Coaches often talk about how competition is 90% mental and 10% physical. Yet many focus completely on the physical side before fights or competitions. This could be because fighters believe that they don’t need to prepare mentally, don’t know how to prepare mentally, or sometimes let egos get in the way and and think that to prepare mentally makes them weak. Yet, most high level athletes have enlisted the help of sports psychologist to assist with mental hurdles, including UFC Champion Georges St. Pierre.
A question I routinely get asked by people going into fights or competitions is “How do i get rid of the nervousness or anxiety before a fight?” The answer is not that easy and there is no silver bullet to get rid of the anxiety the night before. Just as you have a training camp and schedule weeks before the fight, you should also start mental preparation this far out. If you took a fight within 24 hours notice, how well do you think you would do? Likely, not very well. You shouldn’t be trying to prepare mentally the day before you go into a fight.
Anxiety can be a good thing if we learn how to harness it and make it works for us. In sports psychology, there is what is called a performance curve.
This is a place where, with the right level of arousal, we perform at our best. Too little arousal and we are not motivated to perform well. Too much arousal and we get over excited don’t perform well.
This is usually due to our mind not being clear, along with adrenaline dump that occurs pre-fight. Then when its fight time, we find ourselves already fatigued. However we can find that happy medium so we perform at the top of our game.
Do Fighters Really Get Nervous Before They Compete?
One thing to understand is that the brain and the body are not two separate entities. They are one big system working together and we need to treat them as such. Every emotion has a physiological sensation. As well, physiological sensations can lead to triggering emotions. This is referred to as the “mind-body connection.’ Physical sensations from the body trigger the brain and in turn the brain responds to these physical sensations.
Let’s take pre-fight anxiety for example. As the body starts getting nervous before the fight, physical symptoms set in: heart rate goes up,respiration goes up, blood pressure goes up, arms and legs get shaky. These messages from my body then go to the brain, which makes the fighter think that he is anxious. The cycle continues leading to pre-fight jitters or anxiety. Which may affect our ability to perform at our best. This is bad news.
The good news is, as we learn to calm this system we can get control of our mind as well as our bodies.If I start to slow my breathing, my respiration slows down, my blood pressure comes down, the butterflies calm down and my hands and legs don’t shake as much. This then sends the message to my brain that I’m no longer anxious. In turn, my brain sends these messages out to my body. This helps us perform at our best.
How do we prepare mentally for a fight?
The thing to remember here is that no one plan is perfect for everyone. You need to find what works best for you. Just like when working out, this will take some trial and error. However, for starters, i will talk about two basic exercises to get you started. The first one being diaphragmatic breathing and the other being visualization. Both are very important in achieving optimal mental training.
How to Use Diaphragmatic Breathing to Relax Before Training:
- Sit or stand with your back straight. Loosen your shoulders, arms, torso and legs. Allow your weight to settle about 2 inches below your belly button. Allow your entire body to be still yet full of energy,relaxed but not limp.
- Focus your awareness on the area at the center of your body, a few inches below your naval.
- Begin with an out breath through the mouth, allowing all air to naturally empty. Then gently lean forwards a few degrees to expel remaining air. Return to erect posture.
- Breath in through your nose slowly and allow it to travel up the nose to the top of the head, then down the spine and into the center of your body. While breathing in imagine that there is a balloon in your belly and you are slowly trying to fill it up. This allows you to strengthen and learn to breath from your diaphragm.
- Continue with an out breath through the mouth, following a reverse path: visualize gathering waste,negativity and waste from each cell, collecting it in the center of your body and allowing it to flow up the spine, to the top of the head and then out the mouth. Lean forward very gently at the end of each out breath. Breathing out should be calm and controlled not forced.
- Allow your breathing to naturally slow down as the cycle progresses.
- This exercise will help you learn to control your breathing, and to calm your body. This can be used during and before the fight.
Check out a video for a bit more info.
Research shows that individuals that engage in a mental practice of a task, not only learn it faster but learn it more proficiently than people that just practice the physical task alone.
- Sit down and imagine times that you did well or felt comfortable in your training or previous competition. Take about five minutes and put together a mental highlight reel of yourself. Include fights you won,days you performed good in practice, times you performed techniques correct and when you felt really good sparring.
- Next come up with what it would look like to have the perfect fight. How you would be calm and relaxed before the fight, how it would feel and look to be calm, relaxed and confident during the fight. What would it look like to finish the fight and win.
- Take about 10 minutes every day and use this visualization practice to help develop the brain for calmness and proper technique. The brain, much like a muscle gets stronger with use.
The mind-body connection can make or break a fight for some of us. It is always a good idea to consult a professional when dealing with fight or competition anxiety.
The author John Lothes is a Instructor of Psychology ant UNCW. He also conducts research on aikido training and the development of mindfulness. John also researches performance anxiety and treatment/reduction of performance anxiety. He also works as a psychologist for a private practice.