The Psychology of Weight-Cutting and its Impact on Training Camp
By Dr. Alex Edmonds and Dr. Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni
Science is the captain, and practice the soldiers -Leonardo da Vinci
While cutting moderate weight may have advantages, excessive weight loss can significantly reduce the likelihood that a fighter will win, even given the potential strategic advantage provided to some. But it’s important to examine a variety of factors that lead up to the probability of success or failure, and this is where training camp necessitates a more measured focus.
In March of 2014, gritty UFC favorite Brad Pickett made his flyweight debut against Neil Seery in London. While “One Punch” won via unanimous decision, the typically highly aggressive Pickett did not appear to possess the vigor and ferocity that prompted UFC President Dana White to declare himself a “fan” of Pickett’s. Failing at his next two attempts to win in the 125 weight class, it was clear the decision to drop weight class, while well intended, had not reaped the hoped for return on investment. In fact, the error of the weight drop was never more evident after Pickett recently returned to the 135 weight class where it can be argued that, even in his loss he put on the best performance of his career prior to getting caught.. So what motivated Pickett to make the grueling drop, and what factored into his lack of success? Similarly, what factors do fighters and coaches use when making the determination to drop weight? While some base their decision to drop weight classes on as little as one factor (e.g. following a loss at their current weight), in this article we propose that there are a variety of factors that must be pieced together during the decision-making process. Since many of the factors are interrelated, it is critical to consider and adjust for influences of the weight cut as they impact the fighter physically, psychologically, and strategically.
With impending new regulations banning the use of intravenous (IV) infusions with the UFC, there is a lot of “gym talk” regarding the potential impact on fighters’ performance and health. In MMA and other combat sports, it is not uncommon for fighters to drop 5% to 7% inside a week before their fight as the prevailing theory holds that it is better to be the “bigger” fighter in the smaller weight class. In extreme cases, fighters have been known to drop more than 10% of their body weight during fight week, a large portion of which is typically taken off 24 hours before the weigh-in as fighters can be seen donning their “plastics” and spending grueling hours in the sauna as a means of inducing rapid sweat loss. Opponents and proponents continue to argue about the merits of weight cutting on performance, and limited research has been unable to quell this argument as some investigators have found no impact on an athletes performance (Smith et al, 2000), while others suggest it leads to increased confusion and cognitive impairment (Martinen, 2011).
The truth of the matter is that every athlete is unique. Some athletes can “handle” the rapid weight loss and others, not so much. As we noted, some research has found that strength or power doesn’t necessarily decline following rapid weight loss, but there are some negative psychological impacts such as depressed mood and confusion following rapid weight loss. Nonetheless, there is little research done in this particular domain leaving much to be investigated regarding the psychological and physiological impacts, short- and long-term. It is our contention that the best approach to examining the impact of weight loss is through in-depth case study approaches or single-case designs considering each athlete is unique based on a multitude of factors (e.g., age, body mass, psychological states, experience etc).
The bottom-line question is, does cutting weight and fighting in a lower weight class increase the probability of winning? Of course, that depends. In this article we will discuss the possible psychological impacts of cutting weight, the potential influence on performance over the course of a training camp, and the prospective ramifications on strategy when dropping to a lower weight class. Let’s face it, while mistiming a cut or having nerves the day of the fight can impact performance, it’s the quality of a fighter’s camp that is typically the biggest factor in predicting the outcome of a fight.
So what elements contribute to a “good” training camp? Quality coaches, quality diet, quality training, quality rehab, and quality mental training. These elements are closely linked and directly affect one another. Regardless of how good a fighter’s coaches may be, the quality of his/her diet regiment will likely affect the quality of training, the time it takes to recover, and ultimately the fighter’s mental status as the fighters’ performance during training quickly transfers into his or her psyche. This is mostly true if the athlete is cutting weight beyond what he or she is accustomed. Under extreme weight-cut conditions, the athlete is more likely to be stressed about making weight on top of the increased stress that cutting weight causes to the body. Stress begets stress. However, in sport science, we classify stress as optimal or not optimal, and this operates on a continuum. In other words, stress in training can have positive results on performance, but only up to a certain point, then too much stress results in decreased performance. If an athlete is overly stressed due to excessive weight loss, for example, the physiological stress can lead to decreased performance during training, which of course ties into the mental status (reduced confidence). Confidence, or self-efficacy, is one of the greatest predictors of performance. So what we see here is the interaction between physiological states of the body and psychological states of the mind.
We understand that there is a negative relationship between excessive stress during training and a fighter’s confidence. In other words, as the fighter consistently exceeds his or her optimal states of stress throughout training, the quality of his or her training decreases, thus negatively affecting his or her confidence. A reduction in confidence equals a reduced probability of winning. There are scientific techniques to gauge the amount of stress and determine its effect on performance. There are also really good coaches who can intuitively detect when a fighter is beyond his or her optimal levels of stress during training.
For example, throughout one of the training camps for Brad Pickett during his drop to 125, Brad sometimes appeared out of character or tired. Prior to each training, using a self-assessment scale of 1-10, Brad reported on average his mood falling between a rating of 4-6. Compare this with his typical self-rating of 7-8 during his return to 135, one might hypothesize that the weight cut negatively impacted him psychologically. It doesn’t take science to figure this one out…cutting weight, especially that much weight, put a tremendous amount of stress on Brad’s body and mind, on top of the already stressful endeavor of preparing for a fight. It is clearly a difficult task for a fighter who walks around at 155 prior to camp to put himself through the grueling task of training with other elite athletes on a very limited diet. In our opinion, just making that weight is a victory in and of itself and might be considered a measure of a fighter’s grit and determination.
But before we talk further about potential impact of this type of dieting on a fight camp, let’s briefly revisit the rationale behind making the cut. Remember, earlier we noted that common logic suggests that dropping a weight class will give the larger fighter an advantage. And that’s true…sometimes. Using Brad as our case example, let’s first examine why the decision to drop a weight class was made. While some fighters can clearly fight at a lower weight class as evidenced by the missing muscular definition characteristic to many fighters, Brad’s very lean and muscular frame made it obvious that the weight cut would likely be grueling; however, the decision to pursue a potential 125 title shot against current champion Demetrious Johnson (whom Brad had previously beaten) provided enough motivation to offset the extremely punishing conditions that he would need to endure to make the weight. This weight drop, it was hypothesized, would put Brad in a position of being the “stronger” fighter in the cage. This strength advantage would in turn, offset other advantages that the 125 fighters might have, like speed. Brad would take 3 to give one, and capitalize on his strength advantage during takedowns; however, an often over looked element for determining the value of dropping weight classes are styles.
In the article, If Styles Make Fights, What Makes Styles?, styles and strategies are compared based on the body type of the fighter. Brad’s style, as classified in the article, can be considered a short-range style. This style, most effectively employed against taller fighters, is characterized by the fighter moving forward with head movement to slip inside an opponent’s reach and unleash heavy punches. We can theorize that Brad’s aggressive style proved to be more dangerous at 135 because of elements related to the speed, foot work, and height of his opponents compared with his opponents at 125. At 125, the height of his opponents dropped by an average of 2 inches, and speed of his opponent increased considerably. Brad’s head movement, which compensated for height and reach advantage, proved less effective as he became the taller fighter at 125. Where Brad could effectively unleash a combo at 135, at 125 his opponents wisely applied a “hit and run” tactic to frustrate and ultimately beat Brad on points. While Brad’s camp did attempt to compensate for the style and speed difference with tactical modifications, we will never know at what magnitude the pre-fight cut exacerbated his speed disadvantage. Moreover, how much of the mental energy focused on dieting might have overshadowed the mental training aspect of deliberate practice for the fight?
So we return to the bottom-line question, does cutting weight and fighting in a lower weight class increase the probability of winning? Remember, the quality of a fighter’s camp is most often the biggest factor in predicting the outcome of a fight, therefore, if cutting weight doesn’t adversely affect the quality of the fighter’s training on a consistent basis throughout camp, then the answer is perhaps, yes. Otherwise, no. But this is obviously too simplistic of an answer and would require further deliberation and insight from the fighter’s coaches and the fighter him or herself. With that in mind, we present three major elements that are critical to a strong training camp that will help coaches and fighters improve the quality of training- deliberate practice, individual zone of optimal functioning, and confidence. These three concepts are all intimately intertwined.
Does cutting weight and fighting in a lower weight class increase the probability of winning? Perhaps. Will the weight cut affect the fighter’s ability to engage in deliberate practice? The classic theory of deliberate practice and expertise is that it takes deliberate practice to eventually reach expert status (see I Cud’a Been a Contenda! for more on deliberate practice). The difference between an expert and a non-expert is the extent to which the individual has engaged in deliberate practice over a designated period of time. A good coach will assist in building a deliberate practice platform that includes breaking down a specific skill, such as take-down defense, into its components practicing it while the coach provides feedback and progressively make the practice more difficult until a high-level of proficiency is achieved. So the goal of training camp is to accrue and engage in as much deliberate practice as possible. Efficient, high quality training that gives the body and the mind the best possible results. Remember, a part of deliberate practice includes just as much mental training as it does physical training. Watching fight footage, breaking down video footage of training, visualization strategies etc. are all aspects of a strong deliberate practice routine.
A key element that cannot be forgotten when referring to deliberate practice is the individual zone of optimal functioning (IZOF). The IZOF is about performing optimally based on the fighter’s individual capabilities. And the zone can be delineated through the level of stress or activation a fighter exhibits while performing. The zone is not just a construct that should be the focus of the actual fight-night performance. Rather, it is important that the zone be identified and widely apparent during training camp routines in order to engage in deliberate practice. A fighter who is overly stressed or exhausted from excessive weight-loss strategies, or even the persistent thought of it, will likely be prevented from entering his or her zone of optimal functioning, period. The zone is expansive and can be defined by the fighter’s affective or emotional states, physiological states or cognitive states (Edmonds et al., 2013). A good coach can intuitively understand these categories and intervene when necessary. That is, creating practice routines that simulate the intensity of a real fight while the fighter engages in the exercise while becoming comfortable and aware of what his or her zone is. A good sport scientist would know how to gauge these states and demonstrate how, for example, excessively high heart-rate patterns or poor heart rate recovery or reports of poor mood states are related to poor performance while training. All these aspects will determine if the fighter is practicing in his or her optimal zone of functioning.
And lastly, the most important concept embedded in the idea behind deliberate practice and the IZOF is the fighter’s confidence. Sport scientists typically refer to this as self-efficacy, which is analogous to task-specific confidence. Confidence is known to be one of the strongest predictors of performance. But remember, we aren’t just talking about performance on fight night; we’re talking about accumulative performances taking place during training camp that ultimately lead up to the big fight. There are many sources of confidence that give an athlete personal insight into his or her overall perceptions of self-confidence. The most powerful source of confidence is prior performance or mastery experiences. For example, a fighter feels confident she can beat her opponent only because she has beaten her in a prior fight. But there are other sources, and if something like excessive weight-cutting or weight loss is intervening and causing heightened stress states, then the downward cycle of perceived confidence commences. For starters, excessive stress and poor mood states will reduce the likelihood of entering the IZOF during training, negating deliberate practice and thusly negatively affecting confidence. If the fighter perceives negative physiological or emotional states, then this will also lower his or her confidence. A fighter who is excessively stressed mentally and physically from excessive weight-loss will likely be training outside a targeted heart-rate zone and may burn out quicker during practice and require longer periods of recovery to lower the heart rate before re-engaging in the next routine.
As professional coaches, researchers, and scientists, we put great worth in the collection and analysis of meaningful data. As you can see, making the decision to endure large weight cuts requires deep thought as the ripple effect on performance can be resounding. It is important that data be collected to monitor a fighter’s progress to determine the need for training adjustments and assess the success of camp. Collecting data is not new to MMA or combat sports. Data like weight, fat percentage, miles run, or rounds sparred are commonly used to measure progress, and used effectively enough for most camps; however, as the sport evolves, we suggest that measurement processes evolve as well, especially when the choice has been made for fighters to drop drastic amounts of weight to compete in a lower weight class.
There are many measurement tools available on the market today which allows for the collection of a variety data. When working with Brad, we were actually able to collect data using a variety of measures including the speed of his movement, his heart rate, and his breathing rate. These metrics can be important as heart rate, breathing, and movement are very valuable measures when defining fighter’s optimal zone of functioning (Johnson et al., 2009). For instance, we were able to determine Brad’s optimal zone of functioning by gauging his heart-rate zone during striking combo execution, the time it took for him to recover and re-enter that zone during another attack, and then his optimal breathing patterns to mediate his heart-rate zones during simulated attacks and in between rounds as a means of “relaxing” before re-engaging. Optimal zones are all gauged by comparing the zone (physiological or psychological) and correlating it with the quality of performance. .
So again, you ask, does cutting weight and fighting in a lower weight class increase the probability of winning? Understanding deliberate practice, the IZOF and confidence will help the fighter and the fight camp build the highest quality of training camp to ensure the fighter has the highest probability of winning.
Edmonds, W. A., Johnson, M. B., Tenenbaum, G., & Kamata, A. (2013). Idiographic approaches in sport. In G. Tenenbaum, R. C. Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.), Handbook of Measurement in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Johnson, M. B., Edmonds, W. A., Tenenbaum, G., & Kamata, A. (2009). Determining individual affect-related performance zones (IAPZs): A tutorial. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 3, 34-57.
Marttinen, R. H., Judelson, D. A., Wiersma, L. D., & Coburn, J. W. (2011). Effects of self-selected mass loss on performance and mood in collegiate wrestlers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 25(4), 1010-5.
Smith, M.S., Dyson, R., Hale, T., Harrison, J. H., & McManus, P. (2000). The effects in humans of rapid loss of body mass on a boxing-related task. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 83(1), 34-39.