Pre-fight nerves are an unsettling sensation if you do not know what it is that you are feeling. Many people feel the nervous energy in the pit of their stomach and cannot reconcile what is really happening physiologically and it creates an energy sucking vortex that drains your physical and mental potency and hampers you giving your best performance. If you can understand the causes of the nervousness and reframe the stories you create to justify these feelings to yourself, you can correct your habitual thought patterns from those of fear to those of preparedness.
The first thing is to form an understanding of what is going on to cause the weird little idiosyncrasies of pre-fight jitters. The seemingly strange bodily reactions to pre-competition are not really strange at all once you realize that they have a purpose. For example, one thing the body does is shut down all non-essential functions so energy can be preserved for the things that will keep it alive. Bladder control is one of those non-essential functions... So when you are going to empty your bladder for the tenth time of the night, do not interpret it as anything negative. It’s a sign that your body is optimizing itself for self-protection and peak performance. Saliva secretion is another non-essential function so if your mouth is dry, sip water occasionally and do not waste energy worrying about why it is happening.
While the body shuts down the non-essential functions, it simultaneously enhances other functions that will aid in either fight or flight. Perspiration is one of the functions that will heighten in the face of danger. This is to keep the body cool while blood flow picks up and warms the body up for physical exertion. Blood flow increases to the muscles and away from other areas of the body. Dizziness and ragged breathing are a reaction to this increased blood flow. The dizziness is from blow flow being directed from the brain to our muscles and the ragged breathing is to oxygenate our blood for better muscular output. Butterflies in our stomach are from decreased blood flow to the digestive tract. Tunnel vision is caused by our pupils dilating to provide laser focus on the threat at hand. Racing thoughts are from adrenaline coursing through your body and the heavy muscles are an attribute to them being full of blood.
If you have ever been in the ring (or engaged in something else that causes nervousness like public speaking, any type of competition, asking someone out on a date, etc…) you have likely experienced some of the physiological reactions mentioned in the last paragraph. The issue is not that they are occurring but that your interpretation of them may not be accurate. If you feel these things and associate them with fear, you can accidentally be putting yourself in a state that is less than ideal for competition. If you subconsciously come to the conclusion that you are in over your head, the fight or flight response can turn to a “freeze” response that sends blood from the muscles for use in fight or flight and into the internal organs to protect them while you instinctively cover yourself to avoid bodily harm. In this state, you would find yourself completely unable to make your body perform the task you need it to.
Now that you have an understanding of what is physically occurring to cause you to feel nerves, you can reframe the whole thing in a positive light. Don’t tell yourself that you are scared. Tell yourself instead that your body is preparing for the task at hand. You are not scared, you are excited. When you hit the pads and you feel like you cannot get any power going, trust that everything will come together during the fight. Your butterflies are a sign of readiness, not that you are a chicken. The desire to leave the building when nobody is looking is your body’s way of trying to protect itself. Do not let that feeling convince you that you are too scared and should not be doing this crazy thing. Understand that the human instinct to protect itself developed over hundreds of thousands of years and you are not a wimp for subconsciously considering avoiding this perceived threat. Simply talk yourself through it and breathe through the nervousness.
The other thing to realize is that your opponent is going through all the same sensations you are. Every time you feel weak, remind yourself that your opponent is feeling the same thing. Your opponent is likely sitting in his/her locker room with a dry mouth, butterflies in their tummy, taking multiple pees, feeling slightly nauseated, sweating for no apparent reason feeling like a kitten hitting the pads and having a hard time following the conversations going on around them. It is normal and the person you are stepping into the arena with is not going in there feeling like a cold blooded killer like they portrayed when you faced off during the weigh in.
Another great technique is to run the worst case list. Remind yourself of the risks then remind yourself that you accepted them. If you have not assessed the risks before accepting the fight you are in over your head so run the list to remind yourself that you know what you are getting into. “Will I die?” I suppose it could happen but it is so extremely unlikely that it is not even a real consideration. Move on to the first real risk. “Am I okay with getting injured?” If your answer is yes you can let it go. You are prepared to accept the consequence. You can then run that same filter over any other concerns you may have. “Am I okay with losing?” “Am I okay getting knocked out?” “Am I okay will (fill in the blank).“ If any of the risks are unacceptable then you should really reconsider whether you are in the right sport. If you can accept the possibilities, the exercise of asking the questions will have a calming effect on you. This same technique can be used to alleviate worry in any scenario that is causing you stress.
It is important to as well to note the difference between perceived or future risk from imminent risk. Our amazing human brain is capable of making predictions based on the current state of affairs and we can even feel emotions about these predictions though they are yet to actually occur! That means that we can think about a fight we have signed up for while sitting in our living room and begin to feel the sensations of nerves. There is no imminent danger because the fight is still a ways off but the physiological effects of our predictions are real and affect us immediately. As we get closer and closer to the event, we have to control the flow of adrenaline and keep it to a trickle lest we enter the ring already exhausted from hours of feeling nervous before the competition starts. In the weeks preceding the fight, use those little shots of adrenaline to make you work harder during your workouts. Visualize the fight over and over and create the nervousness so you aren’t shocked by the sensation when the real deal comes along. When fight day comes along, remind yourself that you have undergone all kinds of crazy training. Remind yourself that you have many rounds of sparring in and that the fight is just a glorified few rounds of hard sparring. Try to convince yourself that it’s just another day in the gym and that you have done it a thousand times already. If you didn’t put your work in, however… this technique obviously will not work.
Finally is a very simple and very effective technique for alleviating nerves. Focus on taking deep deliberate breaths. It never fails to bring a little calm to a stressful situation. It is so easy that it is also easy to forget to do. Breathing happens in the moment so focusing on your breathing brings your attention to this moment and away from the predictions you are making about the future possibilities and outcomes of your upcoming fight. The closer you get to the fight, the more important this technique becomes because too much engagement in your predictions can cause an adrenaline dump that can leave you drained and tired before you even enter the match. You can bolster the positive effects of focused breathing with performing some activity that brings you to calmness like listening to music, doing a visualization exercise or laughing with the other people in the locker room. Keep the flow of adrenaline to a trickle and stay as relaxed as you can until it is time to begin your warm-up. During your warm-up, do not get carried away and tire yourself out smashing pads at full tilt for 10 minutes straight. Get yourself breathing heavy from warming up then relax and do focused breathing. Go back and warm up a bit and then take another moment to relax and breathe. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are warming up for a fight and not already in it!
Having an understanding and a plan for pre-fight nerves can be the difference between winning and losing. There are many athletes out there who are stifled by nerves to the degree that they are unable to bring their best performance to the ring. The first fight you have to win is the one against your own self-doubts. Use the techniques mentioned and see if you can come up with some of your own to settle the nervousness leading up to a fight. You want to embrace the tension as readiness while not letting it get the best of you. If you have worked hard in training, you should be able to confidently enter the ring and make yourself proud regardless of whether you win or lose.
We covered a lot of information in this post so here is a list of the main points to help you tie it all together:
1. Nerves can help or hinder performance depending on how well you deal with them.
2. Understanding the causes of the variety of sensations that nerves cause you to feel can help you to stay calm while they are occurring.
3. Reframe the sensations as readiness or excitement instead of accepting them as fear.
4. Know that your opponent is going through their own version of feeling nerves just the same as you.
5. Run the worst case scenarios and bring to your conscious mind the fact that you understand the risks and have already accepted them.
6. When in the gym, pretend it is fight night. On fight night, pretend it is another day at the gym.
7. Use focused deep breathing to stay relaxed and centered in the present moment.
The purpose of this blog
This blog is intended as a place to discuss ideas relevant to both both martial arts and life in general. Our school doesn't exist with the sole purpose of making great fighters but also of helping its members develop themselves into great people. The entries are about sharing ideas. I will not spend much time editing grammatical errors so please try not to let it drive you crazy when you come across them!