You can feel your sweaty palms underneath the gauze and tape your coach masterfully bound over your hands. You tried hard not to let your hands shake while they worked. You begin to stretch and warm up, shadow box and you notice your mouth is dry. The gloves get taped on by a commissioner, and you realize now there is no going back, not even another bathroom break. Maybe at this moment, you have a twinge of doubt. Why am I here? This is crazy! I could get hurt. We have all thought something like this before.
When you begin to hit pads your body feels “gooey,” legs a bit heavy, timing slightly off. You notice how that first couple minutes of pad work leaves you more breathless than you are used to in training, but you power through until the punches feel crisp and your kicks feel strong. Second wind, they call it. Once you have broken a sweat, you wait on deck for your name to be called. You hear the crowd cheering for the fight before you, maybe you glance at your opponent who is waiting too. What are they thinking?
Stepping over the ropes into the ring, you hope you don’t fall, you feel the knot in your stomach, the bright lights are jarring to your eyes. After the ring is sealed you are called to the center; now it’s okay to stare at your opponent. You look them straight in the eye, trying to project confidence, trying to instill fear. You take a good look; your mind is racing, you probably don’t even hear what the referee is saying, you just nod. Your mouth is still so dry. Clean fight, good fight. Okay, got it.
Back to your corner. This is it. The bell rings. Fight! There is only one winner. Will it be you?
…The answer lies in your ability to excel at overcoming pre-fight nerves.
No fighter is exempt from fight nerves. Some fear, some anxiety is a good thing. After all, you are about to do something dangerous, courageous and challenging; it’s important your senses are heightened, and you are extremely alert; something that a being a little anxious will do for you. The important part is how you deal with the fear. Will you use it positively, channel it into your punches and kicks or will you let it own, making you tired, weak and ineffective?
The outcome of your emotions is entirely up to you. The mental of the fight game that is more difficult to teach. Coaches can give advice, make a fighter feel confident with their praise, prepare them physically, but they can’t know the complexities that go on inside every fighter’s head. You have to be responsible for your emotions. You have to learn to control the mental game on your own. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s just you in there, staring down your opponent, ready for battle with only one referee in there to keep things “fair.” No one can help you from your mind but you.
The mental game starts weeks out from the day you agree to take the fight, with a commitment to making sure you’ll be physically prepared. No amount of top notch mental game will save you from being poorly conditioned with unpolished skills against an opponent of equal size and ability.
Do your running and sprints, do your pad work and make sure your sparring is challenging. Each training camp leading up to a fight should be pushing you to be a better version of you. It’s this type of hard training that gives you the confidence on the day you step in the ring. You know you have done your part. You are prepared.
Being prepared also means taking your weight cut seriously. You could be conditioned and mentally ready, but if a weight cut goes wrong and you are struggling big time to lose the water weight, it could ruin your confidence and drain you physically for fight day. Eat well, train smart, listen to your coach and the weight cut will be a cinch. If you have a question about cutting, ask your coach. Don’t go getting advice from random message boards online. Your coach is your coach for a reason and assuming you picked them for their experience and expertise they will know how to cut weight and train for a fight. Ask questions! Your coach is a busy person and may forget to tell you something. Ask if you don’t know.
During training camp, you will need to minimize outside distractions. This is difficult for many amateur fighters as they almost always have other jobs, and a hectic schedule. Not everyone will be so lucky to take two months off from all life responsibilities to go to Thailand and fight, where you get to train all day and focus only on the fight. Many pro fighters have full-time jobs too. It’s only the rare few who are either top-level fighters or independently wealthy that can focus solely on their training leading up to the fight.
However, don’t think of your day job, your boyfriend or girlfriend or your family as a distraction or hindrance to your fighting, think of it as a challenge that will teach you how to balance life and fighting. If you don’t learn how to do this, you will never make it as a top-level pro.
It’s smart at the beginning of a training camp to talk to your friends, family and significant other and explain that for the next six or eight weeks you will be very focused on training. Being a fighter means you may have to skip family events, date night, beer with the boys, etc. Hopefully, they will be supportive and understand that fighting is important to you, but if not you will need to put up boundaries and not give in to guilt trips or drama.
While training for a fight it’s also not a good time to make changes in your life. Avoid dipping in the dating pool, avoid big decisions, avoid anything that will put added emotional stress on you. That being said, life does happen. I have certainly had to fight during a breakup, during a family crisis, or during times of financial stress. At these times you need to sharpen your mental game, even more, to remain focused, but if you have any control of these situations entering your life, take that control. Less stress is always a plus.
Your job is tricky because your boss may not care about your life outside of work duties. A deadline is a deadline, and they will think only of their business, not your outside hobbies. For this reason it’s important to choose to take a fight only at times at your work when you know extra demands will not be placed on you. Fight training is not a time where you can work extra hours at the office, or pick up extra shifts cause you need the money. You will need extra time to train of course, but you will also need extra time to relax and focus on your goal mentally.
Hit hard, Hit first, Be Mean. I used to repeat these three things to myself over and over again before a fight, muttering to myself like a crazy person, as I waited to enter the ring. The three words could just as easily have been: Relax, Have Fun, Keep Pressure or something like that. My chant was just what I needed to work on at the time.
I used to type up positive affirmations and tape them around the house and on my things. “You are better under pressure,” said a note taped to the steering wheel of my car. “You have everything you need to win inside you, ” my kitchen cabinet told me every morning when I went to go make breakfast. “You are a champion,” my mirror said as I brushed my teeth before bed after a long day of training. “Let the toughness shape you – Train hard, fight easy,” I read on the back of my cell phone every few hours.
At first, I thought it was a bit cheesy to post these around. I was a bit embarrassed if someone came over and saw them, but I had read that this stuff worked and I was willing to try anything to conquer pre-fight nerves. But then, I noticed something – they did work! I began to feel better leading up to the fight, I began to believe what I wrote in those notes, not just superficially, but deep down believe it… and in the ring, my confidence soared.
Fight or Flight
I used to sleep over ten hours the night before a fight. I would even take naps after check-in time in the dressing room. The most I ever slept was fourteen. I think I woke up, ate breakfast and went back to bed until the time I was supposed to meet my coach at the gym. Even if I didn’t nap in the dressing room, I would start to yawn and keep yawing all the way until I began warming up. Then one day, I think it was after about fifteen fights I was in a hotel room in Canada. It had been a long day of air travel and making my lower weight ever 132. I ate a hearty meal and watched an inspiring movie with my coach and then went to bed. The next day I woke up exactly seven and a half hours later and felt energetic, alert and super excited to fight. Feeling this energy was new to me, and I realized I had crossed a new mental game threshold.
I have fighter friends who have had the exact opposite experience; they can’t sleep at all, even the whole week of the fight they are struggling to fall asleep, troubled by fight anxiety, waking up in the middle of the night or waking up too early and unable to go back to sleep. This is the fight response to fear, and while you might think that having some “fight” in you is a good thing for fighters, it is not when it comes to our bodies natural reactions to high stress.
Not being able to sleep and sleeping too much are both detrimental to your fight preparation, but if I had to pick, I’d choose the sleeping one. The key is to realize that any physical effects of fear and stress are merely that; your body is preparing for battle. Sometimes the pure knowledge that this is a natural reaction will calm you down and ease tension. Don’t fight it, be aware, accept the stress response and take some action to counterbalance.
If you are feeling the flight response: sleepiness, lack of enthusiasm, fear, doubt, etc. try keeping yourself busy with mundane tasks, like cleaning the house, or shopping. Don’t let yourself lie around waiting for weigh-ins or check-in. I used to wander the aisles of Target, or Trader Joe’s before a fight, shopping for random things, post-weigh-in snacks, a cute weigh-in outfit, Pedialyte. Make sure you are with a friend who you trust, who understands the fight journey. A little socializing for people that have the flight response is good. Also, you can keep your focus and enthusiasm high with inspiring movies. My favorites? Girl fight 😉 But anything along the lines of Braveheart, Gladiator or 300 will heighten your excitement for the big day.
If you have the fight response: sleeplessness, anxiety, jitters, fear doubt, etc. you will need to try different techniques to relax. Meditation, baths, breathing techniques, essential oils, maybe even some relaxing herbs like Valerian or Kava Kava. You can try watching movies that help you laugh and relax like comedies (stay away from the fighting ones). Try not to be in too many social situations which can get you worked up and feel stressed. Some peaceful alone time, a quiet walk, reading a book, writing in a journal, can all help to calm you down.
Sealing the ring and the wai kru are the most apparent rituals a fighter has. Each time I stepped into the ring before a fight I seal the ring and tap each the corner post three times, stomp in my opponent’s corner (what can I say I was a sassy, aggressive fighter lol) and bow four times in each direction in the center of the ring. My coach would say a prayer/affirmation to me before he removed my mongkong, a traditional headpiece circlet worn by Muay Thai fighters. I repeat the same words to my fighters today when I take off the headpiece and send the intro the fight.
Creating your won rituals will help you bring a sense of familiarity and comfort into the high-stress situation of a fight. My only warning to you is not to get so attached to them that you become superstitious. Maybe your coach forgets the mongkong, perhaps the lucky shorts you always wear get torn the day of the fight, maybe the promotion you are fighting for doesn’t allow time for you to do a Wai Kru. You must realize that you are the one that created these rituals for yourself. Do not let change affect you negatively. You always have the opportunity to create new rituals. You are the one in control.
Visualizations are important leading up to and on fight day. I use to shadow box five rounds the day before weigh-ins at a time when the gym was quiet, and I could focus. I’d visualize myself in the ring, what I was wearing, what it smelled like, the sound of the bell, what look I’d give my opponent when we met in the center of the ring. I’d even close my eyes as I shadow boxed. Cutting off the ring, owning the center, executing my combinations, visualizing them landing. And then every night before I went to bed and many times throughout the day I would imagine my hands held high in victory, a belt around my waist if I was fighting for one.
On fight day when the jitters started, and they always did, I never expected them not to; I’d take a deep breath and imagine pushing the nervous energy into the pit of my stomach. Each breath would add another ember to the fire brewing inside me. “Once the bell rings each one of these breaths of anxiety will turn into a fire that I’ll unleash at will,” I’d tell myself. The small fire I created in my gut will devastate my opponent with each punch, kick, and knee I throw. Channeling the nervous energy is a must, you can’t ignore it, it’s what you do with the fear that counts. Visualization can help you channel the anxiety. Nerves are good, I’d tell myself. They are powerful emotions. Harness the fear, breathe it in, hold it, mold it, then unleash it in the ring as power, as aggression, as dominance.
Progressing as Fighter
I would like to tell you that the anxiety and pre-fight nerves lessen the more experience you get, but that’s not exactly what happens. For each fight the stakes are higher, the crowd is bigger, and the more exposure and notoriety you get the expectations on you can be more significant. The difference is how you have learned to deal with and channel the nerves. They are always there; there will still be pressure, it’s no different than the first time you gloved up, threw a punch in front of a crowd and heard the cheers. The difference is you teach yourself how to manage it. The mental game can make or break your career as a fighter.
Most first time fighters experience the adrenaline dump. Emotions are high, heart pounding, they fight like crazy in the first round, but after anywhere from thirty seconds in to somewhere in the second round they crash, all their energy leaving the body and they struggle to throw one strike, let alone keep their hands up. I’ve watched this happen in first fights in varying degrees from the mild fatigue of a well-conditioned athlete to full out exhaustion where a skilled person in the gym crumbles in the ring and gives up. The adrenaline dump is purely a mental reaction, expressed physically and can happen even to athletes who have competed in other sports their whole lives, but never fought. Fighting is so incredibly mental because the reality is your opponent doesn’t just want to win, they want to hurt you, and this is a scary realization.
There can be two outcomes if you have a big adrenaline dump in your first fight. You either call it quits, or you chalk it up as a learning experience and dedicate yourself more to training and improving your mental game. Fighters who excel at the sport choose the latter, but the ones that thrive in the fight game choose that mentality every fight, win or lose. They learn from mistakes, they hold their head high, and they ask the question, How can I get a little bit better every day?