What Pro MMA Fighters Can Teach You About Handling Stress And Emotions

When it comes to handling stress, there’s a plethora of actionable lessons you can find within the confines of sport.

Elite level athletes not only engage in highly scrutinized professions with immense financial implications, but they also carry the weight of their city’s — and sometimes nation’s — pride. Add to that the recent increase in sociopolitical rhetoric since Colin Kaepernick’s quiet protests, and you begin to paint a picture of a job that’s sealed inside a pressure cooker.

Sport is inherently a vacuum ripe with situations that, when analyzed properly, can provide a host of mental rewards for the studious. (It really doesn’t take a long time to twist a baseball play into some kind of rumination on the benefits of outthinking your opponent, for instance.)

Mixed martial arts, or MMA for the initiated, comes primed with a wealth of artifacts, nuances and rituals that can take your quest for the pinnacle of self-improvement to the next level. Think about it: What’s more daunting than being locked inside a cage with a physical specimen trained to hurt you with thousands — and maybe even millions — of people watching live and on TV? The margin for error and failure is extremely high, so too is the margin for injury and perhaps even worse.

Justin Harrington, a professional fighter competing at COGA 59 this Saturday, understands the wild nature of his business.

“Even though I’ve been in the game a while, it’s not normal to go in there and fight another human being,” he said.

Jeff Hougland fought three times for the UFC, reigned as champion in Washington State’s COGA promotion, and currently coaches that organization’s top two fighters in Chase Hooper and Joey Pierotti. With his veteran status, you’d figure the fight game seems as conventional to the man as walking. That assumption would be wrong.

“It’s not normal to go out and fight somebody in the cage, and risk getting embarrassed and knocked out in front of friends and family and people on the Internet,” Hougland said. “But, if you don’t take that chance you cannot win. You cannot win without the chance of losing.”

Professional MMA fighters go through extremes — not just the weight cutting, the training, the grappling, but also the mental preparation as weeks turn to days, days turn to hours, and hours turn into that cage door slamming and the referee green-lighting the contest.

Sure, you can look to all avenues of athletics to teach you something about preparation and overcoming stress. Whether it’s a quarterly presentation in front of a slew of C-suite executives or a job interview with your dream company, just about every area of sports offers an opportunity to glean nuggets of information.

But, can you think of a sport that asks more of its competitors than MMA?

Fuel Yourself Or Box It Up

Emotions can be an albatross or they can be the fuel to your fire — it really depends on the way you perceive things. Is the stress you feel around a task coming from within you, or from external sources like friends and family?

Fighters feel the sting of stress from both internal and external sources.

“I just want to perform to the best of my abilities,” Harrington said. “I have a lot of people that support me and help me in this journey of mine, so it’s just, you know, not wanting to let them down and not wanting to let myself down and to perform at the highest level I can.”

In order for you to perform at your highest level, you need to assess how you process emotions and the weight in which you carry them. It essentially comes down to two options: use your emotions to push through your task, or place them in a first-round submission.

Use your emotions…

Harrington likes the first approach.

“I just sit alone,” he said. “My wife and daughter kind of know when I start transforming, and they give me my space. I just stay alone and really think about things and just deal with that. If you have to cry, cry. If you get pissed, get pissed. I try to feel all the emotions because that’s kind of the way I know I’m starting to turn into what I need to do my job.

“Feel it. Use it. Don’t run from the fear, the anxiety. Embrace it. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that you have to accept it and except what you’re going to do. I feel for every little thing that my body is going through and I try to use it instead of running from it.”

Washington State fighter Charon Spain likes drumming up emotion by envisioning what his opponent is doing.

“Am I training hard enough for my opponent, or is he training harder than me?”

Then, he asks himself the most important question.

“How bad do I really want it?”

Ask yourself the same question: how bad do you really want it? Do you want the rewards — be they congratulatory, financial, or something else — that come with successfully completing your task? Passion is one of the most intoxicating and motivating instincts within us; ignite yours by pre-visualizing the aftermath of your stress-inducing project and revel in the feelings that might elicit. Remember to keep that fire burning until you’ve finished what you set out to do.

Or lose them

Coach and fighter Jeff Hougland understands the above approach (“Some guys do really well fighting from this point.”), but it’s not one he prefers.

“You have to be able to take your emotions and, what I like to say, take my emotions and I put them in like a little box,” he said. “I can’t get rid of them. They’re going to be there. But, I will put them in this little box and I’ll leave it off to the side and I will deal with those later.

“[My fighters] are able to take the emotions and the job and separate the two, and a lot of guys can’t do that. You know they go in there and they fight emotionally and they make mistakes. They burned themselves out. For me and most of the guys that I’ve trained, I feel like it’s better to separate those.”

Try positive affirmations. There are a number of sites dedicated to the topic, but here’s one that works well when confronting wayward emotions and stress:

I am not my emotions. I am not my thoughts.

Repeat it in a mirror a few times, remembering to breath deeply and calmly between each repetition. Let this become the place where you temporarily release all of the associated feelings. You’re not eliminating your capacity to feel, you’re simply compartmentalizing.

Now congratulate yourself for truly carrying yourself like a professional… cage fighter.


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