounds ahead of where Pearson was last year. His confidence exuded in that moment against one of the state’s best wrestlers. Even Knight had to show his respect, making sure to give him a tap on the rear on a job well done following the bout.

That growth has earned the attention of not only the state’s high school wrestling community but the college realm as well. Pearson said the attention he got on the first day he was allowed to be contacted by coaches was “crazy” back this summer, earning attention from power-five programs like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. Being the great student he is as well, he’s taken visits to Cornell and Columbia to wrestle and study engineering if he remains on that path.

He and Southeast Polk are front-runners in their respective title races at the boys state wrestling tournament, which runs Wednesday through Saturday. If Pearson wants a chance to come out on top this time, his confidence is going to have to continue through the end of the tournament.

“He’s the only one that holds himself back,” Southeast Polk wrestling coach Jake Agnitsch said. “He’s awesome, he deserves it. Hopefully, we can keep this train rolling.”

Eli McKown covers high school sports and wrestling for the Des Moines Register. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @EMcKown23.

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