Riding the Wave to Self-Mastery

Combat sports athletes know that visualization can prepare your mind and body for the battle ahead. You might imagine stepping into the cage, onto the mat, or into the arena, and when the first round starts, you imagine different sequences of actions and reactions that could possibly take place between yourself and your opponent. Perhaps you anticipate a tough match, one that will force you to strain through adverse circumstances. In this match, how will you handle moments of peak stress or discomfort? 

The Costs of Emotions Taking Control

It’s one thing to enter a fight against a tough opponent, but it’s another thing to combat your own habitual responses to distress. In an article for Bloody Elbow, UFC fighter Roxanne Modafferi wrote about her own approach to confronting distress as well as approaches shared by her mixed martial arts (MMA) peers. 

One theme that emerged was the group’s attentiveness towards anger and its potential to trigger unwanted, self-destructive behaviors. Invicta FC’s Serena DeJesus told Modafferi that anger can be “blinding,” especially when fighters get hit hard and respond by swinging wildly and exposing themselves. 

Piankhi Zimmerman, another MMA pro, echoed DeJesus’s word of caution, “I was angry once; unfocused, raged. I telegraphed everything. I fought like a wild animal and was manipulated, defeated. I vowed never again to fight angry.” 

Similarly, Bellator fighter Amanda Bell recalled her earlier days as an amateur and noted that the urge to act on impulse could be triggered from life outside of the arena, as well. “If my mood is off and I’m distracted by something from my day, it seems to affect me when I’m sparring,” said Bell. “I’d be so aggravated from getting hit that I’d tense up and get desperate to hit back somehow, some way.”Whether the trigger comes from getting backed into a corner or from unresolved tensions that follow you into the arena, acting on that trigger is more likely to feed the urge to “blow up” than to reduce the temporary distress. In a 2017 blog post, Mantis Boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) guru Randy Brown illustrated this snowball effect through an anecdote from his childhood:

When I was growing up, a ‘friend’ of mine and I were playing at the bandstand in town. One of our mutual friends showed up and decided to push me off the bandstand. I fell, and a fight ensued. I was so upset, my vision closed in, my heart raced, adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I attacked with all the ferocity a 10 year old boy could muster. My opponent, kept calm and used his superior range, and side stepping to throw me around like a rag doll. Each time I charged after him, he would deflect me and throw me to the ground. This only angered me more, and caused me to go back with increased fury. I could not see at the time, that my excessive, wild, animalistic attacks, were causing my own demise.

This emotional takeover hits at something deep in human psychology. On one hand, nature has imposed this aspect of human life on us as a tool for survival. On the other hand, we can take proactive measures to manage this experience and reduce our most self-destructive urges over time.

Skill: Distress Tolerance (a.k.a. “Urge Surfing”)

Urge surfing is a skill anyone can use to help manage the urges that arise from distress. It prompts us to monitor the sequence of feelings that would typically lead to our unwanted behaviors, and it identifies the following phases:


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Source: Therapist Aid Worksheet

Whether they are aware of it or not, many athletes already make good use of this skill. Here is a breakdown of excerpts from Modaferri’s and Brown’s pieces that reflect each phase over the wave:

The Trigger

Modaferri acknowledges hard striking as a potential trigger during sparring.

“I resumed striking in order to compete in MMA, but I don’t really enjoy it. I wonder if, because of that, I sometimes feel negative emotions when sparring.” 

Brown finds that simply talking to a sparring partner can increase familiarity and reduce the impact of triggers on the rest of the experience.

“By talking, we learn to stabilize our emotions while getting hit or hitting someone else. Removing the stress from the situation allows the brain freedom to learn.”

The Rise & The Peak

Modaferri adopts the Jedi mindset to get over the wave, knowing the mission continues on the other side.

“When emotions well up, I get them under control by telling myself that I’m a Jedi and Jedi must never fight with emotions […] Usually thinking about the Jedi mantra and envisioning the evil Sith gets me to calm down immediately. What can I say, I’m a big dork. It helps me.” 

Serena DeJesus endures distress by practicing patience and focusing on the next best opportunity to strike. 

“I try to be calculated […] I try and bide my time, find an opening to strike, and try to calm down again.” 

The Fall

Brandon Manoff rides every wave as a learning experience, and each lesson learned increases his ability to control the next wave.

“I’ve always felt that everything is a good learning experience, even if somebody puts me in a bad situation. It’s taken a lot of practice, but ultimately if you can make a conscious choice to learn from it rather than get upset […] it exponentially increases your ability to train better.”

Brown notes that training offers us the chance to work through these waves, reducing their impact on our behaviors over time. 

“As our training progresses, so too does our ability to control our emotions. We train, not only to be able to handle ourselves physically in bad situations, but also to inoculate ourselves to physical contact so when things go bad, we react without thought.” 

Practice This Skill

Whether you practice through visualization or sparring, you have what it takes to ride the waves of distress. After repeated usage of this skill, you will start to identify your triggers earlier, you will reduce the intensity of the urge to take undesired action, and you will nearly eliminate that urge’s impact on your performance. No matter the context, this is a skill that can help you decode your own behavior and take back control of your life. 





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