A guide for fighters & those who love them
Emotions make great servants & terrible masters.
Even though MMA is one of the most complex sports & fighters have to be among the fittest athletes on the planet , the consensus is that it is 90% mental. No matter how hard we train, how many techniques we are proficient in nor how many tactics we can implement our mindset is what matters most. Almost as challenging is watching someone we love step into the cage.
As a supporter it is quite normal to feel fear for our loved ones safety & even anger / aggression towards their opponent (a protective instinct). It is not uncommon for parents, siblings & partners to feel unable to watch. Vitali & Wladimir Klitchco's mother for example has never watched them fight.
Nobody wants to see their son in a fight, I’ve only ever been to two. It’s too emotional and nerve-wracking.
- Yeta Odusanya mother of Anthony Joshua
As normal as these feelings are, expressing fear for a fighter's safety in the build up to a fight can have a profound effect on their psychology (particularly for the novices'). "I don't want to see you get hurt" can shift the fighters focus from their performance to failure & injury.
Which reminds me of an anecdote that shows how a supporters words can affect an athlete. During one of his early fights, let's call him Bobby, had his opponent in the corner & was landing heavy shots. Mid strike he hears his mother call from the audience "Stop it Bobby! He's had enough!" Bobby reacted immediately giving his opponent a chance to recover. He wasn't able to re-establish his dominance & eeked out a split decision after what looked like a sure knock-out.
In this guide we will take a look at the mindset of winning in the hope that understanding will enable the supporter to be a positive part of the process.
Motivation is the why. Why we get up early to run, spend hundreds of hours refining tactics, honing skills & do that last rep even though we feel like throwing up (& sometimes do). What motivates us are goals, Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). BHAGs are outcomes oriented, ego based & by their nature extremely difficult to achieve e.g. I will be the longest reigning UFC champion of all times. While BHAGs motivate us ironically it has been shown that the more we focus on winning the more likely we are to lose. We ultimately have little control over the outcome as it is for example possible to have the performance of a lifetime & still lose e.g. the runner who breaks the world record but is still beaten.
What we do have control over are our thoughts & behaviors.
We therefore focus on short term (daily - monthly) actionable behavioral goals in pursuit of our BHAGs. Being task oriented, focusing on the process & our performance, has been linked to positive outcomes.
The challenge is to remain results driven & action focused.
Download our Goal Setting Guide for more details on how to set goals.
Many athletes & other highly motivated people place objects, pictures & other reminders of their goals in strategic places to help them focus on what motivates them. Seeing a photo of a UFC belt pinned to the mirror when you brush your teeth in the morning & before you go to bed can help to foster commitment.
Confidence is knowing that you know how & that you can. The role of confidence should be self-evident, but how do we develop confidence? Essentially it boils down to experience via formative moments & the accumulation of improvements & successes. Since the mind doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference modeled success is also effective.
Modeling takes various forms:
Watching inspirational moments. Listening to the crowd, seeing as if it was you & feeling what it would be like to have that success.
Visualisation or Imagery
Our own personal highlight reel of what is to come.
Apparently the sub-conscious mind ignores negation so all self-talk must be stated positively so for e.g. the sub-conscious hears 'Don't give up!' as 'Give up!'.
- Motivational: 'Come on, you've got this!'
- Mantras: repeated often & in the present tense e.g. Mohamed Ali's 'I am the greatest!'
Preparation knowledge is linked to our process goals. Knowing that we have done everything that is required to perform at our best is the greatest confidence booster.
A sure sign of the lack of preparation knowledge is a fighter 'over-warming-up' or hurriedly trying to learn new techniques in the locker-room.
Often called total sport is the passionate immersion in all aspects of the sport. Understanding the game & in particular knowing what it takes to perform at our best.
There is an optimal level of anxiety that enhances performance. That level varies from sport to sport. In archery for example the athlete needs to be extremely calm. In MMA however being that calm could lead to an athlete underestimating the danger & potentially getting hurt. We need to be relaxed & ready just like the state of tonus in our muscles. The two are linked (psycho-soma).
The tenser we are mentally the tighter our muscles hence many relaxation techniques use muscle relaxation to calm the mind. Others include:
- meditation &
The physiological effects of fear & excitement are the same:
- sensory exclusion
- loss of fine motor skills unless trained to be automatic
- reduction in neuro-muscular inhibition, etc.
We therefore remind ourselves that we are excited rather than afraid.
It is somehow comforting to hear that our heroes share our anxieties. Fortunately you often hear "I always have that moment. When the cage door closes I ask myself what am I doing this for? Then I remember...". The right motivation helps too.
Routines, Triggers & Talisman
Routines, triggers (words, or actions) & talisman can be used in anxiety management. They can also bee used to cue the correct attitude (see below). However if we use them we should guard against superstition. Routine becomes superstition when realizing that you forgot to kiss your socks before folding them & that distresses you...
Attitude: Playing vs. Training
The state of flow, for many the ultimate goal of competition, is closely linked to performance. We achieve this self-less state when our skills match the challenge.
It is characterized by:
- clear goals
- sufficient skill to overcome the challenge
- sense of control
- mind & body as one
- aware but not 'thinking'
- correct focus
- in the moment
- total enjoyment
We purposefully use the word playing, because when it's done right, that is what competition should feel like. The playing attitude is:
- goal focused
- positive self-talk
- accept / forgetting the moment that has passed
- practice playing
when are you going to practice the competition mindset other than in training...
Accepting the Outcome
Do the best you can & let the chips fall as they may.
As previously discussed in the section on motivation, the outcome of an event is dependent on many factors beyond our control. We can only control our thoughts & actions. If we fail going 100% there is no need for excuses, it is simply a measure of our current abilities.
Perspective, the ability to focus on the big picture, is very important when having to face a loss. It is worth remembering that instant gratification is only important in life or death situations. In fact it has been shown that the ability to delay gratification is one of the best predictors of performance. It is linked to a growth mindset.
Growth vs Fixed Mindset
We've all heard the saying "hard work beats talent every time". This is because those who have a fixed mindset are limited by the belief that success is determined by stable traits (talents) & therefore abilities are limited. They are therefore result, ego driven (even those who humbly ascribe there success to a 'higher power'). Success adds to this belief & boosts the ego. When those with a fixed mindset fail they believe it is because they are not good enough. Loss is seen as a personal judgment with potentially devastating consequences.
Whereas those with a growth mindset, the belief that improvements are possible through effort & application, tend to be more persistent & resilient. A result is simply a measure of where we are at this point in our journey. Therefore a loss is an indication that we are not good enough yet.