Falling Forward

By Kaitlin Young

I lost a fight for the Invicta Fighting Championships Featherweight World Title last week. Nobody wants to lose, but when faced with it, we have the choice to use or waste the experience. Losing a fight is costly, especially in this industry. It would be unwise to waste something that is so damn expensive. If we are going to fall, we should take care that we fall forward.

The Story Went Like This

I’d taken a hiatus from MMA after a slide, fought Muay Thai and kickboxing for four years, and then finally decided to make a run at MMA again. Since returning, I had won three straight bouts with the last two ending in TKO. I asked for a title shot and that wish was granted. My camp was perfect. I was in the best shape I had been in years, maybe in my life. The weight cut was the easiest I can remember. And then, shit! I lost. The fight that was supposed to be the happy ending to a long road of adversity was now a checkmark in the wrong column. Now what? And here, I sit.

I have received a few messages congratulating me on my victory. Presumably, this is because they had read that I won somewhere, saw an older Facebook post, or read a favorable play by play without seeing the result. Some people did not agree with the decision. It was a good fight with back and forth action — what a title fight should be. There was a knee I was penalized for, that I was convinced was legal under the new unified rules, that may well have changed the trajectory of the entire fight. Holding on to any of these thoughts too firmly, I’ve learned, is dangerous. They are available in nearly every fight, though the specifics may differ. While they may be true statements, they do nothing more than to act as a safety net from having to face the other factors that lost the fight for us. They’re the low hanging fruit of the post-fight assessment. So tasty. So comforting. So easy to reach. We get to feel satisfied without having to stretch, or heaven forbid, actually climb.

What I did or did not do in the fight is unaffected by the judges’ opinions. What I mean by that is what was done was objectively good, bad, or neutral at the point in the fight in which it was done. The outcome of a fight that ends in decision is the opinion of the judges. One of us received a W and one of us received an L, but neither assignment changes what each of us physically did in the fight. My assessment of my own performance, then, should be related to the performance itself, not the categorized outcome of the fight. It can be difficult to divorce the two, but is an important part of looking at ourselves, our opponents, and our coaches in an objective fashion. What was done right, wrong, or ok does not change based upon the result of a win or a loss. What happened in the fight may have CAUSED a win or a loss, but that is a different matter. Just as a win doesn’t suddenly make every bit of the performance good, a loss doesn’t suddenly make every bit of it bad.

It’s Said that You Learn More From a Loss Than You Do a Win

That’s only true if we save our honest assessments for when we lose. When we don’t achieve the desired outcome, we’re forced to admit something went wrong. When we win, those things become a whole lot easier to ignore. If we excuse things that went wrong because, “Well, I won, so….” Then we are likely to stay the same fighter for our next outing. Similarly, if we lose, and it turns into some massive value judgement about our potential as a fighter, rather than a candid assessment of what happened in the bout, we will also walk into the next one unchanged, and frankly, worse off.

I think it can be important to ask ourselves this question: If my performance were the same, but I had been awarded a win, how would I feel about it? What if I had been awarded a loss? If there is a major difference between the two, what we are feeling about the fight doesn’t have much to do with our actual performance. Of course, we may make more money, hit important milestones in our career, and gain more opportunities as a result of a win. Those things certainly matter, but if the way we feel internally about the fight itself changes due to the outcome alone, then it is likely due to how we anticipate we’ll be assessed or judged by others, or maybe even ourselves, based on the outcome — not our performance.

 “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to develop a more balanced outlook on both winning and losing. In the past, I’d been coached to view an entire performance that resulted in a loss as terrible and was “corrected” for mentioning areas that I felt had improved. Any win was a good thing, and as such, required no further examination. Objectively, no fight is all good or all bad. The fights in question weren’t, either. Some fights that are lost are actually quite good, just as some wins are horrifyingly bad performances. Coaches operating this way want their fighters to be very ashamed of losing, because THEY are very ashamed of losing, even if it’s not happening to them directly. They want to separate themselves from a loss and attach themselves to a win, whenever possible. When an athlete has put trust in someone and looks to them for guidance, their efforts to instill shame are probably going to work! Developing a fear of losing isn’t going to make someone a better performer, but it will make them a hesitant performer. In any combat sport scenario, the best answer is the correct answer. The second-best answer is the wrong answer. The absolute wrong answer is hesitation. We become the dead squirrel in the road because we couldn’t pick a direction to go.

Managing Loses

Managing a team’s losses with shame is a good way to create a gym full of studs that can’t put it together when the pressure is on. When we discuss the importance of fight experience in coaching (link to blog about the topic), the reasons for it reach far beyond the technical aspects of fighting, though experience matters there as well. Personally, I’ve not seen someone with a well-established career of their own shame athletes for losing – including their athlete’s opponents. This is important because what you do to opponents will inevitably be done to you over a long enough timeline. If getting KTFO means the opponent sucks, or is weak, or doesn’t belong in the ring, what have they just told their fighter about what it means when it happens to them? I’m not saying coaches need to have been top 5 in the world, but there are benefits to being trained by someone who doesn’t have to use their imagination to try to understand a fighter’s situation. A person who has scarcely been tested, and never will be tested, can construct elaborate fantasies about their physical, mental, and emotional prowess in the fight game, without ever being confronted with the inconvenient truth. That is not to say that every coach without heaps of fights behaves in this manner, but there is a full demographic of coaches that almost never demonstrate this kind of behavior, and for good reason. It’s worthless.

In our sport, half of the fighters on any given day are going to go home with a loss. That is a high percentage to be treating it like tragedy. As competitive people, we’ll never not care about winning. It will always be the goal. Exaggerating the severity of losing, and what losing means, is based in FEAR. Fear of failure. Fear of judgement. Fear of shame. It serves to do nothing more than scare people away from competition. We don’t want to perpetuate fear and hiding. We don’t want to encourage new athletes to go into competition scared, or shy away from competing at all. No thank you. We want to foster a fearless competitive spirit. We want to see fighters perform at or above the level they demonstrate in practice. We can kiss that goal goodbye if we are going to treat losing like some boogeyman that must be avoided at all costs.

Sorting Things Out

Taking on more of a coaching role helped me sort out a lot of my old hang ups regarding wins and losses. Logically, I knew that viewing a loss as a complete failure is counterproductive, as is viewing any win as a complete success. All the effort in a fight and training camp matters. It creates growth in a person’s abilities, regardless of the outcome of their fight. There is plenty of good to be found, even if the desired outcome isn’t there. If I was going to ask our athletes to lay off the harsh self-assessment, then I had better demonstrate that within myself. So many fighters like to express that they are their own worst critic, but that isn’t something we should be aiming toward. If we wouldn’t say it, or think it, about a teammate, the thought doesn’t belong in our head, either.

People have asked me how I’m doing after this loss, as the result was a big letdown in many ways. The only approach to this fight that makes sense is the same way we’d approach any other. I’ll allow myself to experience the good and bad with honesty. We’ll assess what went right. We’ll assess what went wrong. We’ll lay out what we’re going to do about it and get to work.