MMA Mental Toughness Training

Georges St-Pierre smiling in front of wrestling poster.
Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images

Where were you when James "Buster" Douglas dropped Mike Tyson? The MMA equivalent of the aforementioned fight was UFC 69. That night Matt Serra--a good fighter in his own right--seemed outsized and overmatched against Georges St. Pierre. However, a rocket right hand followed by a flurry of punches from Serra later reminded the world that favorites--even heavy ones--don't always win.

Brain vs Brawn

What allows one person or team to come through against a physically better opponent on a given day?

"The best fighter never wins, it's always the guy who fights the best,"

says applied sports psychologist Brian Cain. He notied that one of his clients, Georges St. Pierre, verbalized the same thing coming into his matchup against Thiago Alves at UFC 100. According to Cain, the greatest winning factor may not reside in one's brawn, but rather their mind, especially come game day.

Rich Franklin, a former UFC middleweight champion and client of Cain's agrees, noting that,

"[T]raining for a fight is about 90% physical and 10% mental, yet when you enter the octagon it becomes about 90% mental and 10% physical because all of the physical preparation is done.

[...]There are so many things that can distract you," 

Knowledge of that, plus the desire to fight, as well as training for the big day is why competitors like Franklin, St. Pierre, Jorge Gurgel, and more have sought a mental edge with Cain.

"The mind controls the body. If these guys are in control of themselves mentally, now they can go out there and perform carefree, to the best of their ability." --Cain

Fighting Negativity and Giving up the Past

Almost everyone involved in MMA believes that the stronger a fighter is mentally, the better they are. Which begs the next question: What is it that professionals do to help a fighter's mental game?

Stephen Ladd advertises a somewhat off the beaten path approach to improving mental toughness in athletes with his Renegade Mindset for Fighters system. He starts by getting rid of the negativity that holds athletes back via some traditional sports psychology, hypnosis, energy medicine, and meditation.

"[Fighters'] conscious and subconscious minds aren’t in complete agreement. The fighter wants to be the best more than anything in the world, but at the subconscious level, he is filled with doubt or fear, or any number of negative emotions. This sets up a self-sabotage scenario. By getting the subconscious and conscious minds on the same team--your team, the whole fight game becomes a lot easier." --Ladd

Cain also works to get rid of the negativity. Before a successful rematch, he had Georges St. Pierre throw a brick with Matt Serra's name on it, into water, in order to signify that he had gotten rid of that past event. That's a big piece of the whole puzzle. In order to lose the negative thoughts that impede performance, one must get rid of everything but the now.

"The past is history, the past does not dictate the future, the future is a mystery, once you start thinking about what's going to happen in the future that's when you're going to get caught,"

Says Cain. Great athletes are "not focused on what-ifs, they're focused on what is."

Eliminating Obstacles to Build Confidence

Ladd uses the term "eliminating the interference" to describe one of the things that he and his coaching partner (Bill Gladwell) do as mental game coaches. Though they may handle the mental game "with different weapons," they still generally target the same things that traditional sports psychologists do. "We teach fighters how to eliminate their negative beliefs (the interference) and “get out of their own way”," Ladd says.

What is very clear is that mental toughness and confidence are linked together, and the oldie but goodie approach of preparation and hard work still seems to hold true.

"Where most confidence comes from is being totally prepared. Most people don't know how to prepare mentally, and that's what I help them do. I help them develop confidence, I help them to develop positive self-talk, help them to focus on the things they can control, not the things that they can't control." --Cain

Maximizing Mental Game

Both Cain and Ladd sees themselves as similar to a jiu-jitsu or strength and conditioning coach, and just as necessary. Along with this, Cain believes that MMA athletes should seek help in developing their mental toughness "today," noting that,

"[There are] two types of fighters out there. There are the fighters that say, well, I don't need sports psychology. I'm not (bleeped) up in the head; I'm not screwed up in the head; I don't need sports psychology. Then there are the athletes like Rich Franklin and Georges St. Pierre who say wow, here's an opportunity for me to maximize my mental game."

Ladd believes that "any fighter that is training hard and able to perform well in the gym but fails to live up to his true potential in the octagon," should seek him out. "The missing element," he notes, "is often the mental game."

In the end, more MMA fighters are seeking out help to develop their mental toughness every single day. Don't be surprised if more noteworthy training camps start bringing in programs and people designed to help their fighters with just that. After all, what fighter doesn't want to perform just as good in the real fight as they do in training? And that's exactly what people like Cain and Ladd do; they attempt to bring these two things together.

Sources