Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Even Fighters Get the Blues

Even Fighters Get The Blues

By Dr. Randy Borum
'Even Fighters Get The Blues' was first run in Issue 30 of Fighters Only Magazine.

Fighters are known for their toughness. Either they have it or they develop it. They have to be tough to succeed in a sport that’s all about giving and receiving pain and dominating an opponent.

But fighters are also human, and fighting is an emotional sport. Fighters are at least as vulnerable as everyone else to experiencing depression and other psychological problems. At 6’2” and 270 lbs you can tell right away that Vincent Lucero – a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter – is not a ‘weak’ dude. But when he is depressed, that is how he says he feels – “weak and pathetic”. Vince’s struggle with depression began when he was a child. At six years old, he can vividly remember wanting to die.

His childhood was rough. After authorities took young Vince away from his abusive parents, he bounced between foster homes and psychiatric hospitals. He was even abused by a foster parent who told him, “nobody cared for me or loved me, and if I said anything, nobody would care anyway.” All this before his seventh birthday. During his adolescence, he had “three ambulance rides and two helicopter rides” as a result of his multiple suicide attempts.

Even in his adulthood “the depression never left,” he says. When his first daughter was about two years old, Vince remembers calling on the phone to talk to her, “crying with a gun, thinking I’ll say bye and I’m done. But I would hear her, and she would say ‘I love you DaDa’, and I always put the gun down.”

Vince is a tough guy, with a tough disease that affects tens of millions of people every year – depression. He speaks openly about his struggle and is approached often by others who say they have endured similar challenges. One in four people in Britain who see a General Practitioner suffer from clinical depression. In the US, at least one in five people each year will have an episode of depressive illness. In some cases, the problems are obvious, but at other times people may be able to hide or cover their pain for years.

Dr. Margaret Goodman chairs the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. She believes that “Mental health disorders are just as important as any other health issue facing our boxers, but are frequently overlooked. Why? There is still a stigma attached to insinuating a weakness. This could not be further from the truth. Excuses come to mind like, ‘Oh, what do you expect. Of course he’s depressed, he just lost.’”

Depressive illness (or clinical depression) is different than a normal period of feeling down after being disappointed or after something bad happens. The symptoms are worse, they last longer and there are more of them. It is not caused by a weak will or personality. It is a serious health condition that can ruin relationships, careers, and lives.

Mike Tyson has publicly reported numerous bouts with depression, a condition he says he has battled all his life. Boxing great George Foreman is reported to have become severely depressed following his loss to Muhammad Ali. UFC fighter Frank Trigg, after losing his UFC 47 match against Matt Hughes, said he went into “a deep, deep downward spiral” that led to a “very severe…eight-month depression.” Even Fighters Only’s own heavyweight star Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman has revealed that he is, in fact human, and had struggled with dark periods in his earlier years.

It may be harder sometimes to spot depression in men than in women. Studies usually show that women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression, but many professionals and researchers believe that men get it just as often. They suspect that men may experience and show depression differently than women do. Depressed women’s moods are often sad and they may be prone to frequent bouts of crying. The mood problems of depressed men, though, often appear in the form of irritability and anger.

Depressed men also may be more prone to have physical symptoms – unexplained fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, general soreness, pain and physical discomfort. Instead of appearing clingy or needy, depressed men tend to isolate themselves socially and try to keep their negative feelings inside. Some experts call it covert depression. One author calls it ‘Irritable Male Syndrome’.

Guys may also be more prone to cover or escape from their depression by self medicating with drugs or alcohol or even exercise. Physical exercise may help as a short-term strategy, but for some it becomes a compulsion. They cannot seem to work out hard enough or long enough, even when they are injured or their bodies are telling them to slow down.

Terrance Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression says that men often harbour a hidden depression. “One of the ironies about men’s depression,” Real says, “is that the very forces that help create it prevent us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above.” Some see depression itself as ‘unmanly’ or associate it with feminine emotionality. As a result, friends and family may not see sadness and tears, “What you see are the footprints of depression or the defences a man is using to run from it.” According to Real, those footprints usually involve self-medication with booze or drugs, risk taking (like gambling, driving fast, or womanising), radical isolation and lashing out at others.

Eventually, depression tends to break through these fragile defences. When it does, it can be overwhelming and shocking to nearly everyone. It may look like it came out of nowhere or be thought of as just a phase. Dr. William Pollack of the Harvard Medical School says “Boys are trained in ways that make it likely they get depression later. If it doesn’t destroy their relationships sooner, it shows up by midlife. Midlife crisis is euphemism for male-based depression.”

Though studies show that about twenty percent of people will have at least one serious episode of depressive illness in their lifetime, some people are at greater risk than others. Many fighters seem to have backgrounds that are loaded with those risk factors –having been abused as a child, bad childhood relationships with their parents, childhood loss of a parent, marital / relationship problems, and low social support.

Do fighters have higher rates of depression than non-fighters? No one has studied the issue, so we do not know for sure. Some pro fighters have said that boxing, wrestling or martial arts somehow provided an outlet for them when other parts of their lives were in chaos. No doubt, the strength and resilience that got them through adversity growing up also gets them through some tough times in training and competition. Former five-time world boxing champion Johnny Tapia, who recalls trying to end his own life at least six times, says he turned to boxing as an outlet for the frustration and anger he felt from a traumatic childhood. Former middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins says it bluntly: “Boxing saved my life.”

Training and fighting may help some combat sport athletes cope with their negative mood states, but when depression goes untreated, it can also interfere significantly with athletic performance. Depression can disrupt concentration and focus. It can deplete energy levels and motivation. When people are depressed, they often are plagued by negative thoughts that can seriously undermine their confidence. Sleeping and eating patterns get disrupted. Motor skills and reaction times can slow down. It is a bad deal if you are competing or preparing for a fight. Few who saw it will ever forget watching former WBC heavyweight champion Oliver McCall as he refused to fight and began weeping during his bout with Lennox Lewis.

Despite the risks, researchers say that most people with depression never get the help they need. Some cases go unrecognised, but other times people feel too ashamed to reach out for help. Without treatment, those who have one depressive episode, are much more likely to have another. The disease may get worse. Depression may take its final toll – collapsing the fighter’s spirit and casting upon the mind a seemingly boundless shadow of hopelessness. In the US, someone commits suicide every 16.2 minutes. Eight of every ten of them are men. A half million people in America and over 140,000 in England and Wales alone attempt suicide each year.

The stakes are high, but there is good reason to be hopeful. Whether or not there is a ‘cure’, depression is very treatable. Success rates exceed eighty percent. Therapy helps many people. A new generation of medications are very effective and have far fewer side effects than the early antidepressants. They are non-addictive and typically do not cause people to feel out of it, just ‘normal’.

If you think someone you coach or train with may be struggling with depression, experts encourage you to reach out. If you are worried they may be thinking about hurting themselves, they say it is OK to ask. You won’t ‘put the idea in their head’. The key, professionals say, is to listen, express your concern, and encourage them to seek treatment. Ignoring the hurt or dismissing it – for example, by saying ‘It can’t be that bad’ – or talking about your own problems just adds to the feelings of isolation. By being supportive and willing to listen, you may be the key to helping a friend or training partner win the toughest fight of his life.

This feature was written partially in response to the death of IFL fighter Jeremy Williams. A fund has been set up to help support his family to which the author donated his fee for this article.

Notes from the Author:

The family of recently deceased IFL fighter Jeremy Williams has
announced the creation of a trust fund to aid Williams' young
daughters in their time of need. The IFL has received many generous
offers of support, and would like to direct those individuals looking
to help the Williams family to this trust fund.

To donate to the Williams family trust fund, log on to PayPal and
click "send money" to Creating an account is
free, and will allow those wishing to send money directly and securely
to the Williams family to do so with full confidence and speed.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Growth Mindset v. Fixed Mindset

The following comes from "mindsetonline" which you can access HERE.


What is MindSet?

Every so often a truly groundbreaking idea comes along. This is one. Mindset explains:

  • Why brains and talent don’t bring success
  • How they can stand in the way of it
  • Why praising brains and talent doesn’t foster self-esteem and accomplishment, but jeopardizes them
  • How teaching a simple idea about the brain raises grades and productivity
  • What all great CEOs, parents, teachers, athletes know
Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference.

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports. It enhances relationships.

You can test your MindSet online by clicking HERE.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why Should Fighters Care About Sport Psychology?

Why should fighters care about sport psychology?

Dr. Randy Borum


Lots of people have said that combat sports and other high-level competitive activities are 10% physical and 90% mental. That's probably exaggerated, and of course there is no real way to measure the relative importance, but it does suggest - at least - that your mental condition and performance are critical elements of your game.

Research conducted with Olympic and other elite athletes shows that mental or psychological factors become more important as you reach higher levels of competition. Most athletes spend much more time on physical training than on mental training, but physical conditioning usually peaks out before mental conditioning. So improving psychological skills will probably yield greater benefits for professional and amateur fighters than for those who train just for fun and fitness.

Sport psychology applies psychological methods and principles to improve sport performance. It won't magically transform a bad fighter into a great one. Its fundamental purpose is to help athletes achieve their potential. That task may require removing (or treating) psychological barriers, building psychological skills, or a combination of both. If a fighter has some psychological disorder – like depression – which is interfering with his life and competitive performance, that condition obviously should be treated. This, however, is probably the narrowest and most infrequent application of sport psychology. Most interventions are designed to address some sport-specific problem like fight night anxiety or to enhance performance.

What fighters should understand about sport psychology is that there are many interventions that have been proven in research and in the ring, but that they rarely come in the form of a "quick fix." You might perfectly demonstrate and explain a "flying armbar" to a novice grappler, but you probably would not expect him or her to execute it flawlessly after one lesson. Fighters seem to understand that physical skills require practice, but seem often to assume that psychological skills like concentration, managing arousal levels, and mental toughness should come naturally – or even that they can't be learned. Not true. They can be learned, but mastering them requires practice.

At the most basic level, there are three components of your fight performance that are affected by psychological factors – you can improve all of them: Thoughts (Cognition); Feelings (Emotion) and Physical (Somatic). Each of these affects the other in different orders at different times. A random thought like "What happens if I lose? My family and students are here. I'll be letting them down and I'll be humiliated" can almost immediately cause feelings of nervousness and anxiety, which then produce physical sensations like shaking, rapid heart beat, hyperventilation or nausea. But that's not the end of the cycle. Your mind interprets those physical symptoms as signs that your body is in danger or trouble. You begin to think: "Oh sh**, I'm going to die…or at least throw up in front of God and everybody – then die of humiliation." This, of course makes you more anxious, which makes your body react more until you've spiraled down to get yourself in a pretty bad state.

It doesn't have to start with a thought either. It may begin with some feeling – maybe a lack of confidence – or a physical sensation, like "butterflies," but if left unchecked, the cycle can easily take on a life of its own, controlling how you perform. The solution – just like fight strategy – lies in preparing for what might happen and building a skill set to respond effectively. Sport psychology interventions help fighters develop competition-related control over their thoughts, feelings, and their bodies. In a match, you will know how to direct those processes, rather than just react to them. A good fighter would never walk into the ring or cage, not having trained and just thinking "I'll see if he attacks and if, so I'll just try to counter somehow. I'll worry about that if it happens." A good fighter prepares rigorously, develops plans for as many scenarios as possible, and develops the necessary skills to execute those plans before stepping in to fight. Psychological skills require no less preparation and deserve no less attention than other aspects of conditioning.

How do we prepare to "get in front of" the problem? One approach is what I call the "theory of mutually incompatible responses." There's probably a better name for it. I'll work on that and I'll discuss the basic principle in the next post.

Why Should Fighters Care About Sport Psychology?: Part II

Why Should Fighters Care About Sport Psychology?: Part II

By Dr. Randy Borum


In my last Bulletin I discussed how thoughts, emotions, and physical condition all affect competitive performance and all affect each other. I suggested that being proactive or getting "in front of" the problem were keys to promoting a positive – rather than negative – training effect. I referred to the process of doing this as one of developing and using "mutually incompatible responses." Let me explain.

When you *direct* your thoughts, feelings, and physical condition – and you definitely can learn to do that – you are less vulnerable to negative influence than if you are just reacting. Strategically, it's like setting the pace or making an opponent fight your fight. If you are actively engaging in positive self talk, it is difficult to simultaneously entertain thoughts of losing. If you are feeling confident, it is difficult to simultaneously feel anxious. If your muscles are relaxed, they cannot also be tense. And because we know the three components are inter-related, if you have positive control over one, you can often influence the others. Psychologist Edmund Jacobson once said: "An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body."

Self-Monitoring Skills

If the fighter's goal is to control his thinking, emotions and physical state, he must first learn to be aware of them. You have to know how each component is operating before you can effectively change it. There are a couple of ways get started.

Some sport psychologists recommend that you vividly recall an episode of "best" and "worst" performance (obviously, not at the same time) and begin to "get inside" those sensations and the differences between them. How well this will work for you depends a bit on how well you can do guided imagery (I will do a post on sports imagery and visualization as we go along). The exercise would go something like this:

Recall a period of peak performance, preferably one from competition, but otherwise you can use a specific sparring or training session. This should be a time when you were at the top of your game, everything was flowing naturally, and you were feeling "in the zone." Close your eyes, take three of four deep breaths from your abdomen, relax, then begin to imagine the scene.

When the images first come to mind, you might be watching it from the outside – as if watching someone else or watching yourself on a video screen. You want to work toward stepping inside yourself so that you are experiencing the scene from the inside – as if you were re-living it. Once you have set a vivid scene – noticing the details of how things look, the sounds, and the environment, begin shift your focus internally.

First, notice how your body feels. Check your muscles – where they are tense and where they are relaxed. Check your overall energy level, heartbeat and how your are breathing. Think about whether - and the extent to which - your performance felt arduous, forced, or effortful, rather than natural, effortless, and flowing.

Next, get inside your head. Assess your level of concentration and ability to focus. Also, listen to your self-talk – Be aware of the nature of what you are saying to yourself and the thoughts that are coming into your head.

Finally, check your mood – emotions – how you are feeling. Think about what word best captures your mood – elated, proud, excited, etc. Assess your confidence level – how strong is your belief in you're your skills and abilities. Also think about whether – and the extent to which – you feel in control of your thoughts, body, emotions and overall performance.

Spend about 5-10 minutes doing this exercise with a best performance scenario. Make notes to yourself on the specifics and perhaps even use some checklist or rating sheet like the one below to record you peak performance observations. Then repeat the exercise and evaluation with a worst performance scenario. Compare the differences.

Checklist of Performance States

Fought extremely well 1 2 3 4 5 6 Fought extremely poorly
Felt extremely relaxed 1 2 3 4 5 6 Felt extremely anxious
Felt extremely confident 1 2 3 4 5 6 Felt extremely unconfident
Felt in complete control 1 2 3 4 5 6 Had no control at all
Muscles were relaxed 1 2 3 4 5 6 Muscles were tense
Felt extremely energetic 1 2 3 4 5 6 Felt extremely fatigued
Self-talk was positive 1 2 3 4 5 6 Self-talk was negative
Felt extremely focused 1 2 3 4 5 6 Felt extremely unfocused
Felt effortless 1 2 3 4 5 6 Felt great effort

The point of doing this exercise is to get you notice how your body feels, how you are thinking, what you are thinking, and how you are feeling at different points in time. It is called self-monitoring, and it is a skill that can be acquired with practice. You can also begin to monitor and record these things during training so that you can identify relevant triggers or cues that affect your performance. You might keep a log that you write in briefly after every practice to describe your thoughts, feelings, and physical states what happened immediately before they occurred, how you responded, and how they affected your performance. Self awareness will help you to identify positive psychological states that you can create, develop and build and to recognize negative thoughts, feelings and states that may interfere with your performance, so that you can develop a plan to correct them.

The Psychology of Fighting

Keep Them Out of Your Head: The Psychology of Fighting

By Dr. Randy Borum


The "stare down" right before the fight – the last chance to play mind games before the leather starts to fly. No contact. No talking. But there is definitely an exchange. Each fighter trying to intimidate the other before the battle begins. Sometimes it turns ugly – witness Heath Herring's pre-fight knockout of Yoshihiro Nakao after Nakao tried to mess with Herring's head by kissing him on the lips.

Fighters use different tactics to get into their opponents' heads. During pre-fight interviews they may talk about gaps in the other one's game. They may talk trash, boast about the pain they will inflict or the speed with which they will win. Your opponent may kick down the door to get in your head, or you might leave the door open and invite him in.

Whether your opponent does it to you or you do it to yourself, having him in your head – in a nagging, negative – way is a problem. Think of it as an attack on your confidence and focus. Your belief in yourself and your ability keep your head in the fight are two of your most important skills. You have to keep your guards up.

When you are making a plan to defend against these mind games, remember that confidence and concentration are skills. Sure, some people are naturally better at it than others. But they are skills that you can train and improve upon. Like all fighting skills they get better with practice.


Confidence is usually defined by sport psychologists as an athlete's belief in his ability to perform a desired behavior. According to researchers, confidence improves your performance in many ways. Confidence causes you to set more challenging goals for yourself; put forth greater effort; have better focus and concentration; and become less anxious in threatening situations than people who feel less sure of the abilities.

Feeling confident reduces anxiety and "negative emotions," and it promotes positive emotions, which further boost performance. Confidence also gives a fighter a boost of psychological momentum that can keep him focused on fighting to win, not just avoiding a loss. All those benefits really stack the deck in your favor when you step into the ring or cage or onto the mat.

You can be confident without being a great fighter, but it is hard to be a great fighter without being confident. How do you build and defend confidence for a fight? The first requirement is good training and conditioning. Your confidence should be based realistically on how you have performed in the past and how you have trained to perform in the upcoming fight. Self-assurance, without skill to back it up, is just false confidence.

You are more likely to feel confident in you ability to work hard for three, five-minute rounds, if you have been regularly training at high-intensity for four or five, five-minute bursts at a time. The requirements of the fight should seem easier than what you have accomplished in training.

You can draw on your past successes. Think about the people you have beaten in the past. Think about training or sparring sessions where you completely dominated your opponent. Think about how much you have accomplished in training for this fight. Even if you are selectively focusing on your best moments, your past success will provide a very credible push to your confidence.

Visualization and positive self-talk also can be powerful confidence boosters. You can rehearse in your mind a variety of situations that you may encounter with your upcoming opponent, and visualize yourself working through each of them effectively. Mental practice is not as beneficial as actual practice, but it definitely helps. It can enhance your confidence in the fight because you will have met those challenges before in your mind.

Positive self-talk will also build confidence. You might develop a list of positive fight-related self statements based on how you see your strengths and abilities. You might have some statements that relate to your preparation like "I have trained well for this fight. I have met every training goal." You may have some that relate to specific facets of your fight game, like "I'm very comfortable on the ground. I can control my opponent from my back and dominate from the top." You may have some that relate to your self-image as a winning fighter, like. "I am an explosive, hard-hitting fighter. My hands and my takedowns are extremely powerful."

Notice the words "explosive" and "powerful." These are examples of emotional cue words – you may just have a list of these kinds of words you can rehearse in your head. They are quick and easy to use and will help ramp up your intensity and bolster your confidence.

With these strategies you are protecting your confidence by taking an offensive posture. You are not just trying to get rid of the sinking feelings of doom or the nagging thoughts as they creep in. You are no longer reacting, you are directing. You mind is not waiting for input, but you are actively engaging your mind about what thoughts to think and your body about what sensations to feel. It is much harder to worry over negative thoughts, when you are rehearsing positive ones. In fact, if you are in doubt about what do to, just act the way a confident fighter would act. Behave as a confident person would, and you may find that the positive thoughts and feelings follow more easily.


By allowing your opponent to live inside your head, besides losing confidence, the other hazard is losing focus. Concentration, like confidence is a skill you can learn. We are talking about your ability to identify and keep your attention on fight-related cues, and not to be distracted by irrelevant cues.

When fighters talk trash or intentionally behave in a disrespectful way, they often are trying to throw an opponent off his mental game. The goal is to get him thinking about things that are unrelated to his fight preparation or to arouse emotions that disrupt his arousal/intensity regulation. When you allow that to happen, you let your opponent have a degree of psychological control over you.

You know what is relevant. You know your optimal zone of arousal or intensity. By actively managing the perceptions that you control, you are not as vulnerable to having your opponent tamper with them.

Concentration is not just controlled by an on/off switch. You have to use it in different ways at different times for different functions. Sport psychologist Robert Nideffer says that concentration can be more broad or narrow in scope and more internal or external in its direction. A broad-external focus might be taking in all the sights and sounds of the arena as it is "on fire" before the fight. A narrow-external focus might be watching your opponent's hands. A broad-internal focus might be a "gut check" reflection on how you are feeling before the fight. A narrow-internal focus might be feeling the muscular tension in your shoulders and neck or hearing the voice that says: "You're going to lose."

Before and during a fight you will be constantly moving between different levels of concentration. As you wait backstage, you may be strategizing about how you plan to show a high level of aggression early in the fight (broad-internal). As you move around the ring during the fighter introductions, you may be visualizing the initial fight contact (narrow-internal).

This description may make concentration sound like a lot of work. In truth, with practice, your head will go to the right place at the right time and filter out the stuff that does not matter. You will be in the present, not thinking about what just happened or what is going to happen. This is the feeling of flow or being "in the zone." You are executing flawlessly, without consciously thinking about the steps, and without analyzing your performance. But it does take practice.

The visualization and self-talk strategies already mentioned can also be helpful here. For example, if you are hearing your opponent's trash talk, you might say to yourself: "That doesn't have anything to do with this fight. He's trying to distract me, so that must mean he's worried about pitting his skills against mine." You might also use your cue words. You might visualize yourself being calm and relaxed while you opponent throws a verbal fit or does something else in the ring or cage that is likely to distract you. You mentally rehearse staying focused.

Another drill you can use to improve distraction control during a fight is to intentionally use distracters during training. You might get a recording of a crowd – maybe cheering, maybe booing – or even get a group of other people from your school to watch and to yell. Another trick is to play irritating music or sounds very loudly during training. If you are having trouble thinking of any, National Public Radio has "The Annoying Music Show" that features some of the worst music ever recorded. After two rounds of Alvin and the Chipmunks or vomiting sounds or babies crying, a booing crowd or loudmouth fighter might not seem so bad.

We often use music to pump us up when we train. This exercise helps us perform when the environment around us is antagonizing. If you want to throw in an extra twist, you can designate a corner person to communicate with you through the distraction. Maybe see how well you can attend through the interference. You might try this first with high-intensity pad work, then work up to doing it during full-speed sparring.

When you take charge of your mind, it is tough for an opponent to get inside your head. Keep your confidence high, stay focused, and fight hard.

This article appears in Issue #2 of "Mixed Martial Arts Authority" Magazine

Keeping Your Head in the Game

Keeping Your Head in the Game

By Dr. Randy Borum


As you walk out, the music is blaring. Hundreds, maybe thousands of spectators are screaming. Colored lights are flashing and darting around the arena. Sights, sounds, sensations…..distractions. How do you keep your head in the game when there is so much going on around you?

Focus is an important part of your fight game. You need it stay on plan, to find openings, to anticipate your opponent's action, to get out of bad situations, and to hear your corner. If you get distracted in the middle of a fight, you might wake up asking the fight doctor "Who won?".

The human brain manages lots of sensory input all the time. Right now, your eyes are moving as you read the words on the page; your fingers are feeling the texture of the magazine you are holding; your body is making contact with the surface on which you are sitting; there are sights and sounds around you that are unrelated to this article. Yet you manage to read and comprehend these words. Your brain has figured out how to filter out the stuff that does not matter at this moment, and to attend to what is important.

You can learn to improve your focus, to control distractions and - as a result – probably fight better in competition. The first step is to figure out where you want to focus at different points in the match. At any given time, the direction of your focus may be more internal or external and the scope of your attention may be more narrow or broad according to Robert Nideffer, a leading U.S. sport psychologist.

When your attention is internal, you are focused on thoughts and sensations "on the inside." Broadly, you may be running through strategy in your head, or more narrowly you may be tuned into your muscle tension or heart rate or thoughts like "My grip is giving out. I'm about to lose this choke."

When your attention is external, you are focused on the sights and sounds in the environment around you. It may be broadly targeted on the noisy, busily-lit arena, or more narrowly focused on your opponent's hip movement as you look for cues to his next move.

Think about the different facets and phases of your fight performance and which dimension of attention fits best. Generally speaking, you probably should save most of your internal focus for backstage and pre-fight preparation and keep a predominantly external focus during the fight itself. Effective concentration requires energy. You will be more efficient when you plan ahead for where and how to focus.

But what about the distractions? The second step is to identify the sources and types of distraction that are most likely to give you trouble. These predictable distractors affect different fighters in different ways. Some fighters may be sidetracked by the cheers or boos from the crowd. Others may be thrown-off by an opponent's antics. But if you can tag them in advance, you can prepare for them. Your overall distraction management strategy will include techniques for changing both what you attend to and how you interpret or react to it. You may not be able to control the spectators' comments, for example, but you can learn to mostly filter them out and to keep them from affecting you emotionally. That is the next step - learning to manage the distractions. Here are a few suggestions:

Develop a Pre-Fight Routine: It almost always helps to have a plan. Planning out what you are going to do in a given period before the fight can help keep you focused. Your mind is less likely to wander or get snarled in distraction if you are following a specific routine. Plan what you are going to do backstage, in the walkout, during introductions, and as you come out for the fight itself. That may involve listening to certain music, doing relaxation exercises, pummeling, mitt work, rub-downs – whatever works for you. Have a routine, run through it in your head several times, then follow it before the fight.

Use Cue Words to Redirect Your Attention: If you get slightly off-track, using "cue words" can often get your head back in the game. A cue word is a simple one-word instruction that interrupts the distraction and signals your brain back to the present. It should be simple, direct, and consistent with your fight plan. You might use words like "focus" or "present" or "now" or "on plan" – experiment during your training sessions to see what kind of cue words work best for you in different situations.

Cue words are particularly helpful if you catch yourself in a narrow-internal attentional state. Apart from the outside sights and sounds of the fight show, your own thoughts or self-talk can sometimes be a source of distraction. Usually it is because you start thinking about something that has already happened – like a mistake you made – or something that might happen in the future – like "I'm gassing. I'm going to lose." Cue words can help redirect you to the present and get your mental game back on track.

Practice With Distractions: Once you have identified your likely sources of distraction, incorporate them systematically into your training. That's right. Embrace what bothers you most. As you do, you will "habituate" to the distraction so that you are less likely to attend to it and you can practice controlling your negative reactions when they do creep in.

If crowd noises distract you, play a loud recording of crowd noises while you train and spar. Better yet, maybe add some of your team members to gather around and yell stuff at you at the same time. If lights distract you, then train with flashing, bright, or colored lights. If you feel yourself getting annoyed by them, you can immediately redirect your focus using cue words.

Expect the Unexpected: You can and should plan for the distractions that you think will happen, but sometimes the unexpected event can send us into a spiral if we are not prepared to handle it. Maybe, when you start to bang, you discover your opponent hits harder than you thought or has a better take down than you anticipated. Maybe he unexpectedly rocks you with a strike that seemed to come out of nowhere. That kind of distraction can undermine your confidence and hurt your performance if you give it any air time in your head.

You can prepare for the unexpected, by building unpredictable distractions into your training and sparring. Some unexpected events will occur naturally, of course. Use these as opportunities. But also work with a coach or training partner to use distractions that you do not know about specifically in advance. As with the planned distractions, you can use lights and sounds and reactions from other people. You also can use physical distractions. For example, while you are sparring, have an extra training partner who may be throwing light strikes from the back or side. When you are on the ground, a third training buddy may poke at you with a 16 oz. glove on a pole or a pugil stick. Your task is to maintain your composure, to continue to breathe, and to redirect your focus.

You can train your mind to filter out a lot of unnecessary input, and you can discipline yourself to stay focused in the present. Practice these skills, and do what works for you to keep your head in the fight.

This article appears in MMA Sports Magazine (Issue #5)

Fight News Unlimited Interview with Dr. Randy Borum

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.

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In Defense of MMA

Some of you have read Professor Gordon Marino's article and other editorials on MMA published recently in the Wall Street Journal.

I sent the following response to the WSJ. They chose not to publish it, but I post it here for you perusal and comment:

In his article: "In the Fray: If Birds Were Doing It, It Would Be Banned," Professor Gordon Marino proffers a seemingly ethical indictment against the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). While citing research suggesting that the risk of severe head trauma in considerably less in MMA bouts than in the widely accepted sport of boxing, Marino argues that "injury risk may not be the best indicator of the level of violence in a sport." He concludes by asserting that "Instead of asking if mixed martial arts is a sport, it might be more useful to ponder whether it is a sport that ennobles or imbrutes participants and fans."

As I understand his argument, it is the "violence" within the sport - by whatever definition he finds acceptable- to which he objects. Whether or not injury risk is the best measure of violence in a contact sport, it certainly is a relevant one to consider from a public health perspective. The study on injury to which he refers found that the overall injury rate in MMA bouts is comparable to that found in other contact sports (not just fighting sports) and that knockouts occur only about half as often in MMA as they do in boxing.

Brain injury is arguably the most serious type of contact sport injury. Yet some studies have found that NFL body hits have a greater force impact on the brain than do punches from professional boxers, let alone MMA athletes. The one-pound gloves used by boxers protect the puncher, not the one being punched. In fact, the heavier gloves (as opposed to the usual 4 oz. MMA gloves) allow the punch to carry even greater force, potentially causing greater trauma to the brain. That fact, combined with differing rule structures between pro boxing and MMA, may make MMA a safer sport in many ways, at least with regard to brain trauma.

While numerous boxing-related deaths have occurred over the years, there are no known deaths arising from MMA-related injury. Death, of course, may not be the best indicator of the level of violence in a sport. I do not know that we can all agree on a specific definition of violence, but I suspect that many would acknowledge some distinction between antisocial and prosocial forms of aggression. Contact sports have generally been regarded as manifestations of prosocial – or at least not antisocial – aggression.

MMA is now well-regulated in the U.S. The athlete-participants are not the barroom brawlers of the early "Toughman" competition. There are rules and weight classes and athletic commission safety regulations. No promotions to my knowledge permit – as Marino's note implies - strikes to the throat and head kicks when a fighter is on the mat. If Professor Marino or others want to argue against all sport contact on a public health or humanitarian basis, I may disagree, but I would at least see the integrity of that position. I do not, however, know of any evidence to suggest that MMA "imbrutes" participants or fans any more than boxing or even sports where contact is central or common, such as football, hockey, or basketball or of evidence that any of these sports necessarily have an ennobling effect.

Dr. Randy Borum is a Professor and violence researcher at the University of South Florida.

Assessing Your Mental Game

The Winning Edge (FightZone - April/2007)

Assessing Your Mental Game

By Dr. Randy Borum


How is your mental game? The world's greatest athletes are constantly assessing themselves and examining every facet of their game, looking for ways to improve. This is a big part of what keeps them at the top of their sport.

Each day offers a new opportunity for you to grow as a fighter and to advance your skills – not just your cardio, strength and physical skills, but your mental skills as well. In the previous issue of FightZone, we identified six key mental/psychological skills that are necessary for effective fight performance. Let's take another look at this skill set. Ask yourself a couple of questions about each one to determine which are your strengths and which (if any) are areas in which you need to improve.

Arousal Management:

Before a fight, do you often get jitters that interfere with your performance?
In competition, do you "gas" early, even though your cardio is good?
Do you ever feel sluggish before training or like you are "not into it" on fight day?
When you get tense, anxious or nervous before or during a fight can you quickly and easily calm yourself down?

Confidence Building:

Do you question whether you should be fighting or competing at the level you are now?
Do you sometimes feel like you have lost a fight before you even step into the ring/cage or onto the mat?
Do you quickly lose confidence in yourself as soon as something bad happens to you in a fight?
Is it very difficult for you to "bounce back" from a loss?

Positive Self-Talk:

Do you plan your self-talk or just listen to whatever your mind says at any given moment?
Do you frequently have arguments in your head to get yourself motivated on "on track"?
Are you frequently bothered by intrusive negative thoughts about your performance (e.g., that you are not doing things right, that you are doing badly, or that you will lose)


Are you easily distracted by sights and sounds around you or by the crowd's responses during a fight?
Does your opponent score on you at times when you happen to be inside your own head?
Can you consistently hear your corner and filter out other sounds and voices?
Do you sometimes have trouble keeping your head in the game during training, sparring, or competition?


Do you regularly practice or rehearse physical skills inside your head?
Does all your visualization involve you successfully performing the task?
When you are visualizing or imagining, can you develop clear pictures in your mind and easily shift between watching "from the outside" and "from the inside"?
When you are visualizing from the inside, do you fully attend to thoughts and feelings as well as what you "see"?

Goal Setting:

Do you know how to set measurable goals?
Do you set, measure, and record (write down) achievable goals for every training session and for every pre-fight preparation?
Do you use both performance goals and outcome goals?
Do you incorporate mental/psychological skill goals into your written training plan?

This is not a quiz from a fashion magazine, so you won't just add up the number of "yes" answers to get a score and determine that your Fighter Type is "Zucchini." Seriously, think about your answers and where you can make the biggest difference in your fight game. Maybe even talk it out with your instructor or coach. Mental and psychological skills tend to have the greatest performance impact at elite levels of competition (where opponents' skills tend to be more evenly matched), but any fighter can build on these skills to notch his or her game up to the next level.

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MMA Sport Psychology Research Study

MMA Sport Psychology Research Study

For those who have not yet have the privilege of meeting them, I'd like to introduce two sport psychology colleagues – Drs. Ted Butryn and Matt Masucci. They are professors at San Jose State University and are currently working on one of the first ever MMA sport psychology research studies. These guys are the "real deal" and are really trying to support the sport and help fighters learn to amp up their mental game. We need more sport psychology research focusing on MMA. Ted and Matt are helping to pioneer this effort. Please consider giving them a few minutes of your time. I have included below some information on their study and how you can help. If you are not a fighter, but want to support the study, perhaps you could let someone else know or repost this message. Thanks for your support - Randy

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Mixed Martial Artists,

My colleague and I are professors in the Department of Kinesiology at San Jose State University, and we are conducting an ongoing sport psychology study on pro MMA fighters. We are interested in the stressors faced by MMA athletes, and how they cope with stress in their matches, as well as during training. We are obviously in a "hotbed" of MMA camps here in San Jose, but we are trying to include fighters from across the US and Canada in the study. The research consists of a basic interview protocol modeled after many studies on coping in various sports. All interviews are anonymous, and last approximately 20-30+ minutes. Interviews can be done in person (if local) or by phone. The criteria for this phase of the study are: 1) Male or Female at least 18 years of age, and 2) At least one professional MMA fight on your record.

The preliminary results of the first several fighter interviews were presented at the largest Sport Psychology conference in North America last September, and we hope the final published results will be of use to academics, coaches, and fighters. This is one of the first "mental performance" studies of its kind on MMA, so we are excited about interviewing a variety of fighters, and then giving results back to coaches and fighters.

We are available anytime to do the interviews. If you are interested in being part of this study on coping and MMA, you can send us a message through MySpace HERE or contact either of us at the email or number below:

Dr. Ted Butryn
Associate Professor of Sport Psychology & Sociology
San José State University
Phone: (408) 924-3068

Dr. Matt Masucci
Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Sport Studies
San José State University
Phone: (408) 924-3068

Thanks for the help, and we look forward to hearing from you!

Ted Butryn, PhD
Associate Professor of Sport Psychology & Sociology

Matt Masucci, PhD
Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies

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?


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

Foundations for Effective Training

Back to Basics


You have a big fight coming up in about eight weeks.

Do you have a ready answer to the following questions?:

  • What phase of your resistance training are you currently in and when will you transition?
  • What specifically will you eat tomorrow, and when?
  • What are your specific goals for your next training workout?
  • What is in your training log and when is the last time you and your coach reviewed that log together?
  • What are the specific strengths and weaknesses in your mental game and how have you addressed these in your training plan?
  • How will you measure and know when you are ready?

Answers to these questions reflect just some of the basic elements of a systematic approach to training and preparation. But how many times have you talked to a fighter who takes it one day at a time, with little advance planning, has only general goals for a training session or phase, and keeps no training log? He or she may train really, really hard, but have no detailed roadmap to guide the journey. Might this be a factor separating the good fight camps and fighters from the truly great ones?

Thomas Alva Edison said: "There is no substitute for hard work." That's true. But it's also true that hard work – applied unsystematically – will not benefit you as much as hard work that fits into an overall plan. It is remarkable that some pro MMA fighters – among the hardest working elite athletes in any sport today – have only one training speed: "balls to the wall" and one identifiable goal: "to win the next fight." All the blame, however, doesn't sit with the fighters.

As the competitive climate of professional MMA has exploded, many fighters, trainers and coaches have been scrambling to find cutting edge training methods and racing to keep up with their opponents. If we take a cue from other sports, we might suspect that pushing combat sport performance "to the next level" will require an ongoing, programmatic collaboration among athletes, trainers and sport scientists. But while that grand evolution unfolds, there are a number of practical steps that you can take – today- to transform your training and your fight game. I cannot promise a quick fix based on some ancient metaphysical law, but I would be very surprised if you followed a plan and did not see evidence of significant progress within a couple of months.

After you have assessed your motivation (See article on "A Question of Motivation"), setting goals for yourself is a good first step toward smarter training. Smarter training, in this case, means better planning guided by a systematic strategy. A training plan should point you toward your goals, give you directions on how to get there and help you identify some markers along the way.

Performance psychologists – through research- have identified a few key characteristics of goals that really work:

1. Be Specific: One of the main functions of any goal is to help focus and direct the athlete's attention and effort. As a result, vague goals like "be ready or "be the best fighter I can be" often don't work so well. They may give you a temporary boost of motivation, but they don't really direct your attention or effort. But think about a specific goal like this: "During this sparring session, I will counterstrike after every block or defensive maneuver I execute." This specifies the behavior, its frequency and the time frame. It is much easier to for your brain to direct attention and effort toward a goal when you give it a clear description of what you really want. Write it so that someone else could watch you on screen and unambiguously determine whether or not you did it. Specific goals typically work better than generalized or vague goals.

2. Be Positive: Define your goal by what you want to achieve, not by what you want to avoid. Having the goal: "I will not feel nervous before the fight" probably will not work as well as: "I will feel calm and in control of my thoughts while I am backstage before my fight." Choose wording that works for you, but the basic idea here is that telling yourself what not to do almost never works. Your brain is not wired that way. Remember goals work for you, in part, because they focus and direct your attention

3. Own It: People work harder to achieve goals that are important to them. Competitors should either generate or participate in their goal-setting, not just have them dictated by a coach or trainer. Research shows that athletes exert more effort and are more likely succeed in reaching goals that they have set or "bought into", than in meeting goals that are imposed upon them.

4. Make It Challenging, but Attainable: Research shows that meeting goals can significantly enhance an athlete's motivation and confidence. The benefits are greatest when the goals are tough to achieve, but realistic. If your goals are unattainable (think "perfection"), you will be less committed to them and set yourself up for failure. Be aware of your limits, but push yourself in increments. For example, Numerous studies have shown that people who set more challenging goals for themselves improve more and accomplish more than those who set easy goals or no goals at all. Meeting these challenging goals can help you feel more confident in your skills and abilities and give you concrete, measurable evidence of your preparation and progress.

5. Target What You Control: Goal-setting works best when you focus on your performance (which you control) rather than outcomes (which you do not fully control). Lots of factors play into whether you will win a given fight or what your overall record will be. You control what you do, but you can't control other external things like the ref's calls, last-minute fight card changes, or your opponent's strength. Your greatest opportunity to influence the outcome you want (for example, a win or a knockout) will come from focusing on your own performance. For example, if you have a goal like: "I will keep this fight standing up for all three sparring rounds", you are focusing on an outcome. Outcome are affected by your performance and by external factors. A more performance-focused goal might be stated as follows: "I will focus on stand-up attacks and execute good defense to my opponent's takedown attempts."

6. Track, Measure, and Get Feedback: This may seem obvious, but it is very often forgotten. After setting a goal, you should get feedback about whether or not you met it. You should have some way to measure your results, and a timeframe in which you will assess whether you met your target goals. Research on behavior change shows consistently that "feedback" is a key factor for modifying and improving performance. It is often helpful to enlist others' help in monitoring and measuring your goal attainment. Having an outside observer (like a coach, trainer, or training partner) adds a degree of objectivity and also frees you just to focus on your performance. Your watcher or monitor, however, must know the specificity details what to look for, how you want it counted or measured.

Knowing how to set goals effectively is an important step in becoming more systematic in your training. Systematic training is about developing a plan; then methodically following it toward your short and long-term goals. Your goals should be developed methodically, using some of the principles described here. But those goals also should be prioritized (probably in collaboration with your coach or trainer) and laid out within overall training plan.

Concussions in Combat Sports

Concussions in Combat Sports

Combat sport athletes are, of course, at risk for concussive head injuries, but what do we know about concussions in sport? I designed this quick quiz to share some general information. This is not intended to put down any of the sports, but just to share some of the current thinking in the field:

Click Here to take survey

Randy Borum

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Goal Setting - Black Belt Magazine Feb '08

Goal Setting


By Dr. Randy Borum

Goals provide a road map for personal excellence. In fact, goal-setting is one of the most valuable performance-enhancing skill sets you can acquire as a martial artist or competitor in any activity where your objective is to excel.
Goal setting creates a path to personal improvement. Every day – or every class– you should have a plan for what you are going to do to bring yourself closer to your goal.

Goals serve to vital functions that help you get the most from your training: they give you focus and they give purpose. Research into how and why goal-setters achieve more and perform better than non-goal setters shows that one of the main mechanisms is that goals help the athlete know where to focus her or his attention.

Your goals also give purpose to your training. Many times when martial artists and fighters train, they will almost mindlessly go through a kata or series of drills. They do not actively think – during every instance – about the reason for those drills and how performing them well will bring them closer to their goals. You should aim to have a purpose-driven training mindset oriented toward continuous improvement. Aspire to improve in small ways every day, and use your goals to motivate you.

This is sometimes referred to as the “Kaizen Principle.” Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning improvement – but it connotes a particular method of progress that occurs gradually over in time, often as a result of small, incremental changes. That can be a useful guiding philosophy for your training. Use your goals to (1) prompt you to think about a particular goal or focus for a given training session, and (2) reflect on what you learned and how to use it in future sessions.

Goals are not the same as wishes or dreams. They only work if you have plan to reach them and commit yourself fully to the task. Effective goal-setting is a skill. You should write out your goals, not just park them in your head. Write them down, then read and review them every day. Here are few tips for creating goals that really work:

1. Be Specific: Specific goals are better than vague or general goals. A vague goal might be something like: “I will have a good training session.” A specific goal might be something like: “I will do circuit training for 30 minutes with my heart rate at XXX BPM.” Write it so that someone else could watch you on screen and clearly determine whether or not you did it.

2. Be Positive: Your goal should state what you WILL do, not what you WON’T do. Telling yourself what not to do almost never works. Your brain is not wired that way. So, instead of writing your goal this way: “I will not (insert common mistake here)”, you could say “I will focus on executing proper technique when doing (insert technique you need to work on here).”

3. Make It Challenging, but Attainable: Accomplishing your goals feels great! It boosts your motivation and accelerates your confidence. So you want to set yourself up to succeed, but you want the goal to be challenging enough that you feel like you really worked for it. Lots of research shows that people who set more challenging goals for themselves improve more and accomplish more than those who set easy goals or no goals at all.

4. Emphasize Performance Over Outcome: Goals works best when they focus on your performance (which you control) rather than outcomes (which you do not fully control). A performance-focused training goal might be stated as follows: "I will focus on stand-up attacks and execute good defense to my opponent's takedown attempts."

5. Track, Measure, and Get Feedback: This may seem obvious, but it is very often forgotten. After setting a goal, you should get feedback about whether or not you met it. You should have some way to measure your results, and a timeframe in which you will assess whether you met your target goals. Research on behavior change shows consistently that "feedback" is a key factor for modifying and improving performance.

Here is how you can translate your written list of goals into a plan of action.

First, prioritize your goals. If you are a competitor, you may want to do this collaboratively with your coach. Determine what you will tackle first.

Second, commit to your goal. Determine what you need to do to make it happen, decide you will do it, then share your goal commitment with someone else who can help keep you accountable.

Third, read your goals every day and have a plan to do something – every day - to bring them closer.

Fourth, keep a record. Don’t just write down your goals, but also record your progress and what you learned and accomplished that day, and how you might apply it in the future. Don’t forget to acknowledge your success and reward yourself for accomplishing your goals.