(Editor's note: This is a guest column from striking coach Dr. Paul "Paulie Gloves" Gavoni and Dr. Alex Edmonds, a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology)
There has been no shortage of speculation about the reasons for Ronda Rousey’s fall from the top over her past two fights. Many are pointing fingers at her coach, and still others contemplate that the pool of women’s MMA talent has just simply grown. Nonetheless, it is clear that Rousey’s presence in the UFC has helped elevate the women’s talent as the new wave of well-rounded martial artists have rapidly climbed the ranks. As we all speculate on the reasons of her lackluster performance, the actual causes behind her loss may never be determined. In this article we attempt to point out the psychological aspects of Ronda’s game and speculate how this was a likely a major contributor to her inability to perform optimally.
From a strategic perspective, the focus of the Rousey camp may have been misplaced. Though we may never know the actual game plan, if her camp was trying to improve her striking to match Amanda Nunes’, this was probably time not well spent. It’s not likely Nunes spent her camp trying to advance her judoka skills to “catch up” to Ronda’s skills in that area. The focus might have been better placed on setting up and finishing takedowns beyond her typical Judo throws to bring the fight into a place where she might utilize her strengths. Regardless, let’s just assume that strategically all the critical fight tactics were covered based on her strengths and weaknesses. We posit that it’s the psychological aspect of her training and preparation that was neglected. This created a severe mental deficit in her approach to the Nunes fight, which precluded her from accessing her fight plan and performing optimally.
Athletes find their optimal zone of functioning as a result of being aware of the associated emotional and physiological states in relation to past success. There are also poor zones of functioning as well. The theory of the optimal zone, or individual affect-related performance zone, suggests that each individual is unique in her ability to identify stress and perceive it as functional (useful) or dysfunctional in relation to her performance. Subsequently, it will then inform that fighter to incorporate the self-regulatory and coping skills necessary to adjust or tune the perceived stress.
To exemplify the point, an MMA fighter may perform optimally when she is angry and scared at the same time with a minimal level of arousal (laymen’s term it “nervousness”). This state is unique to her and would equate to performing optimally or within her optimal zone of functioning. Though achieving this state doesn’t guarantee a win, it gives her the highest probability to perform optimally and perhaps win. Optimal zones, which are not necessarily enjoyable, are not to be confused with flow states as many internet resources tend to display. Flow states are characterized as an enjoyable experience where an individual is fully immersed and absorbed in the moment, and it doesn’t have to be associated with performance-based scenarios.
In her previous fights, it appeared that Ronda was able to reach her optimal zone via emotional states driven by anger, passion, and the drive to embarrass and inflict hurt on her opponents. She clearly thrived in this arena. Based on her continued success with this mental approach and heightened confidence, she entered the Holly Holm fight just as she did in the past. Holm’s emphatic win over Ronda shook her world and made her question her approach to reaching her optimal zone, thus negatively affecting her confidence (self-efficacy).
Observationally, it appeared as though Ronda approached the Nunes fight as she had in the past. She was driven by anger, resentment toward the haters, and perhaps a purpose to prove skeptics wrong. The likely issue with this current mindset was that Ronda no longer associated these emotional states with her optimal zone. She likely associated this zone with loss and pain. That previous optimal zone had been shattered and now transformed into a poor zone. Her current optimal zone needed to be reestablished and psychologically adjusted.
Ronda also did not appear to be comfortable pre-fight. Through an observation of her body language, she expressed uneasiness and tension. If this were the case, then she was exerting an enormous amount of mental and physical energy, which results in overly tense muscles and unnecessarily heightened states of arousal. In other words, she was not functioning efficiently and didn’t appear to possess the proper self-regulatory skills to manage the stress. Because of her narrowed focus she probably suffered from tunnel vision and tunnel awareness, which likely kept her from following the true fight plan. Regardless, she could never access her optimal zone because it had been previously shattered and never explored, rebuilt, and re-tuned in fight camp. The first hit she experienced triggered her past emotions associated with loss. She was not mentally prepared or conditioned for what she was getting back into. In other words, she had no plan for adversity.
All in all, we believe Ronda’s confidence was not properly restored in camp. Her optimal zone of functioning should have been adjusted based on her new perspective on fighting and life. To be clear, if she did go through the proper mental reconditioning and Ronda would’ve fought within her optimal zone, it doesn’t guarantee she would’ve won. However, we would all agree that physically she could’ve competed with Nunes and provided the fans a competitive fight and even found a path to victory.
Although we don’t have the true data to support this theory, there is a plethora of research in the field of sport psychology that details the relationship between mental states and performance. And the critical point for MMA fighters and coaches to take away from this is that the mental aspect of the game can overshadow all the hard physical preparation if not tended to properly. In the end, no one doubts Ronda’s skills or accomplishments. Just as she raised awareness and interests to women’s sports on how to approach the game, she also provides potential lessons on errors to approaching the game. We all learn from the greats…as we should!
Anyone interested in research on individual affect-related performance zones and other related research please contact W. Alex Edmonds at firstname.lastname@example.org