Fight News Unlimited
FNU: How important is psychology for an athlete, especially a fighter?
RANDY: Many of the best combat sport trainers and athletes have said that 10-20% of success in those sports comes from physical factors and 80-90% comes from mental factors. Pat Miletich said it about MMA. Freddie Roach said it about boxing, and Dan Gable said it about wrestling. In reality, there's no way to precisely measure these things, but it does all point to the fact that psychological factors are critical for effective fight sport performance. It may be particularly important at the elite levels because fighters are already matched up on size, experience and skill. Sport psychology won't magically transform a bad fighter into a great one, but it can help most fighters to achieve their potential.
FNU: How does a fighter maximize his or her psychological approach to prepare for a fight?
RANDY: It's interesting that most fighters will tell you that mental skills are the most important, but in their own training, they spend nearly all of their time on physical training and very little on enhancing mental skills – even though physical conditioning usually peaks out before mental conditioning. Maybe that's because some don't realize that psychological skills can be trained and developed. They don't have to come naturally.
FNU: What happens in the brain when a fighter gets psyched up or psyched out and why?
RANDY: Well, the brain controls all behavior. And basically there are three behavioral components of your fight performance that are affected by psychological factors: Thoughts (Cognition); Feelings (Emotion) and Physical (Somatic).
Whether and when a fighter gets psyched up or psyched out depends largely on what's happening with his thoughts, feelings and physical responses. Each of those factors can affect the others in different orders at different times. A negative thought like "I'm gassing- I won't make it to the end of the round" may lead to feeling discouraged and having physical sensations of fatigue. On the other hand, rehearsing confident thoughts like "I am strong and powerful and completely prepared for this match" may lead to feelings of excitement, which produce physical sensations of energy.
The solution – just like fight strategy – lies in preparing for what might happen and building a skill set to respond effectively.
FNU: What is your background and what kind of consulting have you done with MMA fighters or boxers?
RANDY: I am a Professor at the University of South Florida where I teach and do research on violence and terrorism. I have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. I am a licensed and board-certified psychologist and have been recognized as a "Certified Sport Psychologist" by the National Institute of Sports. For several years, I was a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and I did some strength coaching for my University's Boxing Team back when it was active. I was a police officer for a while before I was a psychologist and I began studying sport psychology and motor behavior principles back in the mid 1980s to help understand how they might be applied to help police officers perform well (mentally) in high-stress, high-risk situations.
Apart from the writing I do for MMA magazines, I do a very limited amount of performance enhancement consulting with combat sport athletes – mainly pro MMA fighters, but a few boxers as well. The issues range from managing pre-fight jitters, to confidence building, to managing distractions, to visualization and other related issues.
FNU: What kind of pieces have you written about the psychology of fighting?
RANDY: I have written articles for Ultimate Grappling Magazine, Tapout Magazine, MMA Sports, MMA Authority and I do a column for FightZone magazine, which is a sport psychology column focusing exclusively on combat sports. The articles have provided information about how to assess your own mental skills, improving focus, building confidence, developing mental toughness, keeping your opponent from getting inside your head, psychological fight preparation and even depression.
FNU: How should a fighter adjust his thinking after a loss?
RANDY: In my experience, the best fighters don't ruminate over the loss or repeatedly beat themselves up over it. They develop an explanation that makes sense to them about "what happened" – then they figure out what they need to work on to keep that from happening again; they make a plan to do it; and they follow through. Some fighters develop an explanation of the loss that works for them, but that others may see as an "excuse." Allowing yourself to wallow in a loss will sap your energy and undermine your confidence. Losing a fight doesn't make a fighter a "loser."
When bouncing back from a loss, what I've seen work for most is to accept the loss, keep their confidence up, and develop specific, measurable goals they want to achieve in moving forward. They then get swiftly to the task of working to achieve them. Looking forward works better than continuing to look back.
FNU: What is the best advice you could give someone trying to focus before a match?
RANDY: That depends. The best approach for a fighter to prepare psychologically for a match has to be tailored to that individual's needs. In general, though, some common factors seem to be setting challenging and measurable goals, monitoring mental performance in your training log, and making necessary adjustments to build the skills you need and to remove any barriers to optimal performance. For fight-day preparation, many fighters find it helpful to structure their day in advance, do some exercises to get them in a very positive state of mind, then to monitor and adjust their level of emotional intensity or arousal through the day so they're feeling good at the start of first round.
I guess my general advice would be to set and follow a schedule for the day. Keep your thoughts positively focused, using positive self-talk. Try not to allow the "what ifs" to creep in. Drown them out with your confidence. As you get closer to the fight, you will narrow the focus of your thoughts and mental images toward the beginning of the fight. Also do a gut check on your arousal level. You want to achieve your optimal state as the fight starts. If you are too revved-up, then do some breathing and relaxation exercises to settle down. If you are feeling drained or lethargic, then get your body moving or listen to some motivational music to kick it up a notch.
FNU: What role do visualization and positive reinforcement play in a fighter's development?
RANDY: Fighters use visualization in different ways. One way is to use it for mental practice. When you are first learning a technique you can do hundreds of repetitions of it in your head even if you're not able to do as many in training. Physical practice works best, of course, but mental practice works too – particularly when you are imagining yourself actually performing the task, not just watching yourself do it "from the outside." Research shows that that mentally rehearsing a physical skill activates the same neural pathways as when you actually perform that task. Another way to use visualization is for specific fight preparation. You can visualize yourself fighting a particular opponent – performing exactly the way you want to and successfully defending against his attacks. Psychologically, you are building a history of having successfully done it before, which boosts your confidence.
FNU: Are there any mental exercises a fighter or athlete can do to prep for competition?
RANDY: Absolutely. Like anything else, though, developing mental skills take practice. Certain exercises are pretty fundamental like progressive relaxation, positive self-talk and imagery (visualization). Other exercises depend on the individual fighter's needs and capacities. We can often get pretty creative in helping to build psychological skills for competition.
FNU: Do you think psychology is under appreciated in sports? In fighting?
RANDY: Sport psychology, as a field, is definitely growing. Psychologists have been studying sport performance since the late 1800s, but they really didn't begin performance consulting with athletes until the 1960s. The U.S. Olympic Committee only hired its first full-time sports psychologist in 1985.
As for its application to fighting and combat sports, I don't necessarily think the importance of psychology is underappreciated, but it certainly is not used as systematically or as effectively as it could be. With FILA's recent recognition of grappling and the explosive growth of Mixed Martial Arts in particular, I hope there is an opportunity to make sport psychology a regular part of combat sport training. A number of MMA fighters, professional boxers, and Olympic wrestlers and judoists have consulted with sport psychologists over the years, but most have not.
FNU: What is your ultimate goal in psychology?
RANDY: Well… in advancing sport psychology for combat sports, I don't have a specific "ultimate goal" in mind. I do the writing and work I do in this area mostly because I love the sport and I enjoy helping fighters achieve their potential. I'm not trying to build an empire or even a cottage industry. What I have been doing is just trying to share information and ideas about how psychological principles might contribute to combat sport training. As I said, I think that people know the mental side of the game is important, and they may even know how to discipline themselves and be tough, but they don't necessarily know how to assess and build a mental skill set to complement the strength, conditioning and fighting skills. Some don't even know that factors like concentration, confidence, relaxation, and mental toughness are skills that can be learned, practiced and developed. So I guess my goal is get more fighters and trainers to think systematically about their mental game in the same way that they think about fighting skills, conditioning and nutrition as parts of the big picture. Many elite-level fighters or fight camps have a strength and conditioning coach or a sport nutritionist that they consult with – but how many have a sport psychologist? Sure - psychologists can help people who are depressed or who have serious psychological problems, but those with an understanding of sport psychology can also do so much more – not just to provide treatment, but to enhance performance and to take their fight game to the next level.
FNU: What's been your best moment in the field?
RANDY: I don't know that I can identify a single moment, but I always find it to be incredibly rewarding when I can consult with a fighter who is genuinely interested in improving his game or who is struggling with a particular problem that is holding him back – then he follows through on what we discussed and comes back to say: "That really worked" or "That was really helpful." This is one of the few things I do professionally where I get feedback at the individual level. For me, those are probably the best moments.
FNU: What was your toughest moment?
RANDY: It can be really tough hearing people struggling with serious depression or other emotional problems…their feelings of hopelessness ….hearing about the horrific childhood or life experiences that they had to endure – things no child so have to go through. I am constantly amazed, however, at the personal strength and resilience that people find within themselves, in their faith, or through support from others that help them overcome incredible adversity
FNU: What makes a fighter's mentality different than any other athlete?
RANDY: That's a really interesting question. I don't know that there is any "right" answer or that the answer is necessarily the same for all fighters. Many of the skills are similar, but they have to be applied differently. For example, focus is important both in tennis and in fighting, but how you focus and where you focus and the timing of that focus and the nature of the distractions are very different for each sport. One factor that I think is somewhat unique to MMA is the very personal and physical nature of the battle for dominance. It is one of the only sports I can think of where people typically lose because they are hurting so badly they have to quit or because they have been pummeled so badly a referee has to stop it. People get injured in a lot of sports, but those injuries are incidental. In MMA it's not a part of the game, it is the game. So one of the things that is different about an MMA fighter's mentality is that he or she has to develop an adaptive way to respond – cognitively, emotionally and physically – to the fact that they have an opponent who in most cases is trying to hurt them. Different fighters develop that adaptation in different ways, but you really have to find a way to deal with it as a sport or professional exchange, not just as a bar fight.
FNU: What can trainers and coaches learn from having a better understanding of psychology?
RANDY: I think this is really where sport psychology has such great potential to be infused into combat sport training. If the coaches and trainers recognize the value, they can use it, and they can make sure it is given proper time and priority in the training regimen.
There was a survey done several years ago of wrestling coaches in which nearly all of them rated mental skills as being highly important, but very few of them felt like they knew how to teach them. I think coaches and trainers can benefit from sport psychology in two ways. First, they can apply the principles to their coaching of each athlete–to understand his learning style, to better understand what motivates him and how to help him achieve his goals. Second, they can use knowledge of sport psychology to assess their fighters' mental skill profile, so that they understand the strengths and weaknesses in the mental game and integrate that into training in the same way they do with the fight skills.
FNU: Anything else you want to add?
RANDY: Just to thank you for your interest applying psychology to combat sports and for giving me an opportunity to share some information. I am not trying to step on toes or launch the next big thing – just offering some ideas for consideration. I would welcome any thoughts from fighters out there about how these ideas do or do not fit with their experiences or whether they make sense from their perspective. I'd like to think we're all learning together.