During the course every fighter’s career, they have had to deal with fear. Whether or not they will admit it, even the most intimidating and ferocious competitor has had to fight, forget, flee from or face their fear in the ring. The impact of fear on performance and the role it plays in the sport is something that simply cannot be denied. It has kept contenders from winning championships and has prevented bright prospects from realizing their potential. Fear can’t be suppressed or wished away, but rather embraced in order to harness its power and purpose. And part of harnessing that power is understanding it.
Fear, and the way that it manifests itself, is born out of self-preservation. It was the way our ancestors were able to adapt to their surroundings - chasing down their prey for food or running from their food (their predator) to keep from being “dinner.” It was all about survival. Out of this instinctual breeding ground came the human body’s fight-or-flight response. This is your natural way of coping with stressful surroundings or a dangerous environment; or your body’s way of preparing to do battle. What is happening to the body, in essence, is the frontal cortex sends a message that releases a wave of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones elevate blood sugar levels and release a quick burst of energy in preparation to fight. This release also causes the heart to pump up to four times the amount of blood, from 5 to nearly 20 quarts per minute, to increase oxygen and energy flow. The blood also takes a different route away from the skin, stomach and kidneys because they are not necessary for survival at that point. The blood instead is re-routed to the muscles and vital organs to prepare to mount or defend against a physical attack. Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rates increase to prepare the body for combat. The body’s nervous system kicks into high gear and every bit of glucose is converted into fuel, creating the perfect environment for a fighting machine. To call this process “amazing” would be an understatement.
As a fighter, how could you look at that process and not be in awe of how perfectly it fits your profession? It is an entirely natural instinct, passed down to you from generation to generation, that specifically prepares you to fight. Most people don’t have an outlet suited to let this play out in day-to-day life. They don’t have a need or way to release this physiological reaction so they usually create undue stress, hate their boss, get irritated with their neighbor, yell at other commuters on the way to work and create heightened anxiety/stress in their lives. Now, that’s unnatural! Still, many fighters struggle with this fear. The physical reaction, alert nervous system, rapid heartbeat, increased sweating, etcetera all feel “foreign” because they are not everyday emotions, but they actually couldn’t be more natural. Fear that is properly channeled is one of the most powerful tools a fighter has when he or she is entering the ring.
Fighters all deal with these feelings of fear in different ways. Some listen to music to take their mind off the anxiety; others surround themselves with friends or peers to serve as a distraction. Some fighters might even talk themselves up in an attempt to project confidence instead of feeling stress, while others might quarantine themselves off in seclusion where they can quietly deal with their fear on their own. None of these methods or tricks is particularly right or wrong, they are just methods to cope. The important thing is to fully recognize fear for what it is, embrace it and feed it. When it comes down to fight time, don’t try to suppress it and bottle it up. Use it! Let your mind fire on all cylinders. Feed the adrenaline monster. Enjoy the fact that your body is fully preparing you. You can even let the fact that these feelings make you uncomfortable, make you mad.
The important thing is what you do with your fear. Legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato, once said that “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters.” Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist because then you’re lying to yourself. Don’t ignore it because then you’re not embracing it nor able to use it to its fullest. Most importantly, don’t let it consume you. Everyone has it. You’re not alone and any fighter who says they don’t get scared is lying. Maybe they have learned how to live with it. Maybe they enjoy the adrenaline rush and even fully understand the mental and physical benefits of the fight-or-flight mechanism.
Cus D’Amato’s protégé, Mike Tyson, struggled with fear throughout his career. He was very open about his own feelings of anxiety from his amateur days all the way through to his professional career. His trainers spent hours consoling him and helping him come to terms with his fear. Tyson even said himself, “I'm scared every time I go into the ring, but it's how you handle it. What you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouthpiece and say, 'Let's go.'” Without question, Tyson learned how to harness his fear and it ultimately became one of his most powerful weapons. He entered nearly every bout being the one doing the intimidating and allowed his opponents’ fear to do most of the damage before he even threw the first punch.
We may have evolved as people, but those same basic instincts that kept man alive before technology and sophistication took over, still dominate human physiology. They are innate in us. Whether we are swinging clubs or throwing punches, survival is still at the core of our existence. This especially applies to fighters, who seek out the experience to go toe-to-toe, expose themselves or their opponent and square off in front of hundreds or even thousands of spectators. Those that succeed discover that the greatest challenge wasn’t an opponent, but their own emotions… headlined by fear. That’s what makes winning that much more powerful, because once you’ve conquered your own unbridled emotions, everything else is child’s play with fear just another toy.
Written by Douglas Ward, Marketing Director at TITLE Boxing