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Rob Dawson for MindSport

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How to avoid hesitation or 'choking' in MMA

Fear of failure is the most commonly described apprehension in sport and is a simplistic but effective way to evaluate how choking occurs in sporting competitions.

Essentially fear of failure is described as a perceived psychological threat to an athletes self-esteem, whereby an athlete is afraid of being perceived as looking inferior, weak or ineffective and whilst rationally the perception of others is not directly controllable, this self-critical, perfectionist way of thinking causes the athlete to see themselves in a more vulnerable light, as opposed to feeling free to perform and flourish during a performance.


To nullify this fear of failure and minimise the risk of choking, failure must be challenged in terms of the perception the athlete holds, and rather seeing it as confirmation of vulnerability, instead view failure as a means to improve. Learning how to fail productively is much easier said than done when we consider the key variables involved in choking in competition.

Choking occurs when there is an imbalance between the perceived ability to achieve a target in relation to the situation and the importance of the outcome and the stress that is created from the relationship between these factors.

For example if perception of ability (x) is impacted by the situation (y) and the importance of the outcome (z) then task performance can be inhibited by the stress that x,y and z produce which is generally referred to as choking.

Some athletes are more susceptible to choking than others and looking at the personality measures detailed previously you can begin to identify areas more relevant to certain types of people. For example, a diligent minded individual may suffer more in a situation with less controlled variables or time to prepare than someone who has a more daring mentality.

anxious mma fighter

That being said every athlete is affected to a lesser or greater extent by the pressure which is caused by an imbalance between factors x, y and z. If we break down x, y and z a little further you can understand better how each variable may impact different people to different extents but still combine to produce this choking.

X is the perception of ability, if this is compromised in any way self-belief decreases and challenges become threats.

Y is the situation the athlete finds themselves in, some thrive in volatile confrontational situations, whilst others wilt and fade when under the bright lights.

Z is the importance of the task outcome, this generally is the one factor which affects all athletes however those with an ability to zero in on the task at hand rather than allowing doubts, situations or internal distractions to compromise their concentration, generally fair better and experience less performance deficit through choking.

bruce lee focus

When x, y or z are playing a pivotal role in pressure upon a performance it is common for athletes to describe this feeling as a fear of failure, and when questioned the most common answer to the question ‘what are you afraid of?’ is a failure.

Considering x,y and z (self-belief, situational or environmental control and motivational factors around importance of task success be they intrinsic or extrinsic) it is easier to understand what ‘fear of failure’ actually means and actually what choking really is, the manifestation of this fear of failure, or put another way, fear of not succeeding.

Neuroscientific research in terms of brain activation studies have revealed that the biggest factor in choking is not the pressure which the athlete may be experiencing but instead their self-awareness when in competitive situations.

who am i

For example, when under the bright lights in front of a packed 10,000 strong vegas crowd, with tv cameras transmitting the performance to an audience of millions worldwide, self-awareness kicks in and an athletes thoughts can become internalized fixating attention away from the actual performance and on to self-deprecating thoughts, specific body movements, or internal feelings of unease, fatigue or pain.

This self-awareness distracts the attention and concentration from the task at hand and takes away the trust they have built-in training and conditioning in mental, physical and technical capabilities.

When attention turns to internal distractors, physical, behavioural and mental performance deteriorate, similarly if external distractors are attended to too greatly then concentration can wander and technical performance can be equally impaired. When internal distractions are at their peak the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex will kick into overdrive acting as a pressure vessel for negative thoughts.

Therefore to combat choking we will need to consider self-belief, self-control as well as detaching from irrelevant internal distractions and initiate a flow state of optimal performance. None of which are necessarily guaranteed to completely nullify choking, but over time, with effective conditioning when considering a variety of different personality types, deficits can be reduced and the likelihood of effective performances increased.

It is a good idea to explore exercises around self-belief, self-control and attention and concentration tasks, each specifically selected for certain mindsets linked to theorised personality types.

It is recommended that a variety of exercises are considered for each mindset due to the nature of individuals and the different stimuli, variables and triggers which may affect an athlete at any moment, however, if an athlete is certain of a specific type of personality trait they may regularly exhibit then selecting the mindset most typical to their performance would be a great place to start.

The mindsets selected for this exercise are based on a variety of ideas around the main five or six theorised personality types in sport.

Our selected mindsets take aspects from these models and combine them to produce five distinct mentalities which cover the vast majority of personality traits and the behaviours attributed to these.

The five mindsets you can explore include:


The daring mindset is:

  • Adventurous, creative and curious.
  • Imaginative and independent instead of strictly sticking to routine Can be perceived as unpredictable or unfocussed, risk taking Generally daring mindset athletes have a desire to enjoy life experiences They create opportunities when under pressure, remaining focused and push harder than everyone else
  • They can shut out distractions and control all controllable variables
  • They tend not to compete with others but instead find an opponent’s weakness and just attack it


The diligent mindset is:

  • Organised, disciplined and controlled
  • They prefer routine over spontaneity
  • They can be perceived as being stubborn and focused
  • Generally, diligent mindset athletes study their competition and base attacks on opponents
  • They take on risks provided they have time to prepare and feel successful when the job is successfully complete
  • They generally don’t often feel success as there is always more to do and better ways to do it and they expect coaches and teammates to be at their best at all times


The dynamic mindset is:

  • Energetic, assertive and sociable
  • They can be perceived as attention-seeking and domineering
  • They enjoy taking credit for a successful performance and handle pressure well
  • If given clear direction will execute commands effectively
  • Generally dynamic mindset athletes revel in praise and reward and recognition, fame and glory important as part of the outcome


The dependable mindset is:

  • Compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic
  • Dependable mindset athletes are generally trusting and helpful nature
  • They can be perceived as naive or submissive
  • They are generally great at taking part in producing outcomes so long as not held solely accountable as then pressure becomes too great
  • They tend to look to others for approval as a measure of their individual success
  • They are often quick to celebrate teammates or others performances


The deviating mindset is:

  • Where athletes often experience psychological stress and unpleasant emotions like anger, anxiety and vulnerability easily
  • Emotional stability is often one extreme to the other, including both calm and placid or the opposite as excitable and reactive
  • They are generally careful and wait to be told what to do, and listen to instruction well
  • Deviating mindset athletes tend to deals with pressure when things are going well and when people are around, but when pressure escalates often passes the problem over to someone else
  • They can worry about the competition and how they measure up to them

I help MMA athletes achieve their full potential. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram 👇🏼

Or you can find a whole range of exercises over at MindSport

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