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 a performer's ability to use body language and facial expressions to make a wrestling match look like a competition or fight between real people, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief. A match with great psychology is spectacular, convincing, and tells a logical, emotional story; a match with poor psychology often comes off like an incoherent collection of moves or is just plain boring.
The first half of wrestling psychology is a wrestler's strategy throughout the match, which can depend on a wrestler's physique, gimmick, and personality. A smaller wrestler may use technical skills to attack a body part in order to set up for a painful submission hold, while a 6-foot brawler will eschew such finesse and just straight up punch you. Other popular strategies include taunting an opponent, keeping a high-flying opponent on the ground, chopping at The Giant's legs to limit his mobility, or maneuvering an opponent to make a stupid mistake out of frustration or desperation.
On the whole, Face characters will tend to use exciting, high flying moves (because audiences will cheer for that), while Heels will use more brutal or sneaky moves, like bear hugs or eye pokes (that get the audiences booing). In Tag Team psychology, the Ricky Morton serves as the member of the team that gets isolated and picked apart by the opposing team, before breaking free and tagging in his fresh partner for some payback. Wrestlers will also likely employ different strategies, change tempos, or trade moves and advantages back and forth to keep things fresh. A wrestler who goes for the same move over and over again will become stale and boring, no matter how amazing or death-defying the move may be.
These strategies tend to be a little stereotypical, for good and bad reasons. A 400-pound gorilla will usually be slow but strong enough to hurl their opponent like a ragdoll, while a 100-pound female wrestler will likely be agile and fast, focusing on strikes and aerial moves. Wrestling psychology is all about visual shorthand, and audiences will have immediate expectations when they see certain physiques or personalities. Many wrestlers play with these stereotypes, and there have been plenty of examples of big men doing flippy moves, or smaller wrestlers showing surprising strength by doing power moves. However, there is also the concern of safety and health for the wrestlers. That 400-pounder is more likely to injure himself and his partner leaping off the top rope for an elbow drop, and a small wrestler is going to have a lot of difficulty trying to lift a 7-foot opponent onto his shoulders.
The second half of psychology is known as "selling", or acting like one is getting hurt. Since pro-wrestling is about simulated violence and not actual violence, most moves are designed to look dangerous, but be as safe and deal as little actual damage as possible, hence the need for wrestlers to sell their opponents' moves to maintain the illusion of peril. Selling can be as simple as reeling back from an opponent's punches, grabbing an injured body part because your opponent has been focusing their attacks on that area, or simply lying down for a long time after taking a devastating move. Often, a wrestler with truly good psychology will sell things over time. He may limp to the ring on his way to a match as a result of an "injury" inflicted on him during a prior match/beating, or be unable to perform his moves because his opponent specifically targeted the body part required to perform that move (e.g. a wrestler with a suplex finisher won't be able to lift his opponent if his ribs are injured).
Wrestlers who are attacking also sell, albeit differently, like stomping on the mat when punching, or slapping their thigh when kicking. This creates a loud sound that suggests high impact, when actually these punches and kicks are not connecting with their opponent at full force (see MMA or boxing for the kinds of damage a single, legitimate strike can do, and how actually quiet they are). A good example of this would be Ric Flair, whose knife edge chops to the chest would sound very loud when striking on the echo chamber of the torso and lungs, but require many more strikes with much more effort before bruising or bleeding set in.
No Selling, not reacting to an opponent's attack, is also part of this psychology. The Giant or Monster Heel may take a Finishing Move and sit right back up just to prove how dangerous he is, or a hero may be beaten to the ground only to shake it off and make an exciting comeback to vanquish the bad guy out of a sheer desire to win. The polar opposite of that, over-selling, or reacting to an attack far beyond what can be realistically expected, is often used for comedic effect or to taunt an opponent, e.g. taking a simple slap to the face and then reeling back so hard they fall out of the ring.
There's a big difference between 'no selling as part of the match', and a wrestler legitimately refusing to respond to their partner's moves with no storytelling involved. The second is considered extremely unprofessional, as cooperation from both sides are needed to put on a performance, and can lead to firings or ostracization from the industry because the wrestler cannot be trusted. Similarly, a wrestler who leaps off a 10-foot ladder onto the floor and gets up immediately without exhibiting any pain or fear removes all tension of such a death-defying move, and will likely get mocked instead of cheered by the audience. Thankfully, examples of these cases are extremely rare in the bigger companies.
There is a third, more nebulous component to wrestling psychology, and that is the crowd's reaction. The audience may decide, on their own, to cheer for a Heel in the match, boo the Babyface, or simply not respond to incredible athletic feats. Wrestlers with good psychology know how to play up to the crowd or give them periods of rest, sometimes even changing their styles to match what the audience wants (see Hulk Hogan and The Rock switching roles as Heel and Face respectively at Wrestlemania X8).
Wrestling psychology is generally attributed to individual wrestlers instead of the bookers/'writers'. 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 according to a very basic outline of how the match is supposed to flow. 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, Jeff Hardy) or with heavily simplified psychology (Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena). The opposite is also true, you don't have to have a lot of spectacular moves to show tremendous psychology (Ric Flair, Jake Roberts, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Mick Foley). However, the greats, such as Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Daniel Bryan, Ricky Steamboat, Shinya Hashimoto, Tiger Mask, and The Great Muta have a wide range of different moves with very deep, varied and adaptive psychology to go with them. That's how they filled up arenas.
Most of the truly memorable matches display a high degree of psychology. The legendary match between Hulk Hogan and André the Giant at Wrestlemania 3 is probably the finest example of this. The actual match itself is only about 12 minutes long (about half the length of a typical main event match), and mostly consists of very basic moves, like punches and body slams. This was mainly out of necessity, as Andre was working with near-crippling back pain at this time, and could not execute a lot of moves or take a lot of punishment. However, the months-long narrative of the match was built around whether Hogan would be strong enough to pick up the 500-pound Andre to body slam him and deliver his leg drop. Using wrestling psychology, the two men (with assistance from Andre's manager, Bobby Heenan) worked a match that had the audiences going practically berserk the entire time, and Hogan body-slamming Andre has been one of the most important and celebrated moments in wrestling history.
- 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 telltale 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). Exóticos 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.
- As evidence that it is possible to tell a compelling story with a single, basic move, Kenta Kobashi and Kensuke Sasaki once went nearly 5 minutes doing nothing but chop each other in the chest, and had the crowd cheering the entire time.
- 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 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.
- The Shield are just one of many wrestling stables or factions that serve a unique function in wrestling. As mentioned before, each wrestler has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it can be hard to get them over or put them in storylines as individuals while using their talents effectively, especially when there are an abundance of other talent around them. So you put them in a stable, where they can work with other wrestlers who cover their weaknesses. One guy can be the mouthpiece, another The Big Guy or enforcer, a younger up-and-comer who has the sex appeal, an older mentor/manager, or a pair of tag-team specialists.
- 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, the Boogeyman and Holidead 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.
- Tetsuya Naito developed a very interesting psychology to his matches following his second run in CMLL. The basic story is that he really wants to win and will go to any means necessary to so...but he also doesn't want anyone to actually think that. His goal is to come off as an uninterested genius who gets all that he wants without trying, so when he is in control or at a stalemate he loafs around and avoids contact, trying to do as little as possible and when things go south he tries to have one of his Los Ingobernables run interference. But when all else fails he "wakes up" and becomes desperate, almost childishly so. Kind of like a reconstructive parody of strong style, as Naito is basically trying his best to lash out at the crowds who ignored him without losing track of the fact he has matches to win. This all unfolded in his feud with Hiroshi Tanahashi from Naito slacking is way to victory in the G-1 up to them fighting for the IWGP Intercontinental Title belt.
- Orange Cassidy (now wrestling for AEW) has one of the most unique psychologies in wrestling history, leveraging especially on crowd participation. Cassidy's shtick is that he's lazy, walking into the ring like it's a chore, or 'kicking' his opponents by tapping them lightly on the shins. Despite this, the crowds always go bananas for his appearances, cheering for lazy gestures like him putting his hands in his pockets because 1) his antics get his opponents furious, and 2) when he gets hit, he starts trying, and reveals that he can keep pace just fine with the competition when he wants to.
- And what if there isn't a live crowd to react to the action?
- This was the problem wrestlers faced with matches being taped in empty arenas during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic - while watching wrestling with no crowd was a surreal experience in itself, many wrestlers found it difficult to adjust, doing things like pausing to let the audience "pop", which felt bizarre when they weren't there. Wrestling psychology has almost needed to be reworked from the ground up to adapt to the circumstances.
- The "Empty Arena" match was nothing new by this point, but it was a very rare thing. It was generally only used by enterprises who owned their own buildings or open air arenas, was generally only used after lengthy buildups during particularly long running feuds and even the hungriest of independent wrestlers tended to refuse them the rare times they were suggested because they didn't want to get used to working without fans. Since the general practice is to film the match and then show it to fans in the arena later, most wrestlers tend to insist they just be on the card in the first place and suggest their own special stipulation(falls count anywhere, fans bring the weapons, etc). All that established, there are a few short cuts a promoter dead set on using out of their depth wrestlers can employ, such as having someone off camera hold up cue cards to guide wrestlers along and hopefully reduce spot calling. Jerry Lawler's many incarnations of "Memphis Wrestling" were mocked for empty arena matches, but his CWA bout with Terry Funk was well received since the two of them could actually pull off a quick fight and make it look good without any assistance or audible spot calling. It was when entire shows, rather than a single match, were filmed in such a way that problems arose. The worst offender however was not Lawler's doing but the 1989 "New" AWA pilot where a green screen of audience footage and piped in crowd noise was used in a failed attempt to hide the fact the show was being shot without fans.
- Beyond Wrestling was rather infamous for "circumventing" the problem by having other wrestlers surround the ring in a "lumber jack" fashion to provide some crowd noise. SBG era ROH copied this model for few episodes of their Future Of Honor shows even before the pandemic shutdown. Companies such as All Elite Wrestling went a step further by having a handful of wrestlers actually take seats as 'audience members', cheering and booing at appropriate moments. The cheers and noise also cover up the wrestlers calling their moves in the middle of the match while leaving more free camera movement than the "cue card" method.
- Or the wrestlers themselves could just yell a lot, as is a longstanding tradition in joshi and you can see Asuka demonstrate in WWE.