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On Confidence: An introduction to self-efficacy in MMA and beyond

Fighters exude a level of confidence that seems unlike anything the average non-combative individual can muster. David Mullins, a sports psychologist who works with elite mixed-martial-artists, discussed confidence with Bloody Elbow and how there is much more to a fighter's confidence than meets the eye.

MMA: UFC 196-Weigh Ins Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After interviewing professional mixed martial artists, one begins to notice a trend. These men and women seem beyond confident. They present themselves as without doubt, so much so that if a fighter utters anything other than, "I will win" and "I will be the champion", it stuns you. On the rare occasions that a fighter reveals even a slight feeling that things might not go their way, you almost want to give them a chance to 'correct' themselves. You feel as though they should be bulletproof, fearing that if they doubt themselves in any way we might become witness to something tragic. It's unlikely that our expectations for fighters to be confident is the only reason we hear what we do in their interviews and press conferences. One could theorize that some fighters view confidence as a weapon, just like a jab or a sweep, and that effective use of this weapon is displaying that you have it, in spades.

But is the level of confidence we hear from most fighters real? And, if so... is it even beneficial? Sports psychology consultant David Mullins, who counts John Kavanagh's SBG Ireland among his clients, believes a conversation on fighter confidence can't be had without first framing confidence in a more realistic manner.

"The idea of having to be bulletproof and full-confidence, full-self-belief, no moments of doubt at all, that’s not possible," said Mullins, who co-hosts the Fight Network series Mentality of Combat Sports. "That doesn’t happen for anybody, that’s not a real thing, there’s always going to be some doubt, there’s always going to be some little thing, some question mark and some nerves, and some fears, that’s part of competing at the top level."

Mullins is skeptical of fighters who present a facade of absolute confidence, but doesn't believe it's bad that they present themselves that way, or that it's bad that they have those doubts to hide in the first place.

UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor is known for demonstrating extreme degrees on confidence, and sharing this with anyone willing to ask - such as Ariel Helwani here on 'The MMA Hour' in 2015.

"When you’re saying they give interviews and you don’t really hear doubts from them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there and it doesn’t mean that they’re a bad thing if they are there," said Mullins, who also warned that - of course - too much doubt can be a bad thing. "If they do allow the doubts to spiral and to take over, sometimes fighters can not put in the full preparation, or they can give themselves a way out, an excuse, afterwards, if they haven’t put in the full preparation and they downplay the importance just to alleviate the doubt, but if you just accept the doubt and then go and do it anyways, that’s when we see great performances from guys."

In psychology confidence as it applies to sporting endeavours can be described as Self-Efficacy, a term popularized by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura defined self-efficacy as, 'one's belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.' Also within Bandura's frameworks of self-efficacy and social cognitive theory is that individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to view difficult tasks as things to be mastered, rather than avoided.

Self-efficacy in sports has been studied voraciously and numerous experiments have been conducted across athletic disciplines to determine if high levels of self-efficacy have a positive effect on athletic performances. In their 1996 paper Relationship Between Self-Efficacy, Wrestling Performance, and Affect Prior to Competition, Darren C. Treasure (Southern Illinois University), future MMA legend Jeffrey Monson (University of Minnesota) and Curt L. Lox (Northern Illinois University) surveyed 70 male wrestlers 15 minutes prior to competition to gauge their individual levels of self-efficacy. The wrestlers performances and results were then correlated with the results of the surveys. The study showed that, "heightened levels of self-efficacy and lower levels of anxiety are associated with optimal sport performance."

A more recent study, from 2000, conducted by the Sport Science Center at Azad University in Tehran showed similar results to that of Treasure et al. The Iranian study focused on 16 wrestlers from Iran and Russia's national teams. In their tests the wrestlers were again given questionnaires, this time 20 minutes prior to competition. The results echoed earlier studies in that increased self-efficacy meant reduced anxiety, and thus equaled better performances and results among those wrestlers.

Despite the positive effects of self-efficacy and confidence levels being proved in studies, such as those described above, Mullins believes it would be unwise of anyone to assume confidence alone can make you succeed.

A number of programs exist which are seemingly just that. For example; The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, first published in 2006. The Secret promises adherents that they will be rewarded as a result of having absolute belief that they will achieve their goals. Top UFC fighters such as Urijah Faber, TJ Dillashaw, and Conor McGregor are on record saluting The Secret for helping them reach the pinnacle of MMA.

Joe Rogan discussed The Secret with TJ Dillashaw and Duane Ludwig on his podcast 'The Joe Rogan Experience' in 2014.

"There’s no science behind it," said Mullins, bluntly, when asked his opinion on The Secret. "That’s not to say that it’s all garbage, because it’s a good thing too, to have belief, and to have a positive mindset and believe that you can achieve things."

"The problem I have is when, it’s kind of that’s all you need. If you believe it enough, it will happen, that’s nonsense, you need to put in the work and all the dedication and the right focus and all the ingredients that goes into success."

"Conor’s a big fan of The Secret, and a few other fighters are as well," continued Mullins. "It’s not a negative if they’re willing to put in the real work, the hard work, the smart work, and there’s that incident of timing and having good people around you, then yeah, success can happen, but I just don’t like the idea of people feeling like, 'If I think this way then everything is going to work out.' It’s not how the world works."

In conclusion, real confidence is great. That is, confidence based in truth, where doubts have not been ignored or explained away, but have been recognized, verbalized, and reconciled. However, even if a fighter has achieved this level of self-efficacy, that's still not enough. Belief is just a strand in the tapestry that represents the fight ahead of them. On its own it is folly. Confidence, dedication, intelligence, luck, and support must, according to Mullins, be in concert for a fighter - or any other athlete - to stand a chance of realizing their full potential.

With this in mind, maybe it's time to adjust our own expectations for how confident a fighter should look and sound. A fighter having doubts should not shock, scare, or scandalize us. It's not the worst thing in the world. In fact, if you ask David Mullins, it's not only human, it's helpful. Perhaps we should stop celebrating fighters for being fearless... because they aren't, and that's ok. "In this sport [being fearless] is not what confidence is," reminded Mullins. "Confidence is not about not having those doubts, it’s about having them and doing it anyways."