Mental Toughness In Combat Sports
“Every man gets scared when prepared for confrontation”
-Mos Def, Crosstown Traffic
Mental toughness: the ability to perform and execute your skill set despite fear, fatigue and uncomfortable circumstances. While much is made of the mental toughness required to perform a lift or complete a grueling conditioning circuit, there is nowhere that this trait (or its lack there of) is on display than in combat sports such as wrestling, boxing or MMA. As someone who regularly pushes myself to the brink in my training but has also experienced the emotional rollercoaster of a prize fight, let me tell you that there is nothing more character revealing than standing across the mat or the ring from another man who wants to hurt you. You will inevitably find yourself in a position where you must choose to either “get tough” or lay down. If you are looking for a perfect allegory for life, there it is.
So that brings us to the age old question - what exactly is mental toughness? Can it be “trained” and developed? Is it something that some individuals are born with? I believe at it’s core being tough means that you are able to control your emotions, channel your fear into aggression, and remain focused on the task at hand despite what your body may be telling you: slow down, take a break, tap out, retreat. The great competitors in wrestling and fighting are able to do this. But is it because they have taken themselves to deep water in training, they are battle tested thru years of competition, or something else? I have always believed that the more uncomfortable you can make yourself during training, sparring and conditioning the less likely you are to panic when you feel that same discomfort during competition. With that being said, there are many variables to competition that can’t be replicated in training - the pressure of winning/losing, the crowd, the unpredictability of an unknown opponent, the risk of injury, etc. To see how an athlete deals with these factors at an elite level I asked some of the toughest guys in the world to weigh in on the subject.
“Mental toughness is practiced every day. Nobody shows up on the day of competition and decides to be mentally tough and push through the stress and anxiety most athletes feel. I build my mental toughness through consistently choosing the tough path during practice, lifting, and conditioning. Internally I talk to myself and make sure I am not making lazy choices. I value every single go, every single rep, so that when it's time to compete I can push through mental challenges. I also try my best to value the things that I can control, this allows me to handle stressful situations calmly.”
Olympic Champion (youngest in US history)
NCAA, Big10, World Champion
“Mental toughness may mean a variety of things, depending on the context in which it's used. As a lifelong wrestler who has competed all the way to the top of collegiate wrestling and a multiple champion in professional MMA, I believe mental toughness comes from putting yourself in stressful situations every single day. Make yourself find comfort in fatigue, and push through that barrier. Anyone can be the best in the practice room, but it's those who overcome their own doubts and fears, both physically and mentally, who shine bright on the big stage.”
- Lance Palmer
4 x All American wrestler
Multiple time Professional MMA Champion
"Physical conditioning and strength obviously play a huge role in sport but if you don't have the mental toughness to access your strength when physically exhausted you have nothing. When facing tough competition you will get tired, you will be tested, mental toughness will be the difference."
- Reece Humphrey
3 x US Open Champion
3 x World Team USA Wrestling
"Mental toughness is something that all elite athletes have and must use during training and competition. This is something that is learned and I believe learned through training. It's hard to consistently show up and be a "gamer". That is why the elite athletes put in the thousands of hours into their craft so when it gets tough they can push through it."
- Logan Stieber
2016 World Champion
4 x NCAA Champion (4th ever in history of the sport)