By Jeremy Patton
The most neglected area in mixed martial arts (MMA) training is mental preparation. A fighter who enters the cage with anything less than total confidence, who doesn’t believe in his ability to win, will render himself vulnerable to his own insecurities. The demons of self-doubt could defeat him before the fight begins. This article will offer pointers to help the rookie or more experienced fighter build the confidence he needs to focus on victory and perform to his potential.
Find a Good School
The first step in preparing for the cage is to find a good martial arts school. Volumes could be written on this subject, but the main attribute to search for is a supportive environment. The trainers should be concerned about your development, not your potential as a human punching bag. Your sparring partners should be friendly and willing to help, not intent on breaking you in half to satisfy their egos. Too many times, I’ve entered a dungeon dojo and felt the eager eyes staring – “new guy, fresh meat.”
A good martial arts school is an extended family. Your comrades in combat should build up your confidence, not tear it down. A support group that believes in you will inspire you to believe in yourself.
Competence Breeds Confidence
Although you rely on your trainers to teach you vital skills, your education is ultimately your responsibility. MMA is an immensely complex sport with countless skills to master and scenarios to rehearse. Be ready to deal with any situation.
How should you react if your opponent rushes you after the horn? How do you get up from your back when your head is crammed against the fence? How do you handle a superior boxer who has excellent takedown defense? How do you escape a triangle choke? How do you finish from the mount when your opponent stalls with a tight body lock?
Make a list of every imaginable situation, then formulate techniques and strategies to deal with each of them. Seek advice from your trainers and sparring partners to improve your weak areas. Pick their brains, get the information you need and most importantly, drill obsessively.
When you’ve covered all the bases, you won’t feel as anxious when the cage door locks. You’ll be able to say “there’s nothing this guy can do to me that I haven’t faced in training.”
Train Like a Madman
There’s nothing more disappointing than knowing that you could have beaten your opponent had you not ran out of gas. Getting exhausted is a crisis that no serious fighter should experience, because conditioning is one of the few aspects of fighting where you have total control. Your opponent might be tougher than you, more skilled or experienced, but he can’t stop you from training like a madman, unless he’s an associate of Tonya Harding.
With the guidance of your trainers, develop a conditioning program that incorporates sparring, grappling, weight lifting, circuit training, road work and any other pertinent, torturous activity. The agony you suffer now will pay off later when you demoralize your victim by pushing a ridiculous pace.
Wade into battle knowing that you’re in the best shape of your life, that your opponent couldn’t possibly work harder than you. Know that you can endure a grueling five-round war with energy to spare. The months of agony are over. Come fight time, the fun begins.
Cut Weight the Right Way
At every show there are numerous fighters who stress out about making weight. They starve themselves and sweat in saunas for hours on end. When they weigh in, they’re hungry, tired and irritable. This isn’t the way to relax and focus on your game plan.
The key to freeing yourself from weigh-in anxiety is to practice a little discipline. Maintain a reasonable diet and train regularly so that you stay within about ten pounds of your target weight. A month or two before the competition, when your training regimen intensifies, it’s easy to drop one or two pounds per week. You might need to sweat off a few remaining pounds on the morning of the fight, but that’s no big deal.
When it’s time to hit the scale, you’ll be focused on your strategy instead of drying yourself out like a raisin.
Formulate a Strategy
Reliable information about your opponents is often elusive because they frequently lie about their age, background, record and weight and they’ll do almost anything to gain an unfair advantage. It’s tough to sort through the lies, but if you’re a persistent investigator you can usually spy some useful intelligence. Here are a few techniques for researching your next victim (try these methods before staking out the guy’s gym with a ninja suit and a pair of binoculars):
First, ask your trainers and classmates if they know anything about your opponent.
Check out MMA databases such as www.mixedmartialarts.com. Promoters and athletic commissions often submit fight results to websites where you can find statistics, photos and even videos.
Search social websites like youtube.com and facebook.com. Your adversary may have created a profile and posted samples of his handiwork.
Ask the promoter if he has video of your opponent from previous shows. If you’re planning to bleed for his next event, that’s the least that he can do for you.
Once you gather the intelligence, sit down with your trainers and start analyzing. Identify your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, then form a strategy. Knowing what to expect and how to approach your competition can give you an advantage and lots of confidence.
You Can’t Tell By Looking
Peering across the cage at a tattooed, hulking thug who stares you down like Clint Eastwood can be intimidating. But fighters must condition themselves to ignore appearances just like they must overcome the fear of getting punched in the face.
Tattoos, big muscles and ugly mugs don’t make good fighters. For that matter, just because he looks strong or menacing doesn’t mean that he really is. I’ve met some formidable fighters who have less than impressive physiques. Some fighters resemble geeks who work at the reference desk at your local library.
You should be even less impressed by verbal Jiu-jitsu. You’ll hear all sorts of rumors, smack-talk and lies coming from your competitor, his buddies, the fans, etc. Just because some random dude tells you that your opponent is a formidable wrestler, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. The informant might be a poor judge of skill.
Meet your foe’s blabbering and scare tactics with indifference. All that matters is what YOU are going to DO.
Visualization is one of the most effective tools for mentally preparing for an MMA fight. When you step onto the canvas, you should have already defeated your adversary a hundred times, in your mind.
On the day of the show, find a secluded place where you can be alone with your thoughts (for me, it’s the parking lot, usually in the back of my friend’s SUV). Make yourself as comfortable as possible, lie down, close your eyes and mull over the fight in your head.
Imagine your nerves before walking into the arena. The announcer introduces you. Your music blares. Comrades pat you on the back as you strut to the cage. Your stomach churns. Will you trade high-fives with the screaming fans or will you creep into battle void of emotion, like the Undertaker?
Your opponent enters next and moves to his corner. He glares at you. Will you meet his glare or divert your eyes until the last moment? Will you touch gloves now or wait until after the horn? The referee examines your gloves. Your trainers shout last-second instructions. The spotlight blinds you. The horn suddenly blares and you surge forward, claiming your territory in the center of the cage.
The first few times you rehearse the action, imagine that all goes as planned. Perhaps you even score a knockout or submission within the first ten seconds – total domination. Next, visualize a competitive fight, but you’re still able to implement your strategy. Finally, imagine an all-out war against a relentless foe. You’re forced to abandon your strategy and you’re lured into a variety of perilous predicaments. Feel the pain, taste the blood and hear the roaring crowd. You’re exhausted, but you refuse to give up. In every scenario, no matter what happens, visualize yourself finding a way to win.
Mind Like Zen
Now you’re mentally prepared for battle. You train at a good school and your extended family is there to support you. You studied diligently and you’re confident that you can cope with any situation, standing up or on the mat. You’re in the best shape of your life and you can fight for hours. You did your homework and formulated a strategy, a road map to victory. You visualized every possible scenario and nothing will catch you by surprise.
The only remaining task is to live the moment.
Added 8/4/16 – Updated 5/8/17