The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Building Bulletproof Courage

3 Simple Ways to Turn Fear into Confidence

We all know the feeling of being terrified about an upcoming event. Your palms sweat, your heart pounds and your mind races. When was the last time that you were fearful about an upcoming event? How did you handle the insecurity? Did you 'let them see you sweat' or did you exude confidence? Professional athletes learn to manage their emotions and create an aura of invincibility--even when they are scared to death. You can emulate and adapt these methods into your daily life too. In this entry I will give you 3 simple tricks for creating the illusion (and reality!) of bulletproof courage borrowed from the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

MMA competitions take place in a locked cage. Fighters wear thin open-fingered gloves and are allowed to kick, punch, wrestle and use martial arts techniques. The fights continue to the point where someone becomes unconscious, "taps out" due to pain or exhaustion, or is deemed physically unable to continue by a referee. The biggest fears that fighters face are: death, permanent injury, and losing. Taking lessons from these extreme athletes back to the work-a-day world can help you be more confident and less fearful.

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania sociologist's study of mixed martial arts called "Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts" from the December 2011 issue of the American Sociological Association's Social Psychology Quarterly found that MMA fighters have three unique ways of managing fear and creating confidence.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Below are descriptions of the three techniques MMA fighters use to combat fear that you can use to build bulletproof confidence in life or sport. The examples below come from the ASA Social Psychology Quarterly and are based on two years of fieldwork and over 100 interviews conducted by the research team lead by Christian Vaccaro at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

1. SCRIPTING

Scripting describes a method fighters use to solidify their game plan and stick to it. MMA fighters take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses and those of the opponent. The intelligence gathering helps them to fine-tune a script. If you are going into a situation such as an important interview or blind date, do a little research about the people you'll be coming in contact with and their affiliations; then script a possible dialogue in your head of questions and answers that might become part of a good conversation.

In order to be truly successful, MMA fighters said that they needed to instill the script into 'bodily memory', much like a method actor would embed the dialogue of a play into his or her entire being.  As one fighter named Kenneth said just before a fight, "You should already have your game plan. . . in you right now. You don't have time to be thinking about that kind of stuff during a fight."

Another fighter named Ed explained how he embodied a script by saying "It is all about putting yourself in the situation over and over again, so that nothing is new to you. That's what separates the good fighters from the mediocre fighters: [Good ones] don't panic, they are comfortable."

Fully embodying the game plan will make you more confident and calm, especially in the adrenaline filled jittery moments just before the big event. MMA fighters said that they kept their fear under control by going over the game plan again and again like a checklist. When one fighter was asked if he was nervous before going into the cage to fight he said, "I sort of remember just being chill when I was in there. I had my game plan and I was going to try to implement it."

Remember to always create a game plan, embody it, review it, and rehearse it repeatedly before any big event. In an earlier post called the No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect I discuss the brain science behind muscle memory. This article can be found in my Psychology Today archives.

2. FRAMING

Framing is a technique used to shape how you think and feel about a situation. You can use framing to make hugely important events seem run of the mill. For example you can reduce performance anxiety by re-framing an 'exam' by calling it a 'quiz', or instead of saying "I'm going for a run" say, "I'm going for a jog."

MMA fighters commonly frame their cage fights using three explanatory styles: (a) This is just like another day at the gym. (b) This is business and I've got a job to do. (c) However it turns out, this will be a valuable learning experience. You can use this three-pronged approach to frame anything you have worked hard to prepare for and avoid psyching yourself out when it comes time to perform.

By re-framing big challenges to make them seem commonplace you can mitigate fear. One fighter named Steven summed it up well when asked how he stayed calm by saying, "I just kind of looked at it as there's no pressure on me. . . it's an opportunity obviously, to get some experience and [I should] just go out and enjoy it." Another fighter named Isaac re-frames the fight from being a terrifying moment to being a cherished one.

Framing losses as 'learning experiences' was crucial for MMA fighters to maintain the confidence to continue and not get dejected. A fighter named Dean says, "Even if one loses, one gains. All my lessons learned from losing are the kind of lessons that stick."

Dean tells a story that was passed on to him from a legendary fighter..."He said that [his loss] was the best thing that ever happened to him. . . When you are able to gain more from a loss, in some cases it can become a win. And mentally, I think it does more for your psyche. Having suffered a loss. . . the next fight that you have, your mental preparation will probably be a little bit more crisp and sharp.  . . The reinforcement is, 'This is one to learn from. Don't let it this same thing happen again.' This parable is key to The Athlete's Way -- it is imperative to look at any failure in life or sport as an opportunity for growth and to always learn from your mistakes. Never make the same mistake twice.

3. OTHERING

Fighters create powerful alter-egos or 'Virtual Selves" using a method called Othering. Othering requires creative thinking and the use of your imagination. The goal is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by transforming your reality into what you fantasize it to be.

Fighters use 'Hollywood' and 'Video Game' imagery to create a parallel universe that they step into once they have embodied the character or avatar. When asked how he did this a fighter named Cecil said: "Right before my fight, I go ahead and do my pre-fight ritual. Guys from my gym call me "King Kong" because of my grappling style and so I awaken the inner gorilla. . . I rock back and forth and I have visions of a gorilla coming out of a cage, like when King Kong comes out of the cage and he pounds his chest powerfully just as lightning strikes. I hear the thunder and see the lightning hitting the ground when I roar. You hear my roar and you look at my eyes and I am ready to go into the cage."

Another fighter, Rocky, asserts that he manages not to fear going into the cage to fight because he pretends it's a video game. He said: "I pretty much think of it as a video game. He has a little energy bar and a stamina bar above his head and every time I hit him that bar goes down. I try to think about the fact that every second that I don't hit him that energy bar may be going back up. I think of myself the same way, except I pretend that my energy bar never goes down. It's just like I am in invincible mode."

You can use your imagination to create an invincible character the next time that you find yourself in a competitive situation. Use role models and mentors to form this character and role-play pretending you are this person. Make yourself a 'legend in your own mind' and embody the part like an actor would. Maybe even pretend you're an MMA fighter!?! You can become anyone you pretend to be.

 

 

 

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

more...

Subscribe to The Athlete's Way

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.