I have to start by apologising for how long it’s taken me to write this post. I promised to get this one up after a fight I had in June, since that particular fight highlighted some problems for me. Here’s what I wrote about it then:
“I didn’t seem myself for the entirety of this fight. Things just weren’t coming to me as they usually would, as if I had some kind of mental block that was stopping my body from doing everything that it had been trained to do. It was almost like having my first fight all over again. Instead of stepping off, moving and countering, I planted myself in front of her. Instead of clamping down, turning and kneeing in the clinch, I just clung on. I almost felt lost. What the fuck was happening? This is something you expect to experience in your first fights, so I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing it at that point”.
I’d originally planned to write this post immediately after that fight. However, as I sat down to do it, I realised that I had a lot more to learn about myself and my particular situation before I could do so. I’d hoped to rectify this problem in the next fight after that one, but wasn’t quite successful. It wasn’t until then that I took the necessary steps towards getting over my ‘mental block’ and finally saw results. In my last fight, I reaped the rewards of that with a first-round knockout. Here, I’ll write about my journey between that fight and this one, and the changes that took place in between.
My Previous Approach to Mental Preparation
Pre-fight preparation has always been a calm and quiet time for me. I’ve never been one to stress about and upcoming fight. This is not because I’m supremely confident, quite the opposite. I just don’t want to get too nervous and psych myself out. Ultimately, I’m afraid of losing control. I’ve seen other fighters get into the ring and get tunnel vision. They lose sight of everything else and just charge forward. In those instances, they usually have a hard time hearing instructions from their corner and get tired quickly because they’re not pacing themselves. This is something that I’ve always wanted to avoid. However, my problem is on the other end of the spectrum. Instead, I am very aware of my surroundings. I can hear everything that’s coming from my corner and I know what I need to do. For some reason, I just have trouble getting it out. As a result, I’ve sometimes ended up wasting time and waiting for my opponent instead of taking control of the fight. In those fights, I’ve always come out feeling as if I could have done so much more. I need to find a happy medium between those two extremes.
Perhaps not getting myself ‘pumped up’ before a fight was a method of avoidance. I’d just always relied on the thought that once you get into the ring, all of your previous training will come together and your body will automatically do what it’s been trained to do, so you should just let it go. Only recently did I realise that this isn’t necessarily true. At least, not for me. Going into a fight with that mindset actually cost me the win in my last two fights because I hadn’t set my mind up properly, which subsequently caused my body to freeze up under the pressure. After losing my rematch with Nong Ning because of a poor performance, it occurred to me that I’d been believing in that for too long and that I had to take a different approach to fighting. For some fighters, just letting go may be the best approach. However, as an athlete who is not highly experienced, I can’t rely on instincts to get me through, because those instincts aren’t anywhere near developed yet. Instead, I have to make conscious decisions leading up to and throughout the fight. If I don’t, I’ll continue to under-achieve and lose to opponents whom I should be beating.
Getting Started with Mental Training
Mental training has always been something that I knew I needed to work on. This became even more apparent to me shortly after my September fight in Hua Hin. Again, I lost by decision to an opponent whom I could have beaten, but things just didn’t come together for me. I waited for her to strike first and allowed her confidence to grow while mine dwindled. After that, I refused to keep making the same mistakes. Immediately after the fight, I want straight back into the gym, eager to work on them. I was sparring the following morning after the fight and continued to do so after that. In an afternoon session two days later, I was doing some boxing sparring with Mina, an awesome training partner and friend from Norway. Mina was around 12kgs heavier than me and a hard sparrer. She was also preparing for a fight the following week, which meant that she was working harder than usual. Master Toddy watched as her and I did round after round of heavy boxing, pressuring me to fix the mistakes I’d been making. I could feel him getting as frustrated with me as I was with myself, and I knew that the mistakes that I was making there were the very reasons why I’d been losing fights. Eventually, the intensity, frustration, pressure and what I perceived to be my own failure all mounted on top of me and after we finished our last round, I ended up crying. I knew that I had to fix it. I had all the tools that I needed, but was allowing other elements to stop me from performing at my highest level. This just wouldn’t do.
I looked into options for mental training, but was unsure of where to start. Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu happened to be working on the same thing and had posted an interview with a sports psychologist on that very subject, which was very helpful for me. I shared it on Facebook and by chance, a friend of mine at the gym instantly responded by directing me towards a program that he’s used, The Confident Athlete by Dr. Patrick J. Cohn. The Confident Athlete is a 14-day program, which sounds gimmicky, but it worked really well for me. It includes an series of MP3 files and a workbook to follow along with them. On each day, I listened to a new MP3 and did an exercise in the workbook. Each time, I was forced to evaluate different areas of my athletic confidence (or lack thereof) and consciously work to improve them.
The program was hugely beneficial to me. It’s easy to shrug off mental training and just focus on the physical side, but it’s actually a vital part of being a successful athlete, something I’ve become increasingly aware of after recent fights. It could also be said that programs such as these don’t teach you anything new, and while that might be the case for some, there is a difference between knowing what you have to do and actually committing the time to doing it. That was the crucial thing for me. Taking just a short amount of time out of each day to work on my mental training allowed me to make huge strides in my confidence. One of the key things I took away from it was a different approach to my pre-fight preparation. I had always thought that my original approach, clearing my mind and not allowing myself to get nervous, was the best way. However, in doing this program, I realised that I was unknowingly just waiting for the fight to start and expecting to feel confident when it did. This was actually detrimental because it meant that I had to see positive results before I could begin to feel confident. It also made me more susceptible to the fight or flight response once I got into the ring (which I wrote about in a previous post, ‘Pre-Fight Anxiety: The Fight or Flight Response‘). So, when my opponents came out confidently from the start, I was already at a disadvantage. My confidence was already stifled. I had to take initiative with my confidence, rather than just expecting it to develop on it’s own.
When my last fight came, I was just over half-way through the 14 days. In that time, I’d already seen improvements in my mindset and was consciously implementing the methods I’d learned in that time. I was already aware of all of the negative thoughts about myself, my ability or my performance that I was prone to using, so whenever one of those entered my mind, I caught myself mid-sentence, eradicated it and corrected it. I made sure not to allow myself to doubt myself or put myself down and instead used positive, affirming self-talk to remind myself of all my strengths. I jotted them down and read over them regularly, and also took the workbook with me to the fight venue to read over as I got ready. As I lay on the mat behind the ring waiting to fight, I felt supremely confident. I refused to allow anything to alter my state of mind. That transcended into the ring, and instead of trying to assert my confidence when I got there, I went in with it already solidified. I felt comfortable, happy and self-assured from the first bell. I even smiled at my opponent on when she attacked, because at that time, there was nothing she could have done to shake me. This time, my confidence grew while hers diminished and as a result, I stopped her in the first round.
Before I’d gotten into mental training, I saw my previous mistakes as huge weaknesses. I wondered if they meant that I wasn’t much of a fighter or that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it. You can have all the technique, speed, power and stamina in the world, but what good is it if you can’t take it into the fight? Now, I’ve assured myself that I can. I just needed to make some adjustments and pay more attention to my mental approach. We all have good and bad days in the ring, but I feel as though now that I’ve enhanced my game a little, I can work towards more of those good days.
My first short course of mental training helped me to make some very quick changes which produced immediate results, but the work doesn’t end here. Now that the flaws in my previous mental approach to training in fighting have been highlighted, I’ll have to work continuously to ensure that I don’t slip back into those behaviours. Likewise, I’ll have to continue with the same habits I adopted during those 14 days to add them into my long-term routine. It’s also important to remember that the best methods of mental training will vary from person to person. I’ve shared the program that I used, but others may need to look around for the right fit for them. While a 14-day program such as this one might sound like a quick fix, it’s just the beginning, something to get you started on changing things that may be deeply ingrained in your athletic mindset. It’s not some kind of magical cure to all your shortcomings as a fighter, but if used correctly, it can really help you enhance your performance. However, just as one fantastic performance in a fight can be followed by a terrible one, mental habits are easily changeable if not maintained. We have to be pro-active and work to improve both of these things. After a great fight, you don’t just pat yourself on the back, take a break and expect to keep performing at that level. You get back into the gym and keep working. Mental training works in the same way.