Co-authored with UFC Veteran Din Thomas
In our first article, Din and I reflected on the importance of a fight camp and provided some tips for improving it. In this article, we will ponder the mental side of the game while providing some advice for improving fighters’ confidence and performance.
Mind Games: Solving the Fight Camp Riddle with Din Thomas
Will and Skill
Managing the mental part of the fight game can be a challenge during fight camps. With almost 25 years in the fight game, I’ve found that every fighter is unique. Moreover, there are many factors that can influence different combatants psychologically. Some fighters can “handle” the pressure of fight camp better than others. And these same fighters might handle one fight camp differently from the other depending on the importance of the fight to them. One of the biggest impacts on a fighter mentally is quality training and sparring. Fighters cannot become “great” by telling themselves it is so. In the end, will is built on skill.
Will may be enough to get a fighter moving in the right direction, but it is successive mastery experiences that build confidence and progressively strengthens the skills required to be victorious. Becoming great requires deliberate behavior that is progressively strengthened through reinforcing (successful) experiences. It is behavior that ultimately impacts a fighter’s confidence. The behavior of the fighter, and the behavior of the coach.
Seeing is Believing
To build confidence, fighters need to directly observe results. Successful results improves the fighter’s “mental status” and the fighters’ performance during training as it quickly transfers into his or her self-efficacy, or belief in their ability. Many researchers have found self-efficacy to be one of the biggest predictors of success across tasks and fields (Bandura, 1997). Success begets success during fight camp. These mastery experiences further reinforce the fighters training behavior, belief in their ability, and motivation.
When fighters truly believe in their ability and recognize it is the result of specific training regiments put forth by coaches during camp, they will further dedicate themselves to perfecting their skills. This belief in their ability generalizes into the actual fight as their successful experiences during sparring help fighters overcome competitive pressure and the ebb and flow of closely contested matches. With all things being even, it is a fighter’s self-efficacy that is the difference between triumph and defeat. The accumulative successful performances taking place during training camp ultimately lead up to the greatest chance of victory in the fight.
Fighters typically do not begin fight camp in peak condition physically or psychologically. Improved performance requires progressive development and quality coaching. During the initial phases, fighters must remain “gritty” in the face of relatively poor performances. Fighters with strong self-efficacy sustain their effort and view poor performances as a learning experience. On the other hand, lack of quality training or successful experiences can work in reverse on the fighter mentally. There is a negative relationship between excessive poor performance during training and a fighter’s confidence. A reduction in confidence equals a reduced probability of winning. Champion and veteran fighters have a proven history of overcoming training “slumps.” They “know” it is only temporary, and will stick with their training regimen until they find success.
However, fighters with less experience do not have a sufficient history of mastery experience to drive their belief in themselves. As a result, doubt quickly creeps into their mind and into their performance. In good fight camps, quality coaches intuitively recognize when a fighter’s confidence is being negatively impacted. When they do, they might adjust their fighters training regiment, set smaller goals, or simply help the fighter recognize incremental improvements that may have gone unnoticed.
The difference between an expert (veteran) and a non-expert is the extent to which the fighter has engaged in deliberate practice over a designated period of time. Expert coaches assist in building a deliberate practice regiment that includes breaking down a specific skill into its components. The fighter then practices this skill through routines and during sparring while the coach provides feedback. As the fighter improves, coaches progressively make training more difficult until a high-level of proficiency is achieved. So the goal of training camp is to engage in as much deliberate practice as possible while helping fighters observe the improvements in their performances.
Mental training is as big a part of deliberate practice as physical training. But mental training is not mystical by nature. It requires deliberate behavior. Watching fight footage, breaking down video footage of training, visualization strategies, etc., are all aspects of a strong deliberate practice routine. Fighters can literally improve their performance while sitting on the couch. Unfortunately, these aspects of the game are often overlooked.
More is not better
It has been my experience that many fighters believe training “more” is “better.” Fighters must definitely put in the work. But like a college student who reads an entire chapter and doesn’t retain a thing, training more does not mean learning more. Fighters must set goals and train intelligently. The best fight camps have established goals that have sustained focus by fighter and coaches. But even in the absence of quality coaching, fighters can set their own goals. When sparring, instead of trying to “beat” the opponent, fighters might deliberately work on a specific skill. Maybe it’s increasing the use of the jab, pivoting the back foot when throwing the cross, or allowing themselves to be put into bad positions and then working on escaping. The point is, the fighter is deliberately working on something specific that moves themselves closer to established goals.
Too much training or training with lack of focus can result in a decrease in performance or even injury. UFC Veteran Din Thomas has witnessed his share of this throughout his years in the fight game. One of the faux pas made by fighters is measuring their performance by how they “feel.” Here’s what Din has to say about what I call “mind games” during fight camp.
Don’t be Deceived
Fighters tend to base their training on how he or she feels. How a fighter feels is often a “lie” and can deceive a fighter into a desired or undesired result. The truth is, there is no actual proof there is a correlation between how a fighter feels and the output delivered. Fighters in camp must focus on actual output and results, as opposed to how he or she feels about it. Often times I see fighters in camp get beat up in sparring, never amounting any offense, but feel great because it was “hard training.” More often than not, this feeling is illustrated and broadcasted all over that fighter’s social media at the conclusion of it. The sensation that fighters experience that causes them to feel good can be detrimental to the camp if the output and results are not in sync. Here are some red flags:
- sparred with 5 different fighters, I feel good.
- hit pads with coach and I feel good.
- lifted weights and now I feel strong.
I am in no way suggesting not to feel positive about the work and efforts. A positive mind should always be engaged in training. But do not allow that to be the measurement of progress in a “Fight Camp.” A positive mind should be constant, in so much as, the only thing that matters in camp are results. Was the objective accomplished? Was the riddle solved?
A fight camp will have addressed as many problems that can figure to arise during the fight. A fight camp will also address lingering problems that a fighter may have with himself or herself. A successful fight camp will have found multiple solutions to these problems. The most successful fight camps not only find solutions to problems, but also preventive measures to avoid those problems.
Not only does Din’s perspective make sense, it is also deeply aligned with the research. Self-efficacy, or one’s belief in their ability to complete a task, is one of the biggest predictors of success in a field. However, self-efficacy can only be built through mastery experiences. Like Din states, what is being “measured,” and what are the “results?” Without a goal and measurement of progress towards that goal, realizing a return on investment of training based on fight outcomes is like an autopsy. It’s too late. Progress must be measured incrementally and in relation to established goals. When coaches and fighters collaborate towards common objectives and goals, fight camps will effectively increase the ultimate ROI in MMA. Victory!
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Edmonds, W. A., Johnson, M. B., Tenenbaum, G., & Kamata, A. (2013). Idiographic approaches in sport. In G. Tenenbaum, R. C. Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.), Handbook of Measurement in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics