The Mental Game
First a story…
After winning several archery contests, the young and rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. The young man demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split that arrow with his second shot. “There,” he said to the old man, “see if you can match that!” Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the young archer to follow him up the mountain. Curious about the old fellow’s intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy and shaky log. Calmly stepping out onto the middle of the unsteady and certainly perilous bridge, the old master picked a faraway tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground. Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless and beckoning abyss, the young man could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at a target. “You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.”
I’ve told that story many times over the years and I’m more convinced of its truth now ever. I’ve been blessed enough to meet many, many high level athletes in MMA and I’ve found that the thing that separates them often times isn’t their technical skill but their mental preparation.
Many very skilled people, when put under pressure, fall apart when it comes time to perform, while many unskilled people seem to increase their abilities when that same pressure is applied. What happens? Why is that bad? How can we correct that behavior? Let’s take a look…
There are many reasons for why a person has performance anxiety (yes, yes – get the jokes out of your system now guys…) but what we can look at objectively is what happens neuro-chemically in the brain.
Anxiety activates the autonomic nervous system, located in the limbic system (you know, the Reptile part of your brain that you learned about in the 8th grade) – the flight or fight response – which can express itself through a number of different physiological (and generally unpleasant) bodily symptoms including panic attacks, fast pulse, palpitations, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, chest pain/tightness, sweating, headaches, irritability, uncontrollable muscle tension/twitches, trembling, feeling faint/unreal, tingling in hands/arms/legs, tightness in throat, dry mouth and/or problems with speech.
The fight or flight response is based on adrenalin, the hormone of fear. Adrenalin works by prioritizing the blood supply, making sure that oxygenated blood is available in the arms and legs for a quick getaway and through the brain to help us make split second decisions. The blood supply is taken from areas of the body where it is not needed in times of danger, such as the stomach and sexual organs.
So the fight or flight response kicks in and all the thoughts in the world get cluttered and crazy, because the part of our brain that thinks rational thoughts – the part that plays chess and makes grocery lists – is now deprived of blood. Why is it deprived of blood? Because the limbic system is all jacked up and running wild. Effectively we have a reptile running your body when it comes to fight time…
Why is that Bad?
Well, technically speaking it’s *not* bad. Thank God (or nature or whoever you want) that we have a fight of flight response. Adrenaline is like a super-steroid. It allows us to perform longer and better at physical exertion. It becomes bad when we perceive the event negatively.
Keep in mind that the response is termed fight OR flight. If we perceive the event negatively, then we want to “flight” – i.e. escape the situation. We perceive the other competitor as stronger or faster or better trained; in some sense “better” than us.
As we do this, then our thoughts turn even more negative and we think about not only how “good” our competitor is but how “bad” we are. We didn’t train hard enough; we didn’t do technique X right, person Y is going to be disappointed in us. As this happens the brain gets stuck in a negative cycle loop, where everything is run through a prism of negativity.
Then in the fight, if things don’t go PERFECTLY according to plan the walls come tumbling down. The instinct to escape overcomes the instinct to fight and we perform like crap – generally resulting in a loss.
Keep in mind, all this is happening while the actual thinking part of the brain is largely deprived of the tools necessary to “think” about being positive. In essence, the means to produce a think better result are cut off from your control.
How Can We Correct this Behavior?
First, start with a more positive outlook in life! I know it sounds cheesy and cliché, but the truth is that situations are largely what we make of them. If we look at them negatively, they’ll become negative. If we look at them positively, they’ll become positive.
In our fight or flight example: the feeling that bubbles up in the pit of our stomach and makes our heart race and makes our muscles twitch – is that excitement or nervousness? Are we “pumped” about getting to compete and punch someone in the face or are we dreading competing and getting punched in the face? Are we energized to go out there and show everyone what we can do or are we terrified that everyone is going to see how poorly we perform?
If we’re the first, then we perceive the emotions in a positive light, if we’re the latter then we perceive the emotions in a negative light. The emotions themselves aren’t either, it’s our perceptions that make them one or the other.
Some drills to have a more positive example in life are:
- Say out loud for 2 minutes every morning all the things you’re thankful for.
- When something negative happens in life, look at it as a chance to really show your true character. Remember the old axiom, “Adversity reveals a person’s nature, good fortune conceals it.”
Second, train the reptile part of your body. Since thinking better thoughts won’t get to the unthinking part of your brain 100% of the time, we have to train the unthinking part of the brain to “get happy” as my sister used to say. When performing exercises that simulate competition – sparring, rolling, exercising, etc. – repetitively perform an action every time you “succeed.”
When you land a punch you’re happy about, when you sweep someone, when you get a good weight lifting set in, stomp your foot, slap your cheek, pinch your nipple – do SOMETHING! Now repeat this exercise A LOT. Every time you experience some form of physical success repeat your chosen action.
Eventually the action and the emotion of success will become linked in your brain: “When I do X (where X is pinching your nipple or slapping your cheek or whatever), I am having success!” The crazy cool thing is, once that happens you can REVERSE the process.
When you pinch your nipple, you will automatically feel more successful – it’s weird, but it’s proven scientifically. So when competition time comes and you start to get those jittery feelings, stomp your foot, slap your cheek, do whatever it is that you do and the negative emotions get replaced by positive emotions.
Some drills to condition your brain to react more positively:
- Every time you succeed in life, perform an action repetitively.
- Once the action becomes linked in your brain, then reverse the process perform the action and you’ll get the proper emotional response.
While fighting is fun and we all enjoy punching each other in the face or choking people unconscious, the ultimate goal is to have a better life – regardless of how you define “better.”
These same strategies work in your life as well. Waking up and saying out loud all the things you’re thankful for, gives you energy and helps your attitude throughout the day. I know it seems dumb, but it’s very true.
Similarly, conditioning your brain for success makes you learn to expect success inside and outside of the gym. You can take the same repetitive process and apply it to your work or your church or your sex life and make them all better.
For example, every time you and your mate have a good date, give each other a high five. Then when you’re going through your day doing the boring stuff, when you give each other a high five the thoughts and emotions will automatically trigger the “good date” feelings and you’ll BOTH get a rush of positive emotions.
A personal MMA hero of mine once said, “We train in three dimensions (length, width and height – i.e. on the mat) so that we can learn to perform in four dimensions (length, width, height and TIME – i.e. our lives)” There are of course many, MANY more tricks to performing better – but if you want to know them you have to come train at KMAA.
Now go out and perform better in every area of your life!
God bless you guys and girls.
Coach Eric Turner is the Head Instructor at Knoxville Martial Arts Academy in Knoxville, Tenn. He is the author of ProMMAnow.com’s “MMA Coach’s Corner,” a bi-weekly blog in which he shares insight and knowledge gleaned from his years training and working with fighters at all levels. You can learn more about Coach Turner and Knoxville Martial Arts Academy at www.knoxvillemartialartsacademy.com.