Mind Over Matter: Mental Strength in Combat Sports

Physical preparation is only part of the game — the real fight is in one’s mind.

The famous saying goes: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right.” While some people are born with more favorable opportunities than others, in the end, the mind is a person’s best frenemy. It can cause a millionaire heir to lose everything with the same success that it can cause an impoverished individual to amass massive fortunes. The mentality is also what makes a fighter. MMA might be a contact sport, but it’s even more so a mind game on par with the likes of poker.

Trash Talkers – the Bullies of MMA

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Staying unmoved by trash talk is a sign of internal strength.

It might sound weird to think of a bullied pro-MMA fighter, but that’s what trash talking is. Granted, the power disbalance in trash talking doesn’t exist as is the case with bullying. Nevertheless, trash talkers verbally abuse their opponents, leaning on the rules that forbid fights outside of the octagon. The trash talker is pushing his opponent’s buttons aware that a physical response is unlikely to occur. School bullies do the same: they pick on those kids that are the least likely to respond. Given that the blood of fighters is boiling the closer they get to a match, it’s hard to imagine how many of them keep composure while listening to their opponent’s trash talk at press conferences and weigh-ins. So, what does science say about effective ways to deal with bullying/trash talk without losing it?

In an article for Psychology Today, psychotherapist F. Diane Barth writes about “six smarter ways to deal with bullies.” Summarized, her tips all lead to one conclusion: you must stand your ground when dealing with a bully. It is moments like this that speak of the mental resilience that MMA fighters need to stay focused on the upcoming match and not on a provocation-seeking opponent. Indeed, trash talking is not limited to MMA. It’s also present in many other sports, but most notably, in poker. Some poker players are notorious for their unrestrained mouths, and one can often notice the same type of dynamic at top poker tournaments — one or several players keep trash talking while others look unphased as if having literal nerves of steel.

Fighting Through the Pain

How is it that MMA fighters can take repeated blows yet street fights usually end after one successful punch? To answer, let’s quickly go over how pain forms.

We feel pain when trauma is causing distress to the body. First, the pain receptors under the damaged area register the offense. Then they send signals to the spinal cord that something’s wrong. During the third stage, the brain processes the signals from the spinal cord, resulting in the sensation of pain in the traumatized region. In the final stage, the body works on getting back to mitigating pain. Generally, pain medications work in two ways: by getting in the way of transmitting the signal from the neurons to the brain or in the case of opioids, by mimicking the pain-inhibiting chemicals released during the last stage.


MMA fighters don’t have the luxury of using painkillers during fights, so it’s the third stage — processing pain — that is helping them to manage it. For example, pro fighters learn to fight through the pain by not focusing on the sensations they feel. That doesn’t mean that MMA fighters can “choose” to not feel pain, but rather they “choose” to not focus on it, which clinical trials suggest is an effective pain management tool. Nevertheless, this strategy doesn’t work forever, and it is only useful for the mental implications of pain. Apart from sending pain signals, when hurt, the body instinctively goes into defensive mode, which comes with physical symptoms that people can’t control, such as when the eyes water from a punch in the nose or when the body collapses from a blow to the liver.

Going All-In

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Research confirms that Rocky was right: “It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

When fighters get into the octagon, a lot is at stake for them. The world of combat sports is such that one misstep can cost you everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. It’s not rare for reigning champions to go into oblivion once they lose their title. What’s more, contenders for a belt usually don’t get second chances.

Going back to the poker analogy: with every match, MMA fighters go all-in. It’s not much different from poker where even the best players rarely get to win a big tournament more than once or twice. Such is unlike in many other sports where teams and players get annual chances to compete for a much-sought-after title. Like poker, the MMA world is a dynamic field with hungry new players regularly joining the ranks. That, in turn, decreases the odds for everybody of claiming the big win. And while it might be good for business, it can be stressful to players.

With the preparation that goes in showing up in the octagon, along with the expectations of millions of eyes, losing a critical fight feels more like losing your business than a job. In such cases, some fighters change their field, others give it up altogether and yet, others manage to bounce back. A couple of years ago, researchers did a study on what happens to owners of failed businesses. The truth is, no matter how mentally strong a person is, failing sucks — the difference is how one responds to the grief. The study found out that the ones that see failures as opportunities, not as the end of the world, are the ones who manage to get back in the game stronger. These people see failure as a learning tool as do the fighters that keep going after losing a fight.

Be it MMA or poker or any other sport, trash talk, provocation and psychological warfare are regular guests. Add to the mix the physical pain of battling a pro fighter, and it becomes more than evident that when watching fighters spar or hit the gym we only see a small part of their preparation. Mental conditioning is an integral part of the training of a champion, and it’s no wonder that increasingly more pro athletes are turning to meditation and the like as a tool to cope with the inhumane stress that comes with their occupation.


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