Become a better bullshit detector

With the recent growth in Mixed Martial Arts and combat sports, there’s been an explosion of products marketed towards the up and coming combat athlete. Nutritional supplements, training gear, equipment, books, DVDs and seminars all promise to take your game to the next level and give you that crucial edge over your opponent.

But how can you tell the difference between a training program, supplement or piece of equipment that will help you get the results you’re after, and something that’s a total waste of money – or even harmful? It can be a minefield. Continue reading “Become a better bullshit detector”

Some thoughts about medical issues and weight cutting

This post was originally published in 2012. Sadly, weight cutting has been back in the MMA news lately for all the wrong reasons. While fighters would undoubtedly be better off if nobody cut weight, there are no easy solutions to stop it from happening. Unless and until things change, education and understanding the risks is crucial. 

Weight cutting is a frequent topic of obsession for fighters and debate amongst fans. Some have argued that it amounts to cheating. Others point out that when done badly, it can be one of the most dangerous aspects of MMA. Dehydration can result in heat stroke, kidney failure or heart arrhythmias. Although there’s very little research on this subject, it’s possible that fighters quite commonly dehydrate themselves to a level that affects kidney function. And when it goes badly wrong, it can kill you.

I’ve noticed a trend amongst fighters. Those who seem least concerned about their health when planning a weight cut are often the quickest to plead “medical reasons”  when it goes wrong. I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular, so let’s think about a fictional fighter. We’ll call him John Anthonyson.

We can imagine a conversation between John and his coach.

A few weeks out from his fight, John is looking a bit on the chunky side. His coach sits him down. “Look John, we’re a bit worried about your weight. You know you’ve had problems making weight in the past. We really think you should think about your diet, you know, so you don’t have so much to cut in the last week.”

John: “Get off my back, will ya? It’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing. Next you’ll be telling me that ‘weight cutting is dangerous’ or some nonsense like that. Real fighters can cut 30 lbs, no problem. Those doctors haven’t a clue. Besides, I’ve got some, ah, ‘supplements’ that are gonna help me out this time.”

Several weeks later, after failing to make weight:

“Look, I tried, honestly I did. It wasn’t my fault. I don’t know what happened. Everything was going fine, and then I just started feeling really dizzy and light headed, I couldn’t stand up… my kidneys were hurting, everything started going black. The doctors told me I needed fluids, so I just did what they said. I’m sorry and all, but shit happens. It’s just unfortunate. I did the right thing though. My health has to come first.”

Don’t want to end up in this situation? Avoiding it is pretty straightforward.

  • Make sure you understand the process of weight cutting, and what can go wrong. Do your own research and take responsibility for your own weight cut. Having someone experienced who can advise you is great, but at the end of the day it’s your body and your health on the line.
  • Never sign a contract unless you know you can make the weight, and have a clear plan to do so.
  • Make sure you’ve practised your weight cut. Yes, doing a cut when you haven’t got a fight sucks. But it also allows you to experiment, and to find out how your body works and which methods are best for you without the pressure of knowing that you have to make the weight. That way, you’ll also know how much you can cut, rather than relying on the method of wishful thinking.
  • Leave a margin for error. Once you know the maximum you can safely cut, make sure that you have at least a few pounds in the bank. Just in case your flights are delayed, the sauna isn’t working, you’re on your period or the dog ate your sweat suit.
  • Don’t use dehydration as a substitute for a proper diet and conditioning program.
  • Don’t assume that just because your favourite fighter can cut 30 lbs in two hours in the sauna (apparently) that you can too. Everyone’s body reacts differently.
  • Speak to your doctor first if you have any underlying health issues, and especially any history of heart or kidney problems.


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.