Pre-Fight Anxiety: The Fight or Flight Response

I’ve never seemed to suffer from nerves before a fight. At least, not outwardly. People have often commented on how calm I appear, even moments before going into the ring. Mentally, I don’t usually feel nervous. My body, on the other hand, seems to feel otherwise.

Every fight day without fail, I wake up with an upset stomach which persists until the afternoon. 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 a huge problem or even sickness, 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 natural reactions that are caused by our fight-or-flight response. It’s 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, having developed during the course of evolution to protect us from anything that presented a threat to our lives. This is often illustrated by the primitive example of the sabre-toothed tiger.

Everyday examples of the fight or flight response will vary from person to person. For example, when you see a spider or snake, some might immediately jump up and back away. As a child, I once experienced a minor electric shock due to a faulty plug. 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 danger, experiencing the stereotypical ‘rabbit in the headlights’ reaction. For this reason, the term is generally expanded to the ‘freeze, fight or flight response’ for more accuracy. The freeze response paralyzes you with fear, often as a safety measure. This involuntary response can cause immobility, muscle tension and a drop in heart rate. People who experience freezing often report feeling alert but unable to react, especially when experiencing traumatic events. Some fighters may experience this in the ring, feeling unable to put the techniques they’ve learned into practice when faced with a real opponent. This is something I’ve often struggled with. 

The body will also respond in these ways 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 scolded 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.

Damien Trainor wrote about his experience of the fight or flight response before a fight in his post, ‘The Dreaded Changing Room‘. “The changing room is the worst part of the fight game for me to be honest”, he wrote. “In my opinion this is where a majority of fights can actually be won or lost. Your mind can play all manner of tricks on you during this time. Everyone will probably have a negative thought before going into a contest, but how you deal with it is the key”.

How the Body Reacts Before a Fight

Pre-fight nerves and bodily responses can show up differently from person to person. Here are some that I’ve experienced myself and seen in other fighters.

Nausea and Frequent Trips to the Bathroom

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, which means you might find yourself needing to pee more frequently than usual (has anyone else ever been teeped in the bladder and almost peed themselves in a fight? I certainly have). Another is digestion. Muscular movements of the digestive tract are slowed dramatically. As a result, food is digested more slowly (which explains why I always have a hard time eating a full meal on fight day and 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 diarrhea 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!

Profuse Sweating

As your heart begins to race, your internal temperature rises, causing you to sweat more than usual. Some say that this response also makes us more slippery as a way of becoming more evasive to predators, in the same way that we smother ourselves in Vaseline before a fight.


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 tackle the danger we’re faced with, therefore directing it away from the brain, which causes us to feel light-headed or dizzy. 

Increased Heart Rate

Increased heart rate is also a result of the alteration in blood and oxygen circulation. Again, this is 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, many fighters also experience ‘tunnel vision’, which makes them feel as if they can only focus on their opponent, and nothing else. In this response, your body may tune out surrounding stimuli 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. As a result, they just hone in on their opponent and go.

Racing Thoughts

This is a response 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. This is when my body realises that the fight is really happening. During those moments, all sorts of thoughts start to zip through my brain. Sometimes, they’re thoughts of anxiety or self-doubt, and I start to ask myself questions like ‘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?’ Other times, it’s various reminders I’m trying to give myself, techniques I’ve practised and things that I want to take into the fight. This flurry of thoughts is caused by the release of adrenaline.

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, and can result in feeling weakness or stiffness in the legs or difficulty breathing.

Controlling Pre-Fight Nerves

The key thing to remember about the fight, flight or freeze 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 non-threatening, whether it’s 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 could happen. You aren’t about to go up against a huge predator against which you stand no chance. Your opponent is a human being, just like you. Eliminate the thoughts of ‘what if’, which 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’re 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 make it much easier to deal with. One of the best ways to do this is to become familiar with the response, which 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 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 wroteThis 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 watches. 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 a lack of confidence sometimes get in the way.

You can also tackle the mental aspects of pre-fight anxiety on a more regular basis by practicing mental training, and 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 stimuli that surround 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. I also think about 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 in my fights. These are all things that I know and have experienced before, but only for a short time in each fight. 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, the same as practising techniques on the bag or in sparring. It all comes together 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 in calm waters, become more adept over time and as a result, are 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. That’s why using neutralising and calming techniques to prepare ourselves can be beneficial. While these tips might work for some, everyone has their own way of dealing with pre-fight anxiety. Use whatever works for you.

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