It’s not uncommon to see fighters who lack skill or work ethic in the gym, that end up crushing it in the ring, and vice versa; others who do well in sparring only to crumble when it’s crunch time. What is the first fighter doing the second is not? Is it natural confidence- that you either have it or you don’t? Or can you cultivate a strong mental game, just like physical training?
The mental side of competing has always interested me, as without it, we wouldn’t be able to best direct our intentions and end up falling short of our full potential.
It’s not easy to find clear-cut techniques, strategies or methods that are practical enough to start implementing straight away. Most of what I learned was from experience, observation, and these days- hindsight (often when it’s too late!).
Recently I came across Lanny Bassham’s book, with winning in mind. Lanny was a gold Olympic medalist in American shooting, and worked as a “mental management” coach for a variety of high profile clients. His book definitely has some practical ideas and techniques that can be applied to Muay Thai. Some of it I was familiar with, some contradicted what I’ve always done, and some ideas were new and exciting. Here are my five takeaways most relevant to Muay Thai, and although they are simple, if programmed as a habit, would yield nice dividends.
#1 Keep a Performance Journal
In the past, I’ve always kept a “training journal”; recording every session done then giving myself a score of the average sessions done per week for the month e.g. 5.5 sessions per week for the month of June. And then I try beat it in July. This not only kept me accountable (our memory overestimates how much we think we trained vs. how much we really trained) but motivated me to be consistent by making a game out of it.
Lanny takes it a step further and tells us to record what we did in our session, our objective for that session and our success. Imagine scrolling back through our journal and reading all the little successes we’ve had over months or years. This is what he says builds our empowered “Self Image” and strengthens the belief, that it’s “just like me” to win.
#2 “That’s Just Like Me”
Every time we do something well, receive a compliment, or learn a new skill, we should make sure to reinforce that it’s “just like me” to do whatever it was, well. It’s taking every opportunity to see ourselves as high performers, and getting comfortable with the idea. Every time we do something right, catch it, be aware and program the brain to expect it… that it’s “just like me” to do that.
Expecting success builds Self-image and the probability unlocking more potential of ourselves increases i.e. better performances more often. Larry says- and this is so true- that when you’re self image doesn’t match your performance, you either switch or drop gears to match your self image or comfort zone.
For example, Imagine someone less experienced than you, say your inexperienced cousin that you convinced to come to a class, suddenly start sticking jabs in your nose and landing kicks on you. No way in hell you will let him! This person is not nearly as good as you (according to your Self-image), so, you step up naturally, as much as needed to prevail. No question about it. Your cousin will never ever get one on you!
Now, imagine you’re sparring some champion way above you’re level, you’re even star struck as you’ve been watching his fights on YouTube for years. Shockingly, you are landing shots on him! You think- “hold on… no way in hell I can be beating this guy, he is way above my level (my Self-image)” and then, instinctively, you’re performance drops to a level that agrees more with the Self-image you have for yourself. This is the potential and limitations of our Self-image, depending of what we think about ourselves is how much potential and ability we allow to manifest. So…. The more we see and catch ourselves as capable, the more our potential performance increases.
#3 Cut it short on a bad day, and keep practicing when you’re on a roll
When it’s an awesome training session- you’re smashing pads, sparring is on point, balance is good, body feels great- keep going! Reinforce that winning feeling. When you’re not feeling it on the other hand, you could be making mistakes, things aren’t making sense, or frustration is setting in- Mr. Lanny says stop 🙁
But I would say- do something else that’s productive. We don’t have to reinforce losing and doing things badly, but we don’t want to abandon every bad training session when the going gets tough. I suggest to do something you’re body feels like i.e. If you’re mind just isn’t in a thinking mood, then forget about detailed technique work and smash out a mindless conditioning session. If you’re body is sore and really averse to contact today, then work on technique, skill and strategy that session. You will get more output and enjoy it more by going with your body’s flow that trying to force it to do something it doesn’t want to do. Allow yourself to switch it up if you’re having a bad day.
I think a useful goal to have is to leave the gym feeling good, not bad or frustrated with yourself. This helps create a positive association with training, which leads to showing up more often, and consistency is key for long term achievement.
#4 Focus On The Process Not The Outcome
It’s best to focus on what we can control- the process. Pay attention to what we need to do immediately to get the job done, not to worry about the outcome, as anything can happen and it’ll waste valuable energy that could otherwise be invested elsewhere. The outcome will take care of itself when we focus on execution, to the best of our ability, in the moment.
When we’re too focused on outcome it not only creates unnecessary anxiety, but is in itself unproductive as we can’t control it anyway. Focus on Process, what we need to do NOW to win.
#5 Run A Mental Program Before Every Round
Imagine what it feels like to have a flawless performance and win. Think of a time in your training or competition, when every shot was landing, everything clicked and you were in a flow state. How did it look? How did you feel? Now hold that feeling…
This is what you want to feel between rounds during every training session. Before you can switch on this feeling consistently, we need to program some cues to trigger it.
Start with a physical cue; its could be to squeeze both gloves together, suck in a deep breathe and puff your chest out (just an example). Choose an image or set of thoughts to associate with that feeling, say, a protective bubble around your body and some positive affirmations (add some corny statement). Even if your confident feeling/ state-of-mind increases 20%, which it will, that’s already another positive variable added.
Feel that invincible, flawless, confident sensation and do the round. Take note if your performance improved. Hint: it will. Even if it’s a small amount, incremental progress over time compounds, and imagine experiencing your peak confident and flawless state more and more often, how much that would improve your game!
Certain mental techniques will resonate with certain fighters and some won’t. Most fighters have their own ways of doing things, usually from experience or taught by their coaches, or, some just go with their default- and it’s not always positive. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely the type to look for this kind of stuff, and you may even get off on such simple but effective techniques. I hope this gave you a few ideas to play with, and maybe today you’ll smash up you session that much more!
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