The Psychology of Losing

After studying athletes of all types as an Associate Professor of Sport Psychology at San Jose State University, Dr. Ted Butryn thought he knew what stress and anxiety were all about. Then he began researching mixed martial artists.


“If you’re a football lineman, the coach knows if you missed a block, but the world doesn’t know unless you really mess up,” says Dr. Butryn. “But when you’re out there by yourself in the cage, you’re naked. Everyone knows you got beat up. It’s obvious even to people who don’t know anything about the sport.”


This is the peculiar condition of the pro fighter. It’s a condition that’s wholly unique in the sporting world.


Even in other individual sports—say, for instance, tennis—you might be all alone when you lose, but you still didn’t take a physical beating on live TV or in front of a packed stadium. Your family and friends may have watched you get your serve broken, but that’s a far cry from watching you get your jaw broken.


Money: The Brutal Truth


There’s nothing else quite like the simplicity and brutal honesty of a fight. There’s also nothing quite like losing a fight, especially when your paycheck and the future of your career depends on you winning.


That’s where the stress comes in, and that’s where Dr. Butryn’s interest lies.


For the better part of half a decade, Dr.Butryn and his San Jose State colleague, Dr. Matthew Masucci, studied the way mixed martial artists confront and cope with the various stressors that come with life as a pro fighter. The initial phase of the study involved interviews with 28 different pro fighters in several different organizations. Part two of the study closely followed two UFC fighters over the course of 13 months. What Butryn found is that in MMA, the stress over wins and losses is just as much about finances as it is about career glory.


“I don’t think you can separate the sport psychology of MMA from the economics of MMA,” he says. “One of the major stresses of all the guys I talked to, even the ones who were more successful, was the financial aspect.”


It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Say you’re a mid-level MMA fighter. If you stay reasonably healthy, you can expect to fight an average of three to four times a year. How much money you make from those fights, both in terms of actual fight purses and sponsorship deals, depends more or less entirely on whether you win or lose. Particularly in the UFC, wins and losses also determine whether you get to keep your job at all.


So what do you do? How do you continue stepping in the cage with that immediate financial pressure hanging over your head? Ironically, what Dr. Butryn found is that the best thing to do may be to forget about it entirely—if you can.


“A lot of guys said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I have to not worry about the financial stuff.’ It’s the worst thing and the biggest stressor in a lot of ways, but they felt like they just couldn’t allow themselves to start worrying about it, and the financial stuff can take a lot of different forms,” says Dr. Butryn. “Sometimes it means taking a difficult fight for more money, and of course the difference in what they make winning or losing. The UFC guys were particularly conscious of whether they were on the pay-per-view portion of a card or the dark matches, because of their sponsors.”


Butryn said he spoke to more than one fighter who described an uneasy relationship with sponsors who were displeased at not getting their logo seen on a pay-per view broadcast, just as the fighters with children to provide for spoke extensively about the added pressure of needing to win just to keep things copasetic at home.


“Those guys with families, they didn’t just need the show money. They needed the extra $10,000 or whatever they were making to win, which adds even more stress,” he says. “But the worst thing they can do is start down that road to worrying about it. If you start thinking, I’ve got to win because I need the money, and if I don’t, then my kid won’t have this or my wife will get mad, then you’re done. It spirals out of control, you get way more stressed, and then your body doesn’t respond the same way.”


Controlling Your Future


In fact, Butryn found that one of the worst things a fighter can do is focus on wins or losses. The stress it evokes is hazardous, not only to a fighter’s day-to-day mental state, but also to his performance once he’s inside the cage.


“Sports Psychology 101 is about process, not outcome,” Butryn says. “The successful guys talk a lot about what they learned from the loss. You watch the post fight interviews—and I almost do this in my head now—but if you hear a guy saying, ‘You know, I got beat up, but I hung in there, and I won’t make those mistakes again,’ I know this guy’s going to comeback, because he’s already talking about the process, what he learned, and what he can work on, as opposed to, ‘Oh, the ref screwed me or the guy was greased.’ That might even be true, but it’s not within your control.”


The term for this, in sports psychology, is locus of control. Internal locus of control—focusing on the positives and negatives that you can directly impact —usually equates to long-term competitive success and a healthy mental attitude. By contrast, external locus of control—obsessing about cheating opponents, incompetent refs, or blind judges—is a recipe for disaster.


Oddly enough, Dr. Butryn said, this theory holds true even in controlled experiments where the test subject is being cheated. Those who attribute failure to something they did and something they can change—even if they’re wrong—were more likely to be successful in future competitions.


But this brings us back to money. When a fighter’s financial well-being is based entirely on results, how is he supposed to shift his focus to the process instead of the outcome? How can he ever truly ignore the fear of losing and all the poisonous stress it brings with it, when every day the nature of this sport reminds him that winning is all that matters?


While Dr. Butryn admits there’s no easy solution to that inherent conflict, he maintains that if fighters want to be successful, it’s really the only choice that makes sense.


“Focusing on the process can be a tough sell, but I would ask, what else do you have?” says Dr. Butryn. “Are you going to focus on the loss? You could look in the mirror and do positive self-talk and say, ‘My next fight I’m going to win. My next fight I’m going to win.’ But that doesn’t get you the win. It has to be about the process, getting back in the gym and executing. Whether you like it or not, that’s really all you have.”

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