Pre-Fight Nerves and How to Change Your Perspective

Pre-fight nerves are an unsettling sensation if you do not understand what it is that you are feeling. Many people feel the nervous energy in the pit of their stomach and cannot understand what is really happening physiologically and this misunderstanding creates an energy sucking vortex that drains your physical and mental potency and hampers your best performance. If you can understand the causes of the nervousness and reframe the stories you create to justify these feelings to yourself, you can correct these habitual thought patterns from those of fear to those of preparedness.

You must first understand what causes the weird little idiosyncrasies of pre-fight jitters. The seemingly strange bodily reactions to pre-competition are not strange at all once you realize their purpose. For example, one thing the body does is shut down all non-essential functions so energy can be preserved for the actions that will keep it alive. Bladder control is one of those non-essential functions… So when you find yourself peeing for the tenth time of the night, do not interpret it as anything negative. It’s a sign that your body is optimizing itself for self-protection and peak performance. The same applies to dry mouth caused by decreased saliva secretion. Sip water occasionally and do not waste energy worrying about why it is happening.

While the body shuts down non-essential functions, it simultaneously enhances other functions that will aid in either fight or flight. Perspiration heightens in the face of danger. This keeps the body cool while blood flow picks up and warms the body up for physical exertion. Blood flow increases to the muscles and away from other areas of the body. Dizziness and ragged breathing are reactions to this increased blood flow. The dizziness is from blow flow being directed from the brain to our muscles and the ragged breathing is to oxygenate our blood for better muscular output. Butterflies in our stomach are from decreased blood flow to the digestive tract. Tunnel vision is caused by our pupils dilating to provide laser focus on the threat at hand. Racing thoughts are from adrenaline coursing through your body and the heavy muscles are an attribute to them being full of blood.

If you have ever been in the ring (or engaged in something else that causes nervousness like public speaking, any type of competition, asking someone out on a date, etc…) you experienced some of the physiological reactions mentioned. The issue is not that they are occurring, but that your interpretation of them may not be accurate. If you feel these things and associate them with fear, you may accidentally put yourself in a state that is less than ideal for competition. If you subconsciously come to the conclusion that you are in over your head, the fight or flight response can turn to a “freeze” response that sends blood from the muscles for use in fight or flight and into the internal organs to protect them while you instinctively cover yourself to avoid bodily harm. In this state, you would find yourself completely unable to make your body perform the tasks you need it to.

With an understanding of what is physically occurring to cause you to feel nerves, you can reframe these bodily responses in a positive light. Instead of telling yourself that you are scared, tell yourself that your body is preparing for the task at hand. You are not scared, you are excited. When you hit the pads and you feel weak and slow, trust that everything will come together during the fight. Your butterflies are a sign of readiness, not that you are a chicken. The desire to leave the building when nobody is looking is your body’s way of trying to protect itself. Do not let that feeling convince you that you are too scared to perform and should not be doing this crazy thing. Understand that the human instinct to protect itself developed over hundreds of thousands of years and you are not a wimp for subconsciously considering avoiding this perceived threat. Simply talk yourself through it and breathe through the nervousness.

Another crucial thing to realize is that your opponent is going through all the same sensations you are. When you feel weak, remind yourself that your opponent feels the same thing. They are likely sitting in their locker room with a dry mouth, butterflies in their tummy, taking multiple pees, feeling slightly nauseated, sweating for no apparent reason feeling like a kitten hitting the pads and having a hard time following the conversations going on around them. It is normal and the person you are stepping into the arena with is not going in there feeling like a cold blooded killer like they attempted to convince you of when you faced off during the weigh in.

One of the greatest techniques I have used is what I call the “worst case list”. Remind yourself of the risks then remind consciously remind yourself that you accepted those risks. If you have not assessed the risks before accepting the fight you are in over your head so run the list to remind yourself that you know what you are getting into. Weigh the severity and the probability of each risk and decide if they are acceptable. A real world example could be driving on the highway. There is a risk that a driver coming from the other direction could swerve across the yellow line and crash into you head on. The severity is simply too high to take the risk except for the fact that the probability is too low for most people to avoid driving on the highway. When approaching a fight, you might ask “Will I die?”. I suppose it could happen but it is so extremely unlikely that I am able to accept the risk. Move on to the next risk. “Am I okay with getting injured?” If your answer is yes, you can let it go. You are prepared to accept the consequence. You can then run that same filter over any other concerns you may have. “Am I okay with losing?” “Am I okay getting knocked out?”  If any of the risks are unacceptable then you should reconsider whether you are in the right sport. If you can accept the possibilities, the exercise of asking the questions will have a calming effect on you. This same technique can be used to alleviate worry in any scenario that is causing you stress.

It is also important to note the difference between perceived or future risk from imminent risk. The amazing human brain can make predictions based on the current state of affairs and we even feel emotions about these predictions even though they haven’t yet occurred! We can think about a fight we have signed up for while sitting in our living room and begin to feel the sensations of nerves. With the fight so far in the future, there is no imminent danger, but the physiological effects of our predictions are real and affect us immediately. As we get closer and closer to the event, it serves us to control the flow of adrenaline and keep it to a trickle or we risk feeling exhausted from hours of feeling overly nervous before the competition starts.

In the weeks preceding the fight, you can utilize those little shots of adrenaline to push yourself to  work harder during your workouts. Visualize the fight over and over and create the nervousness so you aren’t shocked by the sensation when the real deal comes along. When fight day comes along, remind yourself that you have undergone all kinds of crazy training. Remind yourself that you have many done rounds of sparring and the fight is just a glorified few rounds of hard sparring. Try to convince yourself that it’s just another day in the gym and that you have done it a thousand times already. I doubt this requires saying but this only works if you really did put your work in.

Another method is to act like the person you want to feel like. Think of a time where you felt powerful. Perhaps it was a previous match or just a day in training where you were firing on all cylinders. How did you feel that day? Remember the feeling. Put yourself back in that moment mentally. How were you standing? I doubt your shoulders were slumped and you were speaking meekly. I bet you were standing tall and moving around with purpose and confidence. Our minds and bodies are interconnected so that confidence can work in two directions. When you feel confident, your movements reflect that with a strong posture confident looking and feeling movements. Since you don’t always have direct control over confidence, you can cheat the system by using a strong posture and confident movements to have an indirect but very real effect on your confidence level. Act strong and you will feel strong. I like to pace back and forth repeating my reasons for feeling confident while nodding my head. I walk like a man on a mission. Whether I start out feeling strong or not, I always end up believing the story my words and body are telling me. They are saying that I am a strong, skilled person who is ready for the upcoming challenge. Any negative predictions my subconscious mind concocted when I wasn’t paying attention begin to evaporate under my act of confidence.

Finally, is a simple and effective technique for alleviating nerves. Focus on taking deep deliberate breaths. It never fails to bring a little calm to a stressful situation. It is so easy that it is also easy to forget. Breathing happens in the moment so focusing on your breathing brings your attention to this moment and away from the predictions you are making about the future possibilities and outcomes of your upcoming fight. The closer you get to the fight, the more important this technique becomes because too much engagement in your predictions can cause an adrenaline dump that can leave you drained and tired before you enter the match. You can bolster the positive effects of focused breathing with performing some activity that brings you to calmness like listening to music, doing a visualization exercise or laughing with the other people in the locker room. Keep the flow of adrenaline to a trickle and stay as relaxed as you can until it is time to begin your warm-up. During your warm-up, do not get carried away and tire yourself out smashing pads at full tilt for 10 minutes straight. Get yourself breathing heavy from warming up then relax and do focused breathing. Go back and warm up a bit and then take another moment to relax and breathe. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are warming up for a fight and not already in it!

Having an understanding and a plan for pre-fight nerves can be the difference between winning and losing. Many potentially amazing athletes are stifled by nerves to the degree that they are unable to bring their best performance to the ring. The first fight you have to win is the one against your own self-doubts. Try the techniques mentioned and see if you can come up with some of your own to settle the nervousness leading up to a fight. You want to learn to embrace the tension as a sign of readiness while not letting it get the best of you. If you have worked hard in training, you should be able to confidently enter the ring and make yourself proud regardless of whether you win or lose.

 

We covered a lot of information in this post so here is a list of the main points to help you tie it all together:

  1. Nerves can help or hinder performance depending on how well you deal with them.
  2. Understanding the causes of the variety of sensations that nerves cause you to feel can help you to stay calm while they are occurring.
  3. Reframe the sensations as readiness or excitement instead of accepting them as fear.
  4. Know that your opponent is going through their own version of feeling nerves just the same as you.
  5. Run the worst case scenarios and bring to your conscious mind the fact that you understand the risks and have already accepted them.
  6. When in the gym, pretend it is fight night. On fight night, pretend it is another day at the gym.
  7. Act the part.
  8. Use focused deep breathing to stay relaxed and centered in the present moment.

Coach Greg helping his fighter keep a calm and confident state of mind before an upcoming match.

A Healthier Approach to Competition

Over the years of competing and coaching I have learned of the importance of a healthy mindset for competition. A crucial aspect of our competition mindset is the definition we create for it and our relationship with that concept. We all have our own reasons for wanting to compete, but it is undeniable that certain attitudes can be considered either healthy or unhealthy. Take a young boy who works himself to the bone every day to meet the expectations of overbearing parents. They push him and tell him he is amazing and special to the point that he is terrified to lose in front of them. Compare this scenario to a young girl who falls in love with a sport and cannot wait to wake up in the morning to go practice. Her parents are supportive but not overbearing and they commend her hard work rather than the results of her performances. I believe most people are easily able to identify which of these situations seems healthy when compared with the other.

My own view of competition is that it is no more than an attempt to compete against your own potential; that is, to see how close to your maximal potential you can get. Instead of letting external factors push me, I prefer to be driven internally by standards that are only bound by what is humanly possible for me. If I let external factors push me there will always be a limit and I open myself up to feeling like a failure if I do not achieve my goal. I prefer to seek external goals with an internal drive. I may seek to win a fight, tournament, or title (an external goal) but I am driven by a desire to reach my own personal potential (an internal drive). I see the goals as the vehicle I can use to test myself.

I see people waste a lot of energy putting too much importance on the results they are able to outwardly achieve in a tournament or match. It is stunning how much energy it sucks out of them. That energy could have been used for preparing for the test at hand. The anxiety regarding the results of the upcoming competition haunts them before, during and after their matches. If they have an off day in training, a totally normal thing that inevitably occurs on occasion, they read too much into it and it affects their confidence. It hangs over them during their preparation for competition and sucks the intensity from their training. The lack of intensity negatively affects their confidence even more which perpetuates the cycle. During the match they let every point against them break them down mentally and they lose focus on what they need to do in the moment because they are too focused on the future results. After the match, they are unable to see what they did well. They see the failure of their abilities in that moment as evidence that they themselves are failures and they miss the opportunity to judge their performances objectively to seek ways to improve.

By adopting the attitude of competing against your own potential you will free up an enormous supply of energy. Before the match, your level of anxiety will be lower because you will not be concerned what others think of you. It is still a very intense thing to put yourself out there and compete, but a loss will not make you a failure. You will know that a loss will only be an opportunity to grow and learn. During the match you will be able to focus on the moment instead of dreading the results in the future. This will free up focus so that you can seek ways to win or turn-around a rough going match. There is a doubly positive effect after the match for the internally motivated person. Should they lose, they will not succumb to feeling down on themselves. They will be clear that they were only in competition with their own capabilities and thus the fact that another person’s capabilities on a given day were superior will not matter. Should they win the match, they will not view their win as proof of their superiority as a person. They will know that the only thing proven is that their skills were better at the time of the match and there are still things they can find to work on. They will be able to dissect their performance objectively and look for ways to improve instead of simply reliving the glory of their dominance over another person.

I probably sound like a broken record to the students who have heard this speech before but I believe very strongly that a proper mindset is the foundation you are building your skills on top of so it bears repeating. If you mentally crack, the rest of the pyramid will come crashing down no matter how well it is built. It is only a matter of time. Set your sights on being the best you can be and come to terms with the fact that you will never get there. There are areas to improve on and competing is the way you will shine a light on what areas need work. An impossible goal such as personal perfection is achieved the moment you decide to chase it. If you continue to seek improvement regardless of your external results you will always be operating at the top of your game.

Coach Greg kneeling out of respect for a downed opponent. He was not my enemy but a necessary part of my journey of self discovery.

Excerpt from my fight camp journal at 6 days from the World Title

“You should journal the process of a fight camp.” That was Dana, several times, during the middle of my last few fight camps when things were getting crazy. Things always get crazy in some way during fight camp. Every fight and the entire period of training before it and the post fight fallout is full of a lot of highs and lows and Dana had mentioned the idea of keeping a journal of the experience at least three times before I decided to actually do it. With the exception of only a few missed days, I woke up every single day and the first thing I did was sit down and write about my training, how it was going and some of the thoughts in my head as I went about the process of preparing for my world title shot. I don’t know what I plan to do with the entire piece of work but it currently sits at 86 typewritten pages and over 47,000 words with more to be written. Regardless of my lack of a final plan for what has turned into a fairly considerable amount of writing, I am very glad that I did it. The experience has been revelatory on a personal level making it already worth the effort.

Following my final day of hard training for the fight, I am looking at the day’s entry where I expounded on what this title shot means to me. What I wrote doesn’t even capture the full picture but it reveals a little of what it has taken to get this opportunity and I felt like it deserved to be shared with anyone who cared to read it before the match takes place. If it adds to a fan’s investment in the outcome then that makes the fight more entertaining and that is the purpose of holding these events in the first place. Every single fighter has their own backstory and motivations for stepping in the ring on August 24th. For anyone who reads this and is able to attend or livestream the event, keep that in mind while you watch!

(I started the journal with outlining my actual training from the previous day. Afterwards, I found myself writing about my more personal feelings on what this fight means to me and why. The following is what I wrote.)

“To take this in a different direction now, I was thinking about the world title and what it means to me. For all the trouble I am going through to get it, it begs the question of why I am doing this and what it would mean to me. Everyone has their own personal motivations and mine are spread out over many reasons. I’m not getting paid. I risk failure. It has been difficult and I haven’t even fought yet. I risk injury. It takes my attention away from growing my business thus literally costs me income. It requires a lot of sacrifice from not just me but also my wife and daughter as they support my efforts. There has to be some internal motivation to want to go through this process or I wouldn’t be here writing this.

When I look back at my life, I think about how unlikely it is that I got to this point. Having a kid at sixteen added a level of adversity to my progression through this sport and in life in general that made it highly unlikely that I have done what I have managed to do. I remember wondering what I was going to do when I finished school. At times, I thought I had lost the opportunity to follow my dreams. That said, I was a naively idealistic young guy and went for things that many others may have thought were too risky or unlikely to work out. Against all odds, I have found a way to make a living in the field I love and somehow have even climbed the amateur rankings to afford me this opportunity to fight for the world title.

If I look back, I see a 16 – 19 year old kid who at one point was going to high school full time and working somewhere between 30 and 35 hours a week. I started martial arts as my one and only hobby that I would spend my pitiful amount of expendable money on but only had time to go to the dojo on Tuesday nights for the first year or so. I would go in and do my private lesson then stay for the group class afterwards. For the rest of the week, I would train by myself at home.

I finished high school and became a full time student at college where I was studying to become a teacher. I had progressed in Kenpo, the martial art I was studying, far enough that I got some part time work teaching. I did that during my year in college and during the following summer break, I decided to quit college and teach martial arts full time. I had performed well enough in school and wasn’t concerned about it being too difficult but I simply wasn’t motivated to continue down that path. It may have been a naive choice but I had realized I just didn’t want to be a schoolteacher. I wanted to run a dojo. Everyone older than me probably cringed at the choice and thought I was a fool. Maybe they were right but I was seeing all kinds of 35 to 60 year old men with beer guts in jobs they tolerated and didn’t love. They made decent money but their best stories were from when they were teenagers and in their young twenties. I was in my early twenties and hadn’t even had those fun times they regaled me with. I was already “adulting” with the best of them and I was looking at an empty existence in which I woke each day to go do a job I didn’t love for “the good of my family” and “financial security”. That was all well and good for some people but the thought made me sick to my stomach. It felt like waiting to die instead of truly living.

I taught full time for four years until I eventually shared the position of operations manager of the dojo with another fellow named Jason Boyd for a period of 3 more years. During that time, I got in the ring and lost my first match by split decision but then went on to win my next three in a row. I didn’t have a coach talking me through all the complexities of competition. I agreed to my own matches and I set up my own training regimen. My cornerman, Jason Boyd, had a total of zero fights and we didn’t even know how to properly wrap hands. He was knowledgeable about martial arts and was a calm presence in the corner but we really had no experience and thus were flying by the seat of our pants. I still somehow accumulated those 3 wins in succession through the excellent training I received from my first kickboxing coach, Jason Chinnick. Due to personal reasons, he had never stepped into any striking competition himself but his knowledge of technique was superlative and his ability to teach was incredible. I also ingratiated myself into training sessions with Gabriel Varga and his group of people who were kind enough to take a chance on this new guy who didn’t even have proper bag gloves and wore fingerless MMA style gloves for pads. I just listened to everything they and others of experience said. I literally tuned into “The Ultimate Fighter” and studied how they trained and handled their fight camp. It was a patchwork model of how a fighter does what he does but we made due and performed well in spite of ourselves.

The “Cole’s Notes” version of what happened between my fourth fight and now is that I got antsy about my future and took a job in sales where I made much better money for 4 years. I lost two fights during that period because I couldn’t reconcile training with work demands. After four years out of the martial arts field, I was miserable and felt stifled. I opened my own little club and called it Martial Arts Unlimited and started with two days a week just to see if I could scrape my way back into the market. To my delight, it grew it to the point I could lease a space full time shortly after which, I lost my job and took a shot at making a go of supporting myself just with the business income instead of doing the sensible thing and seeking a new job. With the support of good friends and hyper-disciplined money management, we somehow survived and after three and a half years on the sidelines, I stepped back into the ring to make a comeback. I lost that fight but I proved to myself I still had fight in me and I took my losing record of 3 wins and 4 losses to what it is now; a humble 10 and 6 in kickboxing and 2 and 0 in boxing. I took hard fights. I won most, lost a few but overall, my efforts have earned me this opportunity.

I could go much deeper into the history of how I got here but the point is that it has been a mostly self-directed journey with what has felt like the odds stacked against me and the fact that I am 6 days away from fighting for a world title of a legitimate sanctioning body, even an amateur title, is an astounding achievement won through a combination of perseverance, talent, the support of amazing people and a healthy dollop of dumb luck. I feel obligated to fight for this title. I’ve come so far and won this opportunity and to not go for it with everything I have would be a disservice to all of the people who have aided and believed in me. I want to win this thing for all of them! I would also be doing a disservice to myself. I want to win this thing for me. I feel strong, confident and ready to make good on my promise to myself to be the best version of me that I can be.”

IKF Modified Muay Thai World Welterweight Champion (Won August 24, 2018)