Developing Mental Toughness

In the fight game, we use the words “tough” and “heart” interchangeably. But don’t make the mistake of thinking overwhelming physical skill equates toughness. Rings and cages are littered with athletic wonders that did not have the heart to make it big. Physical prowess alone does not make a fighter tough. True toughness and heart occur from the neck up. Tough fighters find a way to win. Toughness and heart are a mentality—the “never say die” attitude that makes a fighter a true warrior.

I can teach you stand-up, clinch, ground, and conditioning. I can’t give you heart. However, in my 10-plus years of coaching, I’ve learned there’s more to the story. I’ve learned that most people have a lot more heart than they realize. A coach’s job is to help a fighter uncover what they have inside them. Many times it is just a matter of cultivating confidence. Nature gives an athlete certain gifts, but we must nurture the qualities needed to succeed.


Tough isn’t how you act. Tough is how you train. Tough is the process of digging deep. Helping my fighters uncover the heart and toughness they may not know they have is a delicate process. It is all too easy for a coach to break an athlete mentally and physically. Pushing someone too far, too soon, can result in losing a promising athlete. Having said that, we have to have a way for the fighter to dig deep enough to realize they can overcome any obstacle, if they want it bad enough. I can push him to the edge, but what will he do when he gets there? Does he have the heart?

The following two drills are my favorites for pushing a fighter right up to the edge.


In this drill, we take a fighter with an upcoming fight and feed him to the sharks. Every minute—for the length of the fight the fighter is training for—he will face a fresh opponent. For a five minute round, the fighter will face five fresh opponents. As the fighter starts to fatigue, the pressure becomes overwhelming. The fighter will have to ignore the internal voices begging him to quit. I have seen world champions come close to breaking during a spirited shark bait drill. When running a shark bait drill, it is important for a coach to know how far to push his fighter. Training partners are asked to turn the intensity up or down as needed. Each person that takes part in the shark bait has a role to play. Words of encouragement are shared the whole time, and the entire drill is meant as a positive experience. Finishing a full shark bait fight lets the fighter know that surviving and succeeding for that time period against one opponent is possible. Shark bait helps build the confidence that leads to uncovering true mental toughness.


I use this drill to continuously place a fighter in the worst possible positions of a fight and have them battle back from the brink. The fighters are placed under the mount, under cross side, in bottom half guard, and their backs are taken. The fighter’s goal is to survive these positions and escape. After escaping they are immediately placed back into a poor position and the drill is continued. In a more advanced version of this drill, fighters also are placed in common submissions and not allowed to tap. They must battle out of the submissions and learn when they are really in danger. Believing in their technique to survive and escape is a great way to squash the panic that makes them want to quit.

Both of these drills test the resolve of even the toughest fighters. More importantly, the fighters are placed in controlled situations that are stressful enough to help them discover how they will react when their opponent has the same goal—winning. Coaches running these drills must never turn them into anything torturous. I always want the fighter to feel like, “Damn straight I can do that.” Then I know they have “it.” These drills should be building blocks to greater skills and self-discovery.


“Toughness can carry you a long way, especially in fighting.”—Forrest Griffin in Got Fight?

Hands down the toughest fighter I have ever coached is former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Forrest Griffin. I believe the phrase used so often by announcers, “This kid’s got heart,” was coined for Forrest. In six years with me, Forrest never missed a practice and never complained about the pain his body was in. Forrest had the drive, desire, heart, and toughness to be a champion from his first day in the gym.

When Forrest stepped into the cage, I never saw him quit in a fight for even a second. In two separate fights—on two different continents— Forrest showed true mental toughness. In his second professional fight in South Africa in 2001, Forrest broke his collarbone in the opening seconds of the fight. While most people would have quit, Forrest took his opponent’s back and choked him out. While fighting in Brazil in 2003, Forrest had his arm broken by a punch. Forrest just used his good arm to knock the guy out. Now, I can’t vouch for the mental stability of Forrest Griffin, but I can say for certainty, this kid’s got heart.

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