This is the second of a series of articles originally published by the now defunct online magazine MMA Unlimited. Its part of a series of articles, and while my knowledge has now moved on, it hopefully makes interesting reading.
Do you know what pre-fight nerves are? Know the difference between feeling nervous and having anxiety? Do you get either or both before a fight? Are your performances affected as a result? If so, this article will explain what they are, why they happen, and most importantly will let you know how you can bring them right under your control.
In my last article I explained the limbic system and the effects it has on our physical and mental state. If you haven’t read it, please do so, as it will provide you with all the background information you need to get the most from this article. With knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding it is easy for you to put what follows into practice. Don’t skip a step, there are no shortcuts here.
Now, imagine you are back stage before a fight. Start to notice what you would see, what you would hear, and start to allow the feelings to come back inside you. Really do this now. Really take on the experience of being in your changing room right now. See what you would see, hear what you would hear, and really allow those feelings to enter your body. Your body is warmed up and ready, you know you are about to compete. The show’s runner lets you know its time, and you stand, your time for action. Think about what is about to happen. What will happen as you walk out and experience the crowd for the first time? What will you experience as you walk towards the mat, ring or cage? How will you feel the first time you see your opponent? Notice the feelings growing in your body. Really take on these experiences, right now. And if you do this, you’re having these feelings, aren’t you?
Your body can’t differentiate between a vividly imagined experience and reality. So if you really imagined the fight scenario above, you will have started to get the feelings rising in your body. Did you? Did you get the butterflies in the stomach, the dry mouth, the increased heart beat, the shortness of breath, the feelings of energy and adrenaline starting to pulse through your body? And did you get any or all of the other feelings from the autonomous nervous system, the perceived threat response, as explained in my previous article? And now ask yourself, how familiar is that feeling? For us fighters, the feelings are ones we know too well!
If you felt those feelings as you followed this process above, you may have just realised something. You create these feelings. And you can remove these feelings. You are in control of these feelings. Bear this in mind for later in the article where I show you how to handle nerves and anxiety, and remove them completely.
Now, here’s an important distinction. We need to feel like this in order to perform at our best. We need our limbic brain to fire up our sympathetic system, the stress response, to prepare our body for action. If we don’t, we will not perform. As fighters the sympathetic system is our friend, providing us with the energy and reactions, switching off optimising our system for competition. So we actually need this feeling to be there!
The problem is that we only need that reaction for when we compete. The remainder of the time we don’t need it. So you may find that on the run up to the fight you are having trouble sleeping, your appetite may be dropping off, and the perceived pressure of the fight may be crossing over and affecting your behaviour in your daily life from work through to relationships. All this is a wasted and unnecessary use of the sympathetic system – we only need this to kick in as we fight.
Now, experiencing nerves and feeling anxious are related but not quite the same. Being nervous is when you are worried about something you have to do. Being anxious is when you are worried about something that might happen, or has happened. And therefore both can kick in when you are going to fight. The responses are the same – the limbic brain mobilises the sympathetic system fires up getting you ready for the GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome), and you all know the feelings of nerves and anxiety.
Have a look again at the definitions of nerves and anxiousness in the paragraph above. They are both concerned with worry, but have a look at the time references. The worry is in the now, but the event you are worried about is either in the past or the future. The past has already happened, so don’t worry about it, take your learning from what has happened and don’t worry about it any more! Let it go! You can’t change what has happened. So worrying about it is a waste of time.
The future hasn’t happened yet, so there is uncertainty. That uncertainty causes you to worry. This worry fires up the sympathetic system and the nerves and anxious feelings start. If you allow the worry to build the sympathetic system will fire up more and more and you may even start to experience panic attacks. So the way to reduce nerves and anxiety is to remove as much uncertainty as possible.
I think of the mind being the body and the body being the mind. They are so linked that I find it easier to think of them connected in this way, inseparable. Perhaps you could too. I’ve already written that the body cannot distinguish between a vividly imagined event and reality, so we can use this to help remove uncertainty about the fight. So, as you get nerves or feel anxious, take note of what it actually is that is making you feel that way. What element about the future is worrying you? The worry is the start of any nerves or anxious feelings.
Once you have identified what the worry is, you can use your mind to ‘play out’ your own movie of the alternative options. For example, if you are worried about a technique that your opponent is famed for, like a devastating kick or takedown, then visualise your opponent executing this move. Then, in your mind, run through the ways that you would want to see yourself react to it. How you would want to counter, how you would want to evade. Find the response that would be most appropriate for you. Then, really flesh it out and make it real. See yourself in your own little movie. Start noticing every little detail of your opponent’s move in the movie. Make the colours and brightness and sound and feelings as real as you possibly can. See what he does to set himself up for that move. Then see you responding in the perfect way that you want to respond. Following it all the way through until that segment of the movie is complete. Then run that movie from just before the move all the way through to just after your perfect execution of your response.
This exercise ‘hardwires’ your brain, telling your body in advance how to respond. You are removing uncertainty. When he does ‘X’, I will then do ‘Y’. If you are removing uncertainty, you are removing worry. If you are removing worry, you won’t be getting the nerves or anxious feelings. And yes, it can be that simple! But please, follow the steps exactly how I’ve written them, as there are some important elements included in the steps.
As a by-product, this exercise will also be improving your fight ability. Visualisation is a powerful tool. NLP is all about modelling how someone does something. For example, this article is based on the works people have done on modelling nerves and anxiety. The same is applied to sportspeople. When successful sportspeople are modelled you will always find that they visualise. Tiger Woods visualises his shot before he plays it. See bobsleigh drivers and skiers going through every twist and turn on the course before they compete. Formula 1 race drivers visualise their driving of every turn, lump and bump of the course they are about to race. If you don’t visualise, you will not be the best fighter you can be.
So you can carry out this exercise all the way through all of your uncertainties. Remove the uncertainty and you’ll kill off the worry, and in turn the nerves and anxiety. But what if you can’t? What if those worries pop into your mind, and you feel the nerves and anxiety building?
Apart from the psychologically negative impact on your preparation for a fight these feelings can also have a negative physiological impact. If the sympathetic system fires up too early before the fight, your metabolism will be running too fast, and you can lose your energy and focus for the actual event. Pre-fight nerves and anxiousness can ruin performances. And that’s just on the day of the fight – these feelings can also ruin preparation in the weeks running up to the fight. You only need those feelings for the actual fight itself.
There are many simple methods that you can use to remove the feelings of nerves and anxiety as they appear in your body. I’m going to teach you one, really simple way, that you can get using straight away to help banish these feelings as they appear. Imagine these feelings appearing in your body, these familiar feelings of anxiety and nerves, and then turning them off almost like flicking a switch. It really is that simple.
Anxiety is a right-brain problem. It is a pattern response to the trigger of worry. You basically have a strategy that says ‘uncertainty leads to worry leads to stress leads to nerves and anxiousness’ and this happens in a certain way in your brain.
Anxiety and nerves form a positive feedback loop in the brain. The feeling builds as the sympathetic system fires up, and by concentrating on the feelings it makes you more nervous and more anxious. So we need to break this pattern response, this strategy, this positive feedback loop.
Now, as these feelings result from the right hemisphere of the brain, there’s a very simple technique we can use to break the way you get anxious. As soon as the feeling of anxiety starts if we engage the left hemisphere of the brain the neurological response is changed and you won’t be able to follow your strategy of getting anxious.
As a generalisation the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. Take a ball, a screwed up piece of paper, something that size, and throw it between your left and right hands. Your hands must be across the body, your hands wide apart to engage both hemispheres of the brain. With the strategy for anxiousness broken, you won’t be able to get the full feeling, if at all. The positive feedback loop is adjusted so that anxiety will actually start to trigger calm!
This is just a really simple method to reduce nerves and anxiety, just by knowing how we process these feelings in our brain. I’ve chosen this as an example method for several reasons, not least because it is so damn simple! But also it can be utilised to enter a state of heightened sensory awareness, something that every fighter needs, and there’ll be more on this coming in the next article.
What I’d like you to do is get a feeling of anxiety back in your body. Notice where it is moving within you, and spin it faster and faster until you really can feel the anxiety building. Breathe faster and feel your heart beating faster. Take short breaths. Feel the tingles in your hands. Really create the feelings of anxiety, and calibrate it, give yourself a rating from 1-10. Then try the technique, and notice how the feeling subsides, and you may notice that the anxiety disappears completely as you calibrate after the exercise. After you do this several times you will actually begin to anchor the reduction in anxiety just by picking up your object, or even thinking of the exercise. There you go - a really simple method for reducing anxiety based on how the brain works.
The best thing is that the brain doesn’t work in this way just for fighting. The brain works this way on any nerves or anxiety, whatever the cause in life, whether work, personal life, exams, public speaking and other performances – anything. Try the exercise above on other nerves and anxiety in your life and notice how the nerves and anxiety fade.
Now, if it didn’t work, you may be doing an element wrong, or need appropriate coaching in terms of controlling anxiety. There are many other simple methods that can be used, which can be taught by a coach, and then utilised by the individual. There can also be deeper rooted issues that may need resolving which may include past limiting emotions, limiting beliefs, or ‘parts’ of you at conflict. You may also have that ‘little nagging voice’ inside your head, preventing you from being the best you can be. You could always contact me via my website should you wish to discuss any matters in more depth.
I started this series of articles with the base information on the limbic brain and how it creates the GAS in our body. This article you are reading now helped with self understanding of this response by investigating how we start to produce the response in our body, and how we can control it. Now we can recognise it within ourselves, and understand it a little better, we are well on the way to inducing stress responses in our opponents, setting them up in a loop where you can hit them at will. Imagine setting your opponents up in a loop where you just can hit them, and keep hitting them, and there’s nothing they can do about it once you start! But that’s in a later article. Next I’ll be looking into simple ways of getting into the right physiological and psychological state for optimum performance – how you can set yourself up for victory right from the start.