Making the most of the fight camp roller coaster

transition-curve-slideI read this article from Tim Ferris’ blog recently, and it got me thinking.

It talks about the “entrepreneurial emotional rollercoaster” – the way a person’s enthusiasm and energy for a project tends to fluctuate in a fairly predictable way, and how to make it work for you by focusing on different tasks at each stage.

There was an obvious parallel for me. This curve is also familiar to a lot of fighters. The first time I had a meltdown mid fight camp, I thought something had gone terribly wrong and that the world was about to end. Nowadays, I’ll just shrug and think “here we go again”. It’s no fun – either for me, or for the people around me, but it’s predictable. Over time, I’ve found ways to deal with the normal mood swings that go along with fight training.

This is mostly based on my own experience; yours may be different. Some fighters are more emotional than others. Think of it mainly as a set of notes to myself that others might find interesting and useful (or not). I’d be interested in any thoughts or feedback.

Stage 1: “Uninformed Optimism”

This is the fun part, after the fight is first confirmed. I’m excited to get in there and show the world what I can do. Everything is awesome, this is the best job in the world.

What I want to be doing at this stage:
- Get in shape. Get some momentum now with my conditioning work, so I’m not struggling to get fit once I hit the next stage.
- Watch my opponent’s fight videos. At this point in the cycle, I’m convinced that I’m just much better than my opponent and that this should be pretty straightforward. I’ll spot all the things she’s doing wrong, and where I know I can do better.
- This is also a good time to start on the sport psychology work, especially visualisation, because right now it’s fun. My focus is naturally on the positives, so it’s much easier than later on when my stress levels are on the rise.
- I’ll sketch out a full fight camp plan, so that when the next stage hits and things start getting tough, I already have a step by step guide and can just concentrate on putting one foot in front of another. Same with my diet and nutrition.
- Get as much as possible of the organisational stuff sorted out. Figure out how I’m going to rearrange my life to get all my training in. Sort out tickets for friends / family (or delegate the job to someone else). Plan for childcare for fight week. I might not be able to get all this done at this stage, but making arrangements to get it done, or finding someone reliable who I can trust to take care of it for me means that I’ll have less to deal with when I’m stressed, exhausted, busy, or starving to want to think about it.

Stage 2: “Informed Pessimism” 

I’m starting to feel tired and sore from the training camp. The list of things I desperately need to work on is growing. I’m starting to wonder whether I’m really as good as I thought I was, and it’s dawning on me that this could all go horribly wrong. I’m a bit narky and irritable and this is starting to feel less like a game and more like work. This stage is important; the last thing I want is to breeze through the whole fight camp thinking “this is great, I’m amazing”, only to be hit in the face by reality as well as my opponent when I get there. Positive thinking is all very well, but there’s a fine line to walk between under- and over-confidence. Both are dangerous.

What I want to be doing:
- While some people will tell you to “think positively”, I find it’s good to listen to my misgivings. Figuring out what’s most likely to go wrong is an important first step to preventing it from happening. I make a list of things that I need to address.
- I usually go back and watch the videos again. My opponent always looks a lot better at this stage than she did the first time I watched them. I notice more of the things she does well, and the key things to look out for. I add these to the list.
- At the same time, I remind myself to focus on what I do well, and not get absorbed in thinking too much about my opponent’s game plan.
- I re-write my plan with more specifics, making sure I add in all the new stuff that’s come up.
- My visualisation becomes more specific to the game plan, with a focus on including the details that I’m working on.
- Drill, drill, drill. I work on any techniques I want to add to my arsenal, or anything I need to sharpen up on for this particular fight.
- Focus on daily and weekly routines. Consistency is everything.
- Try to build in regular rest, recovery and family time into the schedule. If it’s not in the plan, it probably isn’t going to happen.

Stage 3: “Crisis of Meaning”

“I can’t do this any more”. Everything is going wrong. I don’t know why I thought this fight was a good idea, or even why I wanted to be a fighter in the first place. Everything hurts, and I’m getting worse rather than better. Even simple stuff I’ve been doing without thinking for years seems completely beyond me.
A lot of fighters I know get this at some point, some much more so than others. Everyone’s affected by it differently – some are more prone to emotional outbursts, others keep it to themselves. Over the years, I’ve seen more than a few fighters throw their gloves across the gym and storm out, disappear for a few days and stop answering their phone, or crying in the changing rooms. Some actually get physically sick or injured, or have an external crisis (relationships are always a good source of these). Or all of the above. I may even have done a few myself.
There are definite advantages to scheduling the meltdown, though, and nowadays, I can predict from experience roughly when it’s likely to hit me.

What I want to be doing:
- Ideally, I like to plan for a few days of lighter training at roughly this point, even when everything seems under control and is going reasonably well. Taking the pressure and the intensity off briefly, and reminding myself what it’s like to train for fun again can be just what I need to turn the corner.
- Time away from my usual environment helps too. If I have the chance, I’ll try and go training with friends outside of my regular gym. This has the added advantage of helping to see things from a different perspective.
- Concentrate on recovery. I need to get plenty of sleep. Breathing exercises, massage or stretching / yoga for relaxation can help too.
- Its useful to take a mental break too – watch films, spend time with friends and family, do things I enjoy. I try not to think too much about the fight. It’ll all still be there in a couple of days when I come back to it.
- Avoid thinking about my opponent, or watching fight videos. Focus on what I’m doing.

Stage 4: “Informed optimism”

After the “crisis of meaning”, things start to pick up. It’s really about putting the final preparations in place at this stage.

What I want to be doing:
- Putting it all together. Lots of visualisation. Re-emphasise the positives.
- Go through my list and see whether there’s anything I’ve missed.
- Spend most of my time focusing on strategy and applying what I have, rather than learning new skills.
- Apply the game plan in sparring
- Peaking my physical conditioning and getting the weight cut right.
- Last minute planning / organisation. Finalise my pre-competition plan. Make sure everything is ready to go.

A short rant about weight cutting

Making weight is part and parcel of competing in a combat sport. It goes with the territory. I’m not going to get into a discussion here about the rights or wrongs of fighters dropping large amounts of weight prior to the weigh-in; I’m also not going to talk about the practical aspects of the weight cut. I’ve written about all that elsewhere, and I’ll review some of it in another article.

In the past, I’ve said some pretty scathing things about fighters failing to make weight. Recently, though, I’ve seen it happening to quite a few fighters I know who appear to be doing things right, and who have every intention of coming in on weight. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I get older, or perhaps, like most people, I just tend to be more understanding when it’s someone I know.

I’ve always believed that fighters should do a test weight cut when making a new weight class for the first time. Signing the contract and then just hoping for the best is a recipe for trouble – realistically, for a big weight cut it can take a few tries to really get the hang of it.

That’s not the only problem though. Even if you’ve made the weight class without any trouble before, the human body isn’t totally predictable. This seems to be especially true for female fighters. It’s possible to make weight perfectly for one fight, and then do everything exactly the same way the next time, and come in several pounds heavier. Throw in a few extra variables and you can end up way off.

So, what’s the answer? Just accept that fighters are going to miss weight on occasion? I’m not a fan of that approach – coming in overweight looks unprofessional, whatever the reason. With possible financial penalties for missing weight, not to mention potentially costing you a title shot, it can be an expensive mistake.

I think a large part of the problem is that fighters are increasingly leaving themselves too little margin for error.

There are any number of things that can mess up a weight cut, from hormones, to issues with travel, to differences between your scales and the official ones, or the sauna breaking down. If I’m fighting at 115 lbs, and I can just about make 115 on a good day, then sooner or later it’s inevitable that something will go wrong. If I’m serious about always making weight, then I’d want to be able – at a push – to make 112, most of the time. I want to know that I could have made 112, right up to the point where I step on the scales at 115. Of course, everyone’s margin for error will be slightly different – it depends on knowing your body, and what you’re comfortable with. But if you rely on everything going to plan, it’ll probably backfire sooner or later.

What I love about Cage Warriors

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At the end of 2013, I was thoroughly disillusioned with MMA. I’d had a rough year, both inside and outside of the sport and felt as though it might be time to walk away.

Three months later, everything has changed. I was at last night’s Cage Warriors show in Copenhagen, their first in Scandinavia. As for the previous two CWFC events in London and Dublin, I was there to do commentary for the women’s fights. Watching the rest of the card, I realised a few things.

MMA is a brutal sport, and not just in the physical sense. It’s always hard to see those you know and respect take a tough loss or get knocked out, knowing how that feels, how hard the fighter has trained, what s/he’s sacrificed, for it all to fall apart, sometimes in a split second. Dreams, careers, self-respect and sometimes even the ability to pay the rent can be on the line. It’s a sport where there’s nowhere to hide and no-one to blame.

But exactly those same things make it beautiful and compelling. The fact that it’s so painfully real is part of what makes it worth doing.

Over the last few years, CW has grown to be a highly polished international promotion. The professionalism and production values impress me every time I see it.

Despite that, behind the scenes, there’s an ease and a friendliness there. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a hell of a lot of hard work too. But the atmosphere is one of good humour rather than self importance.

This sense of community is at the heart of what makes CW different from many others. It feels as though the fighters are treated as people first – not just products or resources to be used and disposed of. Everyone involved with the promotion seems to genuinely give a damn. You don’t see company officials bad mouthing their own fighters to the media. It’s understood that it takes two fighters to make a fight, that anyone can have a bad day, and win or lose there’s respect and support. All this creates an environment where it feels like the hard work, the sacrifice and all too often the heartbreak that go along with being a fighter are understood and appreciated. And that inspires loyalty in return.

I’m not writing this because I’ve got a PR person breathing down my neck. I’m writing it because I’m grateful. I’m grateful to be a very small part of something special; I’m grateful for the reminder of why I got into all this in the first place; and I’m grateful because over the last few events, Cage Warriors have given me back a love for my sport.

Last night, for the first time in too long, I walked into an arena and really felt that buzz. I’m excited to do this again.

Copenhagen, again!

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I can’t believe how quickly the first three months of 2014 have gone by. The last few weeks have been crazy, and I’m heading out to Copenhagen on Friday. I was there for a weekend at the beginning of February, and loved it, so it’s going to be great to spend a little longer there.

Next weekend is Cage Warriors 66. I’m looking forward to commentating for Emma Delaney vs Lina Akhtar Lansberg, which has the makings of a great fight. Emma is a commonwealth judo silver medalist with a ton of international experience. Lina comes from a Muay Thai background, with some solid takedown defence. Following on from Laura Howarth vs Amanda Kelly in London last month, and with Polish prospect Agnieszka Niedzwiedz taking on Gemma Hewitt in Swansea on April 12th, the Cage Warriors women’s bantamweight division is really starting to take shape.

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Then I’ll be staying to do some training, and dusting the cobwebs off my jiu-jitsu gi in time for the BJJ spring bonanza the following weekend. It’s a women’s BJJ camp organised by European champions Shanti Abelha and Ida Hansson, and there’s going to be a whole lot of female grappling talent around.

It’s fantastic to see how far women’s MMA and BJJ have developed over the last few years in Europe, and even better to be a part of that.

Although it was only a short visit last time, I managed a walk around Frederiksborg Castle in the snow, which was beautiful. I’m hoping that this time I’ll get a chance to see a bit more of the place and do some exploring! 

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One more time…

2014-02-21 21.53.30The question everyone keeps asking me is “so, when are you fighting next?”. The real answer is that it’s taken me some time to figure out what I wanted to do. Between injuries and some personal stuff going on, I wasn’t sure for a while whether I wanted to fight again.

I spent a few months talking this over with people close to me, and getting different perspectives. Something finally clicked though when I was chatting to referee and former fighter Marc Goddard a few weeks ago. He hit the nail on the head when he said: “It’s not about proving anything to anyone else, it’s about closure for you”. That was exactly it.

I recognise the danger here. Fighters are notorious for always wanting just one more fight. We tend to believe that if only we had one more chance, we could produce the kind of performance that we’d finally be satisfied to retire on. That kind of perfection is elusive, though, and chasing it very often does more harm than good. At the same time, 2013 was a crazy year for me. I’m glad I had many of those experiences; but it’s not the way I want my 12 years in this sport to finish.

For me, it’s not ultimately about winning or losing any more. Don’t get me wrong – while you’re preparing for a fight, you live, eat, breathe it. Everything you do or think is focused around getting that victory; for that second when your hand is raised at the end. While you’re in there, it’s everything. But having a few months away from the sport has made it possible to step back and look at the real reasons why I did it all. If winning fights was all there was to it, then it would be too shallow, too unpredictable, too fleeting a thing to build my life around. There has to be more to it, and I think I understand better now what that is. I’m in a good place right now. I’m back in the gym, and enjoying training again. Along with that, I know there is still some unfinished business that I need to take care of before I move on. Not to prove anything to anyone else, but for me.

Once I’d decided that, the next question was “who?”. There are a few names I’ve been thinking about; there are several women out there who I respect and would still like to fight. The one I really want, though, is one that should have happened a few times, but for one reason or another never came together. I think even now, at this stage in our careers, we would put on a great fight, one that a lot of people would like to see.

So – Megumi Fujii – what do you think? I know you officially retired after your last fight, and if you really don’t want another one, then I understand – but I have to ask. I think it could be good for both of us. If you want it, Cage Warriors have offered to put this fight on, at any weight you choose between 115 lbs and 125 lbs. How about it?

Some thoughts about role models

Following the recent comments made by Arianny Celeste about UFC champion Ronda Rousey, it got me thinking a bit about role models in general.

There are many people who I admire. I often look at someone doing something well – whether it’s a skill they have, their character, personal attributes, how they carry themselves or live their life – and think ‘I’d like to be a bit more like that’. In that one specific way, I’d like to emulate how they do things.

The danger, though, is that in trying to present a total image of themselves that’s consistent with the way we’d like to see them, our role models sometimes seem under pressure to become one dimensional caricatures trapped inside their own hype. When we don’t see the struggles and the mistakes, the weaknesses, contradictions and the failures that are hidden behind the mask, it’s easy to believe that these people are fundamentally different from us. They become an idol to worship, rather than a human being with characteristics to aspire to. Then there’s the inevitable disappointment when we catch a glimpse of the real person, who’s always less perfect than we imagined her to be.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” – the Wizard of Oz

I’ve sometimes been called a role model, and I’m always flattered. I’m grateful for the people who write to me telling me that I’ve inspired them (or their daughter) to do something, or to believe they can achieve their own goals, or helped them during a tough time. It makes what I do feel worthwhile, and it also gives me something to live up to – an inspiration to carry on trying to do better. I appreciate that. And yet, the last thing I want is to be put on any kind of pedestal.

We’re all more complicated than that. Real people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’, heroes or villains. There are things I do well; and my best is pretty good. There are also plenty of things I do badly, and times when I’m a total disaster area. In some ways I might be a good example to follow (depending on what you want out of life) but in others ways, much less so. I don’t say that either out of false modesty or (heaven forbid) low self esteem. It’s reality, and it’s true of all of us. Some of the characteristics that allowed me to achieve the things I’ve done are the very same traits that have led me to mess up in other areas of life. I’m still living, and learning, making mistakes and trying to figure things out as best I can. So are we all, including our role models.

The best advice I can offer?

“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” – Judy Garland

Hippos don’t make good pets

It’s easy to look at the choices someone else makes, from the outside, and think “What an idiot. I’d never do that”. But then we find ourselves on the inside, and things look completely different. It’s tempting to convince ourselves that our situation is unique, that the usual rules don’t apply here. It’s almost never true.

I’m talking about those situations where, if it were one of my friends doing exactly the same thing, I’d realise it was obviously going to end badly, and say “what the hell are you playing at?”. But if it’s me, I want to plead special circumstances and find a reason to make an exception. (And then look back later and think “what the hell was I playing at?”).

So – note to self: a cliche is a cliche for a reason. Hippos don’t make good pets. Take your own advice more often. You are not a special snowflake. (And on that note…)

New year, new blog

Reflections

A bit late for New Year, I know, but my plan is to write more in 2014. Not because I have the ambition to be a great writer, or because I think I have something terribly important to say – but mostly because I’ve discovered that I enjoy writing. I like the process of trying to sort my thoughts into some kind of order. I like being able to go back and read things I wrote, and remember what was going on in my head at the time. And I like getting messages from people who’ve read something I’ve written and can identify with it; the emails that say “I’m glad you wrote that – me too”. I love all those random connections that remind me I’m not alone; that in many ways we’re all more alike than different; and that some of the things about me that I thought were quirky, or crazy, or broken, aren’t unique to me after all.

2013 was a roller coaster of a year. It saw some of the best, and the worst of me. There were amazing experiences that I’ll never forget; and there were other times that I feel sick just thinking about.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

A whole lot of different factors, including my MMA career, an injury with the possible need for surgery, and some major upheavals in my personal life, all came together at the same time. By the end of the year, I felt like I was staring at the remains of a town that’s been flattened by a tidal wave – everything that was comfortable and familiar was gone, broken. I was overwhelmed by an aching, empty feeling of loneliness; for several months, everything felt pointless and I had no idea where I was going or what to do next.

I’m not under the illusion that my situation was particularly unique or special. I’d guess that a lot of professional athletes, and plenty of people in general, have a similar experience at some point. While you’re in the midst of it, though, it’s hard to get a sense of perspective. It’s a little like playing Japanese Binocular Football (If you don’t know what this is, you’re missing out) in that it looks a lot easier from the outside than it is when you’re in there desperately trying to figure out the difference between perception and reality.

“It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Fortunately, I have some very good friends who patiently put up with me being a mess for those months, and were there for me. Slowly they persuaded me that it wasn’t actually the end of the word. I realised that what I was left with was a pile of raw material, and a lot of freedom to decide exactly how to put my life back together. I’m still in the process of sorting through the debris, trying to figure out what to keep, what to get rid of and what I want to build with all that empty space in front of me.

“From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.” – Alice in Wonderland (2010 film)

I’m starting to think about new projects and new opportunities. Questioning my assumptions about how my life was going to turn out, and thinking about possibilities I hadn’t considered before. The freedom, and the uncertainty that goes with it, scares the hell out of me; but it’s exciting at the same time.

I’d still like another MMA fight. Of course, fights are like beers in that respect – everyone says they’re going to have “just one more”, but it’s not always easy to stop at one. People keep asking me about it, but whether or not it’ll be possible – and right for me – remains to be seen. That’s a decision I’m leaving to one side for the moment. Right now, I have a lot of other things to focus on. But I’m beginning to feel positive about the future again, and looking forward to seeing what it brings.

“…once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Ten days out…

It’s ten days out from my next fight. It’s starting to feel real now. Around this time, I often find myself thinking back over the previous fights I’ve had; and wondering how I ended up here, doing it again.

I’ve been around in this sport for a good while. My first professional fight was back in 2002. For a lot of that time, I didn’t really have much of a clue what I was doing. It’s been a journey with a lot of ups and downs. It’s taken me a while to figure this stuff out. I wasn’t a natural athlete, or a natural fighter. I started out in MMA with a bit of grappling and little else. It’s taken time – years of time, in the gym, day in, day out over more than a decade for me to get to where I am.

Now, with the internet, people can watch fights from years ago and judge them by today’s standards. Plenty of people still judge me based on things that happened before they even knew MMA existed. Once the video is on youtube, there’s no difference between 7 days and 7 years. I’m not going to make excuses for any of those performances – they speak for themselves. But that’s the fighter I was then, not the fighter I am now.

I think my last 4 fights since I’ve been training at Next Generation (Sally Krumdiack, Roxanne Modafferi, Aisling Daly and Alexis Davis) show a fairer reflection of where I am now than anything that went before. Sure, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. But by and large, I’d say they’re a respectable showing.

My next fight is in 10 days time, in my home town of Manchester. It’s the first ever women’s UFC fight in Europe. This is my opportunity to show the world the fighter I’ve become. More important to me than winning or losing is that it’s a performance I can be proud of. I want this to be the first fight that people think of when my name is mentioned, for the right reasons. I want it to do justice to the people around me who have put so much time and effort into making me what I am. If I can do that, I’m confident the result will take care of itself.