“Winning isn't everything; it’s the only thing.”
The above quote, often attributed to the great Vince Lombardi, is a distillation of the competitive athlete’s major ethos. History is unkind to those who would accept second best. Winners are celebrated; everyone else is mere scenery for someone else’s triumph.
Such pithy statements often endure, yet they generally fail to capture the underlying complexity of the issue at hand.
Winners are not created in a vacuum, after all. There are countless variables operating, most of which go unnoticed by the viewer. Of these factors, the value of losing is perhaps most often overlooked.
It’s not hard to understand why. For mixed martial artists not named “Bob Sapp,” losing isn’t a conscious choice. Fighters don’t enter the cage with the intention of lying down, even if there is occasionally more to be gained from a loss than a win. It is simply an inevitable consequence of competing at such a high level.
Winning and losing are generally viewed as zero-sum concepts, but this oversimplifies matters. Indeed, winning in the long run often entails first learning how to deal with losing.
“Pain is required to help increase the appetite to grow and to actually take action towards it,” says Dr. Michael Gervais, director of High Performance Psychology at DISC Sports and Spine Center. “Oftentimes, losing is painful, and because of that it can help sharpen the intensity and the learning curve and the appetite to learn.”
This association of pain with loss takes on a new dimension within the context of mixed martial arts. There is something exquisitely personal about losing a fight and having the experience play out in front of an audience of millions.
As Dr. Ted Butryn pointed out in a 2010 interview with Fight! Magazine, the dynamics of a fight are universally understood:
“If you’re a football lineman, the coach knows if you missed a block, but the world doesn’t know unless you really mess up. But when you’re out there by yourself in the cage, you’re naked. Everyone knows you got beat up. It’s obvious even to people who don’t know anything about the sport.”
One cannot compare the psychology of winning and losing a fight to any other sport. Losing a tennis match at the highest level undoubtedly hurts, but the physical and emotional toll it takes pales in comparison to that experienced by fighters.
“There’s an ancient tone to combat sports,” argues Dr. Gervais. “It is a test of a man’s hands and head, and that’s all that’s left in an environment where most people are looking to escape. These incredible modern day gladiators are embracing that moment and able to stand in an environment that most people shudder from. Because of that, the intimacy of the exposure, what most people are afraid of, which is looking bad publicly and real physical harm, these men and women are clearly engaging in a deeper level of competition.”
As has often been said, courage is not the absence of fear, but mastery of it. Despite engaging in a “deeper level of competition,” fear remains a part of every fighter’s mental makeup, yet its aversive quality is part of its utility. The desire to avoid public humiliation, negative social evaluation and real physical harm is motivation in and of itself.
“The greatest fear is not being good enough,” continues Dr. Gervais. “There is the fear of looking bad, the fear of social rejection. And in combat sports, there is also the fear of real danger. A combat athlete needs to be able to accept and embrace those elements and to refocus his mind toward the elements that are under his control, which is thinking clearly and moving freely.”
This fear is part of a psychological cycle that includes post-hoc justifications for losses. We have grown accustomed to fighters claiming to be in the best shape of their lives, only to say precisely the opposite if things don’t go according to plan on fight night.
Watching Tito Ortiz unfurl a figurative scroll of ailments at post-fight press conferences over the years became almost ritualistic. Such post-loss excuses are a wince-worthy fact of MMA, but they aren’t devoid of purpose.
There is a process of self-deception that occurs within many fighters who attempt to explain away losses with reference to imagined handicaps. While it isn’t necessarily a conscious process, self-deception functions as a defense mechanism.
“Some athletes have fragile self-esteem, their self-confidence is fragile and they tend to blame external events for a loss,” claims Dr. Gervais. “The strategy of crediting external variables for a loss has a particular function. And when used well, it can actually help save or keep intact a person’s self-esteem and their self-efficacy.”
One might reasonably ask how we can learn from mistakes if we don’t first acknowledge them. The truth is that we compartmentalize to protect ourselves from thoughts and opinions that are in conflict, which might produce feelings of cognitive dissonance. It is counterintuitive, but it is trivially common for one to comfortably hold contradictory beliefs. That being said, conscious denial of the facts is rarely a productive coping strategy.
“As long as [crediting external variables] does not cloud the athlete’s ability to objectively understand what took place, where the weaknesses and strengths are, then it’s fine,” Dr. Gervais argues. “But oftentimes blaming external events clouds the objective truth of what took place in the fight… At the center, what we want to be able to do is objectively take in the information. And when we can do it in an objective way, we can develop a future plan for progression.”
A person’s identity within the competitive arena is often tied to success. As a result, the fear of losing can stifle performance inside the cage every bit as much as it can aid it. The individual’s psychological makeup dictates how he responds to this pressure.
“If our self-worth is defined by the outcome or success in our sport, when we enter the cage that means 100 percent of our identity is at stake,” says Dr. Gervais. “And that’s too big of a risk to take, so the athlete tends to tighten up, rather than get into an ideal mind-set.”
With so much at stake for the athlete, many sports psychologists make the counterintuitive claim that it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on the outcome. Instead, the focus should be on controlling those elements that are within the athlete’s control.
“When the emphasis is placed at a very high level on the outcome and misses the importance of refining the process and refining the craft over time, a loss or a win can become skewed,” claims Dr. Gervais. “Another way of understanding it is that, when we work with athletes, what we want to do is be able to balance the importance of mastering the craft over time to put in perspective the value of a win and a loss.”
So is winning really all the matters, as Vince Lombardi claimed? The issue is far too complex to be reduced to a bumper sticker one-liner.
“For me, [the Lombardi quote] is missing the key focus towards mastering a craft," says Dr. Gervais. "What our focus is always on is, let’s take the information that is provided to us, from a win or from a loss, and let’s have a high internal drive to learn and excel. That’s the arc of a master.”
James MacDonald is a freelance writer and featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted. Follow James on Twitter.
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