The Psychology of Combat Sports and Its Effects on the Individual

1 January 2017

Inside of each and every one of us is a set of primal instincts, one of these instincts is an inner burning desire to fight and protect ourselves and the things or people that we care about. For centuries fighting has been a prominent part of human history; we have waged wars, experienced hostile attacks and are exposed to violence on an everyday basis through the media. Throughout the past few decades however society has been desensitized to fighting and now accepts it as a complex sport as well as a form of entertainment.

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A recent article from the popular martial arts website Sherdog. com presented some of the many factors that are all a part of combat sports that many fans may not be aware of. Millions of fans who watch combat sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA), wrestling and boxing often times only see the glory and excitement of these sports; however all too often do we read headlines which depict unfathomable situations such as suicide attempts, violence, and crime as a result of these athletes jobs.

The article entitled “The Psychology of Fighting” presents a key example of how the sport of MMA can affect a fighter mentally, even outside of the octagon. UFC star Quinton Jackson was arrested for a hit-and-run encounter that he had with police and charged with two felonies; this arrest came a little over a week after a unanimous loss to rival Forrest Griffin (Acosta, 2008). A loss, especially one as devastating as Jackson’s can have severe detrimental effects on a person’s mind, as fighters often may become unstable, and blame themselves for the loss.

The physical contact may be the primary factor of MMA however the mentality of the sport is often overlooked, John Fitch was beaten and bloodied to the point of his eye being completely swollen shut, yet that did not break him down mentally, he still continued to fight for the full 25 minutes always persevering to finish the fight. Many fighters with weaker mental fortitude would have given in long before Fitch finished the fight; there is a certain degree of mental strength that is required as well as physical strength to be a combat athlete.

As aforementioned in Jackson’s loss, the pain of defeat can be a bitter pill to swallow and have sever effects on a fighter. Depression can be very problematic for a fighter and emotions can vary from one extreme to the other, causing a lack of motivation to return to training or a will to continue fighting. “In this sport the highs are so high and the lows are so low. Both of them fall on you. When you’re high, there’s no one to pat on the back but you. When you’re low, there’s no one to blame but yourself,” said former World Extreme Cagefighting champion, Joe Riggs.

Fighters prepare themselves mentally for months at a time and intentionally put themselves in fight for flight mode for what could be only a few seconds to a virtual eternity in the ring. The multiple ways a fight can be ended all can impact a fighter psychologically as well, whether that be admitting to defeat through submission or having lapses in memory due to a knockout, however the biggest psychological factor often comes from outside forces such as personal demons. Many fighters have troubled pasts and childhoods and these can interfere with a combatant’s performance inside the ring.

Fighting is rather primitive in nature, and as a sport can be examined and explained on several layers using “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory”, however it is not all glory and fame for these athletes; their success cannot solely be attributed to their brute strength and skill, and these fighter are often at risk to be plagued by terrible mental disorders as well. The act of fighting is a basic primal instinct that all organisms are capable of in some way or another. A professional fighter’s motivation can be broken down into multiple levels using the hierarchy of needs theory presented by Maslow.

These high caliber athletes may have everything in the world outside of the ring, however once they step inside the combat zone they quickly revert to lower levels of the hierarchy and reach higher levels throughout their fight careers. Upon entering the ring fighters main concern is with meeting their safety needs. Their primary task is protecting their body during the fight as well as fighting back to defeat their opponents. They also are fighting for the security of their employment as well; one poor fight and their career could be over.

As these athletes complete fights they then strive to fulfill their need for belongingness. Winning and losing fights will dictate this feeling, they are motivated to fight well and win fights in order to prove they belong in top caliber promotions such as the UFC. Combat athletes esteem needs are met through gaining the respect of their fellow fighters and often times more importantly the loyalty and respect of the millions of fans at stake. Winning fights not only raises their self esteem, but their confidence level as well.

Finally after establishing themselves as an accomplished combatant there is the self-actualization needs that must be met. In this case it would be winning the respective championship of the fighters division, proving their champion worthiness by defending their title, or by moving to a higher division and challenging themselves to compete at a new level (Motivation Part II, Nov. 10, 2010). As mentioned in the “Psychology of Fighting” article, emotions run the gamete and can range from one polar opposite to the other.

Due to the aggressive nature of the sport, high expectations that fighters often hold themselves to, and their backgrounds it is very easy for fighters to fall prey to emotional demons. Many fighters come from a troubled past and often use the sport as an outlet for this negative energy. This same fuel they use for motivation can often times be a cause of the downward spiral into depression that so many fighters experience after a tough loss or a string of unsuccessful fights (Pepe, November 1, 2009). As with any activity there is an inherent risk of injury associated with being a combat sport athlete.

Unlike many sports though where there is a probability of injury, combat athletes are almost guaranteed to become injured; the question at hand however is how severe the injury or injuries be. A study was done focusing on the correlation between major depression and injury risk. Doctors Patten, Williams, Lavorato and Eliasziw (2010) concluded that there was a bidirectional relationship between major depressive episodes and the risk of injuries. The major depressive episodes caused an increase in the risk of injury and having injuries present caused an increase in the likelihood of having a major depressive episode.

This data is of major concern not just for athletes, but any person who is at high risk of depression or injury. The athletes who compete in combat sports though are at risk of the most danger of this correlation though due to the inherent danger of the sport they compete in. These fighters are at a twofold risk of this situation; they first risk the chance of injury by competing in such a dangerous sport which could cause depression due to injury, but they are also at risk of causing themselves injury if they become depressed after losing a fight.

This potent combination could easily end the career of athletes who are mentally weaker and unprepared for such a shock and challenge. What makes this even more shocking is the unfortunate number of MMA athletes that become involved with suicide after becoming depressed. Since 2006 there have been a minimum of six pro MMA athletes who have committed suicide; half of those may have taken the life of someone else as well. Along with these six there have been three other athletes, some of which are huge stars in the sport who have attempted suicide (Trembow, 2010).

These are scary numbers considering the number of pro fighters (both successful and not as successful) who have also contemplated the idea of ending their lives. This data is even more troubling for the women that participate in combat sports. While there is only a small number of women who compete at the highest levels of this sport their increased chance of depression is a growing concern. A recent study by the Centers for disease Control and Prevention (2010) reported 10. 1% of women report being depressed as well as 4% being majorly depressed. Both of these numbers are higher than those of the males surveyed.

The Operant Conditioning theory is also heavily used by professional fighters since they must be actively responding to the environment they are in. This type of learning can be applied to both the training aspect and the actual competition aspect of fighting. When athletes are learning new techniques such as a complex joint lock, or a new throw they are reinforcing behaviors. By correctly executing the joint lock they are experiencing positive reinforcement; the submission is successful and the opponent gives up thus a satisfying stimulus is presented.

However if every time an athlete attempts that same joint lock and their opponent counters with a submission of their own this exhibits positive punishment since an unpleasant stimulus is now being presented after attempting the joint lock. These behaviors are continuously reinforced to achieve the best possible results. (Learning Theories, October 18th 2010). These actions become what are known as muscle memory, the athlete is able to complete these techniques quickly and with little thought process, this is a form of operant conditioning.

Similarly, operant conditioning also takes place inside the ring as fighters are constantly adapting on the fly and reacting to the other fighter’s actions. If you opponent consistently striking you in the body each time that you attempt to throw a kick you will quickly recognize the aversive stimulus and learn to no longer attempt a kick. Many fans and critics alike believe that combat sports is nothing but a senseless bloodlust sport practiced by only mindless meatheads and used as a means to display pure brute force, however it is often misunderstood how much mental fortitude and psychological strength that such a sport takes.

Combat sports are quickly growing and entering main stream media, if society is every going to fully accept them then they must understand the intricate workings and details of these sports. They may be brutal competitions of brawn, but they are also a mental chess game. Fighters must have the mental toughness to overcome many obstacles both brought upon them intrinsically, such as emotional demons, as well as extrinsically like the pain and agony brought upon them by the vicious attacks by their opponents.

Without further study into the psychology of a fighters mind we risk losing countless other lives and young stars to mental disabilities that plague them, and without this advancement in study we will never see a day when these intricate sports are completely seen as socially acceptable by the main stream audience.

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