Fighting Fit: The Mental Game of MMA

Building endurance-based fitness is a very precise and scientific process, typically associated with building lean efficient muscle fibre and effective cardiovascular fitness – mechanically designed to not only withstand long periods of output but to sustain it at the consistently high levels required.

However, a sport you may not immediately associate as endurance-based is the hugely popular MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). MMA has become one of the fastest growing martial arts disciplines globally – in no small part due to the massive publicity and production machine that is the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), where competitors from varied martial arts backgrounds compete for 2 – 3, 5 minute rounds.

I worked with a Mixed Martial Artist prior to his entry into the UFC in 2008 and became engrossed in the grueling physical preparation, training these athletes endure and the psychology of the sport.

Something that became immediately obvious to me was their outstanding level of fitness. These athletes work exceptionally hard on both their technical fitness on each of the martial art modalities, and also their overall general fitness, consistently training at an output way beyond the 10-15 minutes they spend in the octagon (the cage) on fight night.

However, the thing that was not immediately obvious, when I watched in competing in their fight environment: their sustainable fitness was often (on the surface at least) questionable. So I started looking at what was the contributing factors to their apparent fitness depletion.

I believe it’s their pre-fight levels of anxiety. Their emotions are not only unpredictable but not as controlled as they like to think (irrespective of what they may outwardly say) – they demonstrated dichotomic swings between being outwardly aggressive to inwardly reflective and nervous pre-fight behaviour. And this rollercoaster can begin days before the fight.

We know from a psychological and neurological perspective that those deep emotional peaks and troughs are just as physically, mentally and emotionally fatiguing than pure, physical exercise alone. So it appears these peak performance athletes were essentially knobbling their own results by not controlling these emotional highs and lows before and during the fight. They were effectively wearing themselves out before stepping foot inside the octagon.

Armed with this observation we implemented a pre-fight strategy that carefully crafted a specific and replicable order and sequence into the preparation. This mental preparation is initiated during the training phase and steps up its intensity days prior to the fight.

This process involves specific stage and point to point visualisation, observational mechanics (mental triage™), specific breathing techniques, hypnosis and an ‘internal time’ process. Using these key skills lowered anxiety levels, gave clarity and perspective to thoughts, pragmatic NPR (neurological points of reference) and allowed instant focus and the ability to be smarter with both physical and psychological expenditure.

Using these techniques has had a massive positive impact on performance results, especially in lowering fatigue-based injuries.

What do you do to impact your performance?

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