My take on the Fallon Fox controversy

Here’s a post that I wrote back in 2013 when there was a lot of discussion going on about it within the women’s MMA world. I recently had a message from someone asking me to put the article back up, so here it is (very slightly edited). I haven’t looked closely to see whether there has been any more relevant research since the article was written – if any readers know of any, I’d be keen to hear about it.

There’s been lots of talk recently about female transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and whether she should be able to compete in the women’s division. I’ve had a few discussions about it, and there seem to be a lot of misconceptions going around, so here are my thoughts on the subject.

1) Many of the comments about this subject have been offensive and unnecessary. I think this is a necessary debate, but it needs to be handled respectfully.

2) None of us have a right to compete in professional MMA. People are routinely denied a licence to compete if their medical status means that there could be an increased risk either to themselves or their opponent.

3) MMA is a relatively safe sport, providing that participants are evenly matched by size, strength and ability. We have gender and weight classes not only to ensure fairness, but also to reduce the risks.

4) Contrary to some of the assertions by Fox’s supporters in the media, there appears to be no good scientific evidence that proves Fox does not have a performance advantage over a cis female. Expert opinion is still just opinion – and it seems divided on the subject. Experts may also have their own biases and areas of expertise. Specialists in gender reassignment may not be equally knowledgeable about exercise physiology.

5) The experts supporting Fox have been quite cautious in their assessment. “She probably does not have a significant advantage” and “her musculature is comparable to that of a woman” are a long way from saying “we know for a fact that she does not have a performance advantage over a cis female”.

6) The differences between men and women in sport depend on a great deal more than current hormone levels and muscle mass. For example, men have a higher ratio of type II to type I muscle fibres, which is associated with improved speed and explosive power, and a heart that is larger relative to body size. It’s not clear to what extent either of these would change after sex-reassignment surgery, or what implications that would have for performance in this case. Because of the bone structure that is developed while still growing, men also have a greater lung capacity and a narrower pelvis, giving a biomechanical advantage – factors which are highly unlikely to be reversed by hormone treatment. There are likely to be other factors that differ between men and women in terms of athletic performance that we aren’t even aware of.

7) Fox’s supporters point to the fact that male to female transgender athletes are allowed to compete as female in the olympics to support their argument that she should be able to compete in the women’s division in MMA. The IOC appears to base it’s policy on the principle that without firm evidence that an unfair advantage exists, transgender fighters should be allowed to compete in the interests of inclusivity. I agree that equality of participation is a nice ideal, and it’s a reasonable argument if we’re talking about sports like tennis or kayaking. But in a sport where one participant is trying to do physical damage to another, the burden of proof should be reversed. We need good scientific evidence to support the assertion that Fox has no advantage as a result of having been born male. Lack of evidence of an advantage isn’t sufficient – especially when so little evidence exists.

8) We should also consider the possibility that the IOC decision may not be based entirely on scientific evidence (of which there appears to be very little), but also take into account factors such as social pressure and (rightly, in my opinion) the desire to be inclusive.

9) Good research on this subject that takes into account all the relevant factors is hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Several people have suggested that performance testing could establish whether Fox’s attributes (strength, power, VO2 max, etc) lie within “normal range” for a female athlete. Leaving aside the statistical issues, a significant problem with this idea is the question of how to measure performance variables in an athlete who – by the nature of the situation – would not have an incentive to produce her best possible performance.

10) I sympathise with Fox’s position, and I don’t agree with those who say that she should not be allowed to fight. On the other hand, I believe it was wrong that Fox’s opponents were not informed of the situation so they could make their own assessment of the risks and give consent. This will obviously not be an issue in future in Fox’s case; but I’m concerned about the athletic commissions’ position that the opponent has no right to know. My opinion is that if someone is going to be legally punching me in the face, then it’s absolutely my business if she went through adolescence as a male. While I understand the concerns about privacy, I don’t think that in this case the right to privacy trumps the opponent’s right to make an informed decision about the risks she is taking.

Finally – if anyone has access to any scientific research that I seem to have missed, please send it to me! I am happy to revise my opinion as and when new information becomes available. I’m hopeful that in the future there will be more good evidence available.

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Dealing with pre-fight nerves

As part of my big clear out, I’ve been going back through my blog archives and revisiting some of the things I’ve written over the years. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be re-posting a few of my favourites. This one from 2010 seems like a good place to start.

Someone asked me a question this week about how I deal with pre-fight nerves. It’s something that’s individual to each fighter, and that comes with experience. Here’s some thoughts about the way I approach it and the tools that I’ve found useful in dealing with it.

Before some of my fights I worked with a good sports psychologist. Once, when we were talking about what I wanted to improve on, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to “deal with my pre-fight nerves”. He asked me some more questions, trying to get me to think about exactly what I meant by this. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I’ve caught the gist of it.

“How do your nerves affect you in a fight?” and “when you think about your best past performances, how nervous were you?” he asked. When I thought about it, I realised that in general, being nervous before a fight hadn’t stopped me performing well. In fact, I tended to do better in high pressure situations.

“So, what’s the problem then?” he asked. I thought for a bit. “Uh, well, it’s kinda uncomfortable. I don’t like the feeling”. It sounded lame as I said it. “Well, how comfortable are you when you’re doing five rounds of hard sparring, or when you’re doing a conditioning circuit? It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about performing at your best. If you want to be comfortable, don’t be a fighter.” It was a valid point.

That’s the single most useful piece of advice I’ve had about dealing with nerves. A lot of my problem came not from the way I felt before a fight, but from the struggle against that. Realizing that it was ok to feel uncomfortable made it easier to deal with.

That’s not the end of the story though. For many people, and for all of us some of the time, nerves can interfere with performance. In fact, there’s a pretty complicated relationship between anxiety and performance, that’s worth looking into. (For example: see here)

Too much anxiety can stop us from doing our best work. The question is, how do we know how much is too much? If comfort isn’t a good guide, is there a better one? The optimum level of anxiety seems to vary depending on the task. In general, higher levels of anxiety seem to work better for things involving endurance and persistance, but less well when high levels of skill or mental ability are required (see here). How this balances out in MMA – a sport which requires strength and stamina but also a huge amount of technique, tactics and strategy – will be different for every individual fighter.

And even when we’ve worked out the perfect level of adrenaline, how do we get our body to cooperate?

A sports psychologist often uses a “performance profiling questionnaire” to identify an athlete’s level of anxiety (and various other factors) in different situations and at different points before and during competition. This allows them to identify the difference between when they are performing at their best and switched on, and when they’re either too anxious, or flat – not nervous enough. This can give a good idea of the ideal level for that particular athlete.

After that, there are various skills and strategies for the athlete to use to control his or her levels of anxiety and confidence. There are “psyching up” and “psyching down” strategies. (In general, psyching down is much easier than psyching up. Going into a fight flat or under-psyched can be a real problem.)

The specific strategies that I use aren’t any big secret – they’re standard sports psychology stuff: centering, positive self-talk, visualization, use of music and cue-words and so on (for example). But as with any other kind of technique, unless you practise them regularly, in  realistic situations, then they won’t be there for you when you need them. I wasn’t that taken with them at first, but once I’d developed the habit of using them I was surprised how much difference they actually made.

Experience definitely helps. I don’t get any less nervous for my fights now than I did when I  started out – as my skill level’s improved, so has the difficulty of the competition, and the importance of each fight. But at the same time, I know that regardless of how bad I feel beforehand, once I get in there my body and my training will take over. My confidence comes from trusting all the work I’ve done in the gym with my coaches and team mates.

In the words of Ali…

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

Some thoughts on women, combat sports and training

Here’s another repost from 2010. Looking back over the last five years, there’s been a lot of change within the MMA world. Women are now competing in all the major promotions, and many more are getting involved in combat sports at amateur and recreational levels. Although finding good training partners is less of an issue for female fighters than it used to be, much of this is still relevant. 

People sometimes ask me whether I think it’s better for female MMA fighters to train with other women, or to train mostly with men. The argument is sometimes made – often by women who have predominantly male training partners – that training with men makes you stronger, and more able to dominate when competing against other women. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this, and I think having good male training partners is important, especially since the talent pool of top level female fighters is pretty limited and it can be difficult to find opportunities to train with other women of a high skill level. But at the same time, I think it can be misleading.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. A good, dedicated, woman who is training MMA at an otherwise all male club often surprises her male training partners with her strength and technique. Very soon, she finds herself being told things like “you’re really strong for a woman”, and eventually “you’ll kill anyone in your weight class”. Her coaches, impressed by a woman who is giving the guys a run for their money in training, convince her (and sometimes the wider MMA community) that she’s destined to be the next big thing in female MMA. “No woman’s going to be as strong as the guys you’re training with”.

Many of us have been in this situation at some time or another, and it’s seductive. The problem is, it’s also plain wrong.

Nearly every woman I’ve competed against in any combat sport has felt strong. I’ve gone through periods in my career of training mostly with men, and I don’t think that that, by itself, has made me any more prepared to deal with the strength of my opponents. Sometimes, it’s been a disadvantage – it’s easy to go into a fight, expecting my competitor to feel physically inferior to the guys I spar in the gym. Under the pressure of competition, when everyone’s adrenaline is high, that’s rarely the case.

In addition, a bigger stronger guy rarely goes all out and uses his full strength, power and explosiveness when sparring a woman, any more than he would when sparring someone several weight classes below him. This makes sense in a training context – to do otherwise would make it likely that the smaller person would get little from the sparring session, and put them at a high risk of injury. But when nobody you are sparring with is really gunning for you – you miss out on vital experience.

There comes a point, if you want to get to the top, when we each have to accept that we’re not that unique or special. Lots of women, with the right training and sufficient dedication, are capable of being strong. Many of us can be tougher than the guys in our gym might expect – that alone doesn’t make us the best in the world. When I managed a deadlift of 100kgs, I thought this made me strong. Turns out that most reasonably athletic women, with a few months of strength training can do this.

So if I can’t count on being freakishly strong, skilled, or dedicated “for a woman”, where does that leave me? In the same position as anyone who does this, or any other sport. I’m competing against a lot of women who are also strong, skilled and dedicated. I’m looking for those small improvements in performance, conditioning and psychology that will give me an edge over the competition. At this level there’s no margin for error – it’s going to be tough all the way.

Some of the toughest training sessions I’ve had have been against other women. Someone who’s my size and weight who’s really going after me and kicking my ass whenever I take my eye off the ball for even a second. Having the opportunity to train with great female MMA fighters as well as world class female athletes in other combat sports has improved my game immensely.

In this situation, there are no more excuses. No more thinking “oh well, he’s just bigger and stronger” when I get stuck in a bad position or botch a takedown. It brings me face to face with the reality that there are things I need to improve on, and that those improvements are there for the taking. I start to realise that even when working with bigger guys, some of my difficulties may be highlighted by the strength difference, but ultimately I can avoid much of that by making technical improvements.

The other group who really give me nightmares in the gym are the teenage guys. I sometimes joke that I’m sick of all the child prodigies around at the moment, but really they make great training partners. What they don’t have in fully grown “man strength” they make up for in speed, fearlessness and not giving an inch.

I know I need training partners like this to continually remind me of the level I should be aiming for. Over the last few years, with increasing publicity, more fights on the bigger shows and a deepening talent pool, the level of female MMA has shot up. It’s time to raise our expectations. Maybe we’re not as special as we once thought, but with the right attitude and training we can be better than we used to imagine.