From The Coach’s Corner: The Real Battle is Between The Ears
Coaching any sport is a truly difficult job. You’re expected to be an Encyclopedia, a Dictionary and a Thesaurus for hungry and competitive minds. You need to be the first one at practice and also the one who locks the door at the end of the night.
Every day you are saying the same things over and over while making small adjustments in your explanation, hoping that your refined rhetoric results in improved technique and performance. These are all aspects of the job that you expect when you step into your coaching shoes every morning.
And next comes the chaos that you never ever expected.
No one ever warned you that you’d be answering phone calls at 3 a.m., because one of your students got too drunk to drive home. You stop being surprised when you receive college essays in your Facebook Messenger because someone who was scheduled to fight got kicked out of their house and has no where to stay. It becomes second nature to look over someone’s resume or even find them a job interview when they’re struggling.
This is just maintenance. You suck it up and keep on cruising towards the end goal: to help people improve their lives through martial arts and potentially competition.
So now you’re a technical coach and a parental figure. This is more than you bargained for on the salary that barely covers rent but you suck it up because you love the sport.
Here is where it gets really fun.
You also need to be the therapist.
You need to learn how to read different personalities so that you can properly prepare them for performance. It doesn’t matter if you’re training a fighter or someone looking to get back into shape after giving birth to their first child. Without focus you simply do not develop adequate skills and you can never perform to your best standard.
I’ve spent a long time studying psychology and its importance in combat sports competition and I’ve developed a battle tested thesis on how to prepare your mind throughout a training camp, through the week before a fight and finally leading up to the walk to the cage. The system that I will describe to you has been very important in all of my victories and it was absent throughout my losses. This simple three phase process can be adjusted to match the personality of any fighter and if followed should help prepare the competitor for fight day anxiety and can be used to reinforce mental habits to be used during competition.
Please remember that this system is being shared solely for the sake of conversation and that it is in no way being presented as a proven science.
Phase 1: Sharpen All Your Sticks
Athletes are quick to condition their bodies in preparation for competition. I am guilty of waking up the day after a fight is confirmed and spending an hour running through the woods. Our first goal is to get every muscle ready for combat and we do this through a variety of activities. We hit pads, we run hills and sprint the straight aways, we do push ups until our arms are sore and we wrestle until our legs give out.
This is all absolutely necessary and we can never devalue the importance of physical preparation however many people forget to train the most important muscle they possess: their brain.
When we truly break apart our training camps we can begin to understand that all we are doing is a large collection of exercises broken down into various time lengths. For amateurs the standard tends to be 3 minutes long. Professionals usually work in 5 minute time periods and this is all based upon the length of the rounds during competition.
In any given 1 hour practice I can explain to my athletes that they will generally expect to work through 15, three-minute rounds. I ask them that they focus their all of their attention into performing one specific task for 3 minutes at a time and push all other thoughts from their minds. As I walk around the room I rarely hear anyone talking unless they have to ask a question. The only sounds we hear are the music playing through the radio and the sounds of gloves and shins hitting pads.
This all goes back to a conversation I had with Jackson Galka (owner of North Star MMA in Chestnut Hill, PA, and professional Muay Thai and MMA competitor) back in 2012 about how a fighter should focus his attention during shadow boxing while preparing for their first fight. The idea was that in any round of competition a competitor has however many minutes where they must perform at risk of injury.
“When you’re shadow boxing, you should be visualizing your fight,” Jackson explained.
“If you forget to keep your hands up for just a second you might end up getting kicked in the face. So for those three minutes of shadow boxing you need to remember that every time you drop your hands the fight could be over. It’s important to remember that you’re actually going to be fighting soon and no one is going to gently remind you to protect yourself. Either you learn to focus now or you learn a lesson when you’re looking up at the lights.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about that conversation often. I came to the understanding that this laser focus style mental training should be something with importance from day 1 of training an athlete. When you train a brand new student to relax and focus only on the technique you can help them work through their anger and frustrations more easily.
I just finished a workout with a brand new student Alayna before sitting down to write this article. When she arrived to the gym she ran across the mat, threw her bag down and started hurriedly explaining how she spent a few hours scrolling through pinterest trying to learn how to wrap her hands. After that she told me all about how she wanted to hang a heavy bag in her kitchen but her boyfriend wasn’t exactly feeling the idea. The chaos came to a crescendo when she stepped backwards into a forwards moving punch and started explaining that she didn’t sleep last night and that is why she couldn’t focus on the lesson.
I told her that she was wrong and her lack of discipline is why she couldn’t perform properly. I told her to sit down, shut her mouth, and do exactly what she was told.
“Breathe in through your nose, fill up your belly like you’re filling up wholesale balloons with water. When the balloon is full, slowly and gently squeeze it empty and breathe out through your mouth. Do this five times and focus only on the balloon.”
I had her stand up and instructed her every movement for three minutes straight. I told her when to breathe, when to move her hip, when to turn her knuckle over and when to adjust her weight onto whichever heel. After three minutes I shut my mouth and asked her to talk herself through those same instructions without ever opening her mouth.
I shut off the radio and sat in the corner. There was no round timer. There was only the off rhythm sound of fists hitting the bag. As time went on the rhythm became more smooth. The off timing began to sound like a beat. Alayna and I both danced to the song she was creating. Her hips and hands were in time while I nodded along in approval.
She did not become Conor McGregor in an hour but she did learn to quiet her mind and focus on improving herself. This will benefit her outside of the gym as well. When her child wakes her up at night she’ll be more conditioned to let go of the distracting energy and focus on her child. Then she’ll have learned to let go of the fact that she was woken and fall back asleep with less effort.
Athletes and coaches should both realize the importance of mental focus training from day 1. Fighting inside a cage comes with many different and confusing emotions, but when the mind has been trained to ignore them and focus on the technical aspects of fighting the athlete can simply relax and perform.
If every hour is spent with fifteen specific opportunities to focus your vision how many times will you be able to practice your focus during your next training camp?
Lets just say you’re lazy and do a 4 week camp training 1 hour a day 5 days a week. At 15 rounds an hour you have 75 opportunities to train your focus every week. You would then have 300 opportunities to practice your mental focus during your month long training camp. If you do anything 300 times you will see tremendous improvement in its performance.
300 rounds of focus makes another 3 rounds muscle memory.
Please look for a follow up article next week where I’ll go into detail on Phase 2 and Phase 3 of this mental prep system. Phase 2: Visualize The Bullseye and Phase 3: Warm Up Your Firing Arm will talk about some strategies you can use the week before and day of your fight to help reduce anxiety and increase your mental focus.