How Combat Coaches Can Help Their Athletes through Performance Anxiety 

Combat coaches – do you have a fighter that constantly underperforms in the ring?

Maybe they freeze up right before they step in, or they just can’t seem to pull the trigger during their combos.

Don’t worry, there’s hope!

In this post, we’ll go over some tips and tricks on how to help your fighter overcome this hurdle and perform at their best under pressure.

Coaches who are willing to put in the extra work to help their athletes overcome performance anxiety will undoubtedly see better results both in and out of the gym.

So, whether your fighter is a beginner or an experienced competitor, read on for some helpful advice.

What is Performance Anxiety? And What Does It Look Like For Combat Athletes?

Performance anxiety is the feeling of nervousness or apprehension that occurs before or during a performance. It can affect anyone, regardless of experience or skill level.

It is a normal reaction to stress and pressure. However, it can become problematic when it starts to interfere with an athlete’s performance.

For athletes, performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. Some common symptoms include:

  • Physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, and increased heart rate
  • Mental symptoms such as negative self-talk, intrusive thoughts, and racing thoughts
  • Emotional symptoms such as fear, worry, and doubt
  • Behavioral symptoms such as avoidance, procrastination, and perfectionism

Everyone experiences performance anxiety differently, but suffice to say, the more of these symptoms your athletes experience, the higher the likelihood of its severity.

And the higher the severity of this anxiety, the more your athletes will exhibit a “flight or fight” response – as the brain is perceiving the situation to be life-or-death.

What Is The Root Cause of Performance Anxiety (It’s Not What You Think)

The first thing to do when your athlete is experiencing performance anxiety is to determine the root cause behind it.

At this point however, most combat coaches turn to what they know best – physical training and technical tactics – and try to provide solutions from that lens. So they might say things like:

  • “If you keep on practicing you won’t feel nervous.”
  • “Let’s keep working on your footwork/stance/grip until it becomes second nature.”
  • “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, so just keep going.”
  • “Just relax, breathe, stay calm and focus on looking for an opening.”

While all of this advice is well-intentioned, it’s important to understand that the root cause of performance anxiety is not always physical or technical. In most cases, the root cause of performance anxiety is mental and psychological.

BUT before you think “oh – that’s out of my circle of expertise. I’m not a psychologist. I’m just a combat coach.

I want to tell you – it’s not as complicated as you might think. Contrary to widespread belief, you do NOT need a psychology degree from a prestigious university to understand and address this issue for your athlete.

Don’t think so? Allow me to explain.

The Psychology Behind Performance Anxiety (Simplified)

Put simply, when an athlete experiences performance anxiety, they’re not living in the present.

They’re either living in the past – dwelling on past failures or missed opportunities – or they’re living in the future – worrying about what could go wrong or what people will think of them.

This is what’s known as “rumination” (or as I like to call it, “time-travelling“) and it’s a huge contributor to performance anxiety.

We’re all guilty of this at some point in our lives – getting so caught up in our minds focusing on how we’re going to potentially fail in the future (usually because of something that’s happened in the past) that we forget to live in the present.

The good news is, as a combat coach, you have the power to snap your athletes out of this state of mind. And it’s really not as hard as you might think.

How Combat Coaches Can Help Their Athletes Recover (and Stay Away) from Performance Anxiety

Whenever one of my athletes experiences performance anxiety in anticipation of an upcoming fight, I ask them this question:

“Are you literally going to die from this?”

Now, this may seem a tad dramatic. But it helps athletes put things in perspective almost immediately. With the number of safety measures in place in combat sport today (such as safety gear and clear rules about what is and isn’t allowed), the answer is almost always going to be “no.”

After they respond “no,” or something along those lines, I then follow up with this question:

“So if you’re not going die from this, what’s the worst that could happen?”

At this point, they’ll almost always answer with something along the lines of “I might lose.”

Okay. So what if you do lose? What’s the worst-case scenario arising from that?

They’ll almost always reply with things like:

  • “What if everything I did up to this point was a waste / all for nothing?”
  • “I’ll look stupid and embarrass myself”
  • “I”d be letting my coach and/or team down”

All of these are valid concerns. But here’s the thing: NONE of those things are really that bad in the grand scheme of things if they have a coach that truly cares and looks out for them.

So at this point, I take the opportunity to remind them that those things aren’t what I’m concerned about at all. What really matters to me is that they’re able to perform at their best, and they give it everything they’ve got. So I’ll try to change the story they tell themselves by saying something like:

  • “Look, I understand those are some concerns that you might have. But I want to remind you that those aren’t things that really matter. So what if you lose? There’s still a lot to gain.
  • “You’ll have had the experience of fighting an opponent better than you, and you’ll know what to do next time.”
  • “As your coach, I don’t care about the outcome of your fight. What I care about is your performance – that you’re out there giving it everything you’ve got, and not spending time thinking of yourself as not good enough.”
  • “If at the end of the day, your opponent is better, that’s okay – that’s out of your control. But what IS in your control is what you choose do you do up until that point – during training, and in the ring.”
  • “You have a whole world of potential within you, and I’d hate to see you not be able to tap into that because you’ve thought yourself into a corner.”

These are just some of the things I might say to an athlete who’s struggling with performance anxiety. But the key is to tailor your message to their specific concerns and help them see that there’s really nothing to be anxious about.

Don’t Save This Conversation Til The Last Minute

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a last-minute, right-before-the-fight conversation.

As a combat coach, performance anxiety is something you need to constantly monitor for in your athletes, and it’s important to ensure they stay in a mentally healthy space as they train.

In short, as a combat coach, you can help your athletes recover from performance anxiety by:

  • Helping them see that the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as they think
  • Helping them understand that their thoughts and emotions are just stories they’re telling themselves, and that they have the power to change those stories
  • Encouraging them to focus on what they can control, and not worry about things that are out of their control
  • Reminding them of their potential, and that you believe in them

If you can do those things, then you’ll be well on your way to helping your athletes overcome their performance anxiety and reach their full potential.



If you like this post and you’re unsure about how you can approach your conversations with athletes to ensure they stay in tip-top mental shape, I suggest checking out our CounterPunch™ Facilitator Training program. There, I teach combat coaches like yourself, everything you need to know about how to have these types of conversations, as well as how to properly support your athletes in other areas of their lives. If you’re interested, you can learn more about it here.

Alternatively, if you have enough students and athletes who you think could benefit from something like this, I can also run a FREE Mental Fitness Seminar for your gym. If you’re interested in that, you can learn more about it here.


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