Dealing with pre-fight nerves

I’ve been going back through my blog archives and revisiting some of the things I’ve written over the years. I’m going to be re-posting a few of my favourites. This one is from 2010.

Someone asked me a question this week about how I deal with pre-fight nerves. It’s something that’s individual to each fighter, and that comes with experience. Here’s some thoughts about the way I approach it and the tools that I’ve found useful in dealing with it.

Before some of my fights I worked with a good sports psychologist. Once, when we were talking about what I wanted to improve on, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to “deal with my pre-fight nerves”. He asked me some more questions, trying to get me to think about exactly what I meant by this. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I’ve caught the gist of it.

“How do your nerves affect you in a fight?” and “when you think about your best past performances, how nervous were you?” he asked. When I thought about it, I realised that in general, being nervous before a fight hadn’t stopped me performing well. In fact, I tended to do better in high pressure situations.

“So, what’s the problem then?” he asked. I thought for a bit. “Uh, well, it’s kinda uncomfortable. I don’t like the feeling”. It sounded lame as I said it. “Well, how comfortable are you when you’re doing five rounds of hard sparring, or when you’re doing a conditioning circuit? It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about performing at your best. If you want to be comfortable, don’t be a fighter.” It was a valid point.

That’s the single most useful piece of advice I’ve had about dealing with nerves. A lot of my problem came not from the way I felt before a fight, but from the struggle against that. Realizing that it was ok to feel uncomfortable made it easier to deal with.

That’s not the end of the story though. For many people, and for all of us some of the time, nerves can interfere with performance. In fact, there’s a pretty complicated relationship between anxiety and performance, that’s worth looking into. (For example: see here)

Too much anxiety can stop us from doing our best work. The question is, how do we know how much is too much? If comfort isn’t a good guide, is there a better one? The optimum level of anxiety seems to vary depending on the task. In general, higher levels of anxiety seem to work better for things involving endurance and persistance, but less well when high levels of skill or mental ability are required (see here). How this balances out in MMA – a sport which requires strength and stamina but also a huge amount of technique, tactics and strategy – will be different for every individual fighter.

And even when we’ve worked out the perfect level of adrenaline, how do we get our body to cooperate?

A sports psychologist often uses a “performance profiling questionnaire” to identify an athlete’s level of anxiety (and various other factors) in different situations and at different points before and during competition. This allows them to identify the difference between when they are performing at their best and switched on, and when they’re either too anxious, or flat – not nervous enough. This can give a good idea of the ideal level for that particular athlete.

After that, there are various skills and strategies for the athlete to use to control his or her levels of anxiety and confidence. There are “psyching up” and “psyching down” strategies. (In general, psyching down is much easier than psyching up. Going into a fight flat or under-psyched can be a real problem.)

The specific strategies that I use aren’t any big secret – they’re standard sports psychology stuff: centering, positive self-talk, visualization, use of music and cue-words and so on (for example). But as with any other kind of technique, unless you practise them regularly, in  realistic situations, then they won’t be there for you when you need them. I wasn’t that taken with them at first, but once I’d developed the habit of using them I was surprised how much difference they actually made.

Experience definitely helps. I don’t get any less nervous for my fights now than I did when I  started out – as my skill level’s improved, so has the difficulty of the competition, and the importance of each fight. But at the same time, I know that regardless of how bad I feel beforehand, once I get in there my body and my training will take over. My confidence comes from trusting all the work I’ve done in the gym with my coaches and team mates.

In the words of Ali…

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

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