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Fight Science: Overcoming fear and anxiety through ACTion

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In this article, the Fight Science team highlights the use of a deeply researched yet practical tool for managing fear and anxiety during fight preparation. 

Co-authored with Dr. Kevin L. Polk

The stress experienced by fighters may trump that experienced by athletes in any other professional sport across the world. Concerns about performing well in front of a crowd under the added pressure of an opponent attempting to inflict bodily harm creates great pressure that progressively increases and peaks up to the moment before the bell rings. While some stress has been found to optimize performance, too much stress has adverse effects.

Fear and anxiety are often recognized by fighters as the largest and most difficult challenges to navigate. Too much of either can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy as the very things the fighter feared come to fruition as the result of a performance killing “adrenaline dump” in the early moments of a fight. As Cus D’Amato, the original trainer of Mike Tyson noted, “Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning in any area, but particularly in boxing.” We think it’s safe to say this can be easily generalized to MMA.

Common approaches to managing fear include ignoring or suppressing it. But how effective are these approaches? And what if they actually hurt as opposed to help fighters? Suppressing fear and anxiety has been compared to holding a ball underwater (Polk, Schoendorff, Webster, Olaz, 2016). The effort becomes unsustainable, and as soon as the ball is let go, it jettisons to surface. And the larger the ball (i.e. the larger the anxiety), the harder it becomes to maintain, and the bigger the explosion into the air once it’s released. In the case of fear and anxiety, this “explosion” is often analogous to the aforementioned adrenaline dump.

Often times fear is simply a “boogie man” drummed up by what might be considered an overactive imagination. Marcus Aurelius noted “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any time.” In other words, we assign value to things and then become “hooked” (more on this later) on our self-defeating thoughts. For many fighters, these thoughts are often related to fear of losing, fear of letting people down, fear of being embarrassed, or fear of not performing well in front of fans and loved ones. When these thoughts rise to the surface, it is not uncommon for fighters to be told “don’t think about it.” But the problem is, fighters then get hooked on thinking about not thinking about it. This wastes precious energy, has little return on investment, and is even counterproductive as noted above regarding the “suppression” technique.

If only the fighter could simply “do what it is his to do” (e.g. train hard, eat right, listen to coaches, perform well, etc.) and not be disturbed by fear and anxiety. Well, it turns out that Aurelius was really on to something. A growing body of research behind Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests the key to overcoming fear, anxiety, and the unproductive behaviors that come from it is to simply “do what is yours to do.” In other words, accepting some thoughts and feelings have shown up and then focusing on behaviors that lead toward what one values has two amazing effects: (1) It accelerates performance towards goals (2) It simultaneously reduces unhealthy rumination that often leads to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that move one away from their values. Fortunately, there is a practical tool known as the ACT Matrix that can be used by fighters and coaches to help mitigate fear and anxiety while strategically aligning day to day behaviors with desired outcomes.

The ACT Matrix

The ACT Matrix (Polk, Webster, Hambright, 2013) is a simple and concrete method that can help coaches and fighters understand the function of behaviors (e.g., avoidance/escape behavior versus behavior that moves the fighter toward values) as well as discriminate between events within the skin (i.e. private events that only you can observe like thoughts) and outside the skin (i.e. what you directly experience like a punch being thrown at you).


The matrix consists of four quadrants where the fighter “sorts” behaviors, values, and private events:

  1. Who and what you value (Lower Right). For example:

A. Coach

B. Teammates

C. Performing well

D. Fans

E. Traveling

F. Earning income

2. What behaviors will lead you towards the people and things you value (Upper Right). For example:

A. Training with coach

B. Deliberate practice during training and sparring

C. Strength and conditioning

D. Watching fight videos

E. Eating healthy food

F. Going to be early to rest

G. Spending time with teammates and coach

3. What behaviors or obstacles lead you away from who or what is important (Upper Left) For example:

A. Going out and partying

B. Staying up late

C. Drinking alcohol

D. Eating sweets

E. Straying front game plan when sparring

4. What private events, such as, thoughts, feelings, etc. show up (Lower Left). For example:

A. Fear

B. Anxiety

C. “My opponent is better than me”

D. “I’m not good enough”

E. “I’m not getting enough attention in the gym”

F. “If I lose people won’t like me”

Sorting these behaviors into the matrix would look like this:


Psychological flexibility

By noticing the difference between what’s coming in through your senses (behaviors) and what’s going on in your mind (the “ME” in the center), you can develop what is known as psychological flexibility. That simply means that you are able to keep moving or behaving toward who and what’s important to you (Lower Right) while taking fear, anxiety and other yucky feeling stuff with you as you move towards what you value (Lower Left). Psychological Inflexibility is when you keep trying to get rid of the fear, anxiety, etc., instead of just “accepting” it or “taking it with you.” You end up in a never-ending cycle of trying to get rid of something you can’t get rid of.

You also get more psychologically flexible when you notice the difference between behaviors that lead you Toward (satisfaction) your values, and behavior that leads you Away (relief) from what you value as a source of temporary relief. Recall how it feels to move to follow the fight plan outlined by the coach or even help a teammate during their fight camp; that usually leads to satisfaction. Then recall how it feels to move away from fear or anxiety; that usually leads to relief. The simple act of noticing that difference makes you more psychologically flexible. You will be better able to effectively take fear and anxiety with you when you accept rather than fight the feelings and behave in ways that move you towards your goals (e.g. deliberate practice, train with the coach, help your teammates, etc).

Values and Goals

The easiest way to start thinking about values is to think of who and what is important to you? Of course you are important, but you probably have family, friends, coaches and others who are important. In other words, you value them. Spirituality, health, mastery and community are common values, but notice that who’s important to you are almost always included in those other values. Of course, in the fight game, many fighters value performing well, winning a title, earning income, fan attention, and perhaps traveling. These can be identified as “what” is important to you.

Goals would then be some concrete thing you could do that would move you toward who and what’s important to you. There are long term goals (e.g. earning a black built in BJJ) and short term goals (e.g. learning how to do a Kimura) that lead towards something you value (e.g winning a title). Short term goals might in relation to who you value might be calling your mom, buying flowers for your sweetheart, saying “thank you” to your coach, or even giving a teammate a high five. While these may seem like simple things, they help propel you toward higher values.

Toward and Away Behavior

Think of how it feels to move toward somebody you care deeply for. Literally how it feels to walk toward that person. You probably feel like, love, belongingness and such. When you successfully move toward another, you feel a sense of satisfaction. These are ‘Toward’ behaviors. Behaviors that move you toward who and what you value.

Now think of how it feels to move away from fear or pain. If the behavior is successful, then you feel a sense of relief as the fear or pain lessens or goes away. While we all behave in ways that allow us to escape things that may be aversive, sometimes these behaviors are simultaneously moving us away from what we value, as in the examples illustrated above.

Keep in mind that all humans do a mix of toward and away behaviors every day, and both are necessary for living. The question becomes, “Did the behavior, either toward or away, work for the life I want to be living. For fighter in fight camp , the ‘trick’ is to find a workable balance of away and toward behaviors that work for winning.

Practice noticing your toward and away behaviors and you will more quickly notice which ones work for your values and which ones don’t. As you deeply notice the ones that work, you will get faster and better at making wise decisions in the ring and in your life.


Verbal Aikido

You’ve probably heard of Aikido, the martial art of redirecting physical energy toward peace. Verbal Aikido is when you take the energy of words and direct them toward a peaceful, focused state of awareness of yourself.

Just like a punch coming at you, words have energy. Even when the words show up inside of your own mind, they have energy. You feel that energy when someone criticizes you. You also feel that energy when you criticize yourself. You already know how to slip a punch. Even if the punch only misses you by a fraction of an inch, the energy sails right by you. Words are like that; the combat is close, it’s within you. So the best thing a fighter can do is “slip” or redirect the words, the same way they might “slip” or redirect a punch.

While Verbal Aikido can take some practice time, it’s a very useful skill that will take the sting out of words and keep you at maximum psychological flexibility. All you need to do is set up a “target” to “shoot” the words toward, and then do some target practice. The target is simply the ACT Matrix that you already read about earlier in this article.

  1. Start by using some words you often use to criticize yourself, e.g., “I’m not good enough.”
  2. After you think those words, then notice the feeling that shows up inside of you.
  3. Then ask yourself, “Where do those words go on my matrix? Where the words meant to move me toward or away? If you decided that, “I’m not good enough makes you want to do an away move, then you would write the words in the lower left. (This is called “sorting into the matrix.”)
  4. Notice the feeling that shows up inside of you as you sort the words.

It’s the same procedure for words coming at you from a person.

  1. Notice the words coming at you.
  2. Notice the feeling that shows up.
  3. Sort the words into a matrix.
  4. Notice the feeling that shows up as you sort.

The point here is to notice and accept the words and feelings as opposed to dwelling on them or attempting to suppress them. Attempting to suppress or change your thoughts gets you “hooked,” or caught in a vicious and sometimes never ending loop. After practicing Verbal Aikido for a while you will start to notice a peaceful, focused state of mind showing up. Then you will really be ready for action or “toward” behaviors that will help you reach your goals and values..

Conclusion

In our previous article related to building a fighter’s self-efficacy, we note that coaches and fighters can use sources of efficacy (i.e. vicarious learning, verbal persuasion, emotional/physiological states, and mastery experiences) to improve overall confidence and understand that enhancing performance is far more than just training longer and harder. The goal is to become more confident by developing each skill through quality practice, not focusing on an overall sense of confidence. This means focusing on the process and applying each source of efficacy, not focusing on the outcome. Use of the ACT Matrix can be used to accelerate skill and confidence development. The outcome will take care of itself.

References

Polk, K., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., Olaz, F. (2016) The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Context Press, CA.

Bios

Dr. Polk is a Clinical Psychologist who gets troubled (even dysfunctional) business work teams working again… Fast with no nonsense. He did his Master degree work in Industrial Organization psychology. He is the co-editor of The ACT Matrix: How to increase psychological flexibility across a variety of contexts, New Harbinger (2014), and the coauthor of The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix, New Harbinger.

Dr. Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni

An expert in human performance and leadership in education, Dr. Paul “Paulie” Gavoni has worked in education and human services for 22 years to provide administrative teams, teachers, and staff with coaching and consultation in analyzing and developing behavior and performance management systems to positively impact achievement. As COO of Kaleidoscope Interventions and Puzzle Box Academy, Dr. Paulie is passionate about applying Organizational Behavior Management (the science of human behavior for organizations) strategies to establish positive environments that engage and bring out the best in employees so they can bring out the best in the children they serve.

Beyond his work in education and human services, Dr. Paulie is also a highly respected coach in combat sports. In 1992, Dr. Paulie began boxing in South Florida and went on to win a Florida Golden Gloves Heavyweight Title in 1998. Since then, Coach “Paulie Gloves,” as he is known in the MMA community, has trained many champions and UFC vets using technologies rooted in the behavioral sciences. A featured coach in the book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams a the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts and the MMA feature Ring to Cage: How four former boxers mold MMA’s finest, Coach Paulie is also an author who has written for online magazines such as Scifighting, Last Word on Sports, and Bloody Elbow; most recently he has published his own book with Manny Rodriguez titled Quick Wins! Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership.

Dr. Paulie earned a Master’s in Social Work from Barry University, a Specialist of Education with a concentration in Educational Leadership from NSU, and a Doctorate in Education with a concentration in Organizational Leadership from NSU. He can be reached [email protected]


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