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