It’s (Almost) All In Your Head

“NINETY PERCENT OF THE GAME IS HALF MENTAL.”

Yogi Berra may not be a mathematician and you definitely wouldn’t want him defending you against an IRS audit, but his infamous quote regarding the importance of the mental aspect of sport rings true for mixed martial arts, perhaps more than any other sport. Elite athletes outside of MMA may see their batting average slip, throw an interception or get dunked on at the buzzer but they probably aren’t waking up wondering what just happened or potentially losing their livelihood. And they usually have the opportunity to redeem themselves the next day or the next week.

For a fighter about to step into a locked cage and do battle with another highly trained athlete for fifteen to twenty-five minutes or until one of them taps or naps, the stakes are dramatically higher. There is no teammate to compensate for their mental lapse or weakness and the results can be hazardous to their health. And aside from a chosen few at the very top of the game, every fighter knows that they are a few scant losses away from that dreaded phone call telling them that their services are no longer needed by the promotion. Now that’s pressure. If you think the mental game only takes place during the fight, you’re in for a big surprise.

PRE-FIGHT: TRAINING FOR DESENSITIZATION

When most people think of a grueling training camp, the images of a fighter sharpening his or her tools with untold sweat-ridden hours of sparring, drilling, doing conditioning work and hitting pads comes to mind. But the goal for top MMA trainer Greg Jackson goes beyond perfecting technique and having his fighters in shape to go 25 hard minutes. It is a process of systematic desensitization. “Every human being has a breaking point. Our goal in camp is to make that point so hard to get to that it can’t be reached in the fifteen or twenty five minutes that you spend with your opponent. The fighter has to get so used to duress and exhaustion in training that they walk into the cage knowing that nothing can happen in there that we haven’t already put them through. When we reach that point, there is nothing to fear or run away from. They are desensitized and confident that they aren’t going to get caught off guard. It’s like the scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker tells the Two Faced Man that “If everything goes as planned, no one panics.”

UFC fighter James Irvin found the need to desensitize himself to his opponent, Houston Alexander, before they met at UFC Fight Night: Florian vs. Lauzon in 2008. “I put pictures of that guy all over my house. Houston was the first guy I ever fought who looked more menacing than me. He’s a scary looking dude. I wanted to get used to seeing him all the time so that when I looked at him across the cage it wouldn’t be a big deal.” It must have worked. James knocked out his menacing looking counterpart in a lightening fast eight seconds, tying him for the fastest KO in UFC history.

IN-FIGHT: BREATHE, FOCUS, LISTEN

One minute. That’s all the time a trainer gets with his fighter before the next five minute battle begins. Some trainers will start shouting instructions the second the break begins, but not Greg Jackson. “The first thing I want to do between rounds is calm them down and help them focus on getting their air back. If a fighter is frenzied and trying to get his air he’s not going to hear what I’m telling him anyway. Next I want re-focus them on the task at hand. I’m big on positive energy so I’ll usually tell them ‘You’re doing this right but I’d like to see more of this.’ I don’t overwhelm them with fifteen things because you have to be realistic. It’s unreasonable to think they’re going to retain a lot of information in 60 seconds.” And the soft-spoken trainer isn’t against raising his voice when it’s called for. “Sometimes a fighter gets mentally locked or my advice doesn’t seem to be getting through. That’s the only time I yell and it’s never done disrespectfully. I’m using my voice to shock them and get through the block. The fact that I don’t do it all the time makes it more effective. It touches something deep in the psyche of a fighter, kind of like when your dad might have yelled at you.”

POST-FIGHT: DEALING WITH A LOSS

UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre suffered what may have very well been the biggest upset in the promotion’s history when he lost to Matt Serra at UFC 69. How do you get over a huge loss like that when you’re one of the top pound for pound fighters in the world? Simple. You release your brick. At least that’s what GSP told AskMen.com.

“I didn’t accept the fact that I had lost. I just wanted to jump in the ring and get my revenge, when in reality I had two fights to go before getting to Matt Serra.” To help him move past the loss and get out of denial, he enlisted the services of a sports psychologist. “He told me ‘You haven’t released your brick. Carry a brick for one day and it’s not so bad. At first it’s not heavy. But if you carry it on your back every day, every single minute of your life, it’s going to get heavy. So you better get rid of it and look for what’s important to you.’ He made me get a brick and I wrote ‘Matt Serra’ on it, and he said, ‘When you are ready to release that brick and look to the future, you’re going to take this brick and throw it into the river.’ It sounds stupid but that’s what I did. I think it helped me to release a lot of the negative energy that I had. Instead of focusing, I kept my eyes off of the goal. [After releasing the brick] I’m focused again on the goal. I think this helped me a lot.” That would be an understatement. Since releasing his brick, GSP has torn through the welterweight division with a six fight, two and one-half year win streak that has seen him exact his revenge against Serra, recapture the title and successfully defend it three times.

I THINK I SEE A PATTERN HERE

Uncrowned WEC Middleweight Champion, Chael Sonnen, noticed a very disturbing pattern after Jeremy Horn locked in a fight-ending armbar in the second round at UFC 60. All four of his most recent losses came by a second round submission in fights where he had won the first round and was having his way in the fight. He discussed how he solved the riddle on a visit to Pro MMA Radio.

“I started to ask myself if something was happening in that ring. Am I getting some kind of block where I’m looking for a way out by giving up a submission? Physically, there was no way that should be happening. I’d been to Abu Dabi twice with the best grapplers in the world and wasn’t getting submitted over there. Mentally something was happening midway through the second round. And I found out the answer was that I was losing my focus. Even if I’m only losing it for a second that’s too long.”

Chael believes that he can trace part of the problem to an earlier fight against Jeremy. “I was wet behind the ears and he was ranked number one in the world and I had absolutely no faith in myself. When I found myself dominating him I actually had an internal conversation that he was better than me and looked for a way to fulfill that. I was sabotaging myself.” Knowing that he had to find a way to fill that mental piece in if he was going to have a successful fight career, the cerebral fighter took action. “I went to a professional who specializes in this, a sports psychologist, after that third loss to Jeremy Horn. I was in denial originally because I would never want to admit I was looking for a way out. Once you move past that, you can address the issue and we did that.” Since that time, Chael has gone 8-2 with his only losses coming at the hands of Paulo Filho and Demian Maia, both of whom were undefeated when he faced them. And just as the new GSP exacted his revenge on Matt Serra, Chael returned the favor and handed Filho the only loss on the submission specialist’s record in his last fight in the WEC.

MAYBE YOGI WAS RIGHT

The physical battle that takes place during a mixed martial arts fight is readily apparent to the observer. But the invisible mental battle that starts in the gym, continues in the cage and may even require expert help to take the fighter’s game to the next level isn’t as obvious. And it has just as much to do, or more, with the outcome of the fight as the physical tools on display. I bet Yogi would have loved MMA.

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