– March 5, 2016
Where were you when James “Buster” Douglas dropped Mike Tyson? How about when Appalachian State somehow kicked the Michigan Wolverines to the curb on their home turf? Of course, the MMA equivalent of the aforementioned was UFC 69, a night when Matt Serra, a good fighter in his own right, seemed outsized and overmatched against Georges St. Pierre coming in. But a rocket right hand followed by a flurry of punches from Serra later reminded the world that favorites, even heavy ones, don’t always win.
So how does this all happen? What allows one person or team to come through against a physically better opponent on a given day?
“The best fighter never wins, it’s always the guy who fights the best,” says applied sports psychologist Brian Cain, noting that one of his clients, Georges St. Pierre, verbalized the same thing coming into his match up against Thiago Alves at UFC 100. And according to Cain, the greatest factor in who fights the best may not reside in one’s brawn, but rather their mind, especially come game day. Rich Franklin, a former UFC middleweight champion and client of Cain’s agrees, noting that “training for a fight is about 90% physical and 10% mental, yet when you enter the octagon it becomes about 90% mental and 10% physical because all of the physical preparation is done.”
“There are so many things that can distract you,” Cain reinforces. And the knowledge of that plus the desire to fight as well as they’ve trained when that big day comes is why competitors like Franklin, St.
Pierre, Jorge Gurgel, and more have sought a mental edge with Cain.
“The mind controls the body,” Cain reminds. “If these guys are in control of themselves mentally, now they can go out there and perform carefree, to the best of their ability.”
But What Do Professionals Do To Help MMA Fighters Gain Mental Toughness?
Almost everyone involved in MMA believes that the stronger a fighter is mentally, the better off they are. Which leads to the next question: What is it that professionals do to help a fighter’s mental game? Stephen Ladd, a Renegade Mental Coach that advertises a somewhat off the beaten path approach to improving mental toughness in athletes with his Renegade Mindset for Fighters system, starts by getting rid of the negativity that holds athletes back via some traditional sports psychology, hypnosis, energy medicine, and meditation.
“Their (fighters) conscious and subconscious minds aren’t in complete agreement,” Ladd notes. “The fighter wants to be the best more than anything in the world, but at the subconscious level, he is filled with doubt or fear, or any number of negative emotions. This sets up a self-sabotage scenario. By getting the subconscious and conscious minds on same team – your team, the whole fight game becomes a lot easier.”
Cain also works to get rid of the negativity that fighters sometimes carry with them, even having Georges St. Pierre throw a brick in the water with Matt Serra’s name on it before his successful rematch in order to signify that he had gotten rid of that past event.
In fact, that’s a big piece of the whole puzzle. In order to lose the negative thoughts that impede performance, one must get rid of everything but the now.
“The past is history, the past does not dictate the future, the future is a mystery, once you start thinking about what’s going to happen in the future that’s when you’re going to get caught,” Cain says. Great athletes are “not focused on what ifs, they’re focused on what is.”
Ladd uses the term “eliminating the interference” to describe one of the things that he and his coaching partner (Bill Gladwell) do as mental game coaches. Even though they may go about handling the mental game “with different weapons,” they still generally target the same things that traditional sports psychologists do. “We teach fighters how to eliminate their negative beliefs (the interference) and “get out of their own way”,” Ladd says.
What is very clear is that mental toughness and confidence are linked together, and the oldie but goodie approach of preparation and hard work still seems to hold true. “Where most confidence comes from is being totally prepared,” Cain says. “Most people don’t know how to prepare mentally, and that’s what I help them do. I help them develop confidence, I help them to develop positive self talk, help them to focus on the things they can control, not the things that they can’t control.”
So When Should a Fighter Seek Out That Mental Edge?
Both Cain and Ladd sees themselves as similar to a jiu jitsu or strength and conditioning coach, and just as necessary. Along with this, Cain believes that MMA athletes should seek help in developing their mental toughness “today,” noting that there are “two types of fighters out there. There’s the fighters that say, well, I don’t need sports psychology. I’m not (bleeped) up in the head; I’m not screwed up in the head; I don’t need sports psychology. Then there’s the athletes like Rich Franklin and Georges St. Pierre who say wow, here’s an opportunity for me to maximize my mental game.”
Ladd believes that “any fighter that is training hard and able to perform well in the gym, but fails to live up to his true potential in the octagon,” should seek him out. “The missing element,” he notes, “is often the mental game.”
So there you have it. In the end, more MMA fighters are seeking out help to develop their mental toughness every single day. So don’t be surprised if some of the more noteworthy training camps start bringing in programs and people designed to help their fighters with just that. After all, what fighter doesn’t want to perform just as good in the real fight as they do in training? And that’s exactly what people like Cain and Ladd do; they attempt to bring these two things together.