The Mental Side of Fighting

Guest Post By Mitch "The Dragon" Chilson

Long before you ever step into the cage or the ring, the first opponent you face is yourself. Often the hardest opponent to defeat is the one that lives inside your mind. He/she can make you doubt yourself and lose faith in your ability.  True self-confidence is a learned skill that you must develop over time. Just as you can build muscle and improve stamina, you can also build confidence. However, it requires a great deal of discipline and focus to do so.

Mental strength can be drawn from many different areas.  For example, knowing that you are in peak condition can boost self confidence.  At the same time, if there is the smallest doubt in your mind that you are not prepared, it can have detrimental effects on your mental state.  You will lose the battle before you even step into the arena.

So how do I begin conditioning my mind for success inside the ring?

I believe there are 3 key stages of mental development to achieve success inside the ring.  Each stage is as important as the next.   Let me take you through them.


This training begins months before the actual fight occurs. In order to give yourself enough time in this stage, you may need to start up to 6 months prior to the fight.

The first step to begin conditioning yourself for mental toughness is simple.  Wake up early in the morning for training. This ensures that the first person you face when you wake up in the morning is yourself. It starts your day off with a small victory and gets the first workout out of the way.  During this time you can also begin to use the power of visualization. It will keep your mind sharp and improve your confidence.  Fighters have used the morning run for hundreds of years as a way to not only condition their bodies for battle, but also sharpen their minds.

The greatest athletes in the world use visualization techniques to improve their performance. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Phelps all regularly use or have used visualization techniques to focus and condition their minds for success. With mental rehearsal, your mind and body become conditioned to perform the visualized skill. Your subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between a visualized skill and the actual physical practice.

To get started using visualization begin by rehearsing the entire event.  Try to imagine, with as many details as possible, how you feel when you wake up in the morning on the day of your event.  Refreshed, energetic, strong, focused, and ready. The deeper the imagery the more real it will seem when the actual day comes. Plan out what you will eat, and how you will spend the down time before the ride to the arena. 

After you have nailed down the details of your preparation, begin to visualize your performance.  Think about rounds one through five, with each round getting better and better. You are in the zone. Your opponent cannot touch you.  Each and every combo lands with authority. Now visualize the finish to the fight.  Will it be via knock out, submission, or decision? Focus on the feeling of the victory. How do you feel as the referee raises your hand? What does the roar of the crowd sound like? Picture it vividly and make it real inside your mind.  Repeat this exact process every single day leading up to your fight or tournament day. The more you practice this, the more comfortable you will be on competition day.

Focusing on the positive aspects is very important, but you also need to plan for the unexpected.  How do you handle yourself when something does not go according to plan? Certain things are beyond your control, and you need to be prepared for them. Maybe the promoter changes your opponent last minute or you get hit with a big move that throws you off your game. During your visualization process spend some time reviewing the possible factors that could take you by surprise.

Calming the mind and learning to relax your body during times of stress can be very difficult.  For this reason, you need to push your body so hard in training that the fight feels like a walk in the park.  Everyone has a breaking point, it is the point at which a fighter gives up mentally and physically. The purpose of FightShape (a group strength & conditioning class at Evolve MMA) is to make that breaking point so far beyond the fight limit that no matter what happens during the 5-25 minutes, you can handle it.  The ability to push the fight into deep water and have ultimate confidence in your physical condition is a serious weapon.


The fight is the time when all your hard training culminates for one magical moment.  Your body and mind function as one.  This state is commonly referred to as “the zone”.  Focus on the game plan, listen to your coach, and most importantly relax. In the 60 seconds between rounds, focus on getting your heart rate back down to normal. You also need to focus on what your coach is telling you and what you did right in the previous round. Do not think about what you did wrong or the things that may have gone wrong in previous fights.


Regardless of whether you won or lost the bout, you need to use it as a learning experience.  In victory, look at the things that you did right.  Have your coach breakdown the win and analyze the areas you need to work on.  They say you learn more by losing then you do by winning, but winning is a lot more fun.  Win or lose, you still need to find the holes in your game that need improving upon.

Dealing with a loss is one of the most difficult parts about the fight game. It can drop fighters into a depression that can last for months. A bad loss can even ruin the career of a fighter. When reflecting on the loss it is important to determine which of the factors were under your control. Strengths of your opponent, style, or poor judging are factors you cannot control. While your poor physical condition, mental lapses, or not sticking to the game plan are factors that can be addressed. Many times athletes will tear themselves apart due to factors that are beyond their control. This will not lead to a better performance in the next outing. When evaluating your performance focus on the factors that you can control, not external factors or excuses.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is a vital part of martial arts training. Whether it is to achieve the next belt level or win a championship title, you have to set goals. Fighters will often set two different types of goals for themselves. One goal focused on an outcome, and one goal focused on advancement. An example of an outcome based goal would be to win the next match or tournament. Outcome focused goals are usually beyond the fighters/athletes control.  For advancement based goals you focus on improving your overall game and becoming a better martial artist.  Advancement based goals can be as simple as mastering a new technique, following a game plan, or staying relaxed and focused during an event.

Goal setting should be done in short (6 months), mid (1-2 years), and long term (5+ years) parameters.  Physically writing down the goals will make them real, and it will force you to be more accountable to the goals. After you have written the goal down, you then need to determine why the goal is important to you. Once you achieve the goal, what will it give you? Pride, money, fame? This is the most important part of goal setting. Why is this important to you? Is it more important than all the things you need to sacrifice in order to achieve the goal?  If the goal is weight loss, than having the body you want has to be worth more than eating the unhealthy foods you enjoy. If your goal is to be a champion, it has to be worth it to wake up early to train.  Remember that nothing great was ever achieved with average effort.

Okay, now you need to start practicing.   Follow this step-by-step program and you can achieve your goals. Take the goals you have written down and underneath them write out the “why” for each goal. Why do you want to accomplish this? What will this do for you when you are on your deathbed looking back at your life? The answers to these "why's" can change your life and give you motivation you never thought possible.

With this simple formula you can begin to conquer the world of martial arts and fitness. Change your mindset and you can change your life.

About the author:  Mitch Chilson is an instructor and member of the Evolve Fight Team at Evolve Mixed Martial Arts in Singapore.  A former 2x MCFC MMA Champion, he currently competes for ONE Fighting Championship, Asia's largest and most prestigious MMA event.  Mitch is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, and strength and conditioning coach.  In addition, he serves as a columnist and Advisory Board member for Men's Health magazine.  Mitch is also a certified Muay Thai instructor under Kru Yodtong Senanan, 1 of only 7 non-Thai instructors in the world and holds a Renzo Gracie Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Rafael Gordinho Lima.

Evolve Mixed Martial Arts® is Asia's premier championship brand for martial arts. With World Champions in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, Boxing, Wrestling, and No Gi Grappling, Evolve MMA is the top martial arts training organization in Asia. It ranks among the best martial arts academies in the world.