Ross posted this video of Chael Sonnon on his blog recently. I liked it a lot. Chael talks about something that is still taboo for most fighters: how to conquer your fear of fighting. Given his usual loudmouth antics, this is pretty surprising coming from Chael and I have nothing but respect for him for stating this publicly. It takes a lot of maturity for a fighter to admit to being afraid; not everybody gets there eventually.
I’m going to approach this article with the viewpoint of MMA and other combat sports but there is overlap for self-defense too. The differences are important though, so please keep that in mind as you read on.
Before I go on, here’s the video:
I can imagine a young fighter like Uriah Hall looking at Chael Sonnen and thinking he’s fearless. I’m pretty sure most MMA enthusiasts who want to compete professionally would think the same thing:
This guy is utterly ferocious in the Octagon. He can’t possibly be afraid.
And then Chael just flat out admits to being afraid, filled with self-doubt and negative voices. Even more, he mentions being in the same spot as Uriah and talking to perhaps the biggest legend in MMA, Randy Couture, about being afraid. Guess what, Randy says he struggles with it constantly and it never goes away.
For the vast majority of people, that’s simply how it is.
I know for a fact that’s how it has always been for me. I’ve never had a fight, inside or outside of the ring, that I didn’t feel fear.
When I was younger and just starting out, I was very much ashamed of this. I thought I was a coward. It took a long time and many fights to eventually understand I wasn’t. It also took a lot of training and studying to figure out how I could conquer my fear of fighting. A huge part of it was realizing there was absolutely nothing wrong with that fear of fighting. It’s nothing but a natural reaction of your body and mind to the potential harm that may come your way once the punches start flying.
Fighting is scary.
It can end with you getting seriously injured, crippled or even a trip to the morgue. That’s just the reality of violence. It’s only normal to understand and recognize that an activity is inherently dangerous. It’s shying away from it when it is necessary that makes you a coward.
The fear, in and of itself, is neutral. It’s what you do with it that makes it positive or negative.
Which is fine and dandy to say but it doesn’t help you one bit right now. So let’s look at how we can go out and conquer it.
First things first
There are different levels of violence, for lack of a better word, and they are not equal. The biggest lesson here is that you can’t make assumptions about what goes on on the other levels. What you experience in the one doesn’t automatically prepare you for the other levels. Each level can have a totally different kind of fear, a different intensity if you will. This isn’t written in stone or anything, it’s just my take on it from having experienced a bunch of those levels personally so feel free to disagree with me on this.
I’ll put them in escalating order of intensity to make it easier but that doesn’t mean one level is easier or more difficult to handle than the others; they’re just different. Here’s the list:
- First time you spar in the gym.
- You get tagged good during sparring in the gym.
- You spar in the gym and your opponent doesn’t stop after he tags you good.
- First time you compete.
- You compete and get tagged good.
- You compete and he injures you.
- You are injured before you start competing.
- You compete and you get tired but your opponent does not.
- You compete and can’t land any shots because the guy is too good.
- You compete and your best shots don’t seem to have an effect.
- You compete and are doing great when he suddenly hurts you with a (lucky?) good shot.
- You compete and after a few exchanges, you realize you can’t beat this guy. He’s better than you and will knock you out.
The list goes on for a while longer but you can see the differences in each scenario. You might be totally comfortable at one level (hard sparring in the gym) and therefor think you can function on all levels. I believe this isn’t automatically true. It might be so for certain people, but more often than not, it isn’t. The real problem is that finding out you were wrong can come at a pretty high cost…
Again, don’t get hung up on the details, you can add a bunch more or different situations to this list. It primarily distinguishes between training at the gym and competing but as you see, there are different levels for both of these. I’ve seen people be totally at ease on one level and then fall apart on another. Hell, I was one of them. Here’s a story from my early years:
I was 15 or 16 and I’d already done lots of sparring with other students in class. We mainly used kicking techniques with moderate to full contact. One day, my teacher had me glove up against one of the instructors (who was 10 years my senior in both age and experience) for some serious sparring. The first move from that guy was a punch that knocked me down. I counted a bunch of stars twirling around my head and got back up.
He knocked me down a bunch more times, adding kicks to the fun too.
I was scared. I was scared good because he hit me so much harder than all the other students ever had and I didn’t know what to do: he blasted through my defenses and seemed to see all of my attacks coming from a mile away. In a desperation move, I jumped up into the air and right at him, clobbering his face with a downward blow that landed on his brow.
It was a good shot. But it also drew blood.
He wiped his eye with his glove and saw the blood.
I saw the look on his face change: he was going to hurt me bad.
He lunged forward and threw a wild hook at my chin. I launched my head backwards and managed to get clear but just barely.
My teacher had apparently seen enough and stopped the sparring session before I got hurt.
What’s the point of this story? A couple things actually:
- I thought I could handle myself. My experience consisted only of the sparring I had done with other students and the intensity of those bouts was something I was comfortable with. Facing somebody who cranked up that intensity proved how little prepared I was.
- I didn’t fight the same way. When I faced that senior guy, I was way less aggressive than against the other students. Immediately after he knocked me down the first time, I started playing defense and paid a lot more attention to getting out of the way. I also had trouble closing the gap because I was afraid of running into another punch like that.
- I tried to cope. That first punch also instilled fear in me. I didn’t want to get hit like that again because it hurt. But I tried to up my game and did my utmost to hang in there.
- It didn’t work. Everything I tried, it failed. Because of his strength, speed and experience, the guy hit me at will. This introduced me to an even deeper fear: the one you feel when you realize you’re at somebody’s mercy. He could have ended it whenever he wanted to; there was nothing I could to to stop him.
- The worst was still to come. Just when I thought I couldn’t be more scared, I hit him with that jumping punch and he got murder in his eyes. The flash of fear I felt then was a multiple of what I had felt only seconds before. But it gave me wings: I dodged that blow faster than I ever had before.
This sparring session taught me a lot of things, too many to cover here. It also started my personal journey on how to conquer that fear. A fear I didn’t know I had before this session. For the most part, that journey is now over for me, though that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it anymore; I just found some ways to deal with it, ways that seem to work for me and the people I train.
Here are some of them, in the hope that they work for you too.
How to conquer your fear of fighting?
There are many things you can do to conquer your fear of fighting, too many to mention. Some will work for you, others not so much. Everybody is different so I can’t guarantee results here. But I’ll offer a buffet for you to choose from, techniques I’ve used successfully to some degree or other.
They can be grouped into three categories: Knowledge, Skill/Training and Experience. I believe these three need to be combined to get the best results.
Knowledge is easy to get, there’s an abundance of information on this topic and I’ll list some resources at the end of this post to help you get started. However, getting an in-depth understanding of what it all means takes quite a bit longer. You’ll get there quicker if you also focus on the other two categories.
Skill and Training are what most people focus on and rightfully so. If you don’t know how to fight, if you don’t train for it, you shouldn’t expect to be any good at it and whatever fear you feel then is justified. The more skillful and trained you become, the easier it will be to conquer your fear of fighting because you now have the tools to fight effectively, which improves your odds of coming out on top. This in turn helps you get the next ingredient for this mix: experience.
Experience is equally important as it is by actually fighting that you’ll be able to measure how well you have absorbed the knowledge and how skillful and trained you’ve become. If you fight and win, you’ll have learned something, which means increased knowledge. You’ll also change your training to improve what went wrong and exploit even more what went well. However, the most important part is that you now have irrefutable proof that you managed to conquer your fear of fighting. This will go a long way in helping you conquer it the next time and the cumulative effect is what can give you confidence despite the fear perhaps never going away completely.
If you lose, it can be a shattering experience. I’ve seen competitors retire after a first fight that went badly. Others keep going but they’re never the same again. Still others use it as motivation to train harder. They learn from their mistakes and try to move on. I believe this last one is the best way to approach such a loss. It may not be easy but it sure beats the alternatives.
Let’s start with a couple of things you need to wrap your mind around. They aren’t techniques as such but they will help you reach the right mindset to use the techniques I explain below. Here goes:
- Don’t take it personally. Don’t think there is something wrong with you because you feel afraid to fight or feel fear every time you do. Even though it might not feel that way to you, there’s no need to be embarrassed or ashamed about it because it’s only natural. Only a very low percentage of all people feel no fear at all when fighting. But they usually have other psychological issues and you probably don’t want to trade with them. The others who don’t feel fear are the idiots who haven’t yet realized they aren’t immortal and that fighting is dangerous…
- Learn about the psychological and physiological side of fear. Especially if you feel intense fear, learn about what goes on in your mind and body when it goes through an adrenal stress event. This has been studied extensively and reading up on this will help squash that nagging voice in your head that whispers you’re the only one who feels fear. By the way: your opponent feels the exact same thing as you…
- Fear manifests itself in different ways to different people. Some people tremble. Others feel light-headed or feel their stomach turn. Or their minds go blank and they freeze. Still others don’t manifest a lot of symptoms and don’t even realize they’re afraid until afterward. Or they have negative, destructive thoughts undermining their fighting spirit. It’s different for everybody and it can also change from one fight to the other.
- There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no matter what people try to sell you. People are all different. Situations and contexts too. What works for you might not work for somebody else and vice versa. Sure, certain things seem to work for a large portion of people but that doesn’t guarantee success for you personally. Keep trying until you find an approach that works.
- Accept that you can’t win every fight. Very few fighters win every single match. Eventually, they lose some. The same will happen to you. If you can accept this will happen to you too, the fear of losing will no longer be an issue and you can focus on beating your opponent instead.
- Accept that fights are unpredictable. You might dominate your opponent throughout the rounds when he suddenly hits you with a powerful shot out of nowhere and your lights go out. That’s just the nature of fighting; it’s a fickle thing and you can’t completely control it. If you can accept that on a fundamental level, you can focus on implementing your strategy and tactics.
- Accept that fights can leave you injured, crippled or dead. This is a big one. Every year, fighters die in the ring and the cage. Every year, some get seriously injured, sometimes permanently. You shouldn’t be naive about this, it’s a valid concern that makes it perhaps the most powerful source of the fear you feel. If you can accept at a gut level that this might happen to you too, then you’re on your way to conquering your fear.
- Do all you can. Don’t come to the ring or cage unprepared. Before the first punch is thrown, you have to be able to tell yourself you did your utmost to prepare for this fight. If you did, you can face whatever comes next with a calm derived from the knowledge that you couldn’t be prepared better. If you didn’t, then that nagging voice of doubt you hear all the time will get louder and louder. It’ll tell you you should have trained more, trained harder, started earlier, etc. And it will be right this time too. You’ll know deep down that you didn’t do everything you could have. As a result, you know that you should be afraid and the fear will become bigger because of it. Do all you can so you can start each fight with the knowledge that you’re as ready as you’ll ever going to be.
- Know why you fight. This is the most important one: why do you fight? Strangely enough, many fighters are conflicted about their motives to step into the cage, even if they don’t always know this on a conscious level. This leads to doubts, followed by fear. If you know why you fight, you can be more focused on the task at hand: beating your opponent.
Some of these points took me a long time to get. Others came relatively quickly. I think these are some of the more important keys to overcoming your fear and recommend you spend some time considering them.
If you want to see this in action, take a look at this clip of a young Mike Tyson right before a fight:
Yes, that’s Iron Mike Tyson being stressed out of his mind, crying and very much afraid. But he uses it as a release for all the pre-fight stress and get into the right mindset. Watch how he flips the switch when he starts shadowboxing on the way back in.
Here’s the thing: if Tyson, who during his prime was feared by all heavyweights, can be scared before a fight, it’s OK for you to be so too. Take a hint from Mike and use it to get fired up and fight even harder.
Skill and Training
Charles Staley explains Tudor Bompa’s system of classifying different aspects of training in his excellent book, “The Science of Martial Arts Training.” This system helps you analyze your training methods but also creates a hierarchy for training in which each level of the pyramid supports and prepares the others. Here’s what it looks like:
- The base of the pyramid is training physical attributes: power, speed, endurance, etc. That’s what you spend the most time on. Especially in MMA, you need to be in peak physical condition when you step into the cage. Anything less and you aren’t as ready as you could be (see above.) However, if this level isn’t solid, you’ll quickly be too tired to do good techniques or lack the power or speed to land them effectively. This means you can’t implement the strategy you prepared, which causes you to doubt yourself, and voila: fear!
- No matter how good a shape you’re in, you’ll eventually get tired. The better your techniques, the less of those physical resources you need to use: you won’t gas as quickly, simply because you don’t waste energy. You also hit harder with good technique, which makes it more difficult for your opponent to ignore your punches and kicks. This in turn makes implementing your strategy easier and that then strengthens your mindset. In other words, it keeps the fear at bay.
- The first two levels revolve around resources and tools. The strategic and tactical level is about how and when to use them. Don’t assume your opponent will be an idiot. Expect him to be as good as you or better and you need a strategy to beat him with sound tactics. When you have both, it’s easier to land your techniques and pressure your opponent. There’s nothing more confidence-building and fear-squashing than completely dominating an opponent…
- Finally, we get to the psychological part. No matter how good the previous levels are, if you lack the right mindset and fighting spirit, it’s all for nothing. A typical example of this is the guy who is terrifying in the gym and then loses all his skill when he steps into the cage. This is also the level most people want to “fix” first when they try to conquer their fear of fighting. But as you can see from the pyramid, it needs to be supported by all the other levels first. Only then will the work you do to harden your fighting spirit yield lasting results.
So how do you train that final psychological level to overcome your fear? Here are a couple things you can try:
- Procedures. Implement procedures for everything you need to do when you compete: Have a list of items to pack, pack your bag or suitcase in the same way every single time so everything is always in place. Make sure you have your competition schedule, itinerary and flight tickets printed out and packed in the same place as always. If that doesn’t apply, make sure the car has a full tank of gas the day before. And so on. Knowing you have all those little details squared away avoids anxiety because you know you don’t have to handle any last-minute problems. It’s those little things added on top of your regular pre-fight stress than can push you over the top and create tremendous anxiety. So get rid of all doubt and make sure these are taken care of.
- Positive self-talk. I don’t mean the phony new-age crap; I mean not chastising yourself all the time. Instead of thinking “Fuck! How the hell did I miss with that kick? I suck!” you should think “Fuck! I missed! How can I make sure that doesn’t happen again? I wanna be better than this!” By stating it in a positive manner, you make it easier to train hard enough to correct that mistake. If you only focus on negative thoughts, you’ll give up much quicker. Like Henry Ford said: whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right. So always think “Yes, I can!”
- Confront that little voice. That little voice in your head, the one that whispers all those negative things in your ear, it has one big problem: it doesn’t have any other advice than telling you to give up. It doesn’t offer actual solutions, it doesn’t offer help. So whenever you hear that voice once again, ask it which solution it proposes other than quitting? You’ll hear nothing but silence then… Consider this: if it doesn’t offer any help anyway, why would you listen to it?
- Practice combat breathing. There are many systems of breathing you could use but this one is both a good start and it has a great track record. It’s very simple: Breathe in through the nose for a four-count, count to four while you hold your breath, breathe out through the mouth for four counts, hold for another four-count and you’re done with one cycle. Repeat for four cycles in total. This breathing method can help you control the adrenaline dump you experience right before fighting. However, it works best if you already practiced it a lot. Don’t expect the fear to disappear suddenly but you should regain some control over it.
- Practice relaxation techniques. A typical consequence of intense fear is tensing up your muscles. This causes both mental and physical fatigue and wears you out before your fight. But you can learn to control this by practicing a relaxation method that works for you. I personally use and teach progressive muscle relaxation to fighters and clients because it’s easy to practice and yields results fast. You can count out the cues yourself or use an MP3 course if you prefer. The key is to practice it long enough so you can relax specific muscles at will. Sounds difficult but it isn’t, you just need to put in the work. It helps for falling asleep too if you’re having problems with that the night before the fight.
- Meditate. The same applies to breathing training: there are a gazillion methods of meditation so it might take some time before you find one that works best for you. That said, stay away from the mystical, woo-woo stuff; you don’t need it. The reason you want to meditate is to discipline your mind, to get more control over it. This takes as much training as learning how to do a choke hold or any other technique correctly. I’ll add a book to help you get started in the resources section below.
- Visualize. Scientific research has proven that watching a video of your last fight will stimulate your body in a similar way to when you are actually fighting. To a degree, your brain is fooled into thinking it’s the same thing. The problem with looking at the video is that you can’t fix what went wrong but when you visualize, you control the scenario that plays out in your mind’s eye. Focus on your techniques and strategies for your upcoming fight and visualize yourself performing everything perfectly. In essence, you’re self-hypnotizing or pre-programming the right responses into your mind. The key is again regular practice but also including lots of detail in your scenarios: make the movie you see in your mind’s eye vivid and clear but also include all your other senses to make it as realistic an experience as possible.
- Implement mental triggers. This is the most powerful method of fear management I know. I used it extensively near the end of my competitive years and it worked exceptionally well. The downside is that it’s also dangerous; not everybody can handle this type of programming long-term. Or they end up programming the wrong responses. Or they end up becoming bullies, assholes, or much worse. Here’s how it works: In a way, you break off certain pieces of your mind and puzzle them back together. Then you lock them up in a box. Then you install a mental on/off switch, the trigger. A little before the referee says “Fight!” you flip the switch and basically turn into another person: a ferocious fighter with cat-like reflexes, perfect technique and an indomitable will to win. This is an advanced way of “psyching yourself up”, one that is much more effective than just shouting or puffing your chest like so many fighters do. I wrote a 14-page in-depth tutorial on this subject in Loren’s Solo Training 2 if you want more details. But be careful with this method and seek help from a therapist if you aren’t sure how to do this.
All these techniques can be used to control pre-fight anxiety (days/weeks leading up to the fight) and also on the day of the event itself when you have to wait for hours before you’re up. I’ve stated it several times already but I’ll repeat it again because it’s crucial: you need to practice these techniques just as much as your punches, kicks, throws, and ground game. If you don’t or you only put in a mediocre effort, don’t expect results.
Now we get to the final and perhaps most important tool to help you conquer your fear of fighting: the fighting itself. Like in every other sport, the more you compete, the more actual experience you get, the better you can do. The keyword is “can” because not everybody learns from their mistakes. Some fighters make the same ones over and over because they don’t analyze their fights. Eventually, their opponents notice this and use it against them. This causes self-doubt and fear in those fighters because they keep on getting nailed when they use certain techniques and tactics. Then they don’t use these techniques as much anymore and end up becoming predictable, one-dimensional fighters who are even easier to beat than before. Hello, vicious circle…
Experience is only useful if you learn from it. Learning from you experiences requires analysis and methodology. In other words, you need to work at it. I’ll cover that some more here below but first some other things you can do to get more experience:
- Avoid negative experiences early on. For many fighters, the root of their fear is the trauma of sparring or competing against a superior opponent too early in their career. Some gyms make this their hallmark: they put a new, untrained guy against an experienced fighter in a rough sparring session to test his mettle. The newbie gets banged up a bit so the coach can see if he has fighting spirit or not. If so, they take him on. If not, he is either asked to leave or is put in the general group of students who aren’t given as much attention because they aren’t good enough by the coach’s standards (they do pay the gym’s bills with their fees though…) I am very much against this, even though I can understand why certain coaches do this. I believe it is detrimental to a fighter in the long run. My approach is to have a beginner practice solo in front of the mirror and on the heavy bag for the first few weeks. Then they start working on techniques with a partner and after a few months (when I judge them ready) they can step into the group that does sparring. In my experience, this works better than beating the crap out of them on day one. If this happened to you, understand that it isn’t your fault you sucked during that first sparring session: the deck was stacked against you, and you couldn’t win. So your fear is based on a faulty premise: just because you got beat up by an experienced fighter, doesn’t mean you can never become good yourself.
- Manage your career progressively. This is similar to the previous bullet but now concerns your competitive career: don’t just fight opponents at a whim but select them carefully. If you fight opponents you aren’t ready for, you’ll get beat up and feel more fear in the future. If you fight opponents that are tough but you can beat them if you fight hard (and are a little lucky), then you grow as a fighter and develop confidence in your abilities. This confidence is solid because it comes from your proven track record: every time you beat an opponent, you build up trust in your own capabilities on a deep emotional and psychological level. The more you do so, the less fear you will fear and/or the easier you will be able to manage it. So don’t go for the championship belt right away. Pick your opponents wisely to build up your skills and experience so you always benefit the most from each individual fight.
- Increase sparring intensity progressively. Once you have the basic techniques for offense and defense ingrained, start with some relaxed sparring. Just wet your feet, no hard contact. When you’re comfortable with that, increase the speed of the techniques but not the contact. Next step, increase the contact level gradually until you can handle full-on sparring. This allows you to get used to the different levels of intensity. Whenever you go to the next level and start flailing, panicking or making lots of technical errors, you know you aren’t ready for it. Just dial it down a notch again and spend more time on that previous level before you try the rougher sparring again. Your goal is to keep your skills intact when you step up to the next level, not lose them.
- Practice what you hate. Most fighters have techniques or ranges they aren’t comfortable with. When they are forced to use these or fight there, they panic. Personally, I had good kicking techniques early on but my boxing sucked. So I trained hard to trust my fists more by spending a lot of time practicing hand techniques and sparring at punching range. It wasn’t fun but I eventually became more skilled there. Instead of feeling fear when an opponent came in close where my kicks were useless, I didn’t feel afraid anymore because I no longer lacked the skill to fight there. The more experience I got at boxing range, the easier it became and the less fear I felt. Though I’ll probably never be a great boxer, I can hold my own now and don’t worry about it anymore like at first. Apply the same reasoning to your least preferred techniques/range and get rid of another source of fear for you.
- Analyze your sparring sessions and fights. Buy a cheap tripod and camcorder, put it in the corner at the gym and record your sparring sessions and fights. You can also use a tablet or cellphone if you prefer (check out my how to use an Android tablet for martial arts training post for more on that.) It’s always better if your coach does the analysis with you but failing that, do it yourself. Try to take your ego out of the equation and make an honest assessment of how you performed. This means focusing on neither the good nor the bad alone, but listing them both along with the mediocre parts. Create a spreadsheet on your computer with three columns (good, bad and mediocre) and write down what you see in each round along with a time code for easy reference. What to look for? Footwork, technical errors, keeping your guard up, timing mistakes, strategy and tactics, adequate levels of physical attributes (speed, power, endurance), etc. When you finish, read through the list and think about it some more: is it true what you wrote or are you exaggerating in either direction? Watch the footage again and correct any notes that weren’t 100% accurate. The next step is to find solutions to all the problems you identified and plan your following training sessions accordingly. Simultaneously, analyze why the things you did great worked so well. Figure out variations for those, other set-ups, etc. so you can get even better at them. Then set out some training time for that too. Do all this for every fight and every two to three weeks for sparring sessions. This way you’ll not only have experience, but you’ll also actually improve your skills and work on your weaknesses. When you do this consistently, you will conquer your fear of fighting faster because you’ll know you are better than you were before. How do you know? Because you went back to your notes from earlier sessions or fights and notice you don’t make the same mistakes anymore. This kind of knowledge, rooted in actual experience, is one of the best antidotes to your fear of fighting.
For many people, it takes a long time to conquer their fear of fighting. It takes a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears. Don’t expect easy results right away. Others, they go through the process a lot faster. There’s no way to know how it’ll go for you so accept that you’ll just go at your own pace, however fast or slow that may be. Whatever the rate of progress, chances are you’ll never completely get rid of your fear of fighting.
That’s why this article is titled “How to conquer your fear of fighting” and not “How to stop being afraid of fighting.” It’s about finding a way to manage that fear, to use it in a constructive manner instead of letting it consume you.
Remember how Randy Couture said it: even after all his victories in the cage, after fighting huge battles in there, he still struggles with it. He still can’t get rid of the doubt and negative thoughts.
I found this to be consistently true for almost every single fighter I ever met: they can never completely get rid of the fear.
Some of them refuse to say this in public because they think it isn’t a manly thing to do. Others play it down or don’t admit just how much it really bothers them. Still others hide it behind their antics and chest-thumping bravado. Regardless, they all try to find ways to conquer their fear and fight to the best of their abilities.
With this article, I want to give you some tools to help you with your own quest for controlling your fear. The things I mentioned here have worked for me personally as well as for my students and clients. But I repeat, you have to find what works for you, usually by trial and error. That alone takes a lot of work and once you figure out what you need, you have even more work to do.
I wish there were a shortcut but I don’t believe there is one. The only thing I can offer here is that the alternative to all that work is a lifetime of being dominated by your fear. That’s not going to help you as a fighter. On the contrary, it’ll make sure you never compete at 100% of your potential. It’s also a lousy way to live your life.
Instead, try out some of the ideas I mentioned here and keep going until you reach your goal of conquering your fear of fighting. Never give up.
My upcoming book on this topic
Since I announced the title of this article on my Facebook page yesterday, I was surprised to receive a ton of email from MMA fighters. Apparently, this topic struck a nerve and they all asked for in-depth information on this topic. For those of you who contacted me, I can’t answer all your questions in this article even though it’s already well over 6000 words long. So I decided to write a full-length book about it and am now in the process of creating the outline. The tentative title is:
How to conquer your fear of fighting.
Your guide to overcoming fear in the ring or Octagon
If you have specific questions you’d like me to answer in the book or a particular topic you’d like to see included, just post it in the comments section here below. I can’t promise I’ll include it but I’ll consider all requests.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this article and wish you lots of fun training and competing.
Here are links to the resources I mentioned in the article and some more too.
The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker. A primer on fear. What causes it, what’s its function and how to use it. A good starting point to learn about fear.
On Killing and On Combat by Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. These books offer a detailed insight in how the mind and body operates under the adrenal stress of combat. Must haves, both of them.
Warrior Mindset by Michael Asken, Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. A practical guide to help you train your mind for combat.
Warriors: Updated & Expanded Edition. More On Living with Courage, Discipline, and Honor by Loren W. Christensen. I wrote a piece on fear when fighting in the ring for this book. It covers a few other aspects from those I mentioned here.
Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training by Tudor Bompa. Any serious athlete needs to read this book. It explains step by step how to train and why you need to do things a certain way. There is not a single elite athlete that doesn’t use these principles.
The Science of Martial Arts Training by Charles I Staley. In many ways, this is an introductory version of “Periodization” by Bompa. It’s not as dry, not as in-depth and easier to apply. So if you don’t feel like getting Bompa’s huge book, try this one first.
Solo Training 2 by Loren W. Christensen. I wrote a chapter for Loren’s book called “8 ways to create and use mental triggers.” It’s an in-depth tutorial on how to do just that.
Progressive Relaxation & Autogenic Training by Carolyn McManus. Learn how to control your tension levels and relax muscles at will.
Meditation for Warriors: Practical Meditation for Cops, Soldiers and Martial Artists
James P says
Like I said in my mail, I’d love to know more about the self-hypnosis thing. Thanks!
Got that one already in the outline. :-)
outstanding article Wim,
Super infomative and generous of you to offer it.
keep up the great work. Sean
My pleasure Sean, glad to hear you liked it.
Dear Mr Demeere,
Thank you for this very open and brave article. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone really talk about this.
I’m not a competition fighter; I’ve never really done full contact. I practise iaido, tai ji quan and systema, but in order not to delude myself with fantasies about what I’m doing, I wanted experience with at least some level of contact.
A few years ago, I tried kendo. During practice, we had to stand and accept hits to the head. I had a helmet on, but it still hurt a lot. The moment I thought I couldn’t take any more, I started to cry. Because of that, I became very ashamed, which made things even worse.
A few years later, I was at a systema seminar. We had to stand against a wall with our arms at our sides, while our partners hit us in the chest, stomach and face. Same result.
I asked all my teachers – and anyone else who would listen – for advice about how to get tougher, about how to be able to take more. I have tremendous respect for all the people I asked, and for both the kendo and systema instructor. I really believe they gave their best advice and support. Nevertheless, I always felt that I was alone in this, and that whatever I did, I wouldn’t really improve. Seeing other people take much more punishment without any problems only discouraged me more.
The video of Mike Tyson hasn’t even really hit home yet, and I know I’m going to have to read the article several times. I also know I’m not really your target audience here, and that the practice I do is at a much lower level. But I wanted to thank you nevertheless for writing about this and giving me some ammunition against the negative voices.
Thanks for the kind words. I’m very happy to hear that you found worthwhile information in this post. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into MMA (which is the target audience of this post indeed), if you can use the information for your own training, then that’s great too.
Getting tougher is a continuous process, not something you can get easily or quickly. It takes time and a lot of sacrifice. I remember doing toughening up drills every class with my teacher and wanting to quit. He hit so hard and was so tough, I almost always felt like giving up. I routinely came home black and blue all over. As time went by, it got better, ever so slowly. Eventually, I saw that I was taking shots the newer students were having trouble with; The same shots I couldn’t handle when I started. So progress is possible. Just give yourself some time and never give up.
You might also want to read the story of the student I am most proud of.
Good luck with your training.
Wow, thanks for that! The story and the extra encouragement from your personal anecdote.
My pleasure. Good luck with your training.
Mike Williamson says
Wow, this is pretty in-depth already! I’m looking forward to see what the whole book would look like.
If you could add something about long term negative effects when people do the mental trigger programming the wrong way, I think that would be interesting for most people.
Just a thought.
Good idea Mike, thanks!
Don Armstrong says
First of all, thank you for writing this article. I’ve struggled with this myself and rarely find fighters willing to talk about it. If you could write more about breathing methods to control your mind, I think that would be very helpful for all of us. I’ve experimented with that and it seemed to help me so I’d be interested in exploring other methods as well.
Thanks Don, glad you liked the article. I’ll add some more about breathing methods to the outline.
j. a. mullins says
Fear is indeed a crippler. Coping with fear is something we do everyday in life. I feel that if most people were able to look into their everyday fears and learn a little more about what makes them tick that they would be able to learn to cope better with fear in a fight as well.
Traditional martial arts, those that were truly complete offering the capacity to train men to be capable fighters, have built mechanisms that help focus a fighter so that he is prepared mentally as well as physically. Acceptance of the risk or injury or death, understanding the need to kill an opponent, appropriate intent and how to channel it to survive in a violent encounter, and so on and so forth.
Most whole martial arts take a near religious need in fighters lives. Boiled down I simplify it by the acronym S.E.L.F.
Society- understanding that your are an everyday member of society with the same fears, obligations, and desires as the other guys lets you relate to the other guy in a way that deflates your inflated image of an opponent.
Effort- you have to work hard, the harder you work the more the payoff is. This is the biggest thing for fighters to get over, they learn to a point and then think they can handle anyone. Drop the ego, keep training the other guy is.
Learn- learning from life is important, nothing beats experience. Conquering fear is pretty much learning that you can do something. Once you know you can do it you do not fear the failure of attempting is so much.
Faith- you have to believe; in yourself, in your training, and in your place in society. Believe in something that motivates you. Religion, family, national pride, your school, your education, et cetera, hell, believe in a lot of things. True belief is a measure of your success in life. you believe because you have come to know something, have accomplished things, or have been a part of something significant to you.
I feel a lot of modern martial arts are incomplete because they lack the ability to prepare a fighter for the mental aspects of the fight. They teach techniques, tactics, and conditioning but lack the focus training one needs to achieve results when the going gets tough on the fighter. Modern martial artists can still learn from the old school by seeking to understand what aspects of their art have been left out or misunderstood. Be warned after 5000 years of history it gets murky fast.
Jeff Mci says
wow……i’m so happy you brought this up…this topic is considered Taboo…you hit it right on the money..I’m currently experiencing fear for getting into the ring again , simply because of a bad experience from my previous fight….it pushed me to really train harder and sharpen up on the skills I feel will help me excel…..I refuse to fight again unless I sharpen up those skills..
That’s probably best Jeff. Speaking from experience, if you aren’t as prepared as you can be, stepping into the ring is probably not a good idea. If you know you did everything you could, it takes away a part of the stress (not everything) and avoids guilt and second-guessing afterwards.
FYI, you might want to join my notification list for new books and videos here: http://www.wimdemeere.com/ It’s in a box on the right side of the screen; I have plans for an e-book on this topic in the near future.
Jeff mci says
Wim, thanks for the reply. i will check out your link!
Jeff mci says
mind if i ask you a question on building enough heart to fight again?…i’m struggling with his…
Jeff mci says
..ppl keep telling me that i’m really really good…..but i dnt see it ..yet..i see bad flaws that I really can’t afford to have exposed in the ring..i don’t expect to perfect everything..but i think there are areas that need to be tuned and drilled…I noticed that most camps just say “Fight and you’ll get use to it ; you’ll learn in the ring”—i believe learning in the ring is true…however there are certain things that i’d rather not learn in the ring because of the lack of a certain technique..etc..-then there are times where I feel like i’m over analyzing things..-what are your thoughts??
– Win or lose is never absolute. It only means on that given day against that specific opponent, you won/lost. The day before or after things could have been different. So in the larger scheme of things, it isn’t really that big a deal.
– One bad experience is not a good baseline for evaluating your skills. Who did you face? Was he much more experienced? Did he get lucky? Were you too stressed out to perform well? Etc. So many factors are involved, it’s hard to say what is actually a good assessment of your skills. I’ve seen people be hell on wheels during warm-up and fall apart an hour later when they fight. One bad experience is just as false for a baseline as one excellent experience. It’s only in the aggregate that you can form a well-founded analysis of who you are as a fighter. If you accumulate loss after loss, then perhaps competing isn’t for you. But also true is that if you accumulate win after win, doesn’t mean you’re meant to be world champ. So I would advise to not place too much importance on either a win or a loss, a good or a bad experience.
– Shoot some footage on your cellphone or tablet of you training and sparring. Ask another trainer, one not from your gym, to look at it and give you an honest assessment. That could help you decide if you want to fight again or not. If you don’t know anybody, I offer telephone consultation and distance coaching for fighters, more here. No pressure, just offering.
– Make a list of the things you feel need to be better and then make a plan on how you’re going to train them. Set priorities, don’t do everything at once. But also set a benchmark: when you work on those deficiencies, what would be good enough for you? Set a goal to achieve instead of just training all over the place.
Just my 2 cents, take it with a grain of salt.