Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why Fight? Part 2: The Reward

If you ask any fighter -- indeed, any athlete in any sport -- they'll mention the importance of the mental aspect of the game. Follow the game plan. Be confident, but not cocky. Respect your opponent's strengths, but don't fear them. Be mentally tough.

Training as a competitive athlete must necessarily involve going farther than the brain wants to go. Many people are tremendously self-motivated individuals who will work until exhaustion daily. Others need to be pushed by coaches and training partners, to be broken down by them, so they can be rebuilt stronger.

In my previous entry, I talked about the difficulty, toil, and investment a fighter makes in his training camp. Surely if someone voluntarily goes through something so hellish, there must be a powerful reward on the other side.

Rewards of the fight game

Why do people participate in dangerous sports? There are a variety of reasons, but this article touches on the subject. Summarizing:
  • Extreme sports release dopamine, which triggers the reward system by making the person feel good. This creates an addiction to the feeling, and by association, the sport.
  • Extreme sports are transformative, and those who participate in them may exhibit a higher capacity for humility and courage.
  • Those who participate in extreme sports understand intellectually that these things are dangerous, but that fear is something to be overcome, not avoided.
Fighters will often say that the fight is the reward for the brutality of the training camp. That like sex, months of discomfort are traded for minutes of enjoyment (except the causal direction is reversed).

As someone who has stepped through the cage door four times, it's hard to dispute this idea. Putting all that training to use in a live combative situation, in front of a screaming audience, is a great feeling. While Mexican or Thai boxers fight to escape poverty, fighting in most of Western society is a first-world luxury. If you do it, you do it for the love of the game.

I try not to think of the fight as the reward, and take a somewhat more zen approach of the reward the journey rather than the destination. I have written before about the value of being uncomfortable, and doing things that are hard, simply because they are hard. 

But don't get me wrong. Fighting and competing is fun. This will be my fifth MMA fight. I've also had an amateur boxing match, two kickboxing matches, and probably about 20 grappling competitions. (Grappling is a fight sport where it is reasonable to be a dabbler, since getting tapped out is orders of magnitudes less bad than getting knocked out.)


Confidence is another positive product of the grueling fight camp. Again there is a paradox at play here. Throughout training camp, the fighter often suffers crises of confidence. As he gets beat up in sparring, he can often question his own skill, and his confidence may wane. He may become self-defeating. I have thought to myself many times, "I suck at this. Why am I doing it?"

And yet other days, the fighter is supremely confident. On those days where things feel good and the fighter feels sharp, he feels nearly invincible, ready to take on the world. Today, as I'm writing this, it is how I feel. I feel supremely confident that on May 30, I will enter the Battlefield cage at the River Rock Hotel and Casino and put a beating on Blake Sigvaldason of Terrace B.C.'s Dungeon Fight Team Ali Wasuk out of Clinch MMA in Port Coquitlam, B.C. I feel like no other outcome is possible. Whether or not this is a rational response is another question -- I know nothing of the man other than watching a few fights he had well over a year ago. I don't know how strong he is, how athletic he is, how developed his skills have become. I have never put hands on the man, nor has he put hands on me. Yet right now, as my fingers touch this keyboard, I believe fully that there is no way he is ready to compete against me in that cage.

This stems from the incredible commitment required of a competitive fighter, which I touched on in Part 1. The fighter thinks, "I am spending so much time and energy on this fight. I am doing everything right. I am working with great coaches and training partners."

There is a tremendous optimism bias when one goes through a hard training camp. The thought is simple: "There's no way that this guy has put in what I've put into the fight. There is no way he is this obsessed with winning. Therefore, I will win."

Camaraderie and the Team

Finally, it is worth mentioning the team aspect of fighting. There are very few r┼Źnin left in combat sports; even the most gifted fighters are now part of a team, training under a competent trainer. The relationship a fighter develops with his coaches and training partners is fraught with contradiction. The MMA coach borders on sadism, often pushing the fighter far beyond where he wants to go, throwing exhausted fighters into the shark tank to spar against completely fresh opponents. But the great coach does not simply break the fighter down; he builds his fighter back up.

The training partners beat up their teammate as hard as possible, though ideally without injuring him. The training partners are simultaneously your best friends and your worst nightmares in the gym. Because of them, you are battered, bruised, and often injured. But without them, you cannot succeed at the sport. The beatings that teammates give one another foster a tremendous sense of camaraderie and brotherhood (and sometimes sisterhood; I use non-neutral pronouns out of convenience, not disrespect). No one knows what a fighter goes through better than another fighter, and so fighters are surprisingly empathetic creatures -- at least when it comes to fighting. The punches to the face are always followed by fist bumps, hugs, and pats on the back.

Personal conclusions

It's my hope that this brief series answers some questions about the precarious balance between the costs and benefits of fighting as a passion, or vocation.

Fighting is not safe, and it is not healthy. It costs money, but even more so, overwhelming amounts of time. It is mentally draining. It has the potential to put valued relationships on rocky ground.

On the other hand, it also fosters and creates new relationships. Competition keeps me optimizing my own human performance. Training camps have taught me humility and perseverance.

Sixteen days until my dopamine receptors get their fix.