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Psychology of Combatants: Fighting to Feel Alive



Why do you fight?

This is the ultimate question for any competitor who has ever stepped foot on the mat, into the ring or cage. The inquiry comes not only from media and fans, but from coaches, trainers and more importantly one’s self.

Every fighter is motivated by something, but one concept that seems to be uniform across the board is the feeling of being alive. This notion is based on the principal of living in the present. Novels could be written on this this crucial element of combat sports. This is SciFighting.com’s breakdown behind the psychology that drives many if not most competitors.

Living in the Moment

The concept of living is associated with the present tense. In our daily lives we are hard pressed to spend all of our time in the present. It is human nature to constantly look to past experiences to determine future action. In this same way, we constantly look to the future with all of our present actions and thoughts.

Many Eastern and holistic philosophies focus on the concept that we cannot be truly content until the mind and body are centered together, meaning that the mind is present where the body is. This is contentment or happiness is key to feeling alive, but difficult to obtain.


Many people spend a good portion of their time contemplating things they have done incorrectly in the past, things they should have or should not have done, things that were done to them, missed opportunities and general reflections on the past. Likewise, much time is often spent daydreaming about the future. Getting off of work, getting a better job, how rent is going to get paid or whatever it may be. In both of these situations, individuals go through daily tasks while thinking about things that do not involve the immediate present. A 2009 Harvard University Study found that overall our minds are wandering over 47% of the time and that people are less-happy during this time. Many studies also equate feeling happy with the concept of feeling alive.


Accountant is going to spend much of his or her time looking at numbers in order to achieve a result to affect a company or individual’s future with anticipation on how they may change and what they have been in the past. This is a long, tedious process and though it may be necessary and rewarding, it does not invoke a feeling of being alive in the moment.

On the contrary, a firefighter faced with the task of entering into a burning building with the purpose of saving another human life is undoubtedly making choices, which invoke a more immediate response. This immediacy is what causes the perceivable act of living in the moment and thus the feeling of being alive.

The intensity of the job does not relate to its value, as many important jobs, such as researching to find a cure for cancer, do not have an immediate response component. That being said, the rush of feeling alive is rarely derived without an element of imminent threat.

Feeling Alive through Fighting

Combat sports require participants to be present in the moment. Even in a training setting where a lot of the practice may consist of pre-arranged drills, if one is not focused on what is happening that missed block is going to result in a blow to the head. This is mild compared to the threats of actual competition, but does resonate the feeling of immediacy, which is motivating and addicting for many participants.

The act of actually competing in a locked cage or closed ring results in whole other level of feeling alive. There is an imminent threat of harm, which is difficult to recreate.


Professional female bantamweight Raquel “Rocky” Pa’aluhi is no stranger to the cage and that feeling is what drives here. “Naturally I am a worrier and I overthink a lot. My mind is always going. But when I’m in the cage and that door locks I am only focused on my opponent and finding a way to beat her,” said Pa’aluhi. “I’m excited and I feel alive. That fifteen minutes that I spend in there is the best fifteen minutes of my life. There is absolutely nothing like it. That feeling is what I chase everyday and why I train so hard. People may think we are crazy and they’re probably right. But that feeling is addicting.”


The “addictiveness” of that feeling is the product of a powerful stimulating hormone naturally released by the brain during times of extreme stress, fear or anxiety. The boost of strength and awareness that is present during a “fight or flight” situation is caused by the sudden release of adrenaline. This rush is intense and to some it can provide the same satisfying affects that one might receive from drugs, similarly this “high” can become addictive. A person who craves the release of adrenaline is considered an “adrenaline junkie.”


A fight or flight response is undoubtedly crucial in the event of an actual fight. One is put in a situation of imminent harm and thus adrenaline will be invoked. The high that comes with adrenaline is often associated with the feeling of being alive. Some results of an adrenaline rush include:

  1.  Increased Strength
  2. Higher Pain Tolerance
  3. Heightened Senses
  4. Energy Boost Increased
  5. Respiration and Heart Rate

Body and Mind in the Moment

When the philosophy of centering in the mind and body in the same place is full-filled, this is when one feels alive. Fighters achieve this with unwavering focus on the task at hand once the cage doors shut. This fear of imminent harm invokes a fight or flight response which causes the release of adrenaline. From there the rest of the world falls away. There is nothing but the body and mind in the moment. This is what it feels like to be alive. Overwhelmingly, this is why we fight.