"Warrior" and Willpower

The real skill behind ultimate fighting

Posted Dec 30, 2011

The recently-released onto DVD "Warrior" is about two blue-collar brothers, Brendan and Tommy, who ascend to fame and success in the world of Ultimate Fighting (UFC) - a new sport that has melded boxing, wrestling and other major forms of fighting together into a fairly bloodthirsty concoction. But below the grotesque veneer of intense hand to hand combat this is a movie about willpower. The two brothers have many strengths and weaknesses, and willpower is clearly a signature strength that they both possess in ample amounts. And they need it, because UFC is a sport that demands it.

Willpower has often gone by another name, self-regulation, and is considered a character strength that involves the disciplined ability to maintain active control over thoughts, feelings and, of course, actions.

Much of the film's plot orbits around Tommy and Brendan's decision, independent of each other, to enter into a UFC tournament (they eventually face-off in the finals, and I won't tell you who wins). But my point is that much of the film is tied to the depiction of UFC fights in this tournament. If you watch these fights carefully it's easy to see how the outcome depends on willpower. Sure there are many moments during the fights that are marked by undefined aggression, and flurries of frenzied attack moves. And Tommy seems to win many of his fights by unleashing his inner rage and nearling swallowing his opponent. But it's not about bravery, or strength, or even killer instinct. It's about willpower - these fights are chess matches. Victory is about tempering intense emotions, focusing fully on the present moment, waiting, observing and instinctively selecting moments to dive in for a quick strike or take-down move...followed by more waiting, feeling the music of the dance, and listening until a momentary lapse in the opponent's focus is spotted.

For all of Brendan's fights, including the finals match with Tommy, we see that the critical juncture comes in the same moment in which willpower is most needed. We see Brendan conduct caerful process leading up to his 'kill' moment. He takes his opponent down to the ground, and in a series of successive but almost imperceptible movements he positions himself so as to slowly and surely gain momentum and power. He's fully aware of how much mental and physical strength he has left in the tank, and as he takes deep, drawn out breathes he engages in a calmly paced sprint of power and adrenaline. He slithers over his opponent like a snake - wrapping his legs around a mid-section, grabbing a specific part of the upper arm, rotating his upper body one degree at a time, and then...well, I'm sure you can imagine the sounds...

Willpower wins Brendan his title (the prize money comes in handy too as his financially troubled family can now enjoy the happy ending we all knew was coming - a fairly implausible and formulaic backstory that fittingly takes a back-seat to the UFC plot).

Some more information on willpower:

If you doubt the importance of willpower let me remind you of the infamous marshmellow study. Researchers escorted young children into a room where they were left alone for about fifteen minutes to stare at a delicious-looking marshmellow and ponder a deal - refrain from instantly gratifying your marshmellow pleasure now and you'll get a second one down the road. Whether the children ate the marshmellow right away or not may seem unimportant, but follow-up studies of these same children years later showed that those who exhibited willpower grew up to be better students (higher grades, scored 210 points higher on the SAT) and more popular, wealthier and healthier adults (earning higher salaries and lower BMI's). And subsequent research has reaffirmed across a variety of samples and contexts this basic idea - if willpower goes up, life hassles go down (from drug abuse, to crimes to all forms of pathology).

Some important principles about will-power are as follows:

You can improve will-power. It's a mental muscle that's dictated by glucose levels. The glucose levels point is important because subsequent research tells us that willpower can be controlled and strengthened through psychological and physical mechanisms (diet effects glucose but so does things like positive affect which stem from personality tendencies). And, it's important to build up willpower not just because more willpower means more success (in pretty much every domain of functioning), but because willpower is also a finite fuel source that gets depleted (this is why we have less self-control at the end of a long-day or when our psyches are divided by anxious preoccupations). Finally, it's important to note that this reserve of willpower underlies everything. All tasks, all domains of functioning, no matter how different from each other, all sip from the same stream. The energy that you put into suppressing upsetting thoughts about death, for instance, sucks up cognitive energy that leads to poorer performance playing the piano. Conversely, if you conduct self-control boosting strategies, such as tending to those dirty dishes immediately after dinner without waiting, then you'll procrastinate less. Willpower is an interconnected web.

Some important rules of the road in pursuing more powerful willpower is to conceptualize destructive urges (the usual suspects - desires for drugs, alcohol, chocolate cake, etc.) for what they really are - intense feelings that hit your physiology hard albiet briefly and transiently. The urges actually pass within minutes if you could simply sit still and not scratch the itch.

Research suggests that seven minutes a day of willpower workouts is the magic number (do it at least this much and you'll see significant results over the long-run). Some particularly effective forms of willpower exercises are monitoring finances, constructing short-term and long-term goals (doesn't matter what), maintaining good posture and committing to a routine of physical exercise (the last two have the added benefits of promoting physical health which feeds-back into a better baseline for willpower). The list of willpower strengthening habits is endless. You can pack your daily routine with useful interventions with only a lack of creativity and, well, willpower standing in your way. willingness to commit to practice will get in the way.

Some more examples: you can practice speech control strategies (force yourself to say 'yes and no' instead of 'yeah and nah' or to speak only in complete sentences). You can perform daily tasks with your non-dominant hand, like teeth-brushing or food-cutting. Pretty much any form of self-monitoring works well - you can track anything from the number of times you bite your fingernails to the number of times you think about something stressful.

And when it comes to sticking to goals and succeeding in the tasks that reflect and strengthen willpower, many little behavioral and motivational tricks can be used to tip the scales in your favor. When setting goals commit to them ahead of time (pre-commitment in all its various forms is as useful a tactic as there is), tell a friend about it so you can be held accountable, say whatever you need to say to yourself to hold an optimistic perspective about your capacity to achieve the desired outcome, remind yourself of the rewards that make the sacrifice worthwhile, play with time in an effort to slice the process into shorter steps (i.e. if I can just hold off from snacking for another hour, then the final two hours before dinner will be a breeze). Another good trick is to make a bunch of mini self-control tasks automatic. Over the long-run the automatic nature of such tasks build up a predisposition to self-control rather than the depletion of resources that one might expect. The basic punch line here is to develop a structure to your daily routine that you stick with - shaving in the morning, and folding laundry and doing push-ups in the evening, etc. - pace yourself with manageable amounts of willpower every day. This is useful not just because practice makes perfect but because there is an empirically supported link between external order and internal self-discipline.

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