As human beings, all of us have had the opportunity to feel the exhilarating effects of an adrenaline rush, or what is commonly called the “fi ght-or-fl ight” response. Although the fi ght-or-fl ight response is “good” in a sense of survival, it can be characterized most notably by its unpleasant symptoms of increased respiration, speeded heartbeat, shakiness, and a generally anxious feeling, among other things. Whenever the mind perceives something as a possible threat to the body and its survival or well-being, it is only natural that a variety of stress hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol, to name a few, are injected into the blood stream and mixed into a Molotov cocktail bent on fi nding any survivalistic edge that it can.
All this being said, for those out there who have participated in one-on-one sports competition, such as MMA, where the physical domination of one’s opponent is of main concern, they can probably attest to the fact that there is nothing quite so adrenaline-provoking as the time leading up to this perceivably dangerous event. Quite often, it is how an athlete handles this infl ux of sometimes-unwanted energy that can determine how well they perform. So whether it is fi ghting fear, pregame jitters, or whatever you want to call it, how do the athletes featured in the most exciting combat sport in the world handle the stress in the hours leading up to a fi ght?
Bypass and Control It
Sometimes it seems that the best way to deal with something is head on. For the mixed martial artists below, acknowledging and then bypassing and controlling the unpleasant effects of an adrenaline rush can be a simple matter of breathing, mind control, distraction, or even praying.
LUKE CUMMO: “I lie down wherever I am and focus on breathing.”
Why this works: C’mon! Are you really going to question Luke Cummo about what works to keep his bodily functioning at its best? Although the systems of the body work in unison with one another, oxygen is the life force for all. Since respiration is involuntarily increased during the fi ght-or-fl ight response, voluntarily acting to control it can help to diminish the negative feelings and performance-robbing effects of this response while altogether acting to calm the body down.
BAS RUTTEN: “I’m nervous a little right when I arrive at the arena where I’ll fi ght, but my advice to everyone would be to think about the moment the bell goes, which is the moment when all nervousness drops. [By doing that] I remain very calm before I fi ght, and anyone who’s aggressive, saying, ‘Kick his ass!’ I’ll kick out of my dressing room. I’ll play Tetris and listen to relaxing music, and then let my aggression out the moment I hit [someone]. You need controlled aggression.”
CHRIS LYTLE: “I try and think about anything other than fi ghting. That would raise my adrenaline and tire me out in the long run. I focus when I need to, and that’s it.”
Why this works: Simply put, if one engages their mind in things unrelated to the task at hand through visualization or distraction — even if just by chatting with a few friends — the mind can be effectively sidetracked and make the reality of the adrenaline rush not ever truly come to fruition.
GUY MEZGER: “I’ve had 145 pro fi ghts between kickboxing, boxing, full-contact karate, and MMA, and every time I stepped into the cage I though the same exact thing: Why didn’t I take the LSATs and be a freakin’ lawyer like mom wanted me to? But to keep calm, I always had a strong faith that God would take care of me, and I developed a strong self-resignation that I was there, I was trained, and I was gonna do it.”
MATT ARROYO: “[I take] lots of deep breaths and [use] positive visualization (always picturing the end result that you want), and the big thing for me is faith in God — that’s the biggest thing that keeps me calm. I think a lot of fi ghters have faith, and it keeps them calm.”
Why this works: For the same reasons as above, whether you personally believe in God or not, praying, meditation and things that are faith-related can both serve to keep the mind busy and also afford some fi ghters a secure confi dence in a supreme being.
On the other hand, there are always those types of fi ghters who will end up using the inevitability of the adrenaline rush to its full advantage by capturing, harnessing, and utilizing its power for success.
STEPHAN BONNAR: “I think the nerves that are there are kind of good and protective. It’s the same feeling I got when I was 10 years old going onto the wrestling mats, or the same feeling at 12 in a TKD match, or when I was doing Golden Gloves boxing. It’s always the same kind of competitive ‘mano y mano’ type of nervousness/fear/adrenaline. It’s a good thing, something that’s always going to be there. So just make sure you’re warmed up and not burning too much energy.”
Why this works: If an athlete doesn’t treat an adrenaline rush as something not to be desired — and instead recognizes it as part of the game — then the fl ight-or-fl ight response will not only be less bothersome, but it can actually be enjoyable, to some.
RAZOR ROB MCCULLOUGH: “Before a fi ght I try to remember growing up and being a mad kid, not able to do anything. Then I channel it into some sort of controlled rage. I’ll feel it start in my eyes as if I almost have tunnel vision, and then its ON!”
JENS PULVER: “Well, I get fi red up by really just thinking about where I came from and how far from there I want to be — I mean, all the abuse and shit growing up to now. [Thinking of that] gets me fi red up for sure.”
Why this works: Frustration, anger, and ill feelings can motivate some people to succeed just as positive thoughts can do for others. Also interesting to note is that physical activity has long been supported by doctors and psychologists as being an effective stressreliever. Given that, it is safe to say that if a fi ghter lives with stress or frustration over issues in his past — especially issues that deal with feelings of powerlessness — that fi ghting in particular may be the most effective way to relieve that stress, indeed
Neutralize Through Experience
While there are many ways to deal with, avoid, or even use an adrenaline rush to get good results, perhaps everyone secretly longs for the day that they will no longer be presented with a case of the pregame jitters and will instead handle everything in stride, as only a wise and well-seasoned veteran of the cage could.
NATE MARQUARDT: “I would say the main thing for me now is the experience factor. I’ve been here before, and I know it has always turned out well. Before that, I just had to have self-control to tell myself to stay relaxed.”
RENZO GRACIE: “To me, it is just a different day in the offi ce. I [deal with fi ghting] every day. I never get nervous or anxious, or get butterfl ies in my stomach. I do remember the last time I had that — I was a yellow belt; I was like, 13 or 14, so it’s been a while!”
Why this works: After spending years upon years in the nerve-racking environment of fi ghting, the body grows used to stress and it no longer affects such a seasoned fi ghter like Renzo. But then again, growing up a member of the fearless Gracie clan probably doesn’t hurt, either!
FRANK SHAMROCK: “The biggest part of my game is that I’ve been there, done that. I know everything that can happen. A fi ght is a fi ght is a fi ght. You k
now, the odds are, someone’s gonna win! If I win or lose, it’s just a game. I go in there and roll my best set of dice. If I win, great. If I don’t, then we go back to the life and work harder.”
SHONIE CARTER: “After so many fi ghts, I have learned to be cool under fi re. No particular tricks, I just do it.”
PAT MILETICH: “Train super-hard so you know you’re going to win.” And when it comes to beating that ever-unnerving adrenaline rush? The always straightforward Miletich says, simply, “Experience. I do say a prayer, though […] and I also always slap my body everywhere to numb my skin up and get my nerves ready for the feeling of getting hit so it doesn’t feel so foreign.”
Why this works: When one trains to his physical and mental peak, it affords them the power of total self-confi dence. By leaving nothing up to chance when reaching that razor’s edge, one may indeed fi nd that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, as FDR would say should the role of his leadership be likened to that of MMA teacher and fi ghter Pat Miletich.
MIGUEL TORRES: “I was blessed with the fact that I don’t ever get nervous before a fi ght, although I get anticipation because I want to handle my business. […] But I am as tough as they come, and I know this guy has not had the experiences I’ve had in my life. That mentally pushes me over and gives me an edge. […] I always pray that the event is successful and that no one gets seriously hurt. I never go out there with the mentality to hurt the other person. I try to break their will, but I don’t go out there like, ‘I’m gonna break his face or eat his children,’ or anything like that. I try to go out there with respect. I mean, this is a martial art and a sport, and I try to keep that respect in that realm.”
In the end, whether you are a mixed martial artist, purely a BJJ or Judo player, a Muay Thai practitioner, a boxer, a wrestler, or anything that relates to combat sports competition, use these tips and words of wisdom well to fi nd out how to best deal with the uncomfortable effects of that hand grenade in your gut — the fi ght-or-fl ight response.