One often hears fans talking about pro wrestlers displaying great psychology. When one says this, they aren't talking about a wrestler being a Warrior Therapist. No, they're talking about wrestling psychology, which is essentially a performer's in-ring acting ability, determining how much they can make a wrestling match look like a real competition or fight between real people. A match with great psychology is spectacular and convincing; a match with poor psychology often comes off like a random collection of spots.
The first half of wrestling psychology is to follow a consistent strategy throughout the match. This can be as simple as working a body part, weakening it through constant attack to leave it open for a match-finishing move. It can also be a more complicated "mind game", with a wrestler constantly taunting his opponent in an attempt to goad him into making a mistake. Other popular strategies include maneuvering the opponent into nigh inescapable hold, immobilizing a high-flying opponent and keeping The Giant on his back (where he can't apply his massive strength). The Ricky Morton is a key component of Tag Team psychology, as one team seeks to isolate a member of the other team and pick him apart.
The second half of psychology is known as "selling", or acting like one is getting hurt. Selling can be as simple as reeling back from an opponent's punches, or it can get into the realm of limping because your opponent has been working your leg, or making stupid mistakes because you're losing your temper. Often, a wrestler with truly good psychology will sell things over time; he may even limp to the ring on his way to a match as a result of an "injury" inflicted on him during a prior match/beating. There are some wrestlers who don't like to sell because they feel it makes them look weak, despite the fact that selling is a key component of making the audience suspend their disbelief and get into the match.
Wrestling psychology is generally attributed to individual wrestlers instead of the writers/bookers. This is because, unlike staged fights in other media, wrestling matches are rarely choreographed from beginning to endnote ; usually, only the ending and a few big spots are pre-planned, while everything in between is improvised. Usually - Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania 6, for example, was heavily choreographed; both Warrior and Hogan rehearsed much of the match for weeks leading up to the event, and it paid off as the resulting match is hailed as one of the greatest in both men's careers.
One can become a superstar wrestler without displaying great psychology (The Great Khali) or with heavily simplified psychology (Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena), but most of the greats have at least a basic grasp of the concept, and most of the truly memorable matches display a high degree of psychology. Hulk Hogan, for example, looked absolutely miserable when he was "beaten up" and really sold the flogging he took - but that was it. As they say, do one thing, and do it well.
- Strong Style, as described by Yuji Nagata, starts with two guys feeling each other, mainly through mat wrestling. When it becomes clear one is going to win the wrestling sequence the other wrestler starts using strikes to prevent from losing the match, the opponent responds in kind and then they begin to use their most dangerous moves. The idea was to convey envy. All Japan Pro Wrestling had pretty much all the best foreign talent and thus all the attention, so the message being sent was the wrestlers in New Japan's dojo were working harder, were better conditioned more technically sound wrestlers who deserved everything AJPW had, and would keep trying to showing off until they were in danger of losing their matches. All Japan would nearly collapse on itself in the 2000s but New Japan's wrestlers would keep finding things to get envious about, so they could take their frustrations out in the ring and then on each other.
- A good deal of professional wrestling is based on the collar and elbow style, which can only be done by two willing opponents. Matches start with such a tie up/lockup out of tradition, with the bonus of it being an easy way for a wrestler to feel for any vulnerabilities in the opponent this particular night and to quickly establish the strategies and personalities of wrestlers to the audience based on what they try to do while tied up. Failure to execute one on a wrestler's part indicates lack of respect, a degree of intimidation, something along those lines. Although particularly "old fashioned", cultural posturing or goofy wrestlers may attempt to initiate some kind of Greco roman knuckle lock, test of strength, underhanded finger clench or such in place of a collar and elbow hold. Some promoters won't sign an athlete, no matter how well they wrestle on the mat, apply submissions, land strikes, etc if they cannot lockup well. The shoot style was developed in the Universal Wrestling Federation when Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Nobuhiko Takada, Tiger Mask and Kazuo Yamazaki entered the promotion on the vow they were no longer going to "help" inferior opponents, starting with rejection of this traditional start in favor of "shooting" straight for take downs or any perceived vulnerable area. Even after the UWF's closing, a tell tell sign of a "shooter" remains an arm hanging limp when another wrestler attempts to "lockup" with one.
- Other pro wrestling gimmicks come with their own brands of psychology too. The Giant is all part of their opponent's inability to move them and also comes with a deliberate pace to let them know it, as André the Giant, a legitimately agile man early in his career, was criticized for running and jumping around too much, which was said to detract from people's ability to view him as the giant he was billed as. Monsters are generally not supposed to sell pain or only for a little while before ignoring it and going right back on the attack (which forms the basis of Big Van Vader's Catchphrase). Exoticos are more interested in harming their opponent's dignity than their bodies (Cassandro's "lip lock" served no other purpose).
- Wrestler Scott "Raven" Levy (a veteran of WCW, WWE, ECW, and TNA) discussed many of the finer aspects and details of wrestling psychology, applying to both faces and heels, in his "Secrets of the Ring" interview series.
- Jake "The Snake" Roberts is widely considered to be one of the finest practitioners of wrestling psychology, to the point where younger wrestlers are often sent to him for an education in the art. Despite having a pot belly, skinny legs and a quite limited variety of moves he could do convincingly, Jake was always massively over with the fans due to a combination of his classic promos and uncanny knack to always do the right thing in the ring, when it was the right time to do it. Even modern day stars like Randy Orton have been schooled by Jake in the art of psychology.
- Carrying around a bag with a live snake in it certainly helped as well.
- The Midnight Express's Bobby Eaton, considered the backbone of that team, was well known for his savant like ability to know exactly which moves to pull off and when to pop the crowd. So much so that when other wrestlers were booked against Eaton, they considered it basically a night off since Bobby would lead the match and make it look good.
- Despite the above page quote (which took place during a match in which he was, in rare form, intentionally badnote ), Shawn Michaels really is known for his excellent ring psychology. His matches are always well-thought-out, with a clear "strategy" throughout them (an example being his Unsanctioned Match with Triple H at Summerslam '02, which utilized a lot of brawling and "hardcore" techniques to compensate for his surgically-repaired back and a genuine fear that it wouldn't hold up to more traditional catch as catch can wrestling). He also takes what could be, in the hands of another wrestler, a senseless spotfest, and builds around the spots. And when it comes to selling, you don't get much better than Shawn, who raises the How Much More Can He Take? trope to a true art form.
- The Shield has been applauded for their psychology, both during beatdowns and promos. Their usage of the numbers game allow them to beat down isolated opponents, while knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses (Dean Ambrose as the brawler, Seth Rollins as the high-flyer and Roman Reigns as the powerhouse) inside out gives them the edge even against foes who might be great individually but lack the collective front.
- There is a different kind of psychology, involving being able to get under one's opponent's skin and even terrify him before the match has even started. The Undertaker, Kane, The Wyatt Family and the Boogeyman are all naturals at this.
- Then there is the case of The Sandman. While generally dismissed as a sloppy Garbage Wrestler, he did have his own version. By busting himself open with beer cans on his way to the ring, he nullified any threats his opponents might have made about making him bleed.
- An Enforced Method Acting version of this appeared in the bout between Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page in WCW's Halloween Havoc '98, where Goldberg launched himself at DDP in the corner... who promptly dodged (planned) and Goldberg's shoulder smashed into the ring-post (unplanned). Because of this real-life injury, the first climax to the match, where DDP would reverse Goldberg's Finishing Move into a Diamond-Cutter, took two tries to complete. The first one, Goldberg's shoulder was too aggravated to effectively lift Page off the mat, making the crowd go nuts due to Goldberg's status as an Invincible Hero up to that point.
- One aspect of psychology Jim Cornette gave away on Ring of Honor's Secrets Of The Ring Series was why it was sometimes important for wrestlers to slow down at points even if they're fully capable sprinting for ten minutes at a time: to give the audience a chance to catch up, and if they actually like what they're seeing, clap. Incidentally, ROH crowds are equally among the most vitriolic and appreciative to gather in ECW's wake.
- Savio Vega stated the kind of psychology that comes from taking in the crowd reaction and improvising in the match as it went on was lacking in TNA, where most wrestlers were under the impression the crowd should be ignored as much as possible. He cited his and Dutch Mantel's attention to this detail as the reason the Knockouts had the best rated segments on flagship show Impact, though Vega was more in charge of B Show Xplosion till Mantel's departure.
- One of the most noticeable things about Kazuchika Okada's return to New Japan Pro-Wrestling was his new offensive psychology, using many different approaches and angles to wear down the opponent's neck/shoulder area before finishing with a short lariat. This made one of the most memorable moments of the 2015 G1 Climax a simple headbutt during the "rainmaker" from Yuji Nagata, which completely wrecked Okada's strategy and had him struggling to maintain his standing in the rankings.