I’ve never seemed to suffer from nerves before a fight. In fact, people have often commented on how calm I am about it all, even just before going into the ring. Mentally, I don’t feel nervous. My body, on the other hand, seems to feel otherwise. Every fight day, without fail, I wake up with an upset stomach and it persists until the afternoon. It’s like clockwork. Before I’ve even opened my eyes and had a chance to even think about the fight, my body is already stressed about it. It’s not something that’s a huge problem and a know it’s not ‘illness’, just the kind of inconvenience that you know is a reaction from your body to a stressful situation, like when your heart drops when you realise you’ve lost your wallet, shaking, stuttering and sweating when you have to make a big presentation or that ‘shit-your-pants’ feeling you suddenly realise that you’re a situation of impending danger. These are all natural body reactions that are caused by our ‘fight or flight response’. This is a spontaneous, involuntary reaction from the body that occurs in situations of perceived danger, and is said the be a result of our primitive roots – to have developed during the course of evolution to protect us from anything that threatened our lives. This is often illustrated by the example of the sabre-toothed tiger, but of course, now relates to a much wider range of threats.
Every day examples of the ‘fight or flight response’ can include an array of things and will be different for everyone. For example, when you see a spider or cockroach (or anything that one might find horrible), you might immediately jump up and back away from it.I remember as a child, I once tried to plug a socket into the wall without realising the back of the plastic casing had fallen off, which meant that I pushed my thumb into the fuse as it connected to the wall, sending an electric shock straight down my arm. Before I knew it, I’d already darted all the way to the other side of the room, not quite knowing how I arrived there until my body had regained balance and I’d calmed down, just a few seconds later. You might also freeze in response to some kind of danger, with that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ reaction we’ve all heard of. For this reason, it’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘freeze, fight or flight response’. It paralyzes you with fear before forcing you to react in order to save yourself. The body will also respond this way to things that aren’t physiological, like the anticipation of a big event (remember how you felt as a kid when you knew you were about to get told off by your parents?) These things don’t present a threat to our survival but we still react to them as if they were sabre-toothed tigers. The responses and causes of them can vary hugely from person to person and I although I’m no expert on anxiety and this certainly isn’t new information, I thought it would be useful the ones I experience and know of here:
Nausea or an upset stomach and a frequent need to urinate: When you’re in a situation of perceived danger, your body slows or even shuts down systems or functions which aren’t immediately needed for survival in order to allow others to function more readily. Bladder control is one of those (has anyone else ever been teeped in the bladder and almost peed themselves in a fight? No? Just me? Alright then), another is digestion. Muscular movements of the digestive tract are slowed, perhaps even halted altogether. As a result, food is digested more slowly (which explains why I always have a hard time eating a full meal on fight day, I never seem to be hungry) and the distribution of water, blood flow and digestive secretions to the digestive tract is altered, which is why you can sometimes get diaorrhea as a result. It also explains why you might feel ‘butterflies’ in your stomach.
Dry mouth: As your body is focusing on optimizing all the essential functions to survive, other less important functions are temporarily ‘forgotten about’. Saliva production is another one of these. This is why you may often get a dry mouth before going into a fight. I always find myself constantly sipping water on fight day, never feeling like I’ve had enough but trying to make sure I don’t drink too much – it doesn’t quite help with the inhibited bladder control, does it?
Profuse Sweating: This is a more obvious one, to cool the body as it’s heating up to prepare itself and perhaps, to make it more slippery as a way of becoming for evasive to predators, in the same way that we smother ourselves in Vaseline before a fight.
Dizziness: Blood and oxygen distribution is directly altered as a result of the fight or flight response. It dilates blood vessels in order to quickly send them towards our muscles to make them ready for use to ‘fight’ the danger we’re faced with, therefore directing it away from the brain, which causes us to feel light-headed or dizzy. I’ve also previously felt this when receiving a particularly nasty injection or being in a very high place.
Increased rate of heart rate and breathing: This is also a result of the alteration in blood and oxygen circulation. Again, a way of the body making us more readily prepared either to engage in battle or to flee from danger.
Blurry or tunnel vision: The pupils dilate to allow you to receive more visual information, which can sometimes result in blurry vision. However, a more common response is ‘tunnel vision’, where you feel as if you can only focus on the subject you’re looking directly at, i.e your opponent. In this response, your body may tune out stimulus around you that could distract you from dealing with whatever that subject may be, which is why some fighters find it difficult to hear their corners during a fight. They just focus on their opponent and go.
Racing thoughts: This is one that I sometimes experience just as I’m getting my hands wrapped. Up until that moment, I’ll feel totally calm and collected. Then, all of a sudden, the threat becomes real. I’m preparing to get into the ring, it’s really happening. All sorts of thoughts and ideas might zip through my brain in that moment. They could be thoughts of anxiety or self-doubt, such as ‘what if this or that happens’, ‘who’s going to be watching me?’ ‘will I perform well?’ and ‘why am I even putting myself through this?’ or they could just be various things that I’m trying to remind myself of, techniques I’ve practiced and things that I want to take into the fight. This flurry of thoughts is caused by release of adrenaline and I imagine, is something that many fighters experience.
Tight or heavy muscles: Increased blood flow to muscles can cause them to feel heavy or tense. This is particularly common in the chest and leg muscles.
How to Control it
The key thing about the fight or flight response is that it occurs as a result of perceived danger. Therefore, the simplest way to control it would be to change the way you feel about the very thing that causes it. In this case, the fight. Of course, it’s difficult to think of a fight as an non-threatening situation, whether it be to your safety or your self-esteem. Still, it’s not a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s important to remind yourself to consciously think rational, positive thoughts, rather than focusing on anything negative that may happen. You aren’t about to go up against a huge predator against which you stand no chance. Your opponent is a human being with two arms and two legs, just like you. Eliminate the ‘what if’ scenarios from your mind, they serve no purpose at that crucial point, just before you go into the ring. Worrying about what your opponent might do will only feed those negative thoughts. Instead, focus on yourself, how you’ve been training and what you plan to do. No matter who your opponent is and what they have to offer you, you are still going to fight the way you fight.
It’s also important to be aware of what your body’s doing when those anxious responses are triggered. If you know and understand why your body is reacting in that way, you can rationalise it and it therefore becomes much easier to deal with. One of the best ways to do this is to become familiar with the response, something that can only be achieved through experience. However, this doesn’t mean that the only way to do it is to just fight more. Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu wrote about controlling these responses in a post last year, ‘Fighter Mail: Fight Nerves, Tunnel Vision and Does it Go Away?‘. She very wisely pointed out that even with a wealth of experience in terms of fights, you still have only a limited of time actually in the ring. Although you’ve spent a huge amount of time in training and had a large amount of fights, the length of time you’ve spent in a real, fighting situation only comes down to hours or minutes. ‘I’d never consider myself an expert in something I’d spent only 6-7 hours doing. But the point is that with so little time spent in an actual, real fight, you can see why it takes a long time to get comfortable or used to the situation’, she wrote. This is why it’s so important to face the anxieties on a regular basis, in training. You can do this by simulating a fight situation in training, something we sometimes do at our gym with ‘mock fights’, two people sparring in the ring with shin pads and head guards with a referee and cornermen while the rest of the gym watch. If you train outside Thailand, taking part in regular interclubs or ‘smoker fights’ will have the same effect. It’s also important to tackle these issues in your regular sparring. Find your holes, whether they’re a result of mental triggers or technique issues, pinpoint them and make a conscious effort to work on them. A good way to do that is to just single one of them out and work on that for an entire session. I often have to remind myself to do this in order to stop backing up under pressure or to follow up after striking. Technically and physically, I know what to do, but nervousness and confidence issues sometimes stop me from doing it.
You can also tackle the mental aspects of pre-fight anxiety on a more regular basis by visualising the fight in your own time. I find that taking time to imagine myself being at the stadium and preparing for the fight helps me to come to terms with those feelings. It’s almost a kind of meditation. Now that I’ve spent some time fighting, I’ve become familiar with all the stimulus that surrounds me in those moments. I imagine getting my hands wrapped and my muscles vigorously massaged. I imagine the smell of namman muay, Vaseline and well-worn gloves; the sound of the crowd, the announcer over the speakers and the music all blurred together; the image of my opponent getting ready just across from me and strangers coming up to get a good look. I imagine doing all of this at the last second and having only a very limited time to process it all, which is almost always what happens. These are all things that I know and have experienced before, but only for a short time in each case. If I spend some time trying to recreate those things in my mind, keeping a clear head and visualising how I would deal with them going into the fight, I can make at least some progress towards dealing with them in a real situation. It may seem slightly redundant at first, but repetition is key, as with practicing techniques on the bag or in sparring – it all comes with time. Sailors don’t expect themselves to suddenly learn to sail in severe weather while coping with the full-force of stormy oceans. They practice first in calm waters, become better at it over time and in doing so, become better-equipped to deal with those conditions when they come. In that same way, learning to deal with the flurry of physiological and psychological responses that come with a fight while we’re in that situation, while not impossible, is a difficult thing to do. For most of us, it’s also difficult to fight frequently enough to achieve that. Therefore, using neutralising and calming techniques to prepare ourselves can be really beneficial. That being said, everyone has their own way of dealing with pre-fight anxiety – use whatever works for you.
Damien Trainor described some of the typical emotions experienced before a fight in his post, ‘The Dreaded Changing Room‘, but Mike Tyson did it best in this famous audio clip from the 2009 documentary, Tyson, which you can see below. Essential listening for any fighter.