Sport Psychology for Combat Sports

Sport Psychology for Combat Sports is an article by Madalyn Incognito on the specific mental demands of fighting sports … and how to overcome a few of them!

“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the movie Rocky Balboa.
Sport Psychology for Combat Sports. Despite their physicality, they are much more mental than you’d imagine.

Combat or “Fighting” Sports

One-on-one combat has been around for a very long time. They date back to the Ancient Olympic Games. Today we see an amazing array of combat or fighting sports which can be separated into striking-centred styles, more commonly known as stand-up fighting (e.g. Boxing, Kickboxing, Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) or grappling styles (e.g. Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling), which centre around what happens when a fight ends up on the ground. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the product of striking and grappling styles combined. The best and hardest parts of both some would say.

When we think about how success in fighting sports is measured it really boils down to the athlete’s ability to hit and not get hit. To be really successful competitive fighters are ultimately required to anticipate upcoming attacks. This is most often based on visual cues, such as their opponent’s footwork, body and hand positioning and pace of movement around the ring. This feedback is then used to quickly select the most appropriate defence and counter-attack, which they then need to execute with speed, accuracy and power.

Fighting Sports Can Be Uniquely Challenging

The reason fighting sports are so hard is because humans naturally aren’t very fast responders. The average human reaction time sits anywhere between 200ms – 250ms. Seasoned fighters, especially those at the elite level, take less time than this to land a jab, body kick or initiate a take-down. 

Fighting sports are also challenging in the sense that due to their one-on-one combat nature the risk of physical injury is very real. And it’s arguable that a fighter’s ability to overcome setbacks (e.g. copping a powerful body shot) and deal with adversity (e.g. one half of the crowd cheering for the other guy) is a relatively more significant predictor of success when compared to many other sports. What I’ve come to see through my own experiences, both as a point and full-contact fighter in my younger years are that often it is the athlete who demonstrates a higher level of what we call mental toughness that comes out on top. This psychology often trumps other areas of fight preparation such as physical conditioning, skill execution or strategic wisdom. So, how we can build this mental toughness to ensure that on fight day we’re giving ourselves the best chance for success?

Fighters, Thoughts, Feelings and Actions

One of the most common questions we get as a collective of sport and performance psychologists is “how can I change my thinking to be more positive?”. Or “how do I stop having negative thoughts?”. The simple answer is, you can’t. And even if you could it wouldn’t help you much anyway.

What we now know about how the human mind is designed to work is that when we find ourselves in high-pressure situations or one that we’re emotionally invested in, all signs of rational thinking go out the window. One thing that humans are really good at doing in the lead up to important events is thinking irrationally, illogically and ‘worst case scenario’. I will not bore you with a full anthropological explanation as to why this is the case but ‘in a nutshell, it boils down to the survival benefits of predicting and assuming danger even if there isn’t any.

One common misconception among many of the athletes and performers we work with is that in order for us to have an effective performance we need to reduce, eliminate or change these unhelpful thoughts. The problem here is that trying to change or eliminate unhelpful thoughts doesn’t work, and when we attempt this we often end up going around in circles. If I told you not to think about the colour blue for the next 10 seconds, could you do this? Do we possess the ability to not think of a thought? I can guarantee that anyone who tries to not think about something ends up thinking about it even more. So for a fighter who’s having doubts about their ability to win going into a fight, or can’t seem to shake the idea of how a loss might impact their career and what others might think of them, the real question here is can we still have an effective performance despite having unhelpful thoughts? At Condor Performance, our answer to this is an emphatic and empirical yes.

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT)

The therapeutic framework we like to borrow most from is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Under the ACT approach, we acknowledge that actions can certainly have an impact on how we think and feel, however, thoughts and feelings needn’t have an impact on our actions. In other words, we can train our mind and body to still have an effective performance in the presence of very uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. With some guided practice, both in our everyday lives and subsequently in sport-specific training environments, we can train ourselves to accept any uncomfortable thoughts or emotions we have and still commit to our rehearsed actions.

You Don’t Have To Be Fearless To Be A Fighter 

For anyone who has ever seen a semi-professional or professional fight, you’ll have witnessed what is referred to as the ‘ring walk’. Once a very straightforward and relatively unimportant stage of the fight, it’s now one of the most exciting and significant stages of fight preparation. Today, we see choreographed entrances into the ring, often involving some sort of dance or Martial Art-like movements against a background of lights, smoke and dramatic music, before the fighter eagerly climbs the stairs of the ring, parading around to soak up the energy of the crowd. However, one can argue that what stands out most about the walk-out is the level of confidence that is often displayed by the fighter. Their body language, facial expressions and walking style almost always convey to the audience and their opponent a sense of fearlessness and determination as they enter the ring. What many onlookers don’t realise is that this is basic ACT in practice. And in many cases, it’s their mastery of this mental skill that has helped them rise to the top.

A footballer I once worked with described the ring walk as an “act”, and this really stuck with me – why? Because when a fighter confidently completes the walk-out and enters the ring, only one of two things can be happening:

  1. He or she both looks 100% fearless and is 100% fearless
  2. He or she looks 100% fearless but is not actually 100% fearless

Fake It ’Til You Feel It

Fact – not every fighter who confidently walks into the ring is also feeling 100% confident. So the answer to “how do fighters fearlessly enter the ring” is simply, they don’t. Most of the time, they are actually battling a flood of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, just like athletes across any other sport and in just the same way we do in our everyday lives when faced with a situation we’re uncomfortable with (e.g. public speaking). The fighters that make it to the top don’t necessarily have the ability to change their thoughts and feelings, they’ve really just mastered the ability to walk into the ring and perform well in spite of these. A lot of this simply comes down to body language combined with basics thought acceptance. This is something we at Condor Performance like to call “Fake it ’til you Feel it”. 

Those at the elite level typically acknowledge that the amount of influence they have over their thoughts and feelings is very minimal. Rather than letting uncomfortable thoughts and emotions stop them from performing, they’re able to shift their focus to where their influence is highest, that is, on their actions. So essentially acting in a way that is incongruent with how they may be thinking or feeling.

At Condor Performance, we are very lucky to have Sydney based Brian Langsworth as a member of our growing team of psychologists. Apart from being an outstanding performance psychologist, Brian is also a former actor and therefore brings a huge amount to the team when it comes to the practicalities of acting, body language and the like.

Shifting Our Focus …

Because most of our influence lies within our actions, it’s really important for fighters to evaluate their past performances as well as set expectations for future performance around their ability to execute the actions they practice every day in training and on ‘fight day’. 

Performance can be evaluated in one of two ways. Processes (i.e. actions and effort) or outcomes (i.e. results) and one of the trickiest things about fighting sports is that success is often outcome-based only. There are no prizes for who has the best footwork, who has the fastest or most creative striking combinations or who can perfectly execute a triangle choke. Success in combat sports is results-focused, that is, it’s based on wins and loses, whether that be knockout, decision, submission or Technical Knockout (TKO).

Due to this, fighters often become caught up in the possible outcome of an upcoming fight and whether they’re going to win or lose. The issue with this, mentally, is that there are just so many things that contribute to an outcome of a fight. For example, the opponent, the referee and judges, the spectators and all the other things going on around them to name the most obvious. Shifting our focus to what we know best, our actions and effort in the ring can give a fighter an increased sense of “control” in a very unpredictable and uncertain situation. 

What Constitutes a “Good Fight”

For fighters with values grounded in the results of their performance, reframing the way they evaluate past performances and the way they set expectations for upcoming performances to be more aligned with actions, effort and processes rather than outcomes or results is an important first step in empowering them in the lead up to a fight, during a fight and after a fight.

That’s why one of the first conversations I’m having with fighters is usually around what actions and processes constitute a good performance in their eyes. More specifically, what are the attacking processes (e.g. striking, kicking, hand positioning, footwork, countering) and defensive processes (e.g. head movement, body movement, blocking, catching, evading) that give them the best chance of success if executed consistently across the fight, and what practical strategies can be employed to ensure they’re able to execute these processes under the pressure of an important match. 

Give Yourself A Fighting Chance …

If there’s one message I’d like you to take away from this it’s that success, particularly in fighting sports, is almost always determined by the athlete’s ability to still have an effective performance despite feeling uncomfortably nervous and having doubts about their ability to win. I remember my principal supervisor and Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole once saying “They don’t hand out gold medals for who was feeling the best” and this is especially true for fighters. It’s not about who feels the best on fight day, it’s about who can put together the best performance on the day despite how they’re feeling. 

If you are a combat sports competitor or coach and would like to expand on these ideas then Madalyn is available for private performance psychology coaching either in person in Sydney (NSW, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Madalyn Incognito”.

Swimming Psychology

This blog article, “Swimming Psychology” is a 20 minute read by provisional psychologist Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of competitive swimming. Please enjoy and, as always, share responsibly.

Swimming Psychology can be the difference between good and great.

Swimming Psychology 101: Every Millisecond Counts

If there is one sport where every millisecond counts, it’s swimming. Often the difference between qualifying for a final, placing top 3 in an event, or being selected for an international team can come down to just milliseconds. This is especially true at the elite level. Because of this swimming is now at a point where taping into the mental aspects of performance has become widely accepted. Mental Toughness is an essential part of success, as a few milliseconds could mean the difference between achieving one’s dreams or missing out on them completely.

Despite this most competitive swimmers love the fact that their sport is objective in nature. First place is awarded to whoever touches the wall in the fastest time. There are no judges and no point system (such as with gymnastics or figure skating). If you are the fastest on the day, no one can take that away from you. However, this is also the hardest aspect of swimming too. Because success in the sport is so largely determined by results, swimmers often fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes. Where they’ll place in a heat or final or how close they are to making that national-open qualifying time are often front of mind. The consequence of this is that they forget about all the smaller processes required to improve and succeed. Swimming psychology being ones of these groups of processes.

Reflections of My Own Swimming Psychology

I myself was a competitive swimmer for many years. I remember being midway through a race once only to give up when I saw that I was falling behind the other swimmers. Looking back on this now, I realise that rather than focusing on the other swimmers and what they were doing, I should’ve been focusing on my race plan and sticking to this just the way I had practised in training in the lead up to the event. It’s challenging not to become caught up in where we’re ranked compared to the swimmers in the other lanes. But we need to have an understanding of what we have control or influence over, so that we can shift our focus from what we have minimal influence over (i.e. the other swimmers) back to what we have maximum influence over (i.e. my race plan). 

Swimming Psychology and “The Performance Funnel”

The sport psychologists and performance psychologists at Condor Performance have always been at the forefront of developing the most effective mental skills for performance enhancement since 2005. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a subcommittee on the development of something that we hope will become mainstream in the coming years. It’s called The Performance Funnel.

The Performance Funnel is a concept that some of us use to assist our clients in understanding how crucial it is to separate processes from preferences (aka goals). When we talk about processes, we’re talking about the intentional actions and efforts we engage in. For example, in swimming, one’s race plan. We use the term preferences rather than goals as this accounts for the fact that engaging in all the correct processes will never guarantee the successes we want, rather it only increases the likelihood of them occurring.

Why Is This So Important For Better Swimming Psychology?

While we are more emotionally invested in our preferences or the outcome of a race, our level of influence over this is only small. We can’t hop out of the pool, run over to our timekeeper and hit stop on the clock so that we record the fastest time. What we can do however is employ the actions and processes we practise every day at training and execute them to the best of our ability. This is why during your mental training with one of the Condor Performance Psychologists only a small amount of time will be spent discussing past or future potential results. Most of the discussion will be focused on formulating ways to improve your execution of swimming-specific processes on race day. And one way that we can enhance our ability to be able to do this is through formulating and practising a race plan.

Sticking To A Race Plan

Whilst results are important indicators of improvement and where our performance is currently at compared to others, having a race plan encourages us to align our focus, set our expectations and base our confidence on the things we do in training every day. A race plan accounts for all the smaller processes that go into the race. For example, executing an efficient start, turn and finish, sticking to a pre-planned breathing pattern, and planning points at which to increase the speed of your kick and stroke rate and when to back off.

With a significant commitment to practice, many of these above actions can become second nature, therefore, minimising on day decision making.

As performance psychologists what we want to try and understand is what allows a swimmer to look back on their performance and confidently say that they gave it 100%? If their answer is predominately outcome-focused, for example, “I didn’t give it 100% because I didn’t win”, this is an issue. So, reframing their idea of a good performance so that it aligns with actions and effort becomes very useful. If their answer is “I know I gave it 100% because I swam the fastest I could”, well that’s great, but what processes allow you to do this? Was it because you executed the start, turn and finish with speed and accuracy? Was it because you stuck to your breathing pattern? Did an increase in your stroke rate at the correct times have something to do with it? 

What Do Process Driven Race Plans Look like?

For swimmers who do not already have a race plan, creating an action-based checklist is a great way to empower them both in preparation for a race and on race day. A race plan for 100m freestyle might look something like this:

  1. 8 x strong dolphins kicks off the start
  2. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  3. 4-6 breathing pattern on the first lap
  4. Speed up kick + increase stroke rate 10m out from the turn
  5. Head down 5m out from the turn 
  6. Turn with speed, 5 x dolphin kicks off the turn 
  7. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  8. Increase speed of kick at the beginning of the second lap, maintaining 4-6 breathing pattern
  9. Increase stroke rate to maximum at the 75m mark 
  10. Last breath at 15m out from the wall and head down for the finish
  11. Finish on a full stroke

Having the swimmer evaluate their performance in terms of what aspects of their race plan they did and did not adhere to provides them with an opportunity for genuine improvement. They either acknowledge that although they may not have achieved the outcome they’d hoped for they understand there’s nothing more they could have done. Or they recognise which aspects of the race plan they didn’t stick to, how this impacted their performance and make arrangements to correct this for next time. Having them focus on these processes before and during the race essentially gets their head out of the way. It allows their body to do what it knows how to do and encourages them to take ownership of their performance and come up with ways to improve it.

Using Visualisation to Practice your Race Plan

Many people outside of swimming don’t realise the level of strategic planning that goes into a race, particularly among the shorter distances (e.g. 50m, 100m, 200m) as the room for error is very minimal. The same way a dancer would rehearse their choreography, or a diver would practice their competition dives, swimmers practice their race plan at training to increase the likelihood that on race day they can stick to it. However, what separates swimmers from many other types of athletic performers is that they don’t always have access to the setting where their performance takes place – the pool. One way around this is through the mental rehearsal of their race plan, aka visualisation.

There’s a whole range of reasons why an athlete might engage in visualisation. The most common is for the practice effects it has on performance. Visualisation can take place from the 1st or 3rd person and is a mental process whereby the athlete uses imagery to rehearse the aspects of their performance “in their mind’s eye”. For a swimmer, this type of rehearsal would mirror their race plan and include when to take breaths, increase their stroke rate, change their stroke style and other processes which go into a race.

Did You Watch The Movie Cool Runnings?

Those of you who have seen the 1990’s movie classic Cool Runnings will know what visualisation looks like when you think about the scene in the bathtub. (If you haven’t seen it go and watch it and look out for the scene in the bathtub).

However, a swimmer who only visualises the ideal parts of their performance is setting themselves up for a hard time on race day. There are more physiological variables at play for the longer races. These include muscular fatigue and lactic acid build-up. It’s really important to incorporate these physiological barriers into a visualisation routine so that we know how to respond to them if they occur on race day. Visualising possible barriers to performance, when they’re likely to occur and how you will respond to them will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to overcome these barriers to performance on race day, as they will have been part of your rehearsed race plan.

In Swimming, You Always Race How You Train

What makes race plan rehearsal so important, whether it’s in the pool or through visualisation, is that with fatigue our attention, concentration and focus deteriorates. When this happens our chances of sticking to our race plan also deteriorate as doing this requires mental effort, leaving us with only physical strength and stamina to rely on to get us to the finish line. But who would want to limit themselves to utilising only the physical aspects of performance when we have the opportunity to use this in conjunction with mental toughness?

In swimming, you will race how you train. If you practice your race plan during and away from training, it becomes muscle memory just like any other skill. Over time, the processes become more automated and require less mental resources to execute, and in the last 25m, this will make all the difference. 

If you are a competitive swimmer or swim coach and would like to expand on these ideas and improve your Swimming Psychology then Madalyn is available for private coaching either in person in Sydney (NSW, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Madalyn Incognito” due to her background in swimming.

Competence Before Confidence

Canberra based Performance Psychologist Harley de Vos muses about how overstated CONFIDENCE is as a performance predictor in most sports and other performance domains.

What are these race car drivers thinking and feeling? Or does it matter …

“I just need to feel more confident, and I will be able to perform at my best. Can you help me to build confidence?”

This is one of the most common reasons why athletes and performers reach out to us at Condor Performance. This article will seek to debunk some common misconceptions around confidence. It may even help you to be more confident when you are performing!

What Comes To Mind When You Think Of Confidence?

Is it feeling a particular way, assured or trust of yourself and what you are doing? Is it based on what you do when you feel confident, your actions and your behaviours? But what actually is confidence? Confidence is simply the belief in one’s ability to perform a particular behaviour or action. What confidence is not is some magical state that will guarantee you perform at your best. If only!

If we pull back the curtain and examine what is behind the belief that we have in our ability to perform a particular action, we will find competence. Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Competence is what we develop over time, at training and practice, through hard work and repetition. And in the long run, competence is far more valuable for us from a performance perspective than confidence will ever be. Competence on the most part is permanent, reliable and predicatble. Confidence on the hand can be fleeting and unpredictable.

Consider The Following Scenario

You are an experienced driver (i.e., you’ve been driving for a few years), and you are driving your car on your way to training. In this scenario, your ability to drive the car, to use the brakes and accelerator as you need, to indicate when you are turning, to change gears and so forth is about your competence. In other words, you are a competent driver. And so where does confidence fit into this scenario? You may be feeling confident about your driving ability, but you may not. Perhaps the weather conditions are challenging for driving. Maybe it is dark. Perhaps there is a lot of traffic, or the roads are unfamiliar. Regardless of the circumstances, you don’t need to feel confident in your ability to be able to drive the car in order to drive. And the same is true when it comes to performance. 

What the scenario above demonstrates is that consistent motor execution (i.e., actions) is possible regardless of how you are feeling. We don’t need to feel confident in order to be able to perform. Most athletes and other performers should have experienced this at least once; the “Suprise Performance”. A situation where the performance was excellent despite all sorts of self-doubt. Sometimes our clients describe this as been surprised at their ability to perform so well whilst lacking confidence. As evidence based sport psychologists and performance psychologists this is not surpringing to us in the slightest.

I understand how competence before confidence may be relevant to driving a car, but I don’t see how it will help me to perform better?

As a performance psychologist, part of my approach to working with my sporting and performance clients is to focus on learning to accept our thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. It is an approach shared by several of my colleagues at Condor Performance, including our founder Gareth J. Mole. With this approach, I focus on using our actions to generate the thoughts and feelings that we want and not the other way around.

If we take the view that we need to feel confident in order to be able to perform, we are relying on our feelings to influence the thoughts and actions that we want to have. The pitfall of this approach is that we are (highly) unlikely to wake up one day suddenly filled with confidence and ready to perform. So, by holding onto the belief that confidence is the key to performance, we are actually likely to undermine our ability to perform in situations when we do not feel confident.

My view is that it is more effective to focus on our actions (i.e., what we are doing) and use these to generate our feelings. So when it comes to confidence, we want to be focusing on actions that help to develop our confidence and let the feeling follow. These actions can include our body language and displaying confidence even if we’re not feeling confident (“Fake It Til You Feel It”) as well as our preparation, and performance routines. By focusing on our actions, what we are doing is focusing on our competence. Focus on actions first, feelings will follow. In other words, competence before confidence.

Not Convinced Yet, Then Read On …

Another reason why focusing on competence before confidence will help you to perform better is that competence can be measured easily and directly, whereas confidence can’t. If we take the driving scenario from above, we can measure our competence as a car driver with a driving test or the number of speeding fines we get. In order to be able to drive a car, we need to get a licence. Passing a driving test is evidence of our competence as a driver not our confidence. But how can we measure our level of confidence at driving? The answer is that we can’t, not objectively anyway. We may feel confident as a driver, and then we find ourselves in a challenging and unusual environment (such as driving at night on unfamiliar roads in the rain) and all of a sudden, our confidence has gone.  

Focusing on our competence, which we can easily and directly measure, helps to guide us at practice. We can focus on developing and refining our skills, and we can measure our progress. This helps us with motivation, motor skill development and execution, and over time this will build deep confidence in our ability.

Ok, I understand why competence before confidence is useful for performance. But the best athletes and performers are so confident? 

One common misconception about elite athletes and performers is that we often overestimate their level of confidence. We assume because of how skilled and experienced they are, how they leave us in awe with what they are capable of doing, that they must feel supreme confidence. But this is far from true. Some performers never feel real confidence. Some performers are so plagued by self-doubt and performance anxieties and insecurities that they cannot feel confident before and when they are performing. Yet they can still produce exceptional performance despite not feeling confident. How are they capable of this? Because they focus on competence before confidence.

So to help feel more confident, focus on developing your toolkit of competencies. Focus on your actions, on developing your skills. By doing this, you will build competence. And with competence, you will feel more confident (maybe)!

Conclusion / Plug

If this article has encouraged you to consider going about your performance from a more psychological point of view then get in touch and be guided by Harley (author) or one of our other psychologists. Even better complete one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here and one of the crew will get back to you in less than 48 hours.