‘Environmental demands’ can cause stress to fighters in the run up to a bout that can go beyond what is needed to keep them motivated. A certain amount of positive stress (eustress) is needed to drive a performer towards achieving their goals. However, too much can have a negative effect and cause anxiety and worry that then becomes distracting and unhelpful. The things that can cause this excessive stress can be issues with your coach (may be pushing you too hard or not hard enough, or simply not communicating effectively) or something in your personal life (for example a bereavement of breakdown or a relationship) or it could even be injury worries. The relationship between stress/anxiety and performance is extremely complex and takes into account personality differences amongst many other factors. However, there are some general rules that can be applied in dealing with issues. Put simply, anxiety and self-confidence are at opposite ends of a scale: in other words it is impossible to be 100% confident and anxious at the same time and vice-versa: 100% anxiety = 0% self-confidence. These are extreme examples and you would probably lie somewhere between the two ends of the scale. Pre-fight you want to be as close to the right hand side as possible.
Step 1: identify the stressor(s): are they a THREAT/HARMFUL/LOSS/CHALLENGE and causing somatic (physical) or cognitive (mental) anxiety?
Step 2: are they controllable or uncontrollable?
Step 3: Controllable: is it something you can rationalise/talk through using self-talk or talking to your coach/fellow athletes or a third party (e.g. sport psychologist)? If so, ensure you use the relevant techniques to stay on top of the problem (self-talk, imagery, goal-setting). Uncontrollable: if it is something that is serious enough to affect your training but you are still able to fight (for example a relationship breakdown), use relaxation techniques (physical) such as centering (breathing exercise) or Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) to control your anxiety when it arises, combined with focusing on process goals. This is really only a short-term fix and these issues will need to be deal with more fully after competition.
Avoidance of the stressor may also be possible (e.g. if it is a certain person who is stressing you and can be avoided). If it is something really serious that affects both your ability to train and your potential to fight then serious consideration should be given to having a break (such as bereavement or injury) from fighting to deal with the grieving process of either of these stressors.
Step 4: Appraisal of coping strategies – have your strategies been successful? If so, good, but continue to assess the situation to try and prevent them from arising again. If not, try a different one of the approaches mentioned above. Remember, it is important not to “go it alone” if you are experiencing difficulties – no man is an island! A sport psychologist can help you to develop these skills as well as providing general techniques to enhance your performance overall. As well as coping well with adversity, it also makes sense to do everything possible in your preparation to ensure any possible issues are accounted for. Brainstorming any “what if’s” can be an effective way of doing this, such as “what happens if my transport breaks down…” and how to deal with this (contingency plans). Simulation training is also an excellent way of ‘practising your lines’. I have used this to great effect in the past where fighters perform in a mock up fight against opponents with a similar style to their real opponent and here any technical/tactical/psychological factors can be rehearsed. Using the entrance music and timing the fights, using referees and corner men – making it as realistic as possible is vital. Although exact competition conditions can never be recreated, realism is an essential part of how our brains store information. This can also be done on a daily basis by the fighters themselves using imagery to mentally rehearse all fight scenarios and how to deal with them. Use of good goal-setting during the run-up is also very helpful. Dual-task training is another way of enhancing coping skills: training whilst performing a second task (e.g. reciting times tables) can boost concentration when that second task is removed. It is also vital that any ‘nerves’ on the day are interpreted positively as the fighter being ready and excited rather than negatively (anxious or scared). The fighter must be capable of mentally ‘re-grouping’ if they make mistakes or become over-aroused during the actual fight. Finally, it seems like stating the obvious but the coach is one of the most important people in affecting stress levels pre and during the fight. They must model confidence – a nervous coach can cause a nervous fighter (unless of course the fighter looks too relaxed and then a bit of ‘nerves’ may be necessary to prevent complacency). They must also make the fighter believe that they are ready and are fully prepared through their hard physical training.
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About James Barraclough
I currently work as a lecturer in sport at the Manchester College. I am also under 14s coach at a Championship football club's academy. My third role is as a sport performance (psychology) consultant specialising in football and mixed martial arts.