Sports Psychology with Dr. Lenny Wiersma

Mental preparation is the single most neglected aspect of training. It's the only skill in combat sports that can be applied to ever aspect of your life and is something we all must continue to develop if we're committed to success. I had the chance to sit down with world renowned sports Psychologist Dr. Lenny Wiersma from California State University, Fullerton to discuss the role of sports psychology in combat sports. 

How important is having a plan to prepare your mind for competition?

Having a plan is critical. The last thing you want to do is to show up for the fight and let the energy, excitement, and pressure of a fight venue or environment to dictate your focus. When I work with athletes going to Olympic Trials in swimming, we talk a lot about their routines for warmup, for when they are standing behind the blocks before their races and, specifically, what they are going to be saying to themselves before their race. When they get to the pool, then, they will be much more in control of putting their mind where it needs to be and not get caught up in the turmoil around them. When I work with teams playing on the road, I tell the team to execute their routines, because they own their routines, and when they execute their routines they make the venue their own. It also keeps their mind in the moment and reduces the impact of outside distractions. Similarly, I want a fighter to execute their routines during practice so that they happen naturally in an intense environment the night of the fight. These routines include what they do or think when they are waiting in the corridor to be announced and walk out, what they do when they get into the octagon, and what they do between rounds. I want them to have a plan for how they approach their fight, trust the plan, and execute the plan. It keeps the mind and the body in control.

What specific things will you work with an athlete on to help them get ready for competition?

Every athlete has his or her own needs, so that’s where I start. But in general I think emotional control is a huge factor. When an athlete gets closer to a scheduled competition—and this is more true the bigger the competition gets—he or she becomes hypersensitive to a number of things that normally wouldn’t be considered a big deal. It’s like the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve to protect it starts to wear away, leading to reactions to things that, three months before the fight, seemed irrelevant. So an athlete needs to understand that they are going to be experiencing an awful lot of things leading into a competition and they need to do their best to accept them for what they are and not catastrophize things just because they are experiencing normal jitters leading to a fight. The phrase I have athletes use is, “Don’t turn a guppy into a shark.” And coaches would be wise to not ask a fighter, “How do you feel?” because it gets the athletes to overthink what doesn’t feel perfect. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you feel; it’s how you perform that matters.

You and I have discussed the concept of energy management and keeping centered with respect to our emotions. About not reacting to things that can lead to mood swings in either a positive or a negative direction. It’s not easy to do, but it starts with an awareness of what types of things cause us to react and a concerted effort to stay emotionally centered as much as possible as a fight approaches. And it’s obvious how negative swings can affect an athlete’s performance and cause doubt and anxiety, but getting too excited or worked up leading into a fight can cost the same mental and physical energy as negative emotions. A fighter needs all the energy he can muster in the ring, so why waste that energy on little things before you get there?


Is it possible to develop mental toughness or is it something you're born with?

Depending on the definition of mental toughness—and there are a lot of definitions out there, even in academic circles—that depends. I like to think of mental toughness as the ability to perform the best you are capable of performing at that moment no matter what challenges exist in your environment. While I believe that mental toughness is more inherent in some individuals than in others, I also believe that an athlete can get a lot better at recognizing the difference between controllable and uncontrollable factors and to learn where to put his or her focus. And the more experienced a fighter gains, the more he or she normalizes what to others seems like a violent or chaotic environment.


Are there challenges that are unique to the mental preparation for combat sports?

I am relatively new to combat sports, but have learned a ton from the few fighters with whom I’ve worked. And their challenges are not unlike some of the ultraendurance or extreme sport athletes I’ve worked with in many ways. But what stood out immediately to me as a unique challenge is that MMA fighters have so many disciplines to practice and master, that there is some anxiety about how to balance their training time to do all they think they need to do. And being matched up against a fighter who excels at a certain discipline that may not be a strength of their own can play with a fighter’s confidence a bit. In this regard, an MMA fighter needs to prioritize their training time and keep their focus on what they are doing in the moment as opposed to focusing on all of the other aspects they are not doing at the time. That’s hard for some fighters and provides a unique challenge for both the athletes and their coaches.

There is also probably another issue that can stand in the way of a fighter’s success, and that is his or her ego. Fighters need a certain level of confidence and swagger to succeed in a ring, no doubt. And they definitely need to act fearless even though they may not be feeling that way inside. In non-combat sports, athletes compete against each other and defeat each other, whereas in combat sports athletes fight each other and literally beat or get beat by each other. So protecting one’s ego is a real need. But I think a fighter’s ego can also prevent him or her from reaching out to ask for help with something because they are afraid that it may show kinks in their armor, and I think that may be one reason why sport psychology has been underutilized in combat sports. In that regard it’s critical for an athlete to understand that seeking to get better in some area does not mean that he or she is weak, but that he can always get better. And, as I’ll address later, they need access to reach out to those who they can trust and who will not judge them.


How much time should be spent on mental preparation?

I personally do not like thinking about mental preparation as something you do outside of your actual training. Think about it: an athlete’s thoughts, moods, emotions, and focus are influencing his or her training every second. So learning or practicing mental skills outside of training is a waste of time unless the athlete is integrating them into their daily training. I’ll give you an example: When I watch a fighter train, I want to see how they breathe in between rounds to aid in their recovery and clear their mind of what just happened. If they aren’t executing this breathing the same way they should be doing it between rounds of an actual fight, then they are not sticking to their routines and they are not recovering properly to continue training at the highest level. I think that attention to the smallest details in training is what separates the best from the rest. Similarly, fighters need to practice turning the volume control of their focus up to the highest levels in training, but to do so, he or she needs to leave everything that is happening outside of the gym outside of the gym.

One great way of putting in time executing a skill without the risk of overtraining or injury is to practice visualizing yourself executing certain moves against an opponent, or defending against moves an opponent might attempt on you. You can visualize it at a variety of speeds, starting in slow motion then gradually seeing it more and more in real-time. Visualization can be done away from the gym, or, more importantly, it can be done during training, such as before a fighter spars or physically practices a move.


What does a fighter need to be mindful of when they start to achieve success at the highest level?

Keep doing the things that you did to get you there. Obviously there are always areas of improvement and you should keep committing to raising your game as the demands get bigger, but many athletes forget that they got there for a reason. What you’ve done has worked, so don’t feel that you need to become a whole new fighter just because you are seeing new success.

The biggest issue that I can see is that higher levels of success bring out more people who feel they can benefit and profit from your success. So you will start to find that you are going to have to be very selective of who you surround yourself with and who you can trust in your inner circle. You need to be very aware of those who bring you energy and those who take energy away from you. I use the analogy that plants and flowers need to be pruned to cut away dead growth so that the dead growth does not take nutrients from the rest of the plant that needs to develop and thrive. Similarly, a fighter needs to invest his or her time, energy, and trust into only those people around them who can reciprocate those things and who would be there if everything were to fall apart.


Do you have any tips for dealing with losing a fight?

Don’t lose.

Just kidding. Losing sucks, so I don’t ever want to minimize that. It sucks. But if you lose the right way, it can be a little easier to deal with. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s true. If you prepare adequately, execute your plan, and keep your head together when it gets tough, then you can at least hold your head up and move forward. And keep in mind that losing is not the same as failing, and failing is not the same as being a failure. If things don’t work out or you don’t produce the results you want, fine. But don’t confuse who you are with the results you produce.

I think athletes should give themselves a certain amount of time to be pissed off about a loss or to just be down about it. When that time has elapsed, they then move forward. That gets it out of their system and gives them time to just process it. Each athlete may be different in how long they need, but the key is to move on in as little time as possible.

There is a great deal of academic research on the concept of “grit,” which is the ability to keep pushing forward in the pursuit of goals, even during setbacks. Athletes who see challenges as obstacles are more likely to give up when things go wrong, but athletes who see challenges as opportunities get up and move forward. A loss is the same thing. So dealing with a loss entails analyzing what when wrong, addressing those things in the next training cycle, and putting yourself in a better position to be successful in the future.


What challenges come with winning streaks?

I would say that the biggest challenge is to keep your focus on the process and not on the outcome. The process is the training, and doing it right. The outcome is the result of the next fight. An athlete who is hungry for a win fights to win; an athlete who is fearful of a loss fights not to lose. And the result of each of those approaches is clear. So if I am working with a fighter on a win streak, I am asking him to treat each fight as if it’s his first fight. Like every sport, keeping your mind in the now—and not on what is going to happen in the future—usually leads to more focused training and attention to the small details that make a huge difference in a fight. And if an athlete accepts the possibility of a loss and can keep in perspective that a loss is not the end of a career, then they can put it out of their mind and just train day by day.


What are the three most important mental skills every successful athlete must develop?

I’ve already mentioned the concept of focus several times, because I think it is a critical skill a fighter should master. And a big part of focus is being aware where your mind is and whether that’s a good place for it. I have a mantra: “Put your mind where it needs to be and your performance will follow.” And one of the best places for the mind to be is in the now. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not after practice. Now. Forget about worrying about the fight in three weeks; what can I be doing now to prepare myself? That might mean focusing on recovery from your last training session, something I think is one of the most neglected aspect of sports performance. It could mean, as I mentioned earlier, that I can be visualizing how I am going to execute certain moves on an opponent. But not letting the mind drift to things that can lead to unnecessary anxieties and doubts is huge.

A second skill is to be prepared for and accept the uncontrollables that are always present in combat sports. Athletes are going to deal with sickness, injury, opponents, venue challenges (such as fighting at high altitudes), negative statements in the media or on social media sites, distractions, sponsors, a change in opponent a week before a fight, and countless other things. When I work with open water swimmers or other types of endurance athletes I actually want them to hope for the worst possible conditions to exist during a race, because they know they’ve trained to not let it affect them like it will no doubt affect their opponents and they can use that mindset to their advantage. Fighters also would do well to adopt such a mentality. Tough situations create tough people.

Finally, self-talk is much more powerful than we think. Self-talk is simply what an athlete says to himself at any given time. It’s amazing that athletes can be so unaware of how thinking negatively and telling themselves negative things can lead to a downward spiral in their performance. I think that a pretty good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t say something to a training partner who is a very good friend of yours, you shouldn’t say it to yourself. And having a statement that you can draw on when things get tough is critical. I call this a “mental .357,” as in the gun. Hypothetically speaking, if for some reason I were to walk through a dangerous neighborhood alone at night, I would want to have a gun with me that I could use as a last resort to protect myself if needed. I certainly wouldn’t be waving this gun around and draw attention to myself, but I would have it tucked away so that I could get to it as a last resort. And having that gun would give me confidence and help me walk with a little better body language just knowing that it was there even if I had no intention of using it. A mental .357 is a phrase that an athlete can say to himself that is a last resort piece of encouragement that is there if he needs to. An admittedly cheesy example of this is the character of Rocky Balboa, who used the simple concept of “Get up!” whenever he was down for the count in all six movies. Athletes should also come up with a mantra that is so meaningful to them that it can get them through any possible situation.


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