A More Mindful MMA

Octagon warriors learn the art of inner peace

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

“Stand up with a wide stride, lift your chest, rest your shoulders back and put your hands on your hips. This is your power pose.”

About 100 boxers and mixed martial artists, along with some family members, obey the order from sports psychologist Caroline Silby and rise from their chairs at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Silby tells the group that, in studies, people who held their power pose for two minutes experienced a spike in testosterone, the strength hormone, and a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone. In the front row, several wiry young men in jeans and T-shirts hold the pose with grave focus.

Silby was among four speakers at a recent event, dubbed The Winning Edge in Combat Sports, which aimed to teach fighters skills they won’t learn from their trainers and promoters. At first glance, mindfulness—the art of sustaining awareness of one’s actions, thoughts and surroundings—would seem to be built into martial arts. Surely, nothing invites alertness like a fist approaching your face.

But it’s outside the ring where things fall apart. Fighters succumb to unhealthy diets to cut weight, and dangerous drugs and supplements to pack on muscle. And they may not understand the long-term implications of these practices any better than they foresee the future effects of blows to the head.

Silby distributed questionnaires to help fighters measure their mindfulness. A sample item, to be rated on a scale from 1 (almost always) to 6 (almost never): “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.” Another: “I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what I experience along the way.”

Those who lean toward the “1” side of the spectrum may take solace in knowing that mindfulness, like mixed martial arts, can be mastered with practice. Counseling, hypnosis and meditation are among the techniques used to train the subtler muscles of the psyche.

Although winning matches may motivate fighters to try anything, there’s more at stake in cultivating clarity than they may realize. The body that holds the pose will only get them so far in life after the octagon.

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