Practising mixed martial arts at any level requires a dedication to consistent practise, to hone skills in many areas such as grappling, striking, wrestling etc.
This can be both an exciting, challenging and even a difficult process at times, and especially if the focus is to compete at a higher level. Sometimes the most talented, skilful and dedicated martial artist can surprisingly not perform at their best or even perform much worse when in the spotlight of competitions on any scale. This is incredibly frustrating for the athlete and their peers with many feeling confused wondering what went wrong? Sadly, sometimes the fighter adds his/her own personal self-persecutory dialogue to this for example ‘I’m just not good enough’, ‘I knew I should have never competed’, I’m such a failure’ etc.
Why does this happen?
We all hear of per-fight nerves and anxiety, a healthy response to the enormity of the task ahead especially when you add to the mix that you could also be badly hurt. In this context, this is a healthy fear, a fear that is appropriate to the event and very much a normal human response.
However, because we’re cognitive species, we’re very good at turning on these stress responses through our thinking alone, and this can be more problematic for the athlete as there’s a strong possibility of getting into a psychological uproar even if the event is far into the future.
If these stressors go on for too long knocking out the homeostatic balance, they can make the athlete sick. Even more problematic, as humans, we can also mobilise the stress response in ‘perceived’ expectation of psychological or physical threats, I’ll not go into detail here, but these are just some of the additional problems an athlete may continually have to address to maintain an inner equilibrium. When healthy and appropriate amounts of fear and anxiety help us to set things in motion, they mobilise our defences to overcome a challenge, to grow, to thrive, to change and they usually subside when the event has passed.
We often hear of tactics to help such as pre-fight visualisation, relaxation techniques along with other great ways of managing these difficult processes as they intensify before competing. This is just as important as the physical skills practice leading up to a contest as emotions build for the event.
However, sometimes a fighters’ inner battle goes much deeper than fear and anxiety. A deeper battle that’s largely unconscious and therefore so much harder to grasp and ultimately manage. The anxiety and fear could almost be a symptom of the deeper conflict within, and without getting to the core, we could be simply trying to put out a fire that will always restart itself. This deeper knowing can be applied to all of us, not just MMA athletes. As human beings, there are many unconscious processes that are active in our system every second of the day, it’s a deeper level of thinking beneath the familiar and often relentless conscious mind chatter that we know so well.
What is this deeper thinking? Well, it’s hard to grasp, and your thinking mind will probably not want to grasp it very easily for good reasons of protection. We all have what I call an ‘inner guardian’, a part of ourselves that perhaps wants to resist healing by preventing awareness and being in touch with feelings, it’s a potential denial system and sometimes referred to as ‘the enemy within’ that we have tried to fight and change in order to heal. However, we can also view our guardian differently, rather than an enemy, it’s also our protector, it will only allow us to feel something when we are ready, when we are strong enough, mature enough and have the right support systems in place. It will make sure all the conditions for healing are met before it gives the green light for awareness.
To learn to respect our resistance to awareness and healing is possibly one of the most challenging and important phases of the process. Discovering a deeper awareness of ourselves takes a great deal of learning predominantly through the trials of experience: we only learn through mistakes, just as the MMA athlete slowly learns and integrates the right reflex to no longer take a fall during training. The same thing applies at an emotional level, we are confronted with the same thing until we learn how to change and feel safe to do so. The situation we’re faced with then ceases to affect us.
So, this takes time, patience and above all lots of self-care. When I say self-care, I mean learning to accept and love ourselves unconditionally, it takes learning to accept all the feelings we don’t like as our own. We need to feel these feelings from a place of love, compassion and to nurture ourselves through this. Only with this reconciliation between our mind and emotions can we embark on a healing process.
This opportunity for deeper exploration is a delicate process and this article will only provide the basic understandings, however, it may ignite curiosity and a desire to explore this in more depth. If this is your path, then be lenient on yourself whilst taking small steps at a time and seek professional support if you feel you need to.
Let’s continue to understand this deeper level of thinking.
If I was to say that you wrote your entire life plan at the beginning of your life, no doubt you might think I was crazy! However, hold that judgement and read a little further if you will.
According to Transactional Analysis theory, at a young age, we all tend to look through a magical window at both ourselves and the world around us. As we look through this window with our limited thinking, we make important decisions about ourselves, others, the world around us and how our life will be in the future. We tend to generalise from our current experiences and assume these will always be so, this is called our Script (or another way to think about it is an inner circuit board). The decisions we make are also in response to parental messages, the child interprets these messages and will decide whatever is best to keep caregivers close.
For example, if a child receives constant negative verbal messages in childhood, this may become an expectation in life e.g. ‘the world is full of negative people who don’t like me and may even tell me so’. (Lapworth & Sills, 2011).
Another example is of a non-verbal message: Five-year-old Ben had a younger brother who was handicapped, his brother needed a lot of attention and care from their parents, Ben’s decision was ‘I’m not important in life’.
A further example is: A mother would tell her sons, ‘You both are going to end up in a mental hospital someday.’ That, in fact, came true. One joined as a person with severe mental illness and the other as a therapist. Sharma (2017)
What’s most important here is that we interpret these events around us the best we could with our limited thinking at the time. It’s important to us as children to develop a story to help make sense of the world around us, and this story needs to fit with our limited interpretations. Our interpretation of events is entirely unique to us and the same event could be interpreted completely different by another child.
What’s crucial to understand is that we start to build our Script/circuit board at birth, so it’s important to stress that these ‘decisions’ are rarely cognitive and conscious as the word implies, they are visceral, embodied, emotional ‘limbic’ brain, long before the rational neo-cortex is fully developed. (Lapworth and Sills, 2011). As we grow, we start to build our narrative that is built on our very early experiences as a baby, by age seven we completed our story and then simply polished it up towards to the age of twelve. It’s important to state that these decisions were made for survival in a world that often seemed hostile to us as little beings, even life-threatening at times as we navigated our small frames around the giants and more powerful forces in our lives.
How does our Script (circuit board) impact us?
The Script we develop as a child is predominantly out of our awareness, but it can significantly impact our lives as adults. This is problematic if you consider how a child’s thinking is not like a grown-ups and children don’t experience emotions in the same way. Transactional Analysis authors state that most of us have a mixture of messages and experiences and therefore develop a mixture of positive and negative Scripts. Some, however, have more positive Scripts and sadly there are some managing more negative life Scripts. As a psychotherapist, sadly I witness many life-limiting decisions that my clients had made in response to traumatic childhood events such as ‘I am worthless, shameful, unlovable’ and I uncomfortably discover how these shocking experiences are often repeated and the subsequent decisions further reinforced.
However, whether positive, negative or a mixture, they are all Scripts and have their decisions based in response to our experiences as children, not as adults. Even positive scripts may also restrict living a fulfilled life for many reasons. An example is of the young girl who was praised for following her mother’s love of dance and embarked on a career as a dance teacher just like her mother, only to realise she never really wanted to teach dance at all.
Scripts are essential to us as children, without them we couldn’t learn and make sense of ourselves, others and the world around us, but they are outdated decisions and can interfere with our present-day autonomy. Many people don’t realise they are living their Scripts and not their life, simply living from old Script-based decisions and habits decided in childhood and not having an adequate response to situations in the here and now. Without an awareness of our individual Script, we simply cannot be in the here and now a reality, we’re being guided by old messages and experiences.
The problem is, when we are guided by these old decisions, we usually feel it’s a healthy response to the here and now situation. We’re mostly unaware of this as its probably become a familiar, repetitive and reinforcing way of seeing and being in the world for the best part of our lives. It’s important to state that this familiarity also means that it feels safe too as we confirm to ourselves that what we decided years before is true. Unfortunately, this simply confirms or outdated Script beliefs and limits opportunity for change.
These old decisions can be very problematic and can cause an inner battle within ourselves. We each have our own ‘autonomous aspirations, the creative yearnings and dreams of what we may be, of what we may do...’ (Berne, 1961 )
Eric Berne (the founder of Transactional Analysis) referred to these aspirations as our ‘secret gardens’, and using this analogy, our gardens may be weathered by the downwards elements of our Script - storms, drought, sun, rain, wind etc. Berne sees that the object of getting to know our Script is to free ourselves, so we can release ourselves from its restrictive and sometimes destructive nature. The friction and conflict between our healthy aspirations and our archaic Script is the foundation of our inner psychological battle. The opposing psychological beliefs create a war within our minds and bodies much to our distress and confusion leaving many of us asking ourselves why? Why do I feel/think this way? Why is my behaviour this way? Why is this so difficult? Why has this happened again? Our minds then become overly active and our stress system activated.
What kind of decisions do we make about ourselves?
Again, you would very rarely hear these in words in your head, but you’ll probably feel them in your emotions, body sensations and reflect them in your behaviour.
For the focus of this article we’ll take a look at how negative Script messages may hold the MMA athlete back and cause an inner psychological battle. The MMA fighter who competes exceptionally well in training sessions has the desire to take his/her net step and compete at a local bout. He/she feels ready physically and mentally for the challenge and prepares well for the event, however as the event draws close a range of difficult emotions surface. Appropriate fear and anxiety may be felt, but also other bodily sensations, negative emotions and unhealthy behaviours may begin to show. This may be bewildering to the fighter who has previously felt confident and ready to enter the bout.
The decisions we made about ourselves and others as a child (our Script) will rise stronger when under stress, it’s likely we will then respond to the current experience with outdated and distorted views of reality. The MMA athlete who decided ‘I’m not good enough’ as a child may feel a repeat of this as the event draws near. Again, it’s important to note that the athlete would very rarely hear these in words in their head but Increasing doubt will pollute the body and mind whilst a change in the athlete’s behaviour may also become observable. Other messages of ‘I’m not important’, I’m a failure’ or ‘I’m not going to succeed’, ‘I’m a loser’, ‘I am worthless’ are just some more examples of limiting, destructive and unhelpful Script beliefs.
Another scenario is where an athlete may have experienced an excruciating experience of overwhelming shame as a child in front of many others. The child MMA athlete may have decided, within their limited thinking, that its simply not safe to ‘stand out’ from the crowd as this will only result in repeated shaming. With the pressure of the bout and therefore the rising of the Script, how does the MMA athlete enter the cage with these powerful, hidden beliefs and perform at their best?
These incredibly powerful, limiting beliefs that were decided as a child in response to experiences and interactions with others hold the fighter back from performing his/her best and in some cases, not at all. This is the power of our Script, it’s our beliefs we decided upon as a child that we carry within us day to day, it significantly influences the way we perceive ourselves and others. The more stressed we are, the more likely it is that we will resort to these outdated ways of thinking.
How do I become aware of my Script (circuit board)?
There is no easy, simple and quick way. To be honest, it’s a difficult process for many. It’s a life changing experience that may surface many emotions and memories from our younger years. It’s better to engage in this process with a therapist, to explore and work through those early messages and decisions with support. However, we can to some extent safely and slowly engage in our own learning by becoming observers of ourselves: our thinking, our bodies, our emotions, our behaviours and we have a chance to understand key hidden elements of ourselves that have lay deep within.
What do you notice about yourself? Make some notes, you may end up with more questions and growing confusion as you go – this is completely normal. Again, it’s important to observe and hold back the inner judgement of yourself during this self-exploration. Learning about ourselves in this healing process takes time and with this comes a need to learn how to respect and accept ourselves fully. If we struggle to learn and practice this, we can get stuck in unhelpful repetitive patterns and our learning becomes stuck.
So, as you get a picture of this inner circuit board, it’s key to remember it’s still in very good working order. Understanding its connections is no easy task and is a lifetimes work, but we can make small steps. Gaining awareness and understanding of one hidden belief lay deep in your own circuit board could have a huge, positive impact in your life.
By getting to know yourself better, particularly in how you act in situations when you’re under pressure, you may find that it’s a familiar set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours just repeating itself in each new scenario. Remember, just observe, you may not have all the answers when you want them, uncertainty needs to become a friend in this process, just engage in it and learn more about patience.
It’s also helpful to get to know how you think in moments of stress, what is your behaviour like? What do you do? What kind of behaviour can others observe? Are you able to recognise an underlying belief about yourself at this time? Do you notice a pattern? This will be your Script (circuit board) and it will probably be repeated often when in moments of stress. In moments of pressure we switch on the circuit board and lose much awareness of here and now reality, but if we can press the pause button for a short time in these difficult moments, then we may get a glimpse into the inner workings and notice something about ourselves. This can be a difficult process and may require the support of another to ask you the right questions to help guide you to uncover your hidden circuits.
Another way of describing Script is by using my fishing analogy. We all have a fishing net with familiar fish caught from the ocean, each of these fish represents a deeper decision/belief we made about ourselves and others as children (positive and negative). This net stays under the ocean (in our subconscious) with our fish safely caught inside. When we feel pressure, the net rises up, out of the ocean and out of our control, to expose our fish along with all our decisions/beliefs, they become activated and very real. This process is usually out of our awareness and we rely on these old response patterns rather than the here and now. As our fish lay exposed on top of the ocean we are in our Script, we can distort the reality of ourselves, another and a situation by younger ways of being in the world – this can be damn powerful and incredibly self- limiting. We’re likely to replay old patterns from childhood thus limiting our ability to succeed in the here and now.
In the context of the MMA fighter there are added stresses that may catapult the athlete into much distress and straight into the inner circuit board, to name just a few: weight cut, pre-fight stress, health concerns, medical insurance concerns, career, reputation, physical and mental preparedness concerns, concerns around being hurt and of course exposed failure and the resulting shame etc.
Returning to an example of an MMA athlete - let’s call her Jen. Jen has fought competitively for a while and has managed herself psychologically well during the pressure of each bout. Jen has become familiar with healthy fear and anxiety and has used available techniques to manage herself at these times.
Jen has been so successful she now wishes to compete for a national title, however, as she prepares to enter the cage, she experiences a feeling of impending doom with thoughts of failure, exposure and overwhelming shame. These thoughts and feelings were in stark contrast to how she had been feeling in training and in previous competitive bouts where there was a real feeling of accomplishment, recognition of her skills and overall readiness to take on her opponent. It’s quite possible the increased pressure of the title bout has activated more of Jen’s inner circuit board – perhaps there’s a deeper decision lay at the bottom of that net – ‘I’ll not succeed’ or ‘I’ll not make it’ and Jen’s battle isn’t just in the cage, its within herself. It’s in these moments that these powerful inner, pre-conscious decisions come to the fore whilst grabbing and distorting our consciousness.
These can be difficult things to work through should you be able to identify deeper beliefs within yourself. What’s important to remember, your younger self made the best decisions at the time with the limited resources you had. Nurture, nourish, accept, be compassionate and essentially patient with yourself as a starting place. Observe and hold back the inner judgement of yourself during this self-exploration as this will likely repeat more unhealthy patterns intrapsychically and leave little room for growth and new ways of thinking, feeling and being in the world.
If inner judgement and self-punishment go unchecked, you will only begin a stuck, unhealthy and repeating process within yourself:
In order to let go of old beliefs, it’s crucial to understand the value these decisions have had in your own life history, they may have had an essential purpose at that time. You need to do this so that your own life story remains consistent and logical. When doing this, you will be able to let go of old patterns and learn new ones. We need to ingrain new habits, just the same way the old ones have become ingrained. To develop, it is necessary to gain new experiences and to notice that this new way of being is very beneficial, this will require a lot of determination and possibly a good support system to encourage you on your journey. (Koopmans, 2017)
Script, energy and the physical body
To end this article, I’ll link our understanding of Script so far to energy within our body and the impact of this for MMA athletes. Our Chi (life force energy) follows the whole mind including the unconscious, so we need to train not only at a physical level but also at the mental, emotional, and spiritual level. By getting to know our whole selves on each level little by little, we have the opportunity to raise our spirit by unlocking emotional charges that dam energy in the body, especially in the gut and joints preventing full range of movement, crucial for any athlete trying to achieve their potential.
These emotional charges are toxic when they remain, stagnate, and accumulate and are not able to be processed and especially when they are protected by a reflex that wants to hide them from consciousness (our inner guardian).
By gently becoming aware of our Script, we can unlock some of these emotional charges locked within our bodies. Our inner psychological conflicts that result from old Script decisions can get caught in endless loops that produce these repetitive emotional charges within our body that activate the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. If this acidic and fast stress response is activated too often it can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, we’re even too tired to sleep! Our nerves and our muscles are tense, and the functioning of our internal organs are also adversely affected. If our body is not able to recover and becomes too toxified by this process, it can lead to a break down in the nervous system and it can’t help but to shut down and sleep.
For any athlete, Script can be a real hindrance to achieving their potential, especially when aiming to compete at a higher level. Unidentified Script decisions may not only have archaic emotional charges bound to them, but these Script blocks can activate the athletes stress response far too early in advance of the bout leading to a toxified, exhausted body unable to compete at its best and the possibility of unhealthy archaic decisions being repeated and reinforced – further strengthening the Script.
As humans, we are designed to evolve, but this takes effort, dedication and discipline with a good support system. If we change our attitude from judgement to understanding, this becomes a journey we can all embrace with self-acceptance, compassion and nurture. It’s not an easy journey as the emotional body is irrational, its belief is either on:off, black:white and feeling negative feelings can become translated to ‘being bad’. Trusting that feeling negative feelings doesn’t make us wrong is a crucial learning point to then embark within the process and open a real opportunity for change.
We all have the right and the capacity to grow and change, and we all have the capacity to overcome our own limited ways of being in the world. Let’s live our life, not our Script and end the fight within.
Remember: The end is written in the beginning
My love and best wishes to you all.
Note: If reading this has ignited the need for a deeper exploration of yourself, I can highly recommend the following book to start you on your journey. It’s based on Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis theory.
- Koopmans. L (2017) This is me. Becoming who you are using Transactional Analysis
- Koopmans. L (2017) This is me. Becoming who you are using Transactional Analysis
- Lapworth.P & Sills.C.(2011) An Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Sapolsky.R (1994) Why Zebras don’t get ulcers