There’s an old saying that goes, “The same pressure that bursts pipes, creates diamonds”. Believe it or not, this simple little saying almost perfectly outlines the biggest issue that plagues most athletes when it comes to competing in the combat sports; managing the feelings of pressure and anxiety that we feel on tournament or fight day. Now, before I go on, I want to point out that I used the word managing instead of eliminating and the reason that I did that was because feeling a certain amount of pressure or anxiety before competing is 100% normal. I would even argue that in a small way, those feelings are the reason that we compete. I mean, think about it, If I were to tell you before every match or fight if you were going to win or lose would you still do? No. probably not, its that uncertainty those butterflies that keep you coming back; it’s when those butterflies start to become pterodactyls and severely start to impact our performance that we have our biggest issues. So, let’s look at some strategies we can use to get those butterflies lining up in the proper formation and competing at our best
Embrace the Pressure
If you know that you are the type of person that is going to feel pressure, embrace it but rather than looking at pressure as a threat or something will derail your goals or dreams, view it as just another challenge that will need to (and can be) overcome. This is an important distinction because when we feel threatened, when something feels like it is “do or die”, our bodies start to respond a certain way. Our adrenaline levels go up, our heart rate increases, we start to overthink and operate based on the fear of failure and thoughts of “what if this goes wrong?” instead of “I know that what I’m doing is right” let’s look at some other ways we can embrace pressure.
If you want to come up “big” in big moments, you have to prepare “big” for “Big” moments. What does this mean? Don’t take rounds off, get on a good strength and conditioning program, lock down your diet, drill your game plan, have simulated matches in practice, travel to other academies, dojos/gyms train with new and different partners who aren’t familiar with your style of rolling. Does all this sound like a lot? Yes. Is it difficult. YES!! THAT’S THE POINT! Its like I wrote in my last blog entry all this stuff isn’t always the most “fun” but its absolutely the most necessary, uncommon goals require, uncommon effort.. wanna know how I know? I had to do all this over 10 years to win ONE Match. Worth it? You bet your ass.
Control What you can Control
See all that stuff I wrote above under prepare? That’s all stuff that is totally and completely under your control, winning isn’t. so, don’t focus on it. If I have to climb to the top of a mountain to shout this, I will but that does not mean that winning is not important. Winning is very very important to me as a coach but since we cant control it, it shouldn’t be our total focus. All the things I listed above should be. After all, if we could control winning, who would ever choose to lose? Certainly not me. Losing is tough, theres no doubt about it, it’s a terrible, awful feeling, but if you can legitimately look in the mirror and say “I did everything with in my power to win and just came up short” then that’s all you can do is re-evaluate strategy and get ready for the next opportunity. The problem is a lot of people cant say that honestly.
Controlling the controllables has more to do with just preparation though. Many times, we put pressure on ourselves or we feel external pressure from parents or friends because we don’t want to let them down. I understand completely. I used to feel terrible after every loss, after every tournament, I felt like the weakest link on the team, (there are times these feelings still pop up). I used to hate walking in the house after a tournament and telling my parents, I lost. When I used to go past people sitting in the stands a tournament I would hear stuff like “God bless em, he tries but this is too much for him” and I wanted nothing more than to make them eat those words. It was great motivation but it also put a ton of external pressure on me, took up space in my head my focus away from the things I could control
One of the main things that can help you remove some of that external pressure is to realize that people are going to say what they say regardless if you win or lose, you can’t control that. If the only reason that your friends are you friends is because of how well you perform in a sport, are they truly your friends? I don’t think so
Unfortunately, as insensitive as this sounds, the same can be said for your parents or your significant other or anyone who carries importance in your life there is a difference in someone being disappointed FOR you and disappointed IN you. if someone says their disappointed for you, they empathize with your loss and want the best for you, but if you compete and want to win because dont want someone to be disappointed IN you, you probably have to look at the quality of that relationship or just let me them feel disappointed, if winning is the only thing that will erase that feeling.. you cant control it.. let them feel disappointed and just do you
Many times, we can put pressure on ourselves because of the type of tournament or event we are scheduled to compete in. We see the initials IBJJF or the words “world championship” or “title fight” and the first thing that comes into our heads is “oh shit, I need to step up my game” well in the words of the late, great sport psychologist Ken Ravizza , “the step up should happen every day” meaning we should look to make consistent improvements every single time we train not just when there is a tournament or a fight.
If you notice above, I used quotation marks around big when talking about “big” situations because what if we put the same amount of effort into every training opportunity we had? What if instead of making this IBJJF tournament a big deal. It was simply” Mats on a floor” like every other tournament you have ever competed in, if that title fight you have, was just like every other fight you have ever been in up until that last 5-10 secs at the end when somebody is going to hand you a belt, a trophy, a medal whatever because guess what? IT IS!
We tend to make events bigger than what they are and force pressure on ourselves to perform better in some events more than others. the more we can keep things in perspective and try to break it down into the simplest terms, the less pressure we will feel.
Make it routine
Another big source of pressure is simply “the unknown” what will I do to warm up? What is my first takedown attempt going to be? should I be relaxing and take a nap? Do I need to get pumped up? A lot of this stuff is going to be trial and error when you first start competing, it might take a little bit to find your “sweet spot”, but once you do, you need to train it. I know that sounds funny, but you need to drill things like how your going to walk from the bullpen or onto the mat. If you’re going to fight MMA, play your music and drill how you’re going to walk into the cage.
When you have your game plan, not only train it, visualize it. And say it. Say things out loud, “if he pulls guard, I’m going to get one knee close to the center line, bring my other leg up, and start my cut pass” this will hit on three planes; physical (touch) visual (sight) and auditory (hearing). The goal is to make you feel like you have done all of this before. The more your body gets the sense that its been done before, the more you will be able to relax.
Breathing is not only one of those things that is in your complete control, it helps to slow down your heart rate and stay calm. In a competition, your breathing is likely to become short and labored, this will force your anxiety levels up. Shifting your focus to your breathing will not only help you to calm down, more importantly, it will help to lock you into the present moment and block out any distractions like crowd noise, the refs blown call, anything that will keep you away from the task at hand.
Act like you’ve been there before
One of my mentors in the peak performance psychology realm, Brian Cain, has a saying “it’s easier to act your way into feeling than feel your way into acting” Very simply; if you want to feel confident and relaxed, you need to act confidently and relaxed. Look at some of the best competitors and people you admire in the combat sports, how do they carry themselves? Is their head usually down, shoulders slumped? Or are their heads usually up, looking people in the eye, shoulders back? It’s probably the last one, right?
So, if you really feel nervous or pressure force your body into a confident body language. Research has shown that by adopting confident or “high power” body language for as little as two minutes can increase your testosterone levels by 20% and decrease your cortisol ( chemical that controls fight or flight response and causes us to be stress reactive) levels by 25%. By the same token, people who had negative or low power body language saw their testosterone levels decrease by 10% and cortisol decreases by 15%.
One of the best examples of acting differently than you feel in the combat sports is Georges St. Pierre, an absolute legend in MMA, who looks like he is an absolute killer every single time he steps foot into the cage but in a 2013 interview he had this to say about his pre-fight feelings, “ 'I’m the kind of guy that I'm not afraid to admit that I'm afraid when I go fight... Even though I'm scared and I'm afraid to fail, when I walk to the Octagon, I look like I'm, it's impossible for me to fail and I look very confident, like I'm going to kick ass for sure. But the truth is, deep down inside, I'm scared as hell”.
This is a guy who trains like a maniac, has main evented PPVs, fought legends, won titles in 2 different weight classes and he’s Scared every single time he steps in the cage but just a simple switch in his body language allows him to ignore his real feelings and compete at his best.
Competing in the combat sports is one of the most unique and beautiful things there is in life, you’re out there on a mat, or in a cage, or a ring and its just you and an opponent, testing your mettle against one another in front of a crowd, it can be thrilling, addictive, and a complete adrenaline rush but on the flip side, it can also be nerve racking, fear inducing, and down right terrifying if you let it. Hopefully you can use some of the techniques that are listed above to reduce your anxiety, relax, have more fun, and push you continuously towards your goals.