Through my #InsideChat podcast, I am able to personally speak with a wide range of leading figures from the world of martial arts, sports, psychology, sociology and nutrition on a regular basis. One such individual I had the pleasure of speaking to and learning from recently is internationally renowned sports psychologist and best selling author Dr Jim Afremow. In this particular episode, we spoke about the psychology of winning fights and the many facets needed to develop a champion mindset.
Dr. Afremow is the author of several bestselling books including The Champion's Mind, The Young Champion's Mind, and Champion's Comeback. He has worked with numerous UFC fighters, Olympic athletes, and professional sports teams.
Although competing in martial arts and combat sports like MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, and Jiu Jitsu requires immense physical and technical ability, mental preparation is often overlooked by many fighters and coaches. In this in-depth blog post written up from the talk, we will explore the psychology of winning fights in martial arts and combat sports.
We discuss concepts focusing on the following key aspects of sporting success:
- The mental challenges unique to combat sports
- Developing a "champion mindset"
- Visualisation and mental rehearsal techniques
- Building confidence and managing pressure
- Optimising focus and concentration
- Handling setbacks and losses
- Promoting accountability and self-discipline
- Cultivating mental toughness and resilience
- Creating constructive pre-fight routines
- Managing anxiety, nerves and fear
- Tuning out distractions and outside noise
- The importance of mental health for fighters
- Resources to train the mind
The Psychology of Winning Fights
The Unique Mental Challenges of Combat Sports
Combat sports like MMA, Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, and Karate pose unique mental challenges compared to other sports. Unlike team sports, the entire outcome rests solely on the individual fighter or athlete's performance. There is no one to pass the ball to or share blame with after a loss. The high-stakes, prizefighting nature also ramps up pressure and scrutiny.
When I first started competing at a younger age, I found that the performance anxiety brought on by being in front of crowds posed a bigger concern for me than the fear of physical harm from my opponents. Over the years since, I have come to realise that even at the highest levels, renowned elite level athletes continue to worry about letting down their team, embarrassing themselves, or not living up to expectations. The damage to their self-worth and confidence from a poor showing can be severe.
Losing streaks are also harder to rebound from, as fighters may wait months for their next bout and chance at redemption. The loneliness of solo training for long camps can take a toll mentally. Injuries and last minute fight cancellations require coping skills to handle the emotional letdown. And the warrior culture emphasizes appearing tough and invincible, which can make it difficult for fighters to admit vulnerability or seek support.
Unlike team sports with frequent contests, the highs and lows in fighting are more extreme. Combat sports psychology must address these unique challenges. Fortunately, training the mind using techniques like visualisation, self-talk, breathing exercises, pre-performance routines, and building mental toughness and resilience can help fighters control fear, manage distractions, execute under pressure, and consistently perform at their peak.
Cultivating a "Champion Mindset"
All elite athletes have to deal with pressure, adversity, and uncertainties. But what separates the great from the good is often their mindset - how they think, feel, and act in response to challenges. Champions adopt a mastery mindset, always striving for self-improvement. They remain students of their craft, hungry to get better daily, not just for the next fight or tournament.
In contrast, those with an ego orientation are focused on proving themselves relative to others. This leads to more anxiety about winning or losing. Those with a mastery mindset derive satisfaction from lifelong learning and measuring themselves against their own potential, not opponents. They stay positive and proactive even when struggling, while ego-oriented athletes are more likely to get discouraged or lash out when faced with setbacks.
Cultivating a champion mindset starts with dreaming big and setting bold goals like winning a title or Olympic gold, as there are no limits on what you can accomplish with enough belief and work. Of course, dreaming alone is not enough. It must be backed up with a willingness to commit fully and make the daily, incremental improvements in all areas that add up over time.
World-class swimmers like Michael Phelps did not show up on race day as champions. They visualised themselves winning gold medals every night and woke up early for years of training that others were not willing to do. So adopt that champion mindset by dreaming big, focusing on mastery, and outworking your competition through daily acts of excellence.
The Power of Visualisation and Mental Rehearsal
Visualisation or mental rehearsal is a technique champions in all sports use to mentally prepare for competitions. Studies have found that visualising performance in detail activates the same motor neurons and neural pathways that get triggered when actually performing the skill. Mental rehearsal primes your nervous system and body, ingraining the desired thoughts, feelings, and physical actions.
Athletes across diverse sports report that visualisation helps improve skills, consistency, and confidence. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time, said he never hit a golf shot in competition that he had not already visualised in practice. He went so far as to walk around the course visualising each shot he planned to hit, rehearsing his visualisations to develop a winning strategy.
Here are some tips for using visualisation effectively as a fighter:
- Visualise from an internal, first-person perspective as if watching through your own eyes, which is more realistic than third-person.
- Imagine all sensory details - sights, sounds, physical sensations, emotions. The more vividly you can recreate the experience in your mind, the more powerful the effects.
- Picture yourself mastering both routine skills and responding idealy to complex challenges that could arise in a fight. Envision responding with composure.
- Imagine the process and discipline required, not just the outcome. See each step you will take to become a champion so your mind accepts that future as achievable.
- Practice visualisation daily, not just as a pre-fight ritual. The brain adapts best through smaller, frequent repetitions.
- Use it to build confidence by revisiting past successes and achievements. Recall those vividly through your own eyes.
- Do not just visualise victory. Also see yourself confidently rebounding from setbacks. Challenges and some failures are inevitable so rehearse maintaining composure and bouncing back.
Add visualisation to your training. Psychologically rehearse executing your fight night game plan flawlessly. See yourself remaining calm under pressure, proactively making adjustments. Imagining success primes you to deliver when it counts.
Building Unshakeable Confidence and Managing Pressure
All fighters experience self-doubt, anxiety, and pressure at times. The key is how you respond to these inevitable feelings. Confidence comes from preparation. Do you have a solid work ethic and have the right team supporting you? Are you committed to continuous improvement, not just when a fight gets announced? Have you sparred and drilled enough to enter the cage or ring fully prepared?
If you consistently invest the time and energy into honing your craft, then you have earned the right to be confident. Ignore comparisons with others and any external chatter or hype. To manage pressure, adopt a "what's the worst that could happen?" mindset. Visualise the worst plausible outcomes, then mentally rehearse rebounding quickly from each one. Getting KO'ed or submitted happens to every fighter at some point. Bouncing back mentally and physically is what defines you.
Lastly, remember you are always in control of your effort and your response, not your opponent or outside conditions. You control your self-talk, reactions, persistence and willingness to adapt. Focus only on what is within your control. Execute with confidence by putting in the preparation and work ethic that gives you faith in yourself. Pressure is a privilege that confident, committed competitors embrace.
Optimising Focus and Concentration
It is difficult to perform your best if distracted or overwhelmed during a fight. The rows of spectators and noise can also divert attention from the task at hand. To optimise focus and concentration:
- Have set pre-fight routines creating structure and familiarity, allowing your mind to narrow focus as fight time nears.
- Between rounds, direct attention to tactical adjustments and key reminders from your corner to re-focus for the next round.
- Use cue words like "calm" or "focus" to redirect attention during the fight if it wanders.
- Concentrate on proper breathing techniques to stay present, not anxious thoughts.
- Do not allow your mind to drift to the audience, the stakes, or past/future during the fight. The present moment is all that matters.
- If fatigue sets in, concentrate on maintaining proper technique and form.
- Visualise between rounds to reinforce tactical adjustments for the next round.
- Focus on executing one technique at a time, stringing them together to implement your coherent fight strategy.
Maintaining focus starts long before stepping into the arena. Eliminate outside distractions and stick to routines in training camp. Use visualisation to rehearse concentrating intently during high stress moments. Master the art of redirecting your focus to the present task at hand during competition. Develop cues and habits that allow you to filter out diversions. Keep practice intensity high so that fights feel like just another day at the gym. Make concentration skills second nature through deliberate practice.
Handling Setbacks and Bouncing Back from Losses
Rebounding from setbacks and failures in elite combat sports requires emotional resilience. Losses are inevitable - all great fighters experience ups and downs throughout their careers. Adopt a mastery mindset viewing losses as opportunities to learn and improve, rather than humiliating defeats. Reflect objectively on what went wrong and how to grow from the experience. Then quickly shift focus back to process-oriented daily practices, not obsessing over past bouts.
Look at setbacks as temporary obstacles on a lifelong path, not career-defining moments. Bouncing back mentally is crucial so that confidence does not gets shattered and motivation wanes. Be wary of how you talk about yourself to yourself after defeats. Keep self-talk positive or neutral to maintain belief in your capabilities. The negativity bias can lead us to catastrophize setbacks as worse than they are in reality.
When injured or coming off a rough loss, visualise yourself confidently returning to past championship form once healthy. Mentally rehearse the process of recovering and deliver a gold medal performance in your comeback fight. Some of the greatest athletes and fighters gained motivation from major setbacks in their careers. Maintain perspective. Just as you should not get overly attached to wins and praise, do not exaggerate the meaning of individual losses. How you respond determines your trajectory.
Promoting Accountability and Self-Discipline
Successful fighters hold themselves accountable rather than making excuses or blaming others when outcomes do not go as hoped for. They also display self-discipline in sticking to routines, putting in effort day after day, and doing the necessary preparation whether supervised directly or not.
UFC champion Henry Cejudo credited self-talk emphasizing "composure" and "accountability" in helping him rebound from an ankle injury mid-fight to dethrone legendary champion Demetrious Johnson. Cejudo took ownership internally rather than getting thrown off or discouraged.
When a fight gets scheduled, committing fully is crucial. But self-discipline applied daily is what leads to peak performance when the lights shine brightest. Reflect often on whether you are truly demonstrating 100% commitment. Hold yourself accountable to coaches and teammates by taking their feedback seriously and implementing it. Blaming outside factors will not improve future results.
Develop routines enabling you to put in consistent effort each day on your own initiative. Adversity reveals whether you have built the accountability and self-discipline that champions rely on. Take complete ownership for your development, preparation, and responses in competition. You determine the level of focus, persistence and accountability you bring. Make it a habit.
Cultivating Mental Toughness and Resilience
All competitors experience doubt, fear, and anxiety at times on their journey. Mental toughness and resilience are what separate those who persist through challenges from those who fold under pressure. Toughness is not learnt overnight. Like physical conditioning, it is built up over time through small tests that expand your comfort zone.
Intentionally put yourself in difficult training scenarios to adapt mentally. Do extra rounds tired. Spar fresh opponents when already exhausted. Cut weight while sleep deprived. By rehearsing still performing under less than ideal conditions, you build reference experiences proving you can overcome future adversity. Confidence then comes from knowing you have succeeded through discomfort before.
Also reflect on past fights where you dug deep to come from behind and win or fought through injury and adversity. Reconnect to those memories of resilience as evidence you can do it again. Talk positively to yourself before and during fights to access that toughness. Use cue words like "tough" or "relentless" when fatigue sets in. Your mindset influences the meaning you attach to physical discomfort.
While pain may be unavoidable, embrace suffering and distress in training and fights as part of the mastery journey. Mentally tough fighters do not resist or fear the discomfort. They expect and accept it. They know struggling now prepares them to eventually win championships. Condition your mindset over time through experience to see past momentary difficulties for the long-term gains.
Watch and Listen to the full podcast between myself and Dr Jim Afremow below
Creating Constructive Pre-Fight Routines
In the hours and minutes leading up to a fight, anxiety and nerves are inevitable even for the most experienced veterans. Solid pre-fight routines help manage stress and prime optimal performance by promoting familiarity and confidence. Routines keep your mind from fixating on uncertainty and pressure.
Many fighters utilise visualisation as part of these pre-bout rituals - picturing themselves executing the perfect gameplan and responding well under fire. This is where the psychology of winning fights needs to be understood in order to bring a varied toolkit to draw upon. Other elements might include:
- Arrive at the venue at a set time to begin pre-fight preparations
- Follow the same warm-up and stretching regimen
- Shadow box or hit pads with coaches as you always do
- Listen to chosen energizing music through headphones
- Review tactics and combinations with coaches
- Use affirmations and cue words: "I am ready" etc.
- Control breathing to stay relaxed, not tense
- Use visualisation just prior to walkout and final amping
- Stick to superstitions or rituals that boost confidence
- Avoid overthinking, distraction, and rushing adrenaline spike
- Feel sensations of previous wins and successes
The sequence does not matter as much as keeping it consistent. Execute your pre-fight routine on big events just like regular training days to generate calmness and belief. Do not overhype fights and risk adrenaline dump. Routines keep you composed as fight time nears. They act as mental cues that you are prepared and primed for peak performance.
Managing Anxiety, Nerves and Fear
Feeling anxious before fights is completely normal, even for the most seasoned competitors. Accept nerves as part of the journey rather than resisting. Anxiety helps sharpen your senses and reaction time. The key is to control fear before it controls you. Excessive worrying about getting hurt or failing will only sabotage performance.
Here are proven techniques to regulate pre-fight anxiety:
- Embrace pressure as a privilege that confident performers are accustomed to. Anxiety means you care.
- Use positive self-talk cues like "I am ready" and "I got this" to override worries.
- Visualise remaining composed under fire. The mind believes what you repeatedly imagine.
- Adopt pre-fight routines so you can focus just on executing, not worrying.
- Concentrate on proper breathing techniques to stay present.
- Isolate yourself to do mental rehearsal and preparation just before competing.
- Focus on your fight plan and strategies, not hypothetical "what-ifs?"
- Recall past successes and trusted techniques to boost confidence.
- Treat big events like any other training day as much as possible.
If anxiety or fear start spiraling out of control, take time alone to reset your focus on the task, not the stakes. Remember you are fully prepared through meticulous training. Anxiety is uncomfortable but harmless. Let go of the need to control or eliminate it. Accept nerves as part of the journey and redirect attention back to proper breathing, visualisation of winning combinations, affirmations, and executing your pre-fight routine. You have trained for this moment.
Tuning Out Distractions and Outside Noise
The mental chatter from crowds, critics, and media hype can sabotage performance if fighters fixate on trying to control public narratives. Adopting a mastery mindset means tuning out scrutiny and outside noise that do not improve performance. Avoid overthinking what glorified spectators have to say, good or bad, before during or after fights.
UFC legend Georges St-Pierre made a pact with his team to shield him from all media coverage and outside opinions in fight camps so he could solely focus on preparation under his control. Other proven techniques for tuning out distractions include:
- Avoid social media, interviews and news related to your fights.
- Politely decline questions you deem irrelevant or distracting during fight week media obligations. Deflect hype.
- Isolate backstage before walking out, do mental rehearsal instead of spectating.
- Adopt tunnel vision blocking the crowd out when walking to cage/ring.
- Between rounds, listen only to corner advice on adjustments, tune out crowd.
- Use music and noise cancelling headphones whenever possible to narrow focus.
- Redirect thoughts constantly back to present moment tactical cues during fight.
- If crowd noise escalates, increase focus on breathing and technique.
- Respond neutrally and briefly to media after fights. Do not obsess on reactions.
The only opinions that matter are your coach's and your own. Judge yourself only against your preparation and fight night execution based on a mastery mindset. Wasting mental energy on anything else depletes your finite focus, discipline, and productivity. Routinely practicing tuning out noise in training builds ability to do so under the bright lights when it matters most.
The Importance of Mental Health for Fighters
While physical fitness and conditioning rightfully get emphasized, mental health is equally crucial for fighters to sustain excellence and longevity. Seeking support and services for mental health concerns should carry no stigma. Here are key reasons why prioritizing mental wellbeing is vital:
Sustain Motivation: The rigorous demands of training camps and fight preparations require consistent motivation and discipline which deteriorate if facing untreated depression, anxiety, trauma, substance issues or other mental health challenges.
Optimise Performance: Mental health directly impacts concentration, focus, emotional regulation, and decision-making under pressure. Poor mental health sabotages performing up to one's potential. Uncertainty and pressure in fighting amplify any instability.
Prolong Careers: The drain of competition weighs on fighters over decades. Integrating proper recovery, life balance, clinical care for emerging issues, and coping skills can prevent burnout and prolong thriving.
Reduce Risk: Impulsive behaviors, emotional volatility, recklessness stemming from unaddressed mental health problems increase injury risk and long-term health consequences.
Restore Confidence: Losses or setbacks frequently damage a fighter's self-belief and identity. Counseling and therapy can rebuild self-efficacy separate from athletic achievement.
Destigmatize Support: Prominent fighters openly discussing mental health treatment set examples, reducing stigma. Seeking help demonstrates strength, not weakness.
Life After Sport: Even successful careers inevitably conclude, often abruptly. Proactively developing purpose, identity, relationships, and community outside of fighting helps smooth difficult transitions into retirement often accompanied by significant psychological adjustments.
Resources to Train the Mind
Beyond consistent mental skills training, fighters can utilise additional resources to strengthen the mind for peak performance:
- Apps to access guided visualization, meditation, and sporting psychology education through convenient mobile technology
- Books and workbooks outlining mental toughness strategies and ways to build resilience
- Online courses and videos breaking down psychological skills into simple fundamentals
- Podcasts discussing mindset and mental fitness with experienced coaches and champion athletes
- Counseling and therapy to process setbacks, improve focus, manage pressure, and overcome self-limiting beliefs holding back fulfillment of potential
- Sport psychology consulting tailored specifically for individual needs, goals, and mental obstacles impacting fight game
- Biofeedback to learn controlled breathing and relaxation for stress management
- Keeping a training journal to evaluate progress and stay mindfully reflective on what works
- Hypnotherapy to program the subconscious mind and overcome deep-seated barriers through accessing the inner self
- Gratitude practice to maintain motivation and positive mindset during the inevitable ups and downs
- Quality sleep, nutrition, and recovery time - foundations of mental and physical vigor
For both coaches and fighters, prioritising mental skills and wellbeing works synergistically with technical, tactical, and physical training to cultivate complete martial artists and empower peak performance. Consistently applying even small insights from sports psychology makes a major difference over the long run.
If you enjoy this article then you may well love Motivating Fighters and Developing Mental Toughness in Martial Arts and Combat Sports or 19 Ways to Become a World Champion in Coaching Martial Arts and Combat Sports as already featured on this site.
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