• Santino DeFranco

Strong Minds Win: Letting Go Of What You Can't Control

Mental Chess: Focusing on what you can control

Strong Minds Win:


We’ve heard over and over again that sports are 90% mental, and I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. I’ve said it time and again, I’d take a less skilled fighter, who doesn’t realize he’s not as good as he thinks, over a skilled fighter who questions himself, any day of the week—twice on Saturdays (Fight Day!)


Sometimes, ignorance IS bliss!


Why is it then, that athletes (many of whom know how important the mental aspect of a sport can be) train countless hours throughout the week to hone in on their physical, sport specific skills, but many don’t give even a thought to any sort of mental training? So, if a sport is 90% mental, why are we spending 90-100% on physical training, and virtually zero time on becoming mentally prepared for an optimal competition mindset? It certainly sounds like a recipe for failure.


If an Army General knew his enemy was going to strike, knowing the enemy had the most powerful Navy in the world, but spent all of his efforts on defending a land raid, we’d all expect that general to fall pretty easily, right? If a teacher gives you a hint of what is going to be on the test—grammar—and you focus on spelling, why would you be surprised when you failed the test, or, if not failed, certainly didn’t perform to the level you knew you were capable of?


We know what we need to do, but we don’t do it. We let our mind wander, which can be deadly, in terms of our competition mindset, but we let it do so anyway. We give it a voice, a thought—and we don’t need to. We can turn it off, which we should do. We need to turn the volume down, otherwise we find ourselves in self-doubt before competition, and thinking too much mid-fight, which leads us into “analysis paralysis” or the dreaded “adrenaline dump.” Both of which are fight, and career, killers.


You Can Only Control So Much:


“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr


Now, hear me out: I’m not religious, but this sermon by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (first credited in 1936) is possibly the greatest key to mental strength an athlete, or anyone in the world (athlete or not), could ever have—especially those facing anxiety or any sort of mental adversity.


Years ago, I was a fledgling fighter. I had a record of 11-2 and I held a win over Melvin Guillard, which led me to being asked to become a participant on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. Unfortunately, during the medicals, a brain aneurysm was discovered in my right carotid artery, behind my left eye. Dana White (the UFC president) called me and told me I would never fight again, and that I needed to have brain surgery. If that wasn’t enough, a couple of years later, my wife had a grand-mal seizure (the really bad kind) and also had to have brain surgery, though hers was much worse than mine—she needed a craniotomy (a piece of her skull was removed), and then they removed a piece of her temporal lobe. No Bueno.


I’d always been a bit of a mental oak before my brain injury. I loved being the center of attention. I loved talking in front of crowds (even in front of thousands of people), and I wasn’t nervous about pretty much anything—certainly not fighting. After mine and my wife’s surgery, though, I became emotionally frail. Mentally weak. I developed anxiety in pretty much all facets of my life and became a hypochondriac—I thought any headache, any discomfort, was my brain about to pop. Death was always imminent. But I also developed numerous other fears, including a fear of flying and even social anxiety—I’d begin to sweat uncontrollably and hyperventilate while having normal conversations with friends I’d known for years.


One day, I sat on a plane on my way to visit my oldest sister in New York state. I was sitting in an aisle seat in the back of the plane as I gripped the arm rests tightly—the sweat percolated through my skin, forming drops that leaked down my temples. My chest heaved up and down. My anxiety levels were through the roof. I told myself I was going to die. The plane was going to crash. I would never make it to New York in one piece. What was I doing? I had to get off the plane. I had to get off or I was going to die. I knew it. I knew THAT!


But I didn’t get off the plane. I sat there, fearing for my life, and I just sat there on the plane, waiting to be flown into my death. And then it happened. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. My mind was clear. Clarity. I thought, “If you really think you’re going to die if this plane takes off, then you need to get off right now. And if you don’t really think you’re going to die, stay on, and accept that the power of this flight is in the pilot’s hands, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do. If you really think you’re going to die, get off the plane! That’s something you can actually control. But after that, you can’t control anything, and you need to be okay with that. Trust the pilot, and let him do his job.”


And like that! my palms released from the arm rests, and I was never afraid to fly again. Little by little my anxieties lifted, and I became mentally stronger by the day—all because I realized I was powerless to do anything about the things I cannot control. Being okay with that. But the other side to that is understanding what I can control and DOING SOMETHING ABOUT THAT! There are certain things I can control in my life: how organized I am, how much time I waste, how I treat people, what I eat, whether I stay up too late, or drink too much. Those are things I can control, and I need to ensure that I am actually controlling them. If I stay up late and watch an extra episode of Stranger Things or drink some beers, I’m going to be tired in the morning—disrupting my entire day. If I procrastinate on getting fighter training schedules built and watching film, I’m going to feel that anxiety over the week, and I wont be mentally calm. If I am rude to my children, they are going to be rude back. The list goes on and on and on. For each thing I can control, but I don’t, it creates a little anxiety in my life, or a little uneasiness, or wastes time that I don’t have—in short, if I don’t control the things I can control, it makes my life more difficult.


Letting Go Of Control Is Liberating:


As fighters, we have an endless list of what we can control or not, but it only makes sense to worry about the things we can control. If we spend our time worrying about the things we can’t, we waste useful time (which could be spend actually controlling things), but more importantly, we create anxiety. Anxiety is the killer of athletes. Anxiety creates adrenaline dumps. Anxiety has us paralyzed in analysis as someone is punching us. It keeps us up at night. It makes it hard to cut weight (by creating an overload of cortisol, our stress hormone). Anxiety inhibits our body’s ability to heal itself.


We can control how prepared we are for competition. We can control our diet. Our conditioning. Our flexibility. We can game-plan and prepare for an opponent through film and repetitious training. We can control which direction we circle and how well our submission game is. We can control how we set up our kicks and punches and knees. What we can’t control is what our opponent does. We can’t control whether we get knocked out or not. We can’t control if we win or lose. Wait? What? What do you mean I can’t control if I win or lose? Nope. You can’t control that, but there’s more to what you can and can’t control, and it comes down to the way you frame it.


Reframe How You Look At Things:


Dan Henderson has a great right hand. But I can’t worry about that right hand if I’m fighting him. He’s either going to throw it or he isn’t. What I can control is if my left hand is high, which will negate the right hand. It’s all perspective. I can’t worry about my opponent shooting takedowns on me—I don’t have control over that. But I can improve my takedown defense, and ensure I’m confident in my own skills. I can’t control whether I win or lose, but if I’m prepared, with good cardio, good technique, and I fight constantly and do all of the things I know I’m capable of (which I can control) and what I worked during my training camp: If I fight to the best of my abilities, chances are, I’ll come out the winner. And if not, if I fight the best fight I could have ever fought and still lose? Well, then, hats off to my opponent. There’s nothing I can do about that. More often than not, I’ll win those battles, but if I don’t, that’s out of my control.


Winning is our optimal goal, but it’s not what we should focus on. We need to focus on the details—the “now” and those add up to a win or a loss. Instead of focusing on the negative version of a scenario, reframe it so that it’s a positive version—one you can control the outcome to. Worrying about a knee won’t do you good, but making sure you’re moving laterally will. Thinking about your opponent’s low kick won’t help, but ensuring you’re checking kicks correctly will. And so on and so on.


When we focus on things we can’t control, we add stress to our lives. It might be little by little, but it adds up. A little stress worrying about bills. A little from your opponent’s right hand. A little about whether you’re your diet was as good as it could have been.

I recently asked one of my fighters, “If I could tell the future, and told you that you were going to lose your next fight, what would you do when the cage door closes?”


She replied, “Fight.”


Exactly.


When the door closes, you’re going to fight. It doesn’t matter if your opponent is good at this or good at that. Hell, it doesn’t even matter if you already know you’re going to lose. You’re going to fight your ass off. And at the end of the day, it’s just a fight. If you’re really that worried, don’t step in the cage. Get off the airplane. Don’t get in front of crowds. Stay at home. Live in fear. Live with anxiety.


Otherwise, just focus on what you can control, and be okay with what you can’t. It’ll be a lot better that way.

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