I was not a likely fighter. I was twenty-four, soft, nonathletic and felt pretty uncomfortable in my skin, let alone a boxing ring when I first started Muay Thai. I did, however, have one thing going for me; I was ridiculously disciplined. I would show up to train every day. I worked hard. I did my road work. I didn’t complain (much). This discipline was enough to develop skills and techniques that would make me a good fighter. But that was it, I was just okay, not champion material yet. To be great, to be a champion and a professional I needed one more quality – Conviction. The conviction for me took time to develop. Due to my lack of previous athletic skills I was used to seeing myself as the same girl that was picked last in dodgeball and who sat the bench at varsity basketball games. These views of yourself take time to change, but eventually with enough hard work, self-discovery and winning fights my confidence improved. I started to go into the ring thinking, “I got this!”, instead of “What the fuck am I doing in here?”
There are three qualities that make a great fighter:
Discipline, skill, and conviction.
Now that I coach fighters I find I am often thinking about these three qualities. In my opinion to be a champion you must excel at all three. Of course, desire is the fourth that all fighters must have, but I leave that out, as it’s evident that the desire must be present or the fighter won’t even want to fight.
There are some good fighters out there that excel at just two of the above three qualities and are merely average or sub-par in the third. They can skirt by for a while, but eventually, they get beaten by those that have mastered all three as they rise the ranks.
Many of you know that fighter that has so much “natural talent” and confidence, but that does the bare minimum in conditioning and skips training a lot. Chances are we also know someone who doesn’t have the best technique, but that believes in themselves, has a positive attitude and works hard, they can win some on athletic ability and belief alone. And of course, there is that one fighter who has so much skill and kills it in the gym every day, seems invincible, but come game time they get the worst nerves and often crumble under pressure. These are all examples of fighters who have excelled in only two of the three qualities.
For me, as a coach, I need to see two of the three qualities right off the bat if I’ll even consider training a fighter to step in the ring to fight. I know, like myself the third weak link can take time to develop, and even if it never fully develops to grade A status, if they improve some they can still have a good run, a handful of fights maybe.
So, how to become a champion fighter? Well, even if that is not your primary goal, we can all get better as athletes, and as people. If you are reading this and one quality you lack in the ring or life is ringing true to you here are some ways you can improve the weak link and get better as a fighter (or athlete, or person).
For fighters that lack discipline the most important action is to create a schedule and stick to it. Ask your coach to sit down with you and map out a detailed plan of what days and times you are doing pad work, sparring, road work, conditioning, etc. Make a calendar for the weeks leading up to the fight and set alarms in your online schedule that will alert your phone when it is time to get ready for the gym, or get up for the morning run, or to eat if you need that too. Put a large calendar up in your house as well, on a moveable dry erase board. The movable part is important because if something is in the same place all the time you tend to ignore it after a while. If you move it every week or so, you’ll be forced to look at it.
Consider hiring a strength coach. I found that having a separate strength coach that helped me schedule my road work, sprints, conditioning, strength work and recovery work and helped me stick to my schedule more diligently. Plus if you are paying someone for their time, you’ll be less likely to ditch. These days you can even hire a coach remotely that works with you via online programs, emails, and phone call check-ins.
Ask friends to keep you accountable and plan running dates. Ultimately becoming a great fighter is your responsibility, but if you know you tend to slack in one area, why not ask your training partners to carpool so you can’t bail on training after a long day at work, or schedule a time to meet for a morning run with your buddy. We are much less likely to roll over and hit snooze when someone else is waiting for us.
Having trouble being discipline about diet? Weight cuts are such an important part of being a combat athlete. Hire a nutritionist to help you with your weight cut. Don’t have that much money to spend? Well, I’m sure you can sacrifice a couple of weekends of dinners out and bar tabs to help you pay for the vital information. There are also some great ebooks, blogs, and resources on nutrition and myfitnesspal.com is a free app that enables you to log your food. Not to mention, your coach, who may have cut weight often when they fought can teach you a thing or two; but in the case that they were just naturally lean and never had any trouble and you need more help than they can provide, hire someone! You don’t want to risk lousy weight cuts; they may lose you fights.
Finally, if you are just having trouble with willpower, in general, I’ve written a lot about this is the past.
If you have the discipline and a good coach and supportive team chances are the talents will come with practice, but if you feel this is your weak spot, or want to get better at skills (who doesn’t?!) here are some pointers:
Watch Fights. Back when I was a young fighter, YouTube did not exist. (God, I feel so old saying that). YouTube didn’t come out until three years into my fight journey! We had to get crappy VHS tapes copied from a friend of a friend or if we were lucky to go watch some local fights live, which I hardly ever got to cause I worked weekends. Now you have no excuse! The fight world is your oyster! You have thousands of fights at your fingertips. Don’t know what to watch? Ask your coach for his favorite top ten… that should keep you busy for a while. My top 10 favs to watch online? In no particular order (off the top off my head): Ernesto Hoost, Germain de Randamie, Buakow, Kevin Ross, Mike Zambidis, Julie Kitchen, Jorina Baars, Andy Sower, Angela Parr, Fabio, Pinca (crap that’s eleven, oh well you get the idea, I can go on and on and on with this list…)
Don’t neglect recovery. Taking the time to stretch, warm up properly, get massages, foam roll, do mobility exercises and drink enough water may not seem in the short term like it will help your sport-specific skills, but in the long run it can mean the difference between peak performance and a loss; also it will assist in injury prevention. If you want to be a champion think long term. An injury can set your career back big time.
Practice the things you don’t like. We often avoid the techniques we are not good at. Clinch, speed, footwork, low kicks, whatever it is you find yourself trying not to train, train that MORE. Working on your less strong skills will elevate your whole game.
Another way to improve your skills is to spar people that are better than you and people different than your teammates. Now, I don’t recommend just trying to walk into random gyms by yourself to spar, that’s a recipe for an ass-kicking, but if your coach doesn’t already do it, I have found that setting up fight team field trips to other gym’s fight teams you are friends with is a great way to help fighters grow.
If you live in a small city where there are hardly any other fight teams to train with, because maybe they are also your team’s primary and only competitor, then seminars can be a great way to learn and expand your skills. Plan your vacations around upcoming workshops in other states or plan a trip to Thailand or Holland, or some additional fight capital and ask your coach for connections in your destination. It’s not safe to walk into any gym anywhere and spar, but if you have a good referral from your coach, it can be a good experience and a fun way to improve your skills during a trip. If you have a coach that doesn’t support you attending outside seminars or taking a trip to Thailand, maybe it’s time you considered a switch to someone more open-minded. Even if your coach is great and you are loyal to them, sometimes just a different word someone uses to describe a technique gets us past a plateau. We all grow through learning from others; it’s a universal human truth.
I know firsthand conviction in one’s own ability as a fighter is a difficult quality to develop. If confidence is challenging for you, focusing intently on making your discipline and skills top notch can increase your conviction. However, at some point, you will have to dig deep and find a way to get your mindset right and honestly believe you have what it takes to win. Just staying it is not enough if you are aiming for the top level. Here are some tips to help you create a champion mindset:
Read books on mindset: Mind Gym, A Fighters Heart, even basic self-help books like You are a Badass and Switch can help you find ways to improve your mental game. Stay alert to all sources of psychological improvement. Help can come from all sorts of places. Conviction can’t be faked, but it can be learned. Changing beliefs about ourselves is hard. You have to use every trick in the book to get a new belief system to take hold and become part of who you are. Do the work and rise above your mental blocks.
Affirmations work. They sound silly and cheesy, but I swear writing things like, “I am a champion”, “I am better under pressure”, “Everything I need to win is inside of me”, and sticking them all over the house, on your microwave, on your cell phone, in your bathroom written on the mirror in lipstick. It sounds all hocus-pocus, but it works. You need to counteract all the negative shit that other people (and yourself) have told you all your life and start anew.
Rid yourself of those who drag you down. If you want to be a champion with a champion mindset you don’t just ignore the negative; you remove it from your life. Got a girlfriend or boyfriend who doesn’t approve of you fighting and nags you about it all the time? Dump them and find one that not just accepts your fight career, but fully supports you. Got a friend who is always trying to put you down and make you feel less than or complains about bullshit all the time. Ditch them and block them from Facebook. It’s your life, live it as you want! I don’t know any great fighters that let other people’s bullshit dictate who they wanted to be and where they wanted to go.
A word of caution, however, self-confidence does have a point of diminishing returns. Don’t get so high and mighty that you forget your roots, humility, loyalty, or family values. Know that you can have conviction and be humble at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Even though I am a retired fighter, I still work to cultivate the three qualities that make a champion in myself daily. The characteristics that helped me win fights also made me a better person in general. Discipline, skills, and conviction are attributes that will help you succeed in any challenge you decide to pursue.
My best to you in all your journeys: in fighting, in strength, in love and in life.