How sports psychology functions in the fight game

Written by Karl Nemsow

Bill Cole is one of the leading performance psychology experts in the USA. He is also a huge fan of Mixed Martial Arts and has worked with not only cage fighters but world-class martial artists across a variety of disciplines.

sports psychology
How sport psychology functions in the world of fighting.

Following his contribution to the recently released MMA documentary The Hurt Business, in which he features, Cole gave Blitz the lowdown on how sport psychology functions in the world of fighting.

Bill, how did you come to work with MMA fighters to begin with?

I’ve done mental game coaching in over 100 sports since the ’70s. I’d been the mental game coach to many combat sports athletes and one day got a phone call from a professional coach who had an MMA athlete with a big fight coming up who had severe self-confidence doubts. I worked with him, he won his fight, and that is how my MMA work started. Since then I’ve coached pro MMA athletes in various leagues.

Do you find there is anything psychologically unique about them as a group compared to elite athletes from other sports?

I’ve seen that MMA fighters can take more physical punishment, can push themselves harder physically and can be “positively addicted” to their sport. They fall into the “thrill sport” category of athletes where they seem to need lots of excitement and competition to feel alive. These people don’t choose chess as a backup sport.

If they were not doing MMA, they’d be doing other contact and thrill sports. You can see many MMA athletes coming from the combat sports and other highly aggressive sports. Not too many kids from the high school golf team end up in the Octagon.

MMA athletes are a different breed. These folks are known as sensation-seekers. They have a desire for novel, intense and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take risks to achieve these experiences. They have a need for novelty, change and excitement, risk-taking, a self-inducing fight-or-flight response, and an adrenaline “rush”. They love stressful activities for the release of epinephrine and endorphins.

They either ignore or minimise the risks, and believe that the thrill far outweighs the potential downside. You could say that danger is their middle name.

You have told of being concerned for fighters’ mental wellbeing to the point that you fear they might suicide, and we’ve heard fighters such as Ronda Rousey talk openly of facing depression to that level. How is it that those we perceive as having incredible mental strength — much greater than average, and enough to go through years of hard training, grinding fight camps and the stress of getting in the ring where getting hurt is almost certain — can simultaneously be inclined to fall apart after a loss? Is this a typical reaction for people in those circumstances or particular to certain high-achieving personalities perhaps?

Depression is no respecter of people or professions. It cuts across all social strata and careers. In fact, in looking at the top 10 professions that commit suicide the most often, the top five are physicians, dentists, police officers, financial professionals and lawyers. These are all very smart people, well educated, and all under tremendous pressure. Professional athletes are not even in the top 20 of most such suicide lists. In fact, at this time, college student-athletes, for example, seem to be less likely to make suicide attempts than other non-athletic college students.

So for MMA fighters, they are mentally tough enough to withstand the extreme training regimen and resilient enough to handle the actual fight. (Although plenty of top-performing athletes choke in their event, and that’s not shameful, nor does it indicate pervasive mental health issues. Even the top athletes in all sports choke from time to time.) It’s the aftermath of the fight that gets most to people. The pressure they feel is ‘people pressure’ or ‘social approval pressure’. They don’t want to let down their team. They fear how the media will criticise them. They dread having to look into the eyes of their team when they lose. They realise they have lost street cred standing with their fellow competitors. They did not make the money they wanted. And one more major difference with MMA fighters that most other sports don’t have: the extreme build-up of pressure for the fight. The MMA fighter trains like crazy for weeks and months for a fight. A single fight. A precious few minutes. They believe that everything they did the month or so prior is riding on this one fight. That creates tremendous pressure in their mind. They think, ‘I’d better do good. If I don’t, that means all my training was a total waste’. This is the type of incorrect thinking, or emotional thinking, that I help my fighters correct. They need to see that no one is defined by one single fight. They need to see that it is a process, and they keep growing. They need to see that losing does not make them a ‘loser’.

Once they get their thinking patterns into the other side of the ledger, the correct thinking side, training goes better, they are more relaxed, they have better focus and intensity, and they compete closer to their true potential. And they do this with sustainability.

Other pro sports such as major league baseball have more than one game a week all season long. If you lose, there is always another chance at redemption in just a couple of days, and the emotional sting of the loss is diminished. MMA has no such immediate potential recovery from failure. The emotional fallout can be extreme and lingering.

This belief that life will become unbearable if they lose can cause untold stress in a person. If they have their self-identity riding on their profession — ‘I’m an MMA fighter, 100 per cent…that’s what I do, and that’s who I am’ — then that is a very brittle identity, and when they lose, they perceive losing to be awful, terrible and catastrophic. To them, their entire life has fallen apart. They have lost face. They feel their value as a human being is next to nothing.

Many MMA fighters operate in ‘denial mode’. They train, and occasionally randomly think about the fight, usually in the back of their minds, ‘I should be okay. I hope I’m okay. I better be okay.’ They push the anxiety of the fight into the background, put their noses to the training grindstone, and just plough ahead. Then, a couple weeks or so before the fight, anxiety raises its head. They suddenly realise the fight is almost here, they’ve blown it up in their mind, and there is no way out now. They feel trapped. That’s when the anxiety explodes. Mental game coaching stops that downward spiral, and buffers the stress so it doesn’t build up before the fight.

Looking at Gary Goodridge’s story as an example, do you think this increased knowledge of brain injury and the associated dangers of fighting have a positive effect on fighters’ abilities to mentally prepare for, and endure, about, or can it undermine the confidence and ability to perform by amplifying the perceived threat (and fear thereof)?

There are MMA fighters who like to be very aware of the science of sport. Others could not care less. Particularly with the younger MMA fighters, and with their tendency to be ‘in denial’ about the potential injuries in the sport (‘Those severe injuries won’t happen to me. I’m a good fighter. I know how to defend myself. Stuff like that happens to other people.’), the powerful defence mechanism of denial serves to protect them from over-thinking the injury potential of the sport. Many young people feel relatively bulletproof with regard to the dangers of life. They know almost no one their age who has died. The only people they know who have died are very old, and that old stage of life seems very, very far off. They can barely picture themselves that old, so they dismiss their own mortality out of hand.

It takes a special person to get in the ring, where they know they could be injured, maimed for life or killed. But this taste for danger I believe is in our DNA as humans, and the thrill-sport athletes seek a bigger helping of this exotic elixir than the rest of us.

Do you think it’s a positive thing that fighters are now developing a greater awareness and heightened sense of caution around taking punishment to the head?

I see that as very positive, yes. For example, American football requires helmets and pads. At one time, when the game began, they were optional. Who knows, maybe MMA will develop special safety rules like football. But then maybe that may also ruin the raw, animal, visceral attraction that MMA has, both for spectators and the athletes. MMA is a spectacle — making it ‘too safe’ may cause it to lose its special lustre.

A UFC fight trainer mentioned recently that the popular ‘positive affirmations’ culture, along with its simplistic process of telling yourself everything is/will be alright, is actually detrimental to fighters in the cage, where that self-talk can amount to a denial of problems and dangers that must be dealt with immediately. He said his fighter who’d had a particular ‘mental coach’ leading up to about suffered this fate, because when things really went bad for the fighter and there was no way to fool himself otherwise, resorting to affirmation was no use. Instead, it amplified the problem in his mind, leaving him feeling overwhelmed, when what he needed was to accept the situation and stay focused on solutions. What’s your opinion on that?

I don’t use the ‘positive affirmations’ strategy. Affirmations are not proven by research, but they are very much a part of the old-school sport psychology culture and coaching culture. They don’t work because an athlete who has mental deficiencies or training gaps actually knows deep down inside that these flaws will get them in trouble in the fight. The affirmations just flit across the surface and fool the athlete into thinking that everything will work out...somehow. As they say, hope is not a plan.

Using positive affirmations is like trying to use a Band-Aid when you just severed an artery in a chainsaw accident. So yes, positive affirmations can seem like a soothing tool, but they often don’t survive the first punch. Reality always wins. And MMA is a big dose of reality.

In martial arts/MMA academies, most instructors teach in a class environment that places necessary limitations on personal interaction with each student. With this in mind, how can martial arts instructors best help their students with the mental game?

A few years ago I spoke to over 150 Black-belt martial arts instructors at the Annual National Boot Camp for the Ernie Reyes World Martial Arts Association. In that talk I shared how martial arts/MMA academies can teach the mental game.

Most MMA and martial arts training happens in groups. Compared to almost all other sports, the martial arts does a great job of teaching mental toughness and dedication. But unfortunately, the results come more from a war of attrition, and not so much from direct instruction. If a student hangs in there and takes all that the instructors dish out, and they learn the skills, they pass their belt tests. If they don’t, they fail.

I suggested instead that from day one instructors teach the full range of mental skills: attention control, stress control, breath control, visualisation, mental readiness, confidence, zone skills and a host of others. Instructors can hold their students more accountable, help them become better self-learners (because all learning is really self-learning), help them set goals, compete better under pressure, and to love and enjoy the sport more.

Further to this, how can students help themselves? Is sports psychology coaching a luxury for the professional athlete who’s playing for high stakes, or is it a worthwhile investment for the everyman/ woman playing amateur sports for leisure?

In my 40 years practising sport psychology, most of my clients have been the more serious athletes and coaches. It is rare for me to get anyone below the competitive level. Prior to competing, they are mainly having fun, but when they begin to compete, they want to win, and they (and others) put more pressure on themselves. Then their motivation to learn the mental game is high. When they meet me, their coaches normally have not taught them any mental skills beyond the typical coach exhortations to try harder, focus and suck it up. I’m not blaming coaches in any way. That’s what they know — they’re not mental training experts.

Athletes can help themselves by becoming overall students of their sport, and of the mental game in particular. They can read and make lists of questions in the mental arena they want answered. This type of curiosity can go a long way to helping them improve.

I have plenty of nonprofessional sports clients who want to learn a better mental game. Maybe their goal is to pass a belt test or to win a weekend tennis match with their friends, or to get a lower score on the golf course. Whatever the reason, I always like to help.

The Hurt Business delved into the dark side of an MMA fighter's existence, which we don’t often see. What’s your personal opinion on the sport of MMA in the USA and how those running it on the business side treat the athletes and trainers?

I absolutely fell in love with MMA many years ago. I watched it on TV every chance I could get. I still love it and I still watch it. It is a special sport with some sort of unique hypnotic allure that is hard to quantify. I never get into the politics or financial side of the game with my coaching clients, but the agents and managers and coaches I speak to like to tell me about it. Regardless, these are areas that are outside the control of the fighters I coach. When they think about the money, the fame, the media and the social aspects of their sport, it can be tantalising, but ultimately, all this is still out of their control, and over-thinking these things leads to stress and irritation for them. My entire focus is to help them let go of that which they can’t control, and to grab on to those things they can control. This is the core of my work in performance psychology.