Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Inside the Heart & Mind of a Champion

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Inside the Mind and Heart of a Champion: An Interview with Sean Sherk

By Dr. Randy Borum

Dan Gable, the famed wrestling coach and Olympic Gold medalist once said: "Raising your level of performance requires a proper mentality and meaning from within. This gives you the ability and drive to work on the things necessary to go to a higher level. When people ask me how to raise their level of performance, the first thing I ask is, How important is it to you?"

Part of what makes Mixed Marital Arts (MMA) such an exciting and dynamic sport is that there are so many different ways to win. This is true of technique, but also of mindset. The "proper mentality and meaning from within" is not the same for every fighter. Focusing on your goals and your motivation can get you through the rough spots on the journey, but everyone has to find their own path. Some take a philosophical approach. Some take a professional approach, seeing fights as "just another day at the office." Some are driven by family honor, while others are motivated by a personal commitment to excellence.

One approach is just to "gut it out." To be tough, determined and persistent. To rely on the power of your own will and the strength of your commitment. To accept that pain and adversity are part of the journey, and that the way to get through is to suck it up, drive on, and never quit. Few fighters in MMA today embody that work ethic better than UFC Lightweight Champion Sean Sherk.

Sherk is no newcomer to combat sports. He began wrestling competitively when he was 7 years old and racked up more than 400 matches over an 11 year period. In the 1990s he got into martial arts, and in 1999 entered the competitive world of MMA. He has since fought in most of the sport's major promotions. In October of 2006 – after a five-round, all-out battle with Kenny Florian - Sherk emerged victorious as the UFC Lightweight World Champion.

Turns out that a week before that championship bout, Sherk suffered a serious tear in his rotator cuff. He knew it before the fight and trained through considerable pain, but he was determined not to let it get in the way of his dream. He fought…and won.

Now, after having surgery for the shoulder injury and allowing time for recovery, Sean is ready to return to the Octagon for his first title defense. This July Sherk faces the incredibly tough Hermes Franca who is just coming off a January UFC win over Spencer Fisher. Sean spoke with us about his recovery and his mental preparation for this fight.

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You are well known for your hardcore physical conditioning – when you are preparing for a fight, you're in the gym 3 times a day, 6 days a week – but how important is the mental aspect of the MMA game?

I think the mental aspect is just as important as the physical aspect because mentally you have to be a really, really tough person to endure training six days a week and the diet for 12 weeks …and when you get in the cage you obviously got to be mentally tough so that you're prepared to fight

This July you are scheduled to fight Hermes Franca in your first UFC Lightweight title defense, is that right?

Yes.

What are you doing mentally to prepare yourself for this fight?

Right now, I'm still 14 weeks out, so my training right now is for maintenance. I have not really stepped up my hard, hardcore workouts yet – About 4 days a week for an hour a day is maintenance for me so I haven't really started yet, right now I'm mostly just trying to get my shoulder ready because I'm coming off a shoulder surgery, so that when I start my hardcore training, my shoulder is ready to go. The mental stuff is probably not going to start for another four weeks.

Does your mental preparation vary with different upcoming opponents?

No I think it's pretty much always the same. I'm always a pretty intense dude. I've never taken an opponent lightly, so I never trained lightly for any fight. Mentally – like I said before – I just train like a maniac and diet – there's no such thing as days off. It doesn't matter if it's your birthday, Christmas, Easter. It doesn't matter. You train regardless. It takes a different kind of person to be able to do that.

What kind of things do you do to relax your mind and body – progressive relaxation exercises, meditation, yoga – anything like that?

Right now the only thing I do to relax is to sit down and watch TV. I don't really have any hobbies or anything of that nature. I just try to sit down relax, watch TV and {get my mind away from the fight game whenever I can.

Quite a few fighters have said that "visualization" is a big part of their mental preparation. How – if at all – do you use visualization or mental practice in your own training?

I use it a lot during training. For one, obviously, if I get put in a position where I don't know how to get out of it. I'll figure out how to get out of it after class is over. Then I'll visualize myself getting out of the position over, and over so if I am in that position again I know how to get out of it immediately without even having drilled it but just a few times. I also visualize before a fight by putting myself in different situations mentally. Whatever my opponent's going to do to me – escaping mounts, avoiding takedowns, boxing, so I visualize that type of stuff as well. I think for the most part visualization is good for training the mind. You train the body to do all this stuff and I think it's good to train the mind as well using repetition in your head.

A lot of fighters, even at the elite level, still sometimes get the jitters. How do you handle those?

I get the jitters every time. I've never had a wrestling match or a fight, regardless of how tough or how easy the opponent, where I don't get nerverus every single time. I think that's a good thing, though. When I start not getting nervous, it's not going to be a good thing. Nerves can make you or nerves can break you. I think in my case, they make me. They make me perform better. So it sucks to get nervous before a fight, but it's something that's kind of a necessity. It's part of the deal.

I read an interview with you in which you said that you were a fan of famed wrestling coach Dan Gable. What do you think of his idea about the importance of building mental toughness?

The mental toughness goes back to the training and all that. You have to be mentally tough to work yourself the way the best fighters work ourselves every single day. You train every day, six days a week, no breaks. You're dieting 24/7. I mean fighting is a 24 houra day, 7 day a week commitment. There's no breaks. There's no "off days." There's no "Hey I'm going to go to the bar and have a couple of drinks" or "I'm going to sleep in today." You have got to be ready to go all the time. When you show up at the gym you have to be ready to train. You can't just go up there and hang out with your buddies and talk, then say "I'm going home now." You've got to show up and you've got to be ready to work out. For me, I've got about 5 or 6 really good training partners that are there for me every single day. When I show up at the gym, their goal is to beat the shit out of me to be honest with you. That's what they want to do. They want to push me. They want to make me better. They want to {test} me every single day. If I show up and I'm not mentally tough or I'm not mentally prepared to deal with that day, I'm going to have a very, very bad day and I'm probably not going to sleep that night. So mental toughness is just really important in training and in a fight too. You have got to be ready to go to war when you go into a fight. There's no such thing as quit.


How important is it to have a pre-fight routine and what do you think should be included?

I think having a fight day routine is really important for me. That's all part of getting in the zone. You have got to get yourself mentally and physically ready. At that point in time, that close to a fight, physically the work is done. That's when the mental aspect starts to take place. You have to get yourself mentally ready for your fight. The physical work is done. So I have a routine. I do things a certain way, and I want things done a certain way. I want to rest and train at certain times. I want to eat at certain times. Basically, on fight day I lock myself in my room and I watch fight videos of my opponent all day long. I write down my game plan. I write down everything everything he does. That's when I really do a lot of visualization all day long – that's all I do. Watch my opponent's fight videos. Break down all of that stuff so I can visualize point by point by point so when I get in there I feel like I've already fought the guy before.

A few months back you had surgery for a shoulder injury, right? How has your recovery affected your fight preparation?

Recovery has gone real, real good. I'm far ahead of schedule. Doctor told me it was going to be 6-9 months before I could even train. He said "You're looking at a year before you can fight." I was back on the mat within 10 weeks wrestling and I was doing pads within 6 weeks, but not with my bad arm. I started training pretty much right away just by doing body or head movement. I never really took any time off. As far as recovery, I have 2-3 hours of rehab every single day – massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, machines – all kinds of different stuff – everything I can do for it . So – recovery is doing awesome. Right now, my shoulder feels better than I've ever felt before.


What role does confidence play for a professional MMA fighter?

I think you have to have some kind of confidence. If you go in there and you have no confidence at all, you might fight a little bit scared and that can affect the way you perform. I think that comes back into nerves. I think the reason that myself and a lot of fighters get nervous before a fight is because they have a little bit of doubt. I think it's that little bit of doubt that you have that is going to help you excel when you fight, if you know how to use it properly

Have you ever lost confidence in your own skills or ability to win?

Man, I don't know. I don't think so. I don't recall myself at any point in time… maybe during training I might have. You have a bad day during training and you're like "Aww man, what am I doing. I'm going to get killed." So, I've had bad days and I know everybody else has had bad days. I think if you have a bad day in training you might start second guessing yourself a little bit. But like I said, for me, if I have a bad day in the gym, I don't sleep that night, man. I sit up and stare at the ceiling all night long because I'm frustrated and I'm pissed off. But I've never had two bad days in a row. If I have a bad day, I come back twice as hard the next day and I make up for what I did the previous day.

How do you think emotions affect a fighter's performance?

Again, that comes down to how you use it. If you are able to use it to your advantage, I think it's going to help you excel, but if you don't know how to use it to your advantage, You're not going to excel. I know a lot of guys that are "game day fighters." Guys that are ok in the gym and then when they step in the cage, they fight like they have never fought or trained before. Then I know guys that are animals in the gym and then as soon as you step in the cage, they can't perform worth a shit. So, I think that all comes down to emotions and being able to use them to your advantage.

What is one lesson on psychological preparation that you have learned from your years of experience in competition that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

I guess when I was younger I didn't use as much. I didn't have as much knowledge when I was younger. I didn't know how to use psychological or mental preparation as much as now. Now I focus on it a lot, and I think it's a big attribute to have to be able to use that stuff to your advantage – to be able to think about it whenever you need to. So back then I guess I didn't really use it a lot. So there's a lot of things I guess I wish I would have done differently when I was younger, but at least I figured out now how to use it, otherwise I probably wouldn't be doing very well in this sport.


What is your favorite quote or inspirational phrase that you use to motivate yourself for training and competition?

I've got one that I believe is a Dan Gable quote, but it's something that I think about almost every day as soon as I start getting tired or I want to take the day off early or I don't want to do my sprints – is "There's no substitute for hard work." {NB Actually this quote is attributed to Thomas Alva Edison} The harder you work, the more successful you are going to be, and that's something I try to think about almost on a daily basis.

This article appeared in TapouT Magazine


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