‘It’s Just You And The Log’: The Life And Philosophies Of A Champion Lumberjack

DIANA, W.V. – Everyone has an origin story. Matt Cogar’s took place here, off the main road, off the side road, off a trail that leads to a wooden cabin next to a creek.

Here is where Matt’s father Paul built a shed just off that trail to house his axes and cutting equipment. Here is where the chip pile sits full of logs ready to be stacked and chopped. Here is where Matt is training as he goes after his fourth-consecutive STIHL Timbersports U.S. Championship.

The day Matt took up an axe, he didn’t know he’d grow to be the size of an MLB first baseman. He didn’t know he’d pay for his college books using lumberjack competitions. He didn’t know he’d someday become a champion. He did know he liked how it felt. The weight in his hand. The power it could generate. The ripple effect of energy traveling from his body to the axe to the wood and back again after he struck a log.

He started at the Webster County Woodchopping Festival a few miles away when he was 12, and something sparked in him, tinder and kindling burning until he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Cogars have worked with wood in this part of the country for about as long as there have been Cogars. If they weren’t chopping, they were hauling. They got their start with mules lugging logs over the hills. When there wasn’t much use for mules anymore, they found other ways to make a living through timber. Paul has competed for the better part of four decades. Matt’s uncle Arden Sr. (a practicing lawyer by day) is a former champion in his own right. As is Matt’s cousin Arden Jr.

But Matt might be the best of them all.


Before he could do anything about a four-peat, Matt first had to understand why he felt like he didn’t love the sport anymore. As he prepared for the World Championships in Austria in November of 2014, he was training too hard and wasn’t giving himself enough breaks. He was tired. He’d made a few cuts earlier, and decided to make one more. So he pushed himself.

“Form failed,” Cogar says. “And that’s all it takes.”

Matt injured his hand and that was that. He underwent eight weeks of rehab in Huntington to try to get back to where he could hold an axe again. Doctors said he’d come back stronger than he was before, and the chopping aided the rehab. He returned to win last year’s U.S. Timbersports Championship in New York City, but barely, and you could sense the relief in Matt as tears welled up in his eyes. A third-straight championship was all his.

Something funny happened after that. He lost his competitive drive. Chopping just wasn’t fun for him anymore.

He turned to his wife, in school to become a clinical psychologist, for answers. She suggested seeing a sports psychologist. So Matt went and did that. He learned visualization techniques and identified what was holding him back. He was going through the motions and wasn’t in the moment when he was at the log. He needed to return to the fun of those first days of cutting, rather than worrying about who he was competing against, or letting thoughts of other things in the world enter his mind, or worse – allowing doubt to creep in.

Once that happens, as Matt puts it, “you beat yourself before you even get up to the log.”

“One of my buddies told me I lost my ‘grrr’ face,” Cogar says. “The intensity I have when I’m chopping. It got me thinking about what I have to do to improve that and I realized it’s all about improving yourself. The increase in intensity from before to now was about switching from ‘Is this going to work?’ to ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got this.’ It’s that same visualization and that confidence. I just have to do it, rather than worrying about what happens if I don’t do well, and if I fall behind, and stuff like that.”

Noticeable results happened almost overnight. Cogar cut with more precision and his times – especially in the single buck, the event he had been struggling with – improved. He felt looser and there wasn’t the pressure to be a champion or beat everybody else. He focused on his new home in Chillicothe, Ohio, and his new daughter who was born in May. He found a place to train 25 minutes away at a friend’s house and no longer had to make the three-hour roundtrip drive to Diana from Charleston.

Training sessions were more frequent and shorter in duration. He doesn’t have a set day-to-day for his training regimen, especially now that he’s a new dad, and every day is a little bit different. But he set time off to go train at least three days per week, depending on how long his sessions were. When he was driving out to the Cogar Cabin, he’d come up for the whole day and train for six to eight hours a pop. That’d wear him down physically, and the travel time didn’t exactly make things any easier.

Now that he could run over and get in quick cuts, Matt spent more time on individual events rather than rotating around and trying to cram everything into one day. This only aided in his visualization and reinforced what he’d been told by the psychologists.

“When I grab an axe, it’s fun,” Cogar says, “and you lose yourself in that moment. You’re gaining that focus. It’s just you and that log there. So start chopping. Honestly, that’s all the competition is. How well can I cut that log, right now, in this moment, and cut it to the best of my ability? That sort of turns your focus away from trying to beat the other guy. We all have similar wood. It comes down to how we cut it, and how well we’re going to cut it. Relearning that phrase has helped me so much. It’s just you and the log. There’s nothing else but you, and the log, and your axe.”

Matt is full of mantras he’s picked up along the way. “It’s just you and the log” is one he is constantly repeating, and he got that from a fellow lumberjack early on. He laughs when he hears others say it when he goes to competitions. The same advice gets passed down from generation to generation. Half the time he doesn’t even realize he’s sharing wisdom in the first place.

There are all sorts of maxims Cogar doles out as he demonstrates each of the disciplines from standing block to underhand chop to even axe throwing.

  • You don’t have time to think. You just have to go with it.
  • Use all the wood. Wood is valuable, and you might as well not waste it.
  • Don’t cut against the clock, cut against the wood.
  • Stress and the weight of the world kills you. You can’t let it bother you.
  • We rig a lot of stuff in the woods. It ain’t always going to be perfect.
  • Do the same thing over and over, and you’ll do it better each time.
  • The next day is a new day.
  • All those little things add up.
  • We all learn until the day we die. If you don’t, then you’re stopped. And you’re just going to get worse.

Even in chopping one log, it’s clear strength isn’t everything when competing in Timbersports. Form and consistency are even more important. Matt talks about angles and even stops his cuts mid swing to work through his muscle memory. What takes me 10 cuts he can do in one, and his placement is dead on as if it was automated.

Of course it is, he’s a champion.


Cogar walks me over to his truck, the one he won after his first STIHL Championship. He shows me the single buck blades we’re going to use, and he pauses when asked what he’d do with yet another truck.

The second one he gave to his wife. The third one went to his dad. The fourth one he’d sell outright (he does have a newborn, after all). But if he were to somehow get a fifth championship? He’d buy he and his wife old American muscle cars.

There’s no sense of worry about winning or losing as long as Matt makes his best run at it. The single buck has eluded him, and he’s struggled since his injury. He knows he won’t win the individual at the U.S. Championships, but his goal is to set a personal best and cut it under 14 seconds.

The other disciplines he feels confident in, especially as he’s continued to work with his new hot saw. He’s a wizard with the underhand and standing block. And his stock saw time is right where he wants it to be.

“If I lose, it ain’t gonna be the end of the world,” Cogar says. “If I gave it my all, and somebody’s got a better stick than you, it happens.”

Matt gave it his all, and nobody had a better stick than he did in Illinois. He crushed the field in this year’s U.S. Championship, scoring 42 points out of a possible 48. His cousin Arden Jr. finished second with just 27 points. Matt became the first STIHL competitor ever to win four-straight U.S. titles, and on a micro level, he did end up cutting that single buck under 14 seconds – he came in at 13.9.

Cogar is still in his prime, but the sport is at a critical time in its history. Without more young lumberjacks and folks interested in Timbersports, there’s a risk of losing some of that critical knowledge. But there are three generations competing who have all that expertise and are ready and willing to share that. Like most of the old trades from blacksmithing to glassblowing, finding someone to take under their wing is important. That person committing to it and taking it seriously is even more so.

It’s the formula of respect and a willingness to learn. It’s not a generation to generation thing. Every generation struggles with it, but you need people who want it, and want to learn it, so that it trickles down and holds on. When the games are over, everyone likes to get together and have a beer, but the reason for having the beers is to celebrate the work and share the experience. It’s not merely an excuse to go have beers. And that’s something Matt tries to relay to the younger lumberjacks who enter the fray. He’s had college kids who have blown him off when he’s offered guidance. Still others coming up through the ranks have latched onto particular woodsmen and never left. They train with them, pester them for tweaks in technique, and are constantly asking questions.

Those taking the apprentice approach to lumberjacking are the ones who can keep the sport alive and help it thrive.

“If there’s an interest there,” Cogar says, “there are people who can meet that interest. Now is the best time to get into it because the older generation is waning away, but they’re willing to show you what to do and what’s happening. They know the right way of how to do it, but they’re still in it to win it.”

It’s clear the admiration Matt has for not just his family, who has been there before, but all the other aging choppers who continue to give tips to Cogar whenever they see something. Despite the fact that he’s the reigning champion, everybody supports everybody in the sport, and they share in each other’s successes.

When Cogar gets to talking about some of the older guys still cutting, he pauses to reflect that those guys are in their 50s and some are getting close to 60 years old. I tell him, well, that means he’s got close to 25 or 30 years of chopping left.

Matt can’t help but smile at that.

“Heck yeah,” he says. “Hopefully that’s the case.”