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Uncertainty & Performance – Blunt Training Advice – Series Article

Uncertainty causes stress and anxiety. Worrying about something causes stress. Negative stress prior to competition will not contribute to superior performance. Stress and anxiety in competition will dramatically affect performance. It is impossible to not feel some anxiety, some trepidation and nervousness about performance. When it comes as constant anxiety leading up to an event, it is negative. When it hits you during competition it can be very damaging to the result, your confidence, your ability, and mood towards competition.

Nervousness about performance is normal and needs to be managed and tuned to contribute to or at least not be a detriment to performance. Uncertainty is a major factor of stress and anxiety. If this dominates an athletes pre competition nervousness or hits them in the competition then it is paramount you confront it before you compete, or the competition can be much harder than it needs to be. If you engage in self talk that is uncertain leading up to competition, regularly at training or constantly question yourself, your teammates, and coaches, then the uncertainty is damaging.

Uncertainty can be overcome by knowledge, certainty, fact, self-belief, honesty, training and experience of related situations and competition. Often uncertainty is hidden by an athlete which is stupid. It is a topic that must be addressed in training. Athletes will have uncertainty and the training must focus on everyone’s uncertainties and address the reality of them. Many uncertainties can be dealt with in training and discussion. The ones that can’t need to be managed and understood as uncertainties that are at least prepared for and laid on the table.

In combat sports, uncertainty is normal. It is mentally challenging to stand opposite someone who is trying to punch you in the face when you are expected to punch them, attack them, defend, react, use tactics, be tough, be fast, be strong, be clean, be aggressive, listen, follow rules, look good and try to implement what you have been told to do and trained to do – all whilst someone else has their own plans and desires and is right in front of you trying to hurt you. Muay Thai is the toughest sport in the world and uncertainty is built into it. No fight is certain, there are no sure things, and the unknown is a major part of the excitement: the draw, the crowd expectations, and an individual’s desire to step in the arena.

When an athlete is uncertain, they are stressed; when they are stressed, they make poor decisions, do not listen, tire fast, react slow, lose focus and the desire to win can fade. When an athlete in a fight gets hit with adrenalin in the bout or prior, the stress of this reduces performance. This must be managed in training so everyone is certain it will happen and have a plan on how to react and use the stress. Preparation is the only way to reduce the negative effects of adrenalin and turn them into a positive or at least control and understand the body’s reaction. Knowledge reduces uncertainty.

Self-belief and backing yourself in the most challenging of circumstances is a major step towards dealing with uncertainty. Even if you accept that a situation is completely uncertain you can handle it if you are confident that you have the capability to deal with the situation. This must be based on experience, fact, and previous positive results in uncertain situations. A false self-belief, arrogance, and unrealistic expectations will not assist performance and are likely to get you hurt both mentally and physically. A good trainer will be honest with you during training and ensure you self-belief is based on reality.

Uncertainty can be based on a lack of confidence, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of experience. It is common in Combat Sports that athletes have seen other matches and other people perform and measure themselves theoretically. An athlete is not a spectator and must face facts and real training. This is also the job of the coach and team to ensure an athlete is prepared physically and mentally for reality. Rematches are good example of the variety and uncertainty of performance of both athletes. Even with an enormous range of certainties from a previous match, each athlete faces new uncertain challenges.

Dealing with uncertainty for competition in training requires:

  • A development program that includes physical and mental preparation.
  • Honesty and integrity in training.
  • Reality based situational training as simulations.
  • Development of experience for competition prior to competition.
  • Open discussion with each individual athlete about their expectations.
  • Performance reviews in training, simulations, and competition.

For an experienced athlete, the uncertainty is reduced – this is what experience is. Be confident and more aware of what to expect whilst managing your own expectations is what being a good athlete is. You do not learn new behaviors under stress, this is a critical fact. Previous performance is the best indicator of future performance. Work on and face your negative reactions to any event. Belief in your ability to perform based on previous performance is confidence based on reality.

As a flip however, I have seen experienced people relaxed, unstressed and lacking the nervousness and excitement required by uncertainty and then delivering a sub-par performance because they didn’t harness the benefits of the excitement. Stress in conflict can heighten your senses, improve your reaction, your ability to deal with pain (or defer it) and provide a focus and motivation that only adrenaline and the desire to overcome can. The lack of uncertainty and display of calm and a ‘lets just get it done’ attitude can lead to a resigned attitude to something akin to fate. It may appear as calm but if the athlete is not ‘on’, a resigned attitude, is not how you WIN. An athlete experiencing this should consider retirement or at least have a break and refocus.

Beginner combat sport athletes or any athlete going into a new situation, a new location, a new country, a big step like from a local show to the UFC requires time spent focusing on training uncertainty. Situational awareness reduces stress and knowledge of what to expect will help manage stress. Many factors outside the ring and right up until the round starts are controllable aspects that can be experienced and put in training scenarios.

For a beginner, the entire process is uncertain. Being matched, cutting weight, weighing in, preparing, competition day, ring entrance, the opponent is usually completely unknown. The most negative aspect can be the athlete’s own expectations of themselves and the uncertainly of how they will go. Will they measure up or be found wanting? This one thought can dominate the stress. Will their opponent be what they expect, what will their opponent do, what will they do etc.? This can create a stress loop that has no answer until the event. Worrying about it before hand will not contribute to a good match. I have heard athletes say after their first bout, ‘it wasn’t what I expected’ or ‘I could have done so much better’ or ‘I was so gassed’ and many other negative comments that basically mean – the uncertainty of the event overcame my confidence and ability to deal with it. This is something can be a criticism of the training and preparation for the event. This means the training must be adapted with the first step being a discussion with the athlete to understand their expectations better because those comments can also just be another level of excuse.

Some require an event for fighters to learn about themselves, to listen better, to test themselves and give a coach something to work with and use to improve for next time. Nothing brings out the true uncertainties (and insecurities) in an athlete like competition. There are many factors that require competition to enable learning about competition. However, with every bout, I analyze training and preparation and want to reduce the uncertainty for an athlete.  This will increase the chances of performing better. When an athlete does something, we haven’t done in training or doesn’t do what we do in training, that is a stress response. When an athlete gasses and makes poor decisions, that is a stress response. When an athlete loses power and speed dramatically it can be conditioning but is often exasperated by stress. Competitive nervousness is certain and the management of it needs to reduce stress before and in competition.

Training for competition for novices requires realistic expectations of every aspect of the competition, themselves, the event, and the opponents. It is not possible to overcome uncertainty, just manage it to reduce the stress and perform a % better. Avoiding auditory exclusion, adrenalin dumps, exhaustion, tunnel vision and the reduction in speed and power that results will make a much greater contribution to performance than learning another punch or tactic that cannot be used anyway under stress.

For novices to develop in training for competition the following may help:

  • The athlete to discuss their uncertainties with the coach and ensure they are not just pretending to listen to be a good student.
  • The athlete has one source of truth and trusts the coach, and does not shop around for opinions that suit there already formed view of themselves (on the internet).
  • Be ‘all in’ to the training program and not selective with excuses of what suits them or why they differ from others. Discuss your training with the coach, then commit.
  • Have situational realistic training built into all stages.
  • Mental toughness is essential for combat sports, but it must also have an element of sport specificity and address the novice’s uncertainty about competition intensity. Sparring matches that are realistic are excellent preparation when timed right, in the preparation phase.
  • Constantly re-evaluate the program after measurables. Let the program run but have an interim review 4 weeks from competition and then directly after competition.
  • Leading up to competition must be focused on the strengths that win a fight as negatives and doubt will increase the stress. Communication must increase in this phase.
  • Communication between trainer and athlete must never stop and must be honest.
  • Team members must contribute to the team and each athlete. If someone is flippant and unrealistic it is up to the team to ensure they understand the reality. Confidence must be built on fact and understanding. The team can help each other deal with the stress and improve each other’s weakness. A team member that only focuses on their own confidence by damaging others is not a team member any club needs. A coach must direct team members to ensure they are all on the same page for each athletes fight development.

Uncertainty is a critical aspect of performance and causes stress and anxiety. Managing it well in combat sports can lead to more success throughout someone’s career, if constantly addressed and understood. Not facing your own uncertainties, your own demons and expectations will come unstuck in the ring and in your life. Uncertainty can be reduced with a good training program that includes skills, fitness, tactics, stress management and realistic situational performance measurements. Training someone’s positive attributes to be used as an advantage in competition will often increase performance quicker than focusing on negatives. Negatives can be address and managed however skills are far easier to learn than attributes are to adjust.

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