When Virginia head coach Steve Garland set out to put together his Leadership Council based on the tenets of what he calls “The Virginia Way”, he was looking to build one of those pillars around the strength of mind.
He knew he wanted a competitor, someone who took to the mat with a single-minded focus on competition.
Andrew Atkinson (Lynchburg, Va.) walked off the mat at the Hokie Open in 2014 a frustrated man. With an overall record of 5-2, the freshman hadn’t performed poorly through two weekends of the season, but his teammates would tell you there was concern. Atkinson had dropped some decisions he shouldn’t have at that point, recording a 1-1 record at a home quad meet and taking fifth at the Hokie Open after falling in his opening bout.
“A lot of people were nervous at the beginning of the season because Andrew has so much talent and he took his lumps early,” said teammate Zach Nye (Enola, Pa.).
It wasn’t something to which Atkinson was accustomed in his career. Academics and wrestling had come easily to him in high school. It had never required much effort, but this experience was different. It sent him looking within and examining where he wanted to go with regards to his wrestling career.
“Things came naturally at high school, but I realized if I apply myself I could be so much better in every aspect,” Atkinson said. “It also helped that I realized there was something to wrestle for with the chance to win a national championship.
“I’ve been given talents and I need to max out what I’ve been given,” Atkinson said. “At UVA I see other people that are really smart doing well, and I can keep up with them. I want to compete and be the best at everything I do. I wasn’t quite aware of what I actually had when I was in high school. I just kind of had fun – school was easy, wrestling was easy.”
Atkinson took that evaluation of his talents and his results and made changes. He refocused on his commitment to wrestling and saw that mental clarity and focus carry over into other aspects of his life. The wrestling results were the most noticeable with a turning point coming at the Virginia Duals.
There, he took the mat against Aaron Walker from The Citadel who was ranked No. 10 nationally at the time. Atkinson recorded a fall in 2:27 to claim the win for the Cavaliers, which defeated the Bulldogs 38-6.
“He came out at the Virginia Duals and took it to this kid who had just dominated at the toughest tournament in the nation outside of NCAAs (the Southern Scuffle),” Nye said. “Andrew pinned him and then just walked off the mat and didn’t even realize what he’d done because he had just focused on giving maximum effort no matter who he was facing.”
Atkinson continued that single-minded focus on the mat through the rest of the season, finishing as a runner-up at the ACC Championships and earning his first berth in the NCAA Championships.
“We saw so much growth in him from the beginning of the season to when he finished second at the ACC Tournament and competed at nationals,” said team captain George DiCamillo (Highland Heights, Ohio). “It’s encouraging to see a guy who took the lumps he took and put them to work in a good way. Not many guys who take hits like that respond the right way. He never quits working.”
That drive has been a huge contributing factor to Atkinson’s success in the classroom as well. The redshirt sophomore has a 3.8 GPA as a pre-med major, but he also has seen that success translate in his third year of competition. Currently, Atkinson holds a 17-3 mark in competition and has been nationally-ranked at his weight class.
“The mind is a very important aspect in wrestling, both physically and psychologically,” Atkinson said. “You have to have the persona of being mentally tough and not displaying tiredness or weakness. It carries over to everything and I may have a tough day of school, but when I get on the wrestling mat I have to be mentally tough and get through it. I have to be mentally tough and use that time and focus to get better. I have to attack my studies that same way.”
That character and determination has earned him the respect of his teammates as one of the only underclassmen on the newly formed Leadership Council.
“Andrew is the perfect example of someone who has a strong mind, and it is in wrestling and school,” Nye said. “He has it all together and I have so much respect for that. In every aspect of his life, he is consistent and he continues to improve. You see it in his wrestling, but it’s not just on the wrestling match where he demonstrates that ability.”
“It’s cool to have him on the committee because it proves you don’t have to be a senior to be on the Leadership Council,” DiCamillo said. “He can relate to the older guys and to the younger guys. He embodies this aspect of mind that I don’t even have a full grasp on. He steps on the mat with the mindset that he doesn’t care who his opponent is and what he’s ranked, he’s going to try to dictate the course of the match.”
It also caught the eye of the coaching staff and was the primary reason Garland knew he’d found the man that embodied the mental toughness aspect of The Virginia Way for his program’s Leadership Council.
“Mental toughness is something that’s very hard to explain to people,” Garland said. “It’s hard for athletes to wrap their head around what it means and how it is defined. Andrew exemplifies going out on the mat and being completely fearless. He’s not thinking about who the other athlete is, whom he wrestles for or what his favorite move is in a match. His only concern is to seek and destroy. He wants to get his hands on his opponent and impose his will on the match and his opponent.”
And that force of will has translated into success for Atkinson and the Cavaliers.