The fight before the fight

This one trick can help you fight in a completely different, more effective way. The power of mental rehearsal and game plans.

Game plan – a quick word
A few months back, I was working with an athlete who was preparing for a very important fight and, after the initial rapport building stage, I have asked the guy what his game plan was. At that point he told me he had no game plan. I was shocked. After that day the athlete I mentioned above had never entered a fight without a game plan. A game plan is for a fighter what a satellite navigation system is for a London taxi driver! More than anything else, a game plan gives you direction, purpose and vision. Not having a game plan is like being lost, reactive and blind. Although this is true for the minority, it can be alright for your game plan to be improvising once you get in the cage but this is, within itself, a game plan as in order for you to get to that conclusion you must have gone through a series of logical sequences in your mind which will turn the improvisation into a more controlled and planned freestyle performance. Once you have a game plan, mental rehearsal will help you a great deal but without a game plan, chances are that your fight-record will be left up to the fate! Old school fighters used to have no game plan but the new, empowered and smarter generation of athletes spend a great deal of time on the game plan and strategy drawing phase. You should too.

Mental rehearsal
A few years ago, a study was carried out which had 3 basketball players of equal skills compete in a Free Throw contest – but with a twist. For the 8 weeks preceding the contest, they had to go through different training camps. The first player trained as normal; everyday, 90 minutes per day. The second player did not train at all and the third player did not do any physical training but rehearsed the throws mentally everyday for 90 minutes. In order for the results to be reliable, they have extended the game to 4 x 45 second rounds instead of 2. The results? Hardly surprising, the player who trained everyday won; but the interesting result was that, out of the two players remaining, the one who mentally rehearsed did almost as well as the one who trained everyday.  The results were:

  • Player 1 (trained everyday) scored  68% of the throws
  • Player 2 (mentally rehearsed) scored 65% of the throws
  • Player 3 (not trained) scored 52% of the throws

Another study was carried out were two groups of students were asked to contract and bend their index finger repeatedly for 1 hour daily for 15 days. At the end of the period the strength of the finger’s muscle increased by some 52%. Then the researchers asked a second group to only imagine to contract and bend their index finger for the same length and period of time. The results were astonishing. The strength in the same muscle increased by 35% without doing any actual exercise! Another example is dreams; if you remember a time when you had a scary dream you may recall sweating or your heartbeats increasing. Again, your body is responding to something that is not really happening but how is it possible?

How is it possible that only by imagining things we can alter the performance of our body? How can our body respond to mental rehearsal? The answer is very simple:  our mind (unconscious mind) does not know the difference between what is really happening and what is being imagined. We could go into details but let’s just say that whatever you imagine and focus on becomes realised in your mind and your brain begins to send relevant congruent messages to your body. If you focus intensely and imagine your biceps contracting, they will begin to respond to your thoughts. Mental rehearsal is a very powerful way to get ready for a match.

So how can we consciously use mental rehearse to our advantage? The answer is to simply mentally rehearse the fight as you want it to go! There are however a few important elements to take into consideration and those are:

  • Environment
  • Variances
  • Flexibility
  • Frequency

Environment – the problem
I have heard of people mentally rehearsing a fight very diligently and frequently. They have imagined everything to the finest detail, even the colour of the cage, the mat, the referee, the crowd etcetera. Then the big day arrived; they got to the venue and… “holy c***! This is all different!!!” and they panicked. The mind went into emergency mode as the mental rehearsal was too different from the reality and the athlete could not relate and/or recall the imagined fight.

Environment  – the solution
1. When you mentally rehearse, when you go through your fight in your mind, make the background, environment, sitting spaces, entrance and the whole environment neutral. This means that you must make it blank or white. The background is blank or white, the cage is blank or white and everything else is blank or white. The idea is that you must be able to take the “movie” of your fight that you have created in your mind and place it on any background if you wanted to.

2. Unless you know who your opponent is, the same goes for this. If you do not know how your opponent looks, just see yourself fighting and throwing your techniques to a blank/white/ghosted silhouette.

3. Make the “movie” in the first person. Imagine seeing the fight from your own eyes as if you were actually doing it. This will allow you to associate the feelings and perspectives as necessary.  Again, we could talk for a long time about why this is good but I am guessing that you care more about getting mentally fit to win fights than you do about knowing about “how it’s made”. Just see everything though the eyes of you as you are fighting and feel the feelings of being there.

Variances – the problem
The problem here is that things may go out of track, out of script and some may find this to be a problem and, as soon as they find themselves in situations which they did not plan for, their mind freezes. Not everyone experiences these types of issues but if we do, we want to make sure that we have the solution. In order to prevent the mind-freezing process, we ought to create as many variances as possible. It is however important to be very clear as to what we want to happen but it is important to have that mental flexibility which is needed to be able to get out of track and come back in.

For example, let’s say that our game plan is to go in, throw a high punches combination and then shoot for a double to take the opponent down and finish him with g&p or submission. This should most definitely be what we focus on and what we go for. But what if at the very start of the fight the opponent does something very unorthodox like crawling? Or even something less unorthodox like being more aggressive or moving differently from what we had imagined.

If we are not prepared to face variances of what we have imagined, we become rigid and not flexible which means that we would struggle to adapt. Like in the jungle, only those who can adapt will survive.

Variances – the solution
1. During the fight (the actual fight) always have your master plan clear in mind and whenever you can go back to it.

2. During the mental rehearsal also rehearse getting out of uncomfortable situations. The best thing to do here is to mentally rehearse your fight as you want it to go and then, on separate mental rehearsal “sessions”, rehearse getting out of unexpected situations. Then during the fight your mind will have a larger repertoire of memories to go back to.

3. Whenever something catches you by surprise, take a deep breath and go back to seeing things from the eyes of that “you” which you created in your mental rehearsal. Refresh the screen and focus on what you want to do

4. This is valid always in any circumstance; focus on what you want to do and not on what the opponent might or might not do. If you focus on what your opponent may or may not do you will be guessing and I am sure that you do not want to guess when you are in the cage. The truth is that you do not know what your opponent will do and the best way to counter anything that he or she might do is to be focused and prepared on what you want to do.

Flexibility – the problem
Many times fighters get so focused on getting the finish they want that they don’t see an alternative finish in front of them. Quinton Jackson got so focused in trying to close the distance with Jon Jones that he did not see that his legs kicks could be very successful. He did not continue kicking Jones legs and let Jones dictate the pace and eventually win the fight. This is only one example but I, and if you think about it you could too, mention many more.

Flexibility – the solution 
Be focused on what you want but be flexible to see and take opportunities as they come along. Again, the best way to do this is to mentally rehearse variations of your win. Remember, have one version of the “movie” in your mind but, on separate “rehearsal sessions”, build your variations.

Frequency – How often and long do you need to rehears for?
Like training, too little is not good and too much is not good. Find the right balance although as an indication I found that 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening are perfect for mental rehearsal.

I hope this can help you become the athlete that you want to become. Please send me your thoughts on

2 thoughts on “The fight before the fight

  1. iHi,
    First of just say great article. But it left me with a dilemma. I was walking down the stairs of train station when some twit pushed past me to get downstairs. Anyhow to cut long story short, I told to not push me and he started acting aggressively) to me.
    Fortunately he stormed off in a huff but during confrontation I partly froze (and I’m shamefully a brown belt). How can I use this technique to remember how to defend myself in situation and not after?

    • The episode you have described is part of the training… you didn’t expect something like that to happen. It did and now your mind has an event to use as an example, a bank… a memory and a series of thoughts that will ignite a different reaction next time – a reaction closer to your desired one. It’s important to aim at not freezing and remaining in control and the main objective should always be to walk away.

      People don’t realise how vulnerable they really are when they meet a skilled trained martial artist… walking away keeps them safe and us out of trouble.

      Good luck mate!

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