Interview with Dr. Randy Borum, Combat Sport Psychologist

In my campaign to share with you as many aspects of mma as possible, I'd now like to introduce you to someone who holds a role I think many of you would definitely consider to be "outside the box." Please meet Dr. Randy Borum, a Combat Sport Psychologist.

I first came across Dr. Borum's blog, CombatSportPsychology, and found a number of things he had to say very interesting and informative. He authors a monthly column for Black Belt Magazine and has worked with fighters from numerous professional combat sports organizations.

Check after the jump for the whole interview.

First, thanks for agreeing to the interview. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself; your official job title(s) and your educational background?

My pleasure. Thanks for your interest. I am a Professor at the University of South Florida where I teach and do research on violence and national security issues. I have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. I am a licensed and board-certified psychologist and a Certified Sport Psychologist. For several years, I was a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and I did some strength coaching for my University's Boxing Team back when it was active.

What inspired you to get into the field of combat sports psychology?

I was a police officer for a while before I was a psychologist and I began studying sport psychology and motor behavior principles back in the mid 1980s to help understand how they might be applied to help police officers perform well (mentally) in high-stress, high-risk situations. I knew some competitive grapplers and professional mma fighters who talked to me about the mental aspects of their game. I saw some applications of what I had learned back in the 1980s combined with new sport psychology research and other things I had learned about psychology and human performance. I shared it with them and they found it to be helpful. I figured that there must be a lot of sport psychologists working with combat sports, so I did some searching to network and share ideas. I was surprised to find that there were very few sport psychologists who had worked at all with combat sport athletes, and none of them really specialized in those sports. I began writing some articles integrating research and scientific findings with critical aspects of the mental fight game and applying them to practical challenges these athletes sometimes face. I don’t really know many other sports well enough have a good sport-specific understanding of the mental skill nuances, so I really focus only on combat sports.

What is your favorite combat sport, and who is your favorite fighter?

I like different things about different disciplines – BJJ, boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, judo – they each have really interesting mental skill components that play out in different ways. I am more drawn to striking, but overall, if I had to choose a “favorite”, it would probably be mma because it is integrative and draws from so many disciplines and styles. As for my favorite fighter, I try not to play favorites, but I really admire those who commit to being respectful and I most enjoy watching those who have precise, strategic, and somewhat unorthodox striking games. Who does that sound like? I do like Anderson Silva’s game, but I have a group of “favorites” – ranging from champions to those who are relatively unknown.

I understand if you can’t answer this next one, but let me go ahead and ask - With what fighters have you worked? Also, inasmuch as you can disclose such information, was the time you worked with these fighters before a general fight, or before something bigger like a championship fight?

I understand the question, but as a matter of professional ethics, it’s not really appropriate for me to mention specific names. I can say that I do a very limited amount of direct consultation with athletes – mainly pro MMA fighters – some have fought in the UFC, KOTC and other international promotions. I have also consulted with some professional boxers, MuayThai competitors, and elite-level grapplers. Some have been prior to championship or other critical matches; others just wanting to hone their mental game or work though a particular performance problem.

Are you typically contacted by the fighters themselves or by a larger organization, like a training center or fight team?

Typically, the fighters themselves will reach out directly. I have been contacted by a fighter’s manager and medical advisors to organizations, but most initial outreach comes from the competitors.

When you work with an athlete, do you tailor a program to the individual athlete or do you have a set curriculum you follow?

It’s always individually tailored. There are some core skills and core competencies that most fighters need to learn if they are competing at the elite level, but how they apply those skills most effectively varies from person to person. This is not a “one size fits all” kind of thing. I suppose some people can put together a set curriculum or canned program – and it may help some people – but my experience is that at the upper levels of competition that the nuances become increasingly important. It’s generally not right to think that just because a skill works for me or for any other specific person, that it will work the same way for everyone.

Here’s a practical example: generally speaking, competitive fighters need to learn how to manage and regulate their levels of physiological arousal and intensity. But the optimal “zone” is not the same for everyone. Some fighters need to feel calm, others need to feel controlled aggression, still others need to engage at a vigorous or high level of intensity. So sport psychology interventions work best when they are framed in terms finding a good “fit”. There are a few “right ways” and “wrong ways”, but mostly the key is finding what’s right for you. I try not to take away from a fighter any skill or strategy that works effectively for him or her. Instead I try to give him additional tools or help him to use his existing strategies in a slightly different way that will facilitate his or her best performance.

Regardless of the approach you take, what are some of your favorite techniques to use and which ones have you found to be most successful?

Techniques, exercises, drills – whatever you want to call them – are just tools. Those tools are used to build skills. Sport psychology is about building an effective sport-specific mental skill set. But building skills takes practice. It's interesting that most fighters will tell you that mental skills are really important, but in their own training, they spend nearly all of their time on physical training and very little on enhancing mental skills – even though physical conditioning usually peaks out before mental conditioning. Some fighters don't realize or don’t believe that psychological skills can be trained and developed, but they can. So I can teach a technique like progressive muscle relaxation or diaphragmatic breathing, but unless the athlete makes a commitment to practice – just like learning a submission or striking combination – the skill won’t develop and it can’t be applied most effectively to improve performance.

I try to look at the skills needed and how they are being applied, then I’ll think about which techniques might offer the best starting point for a specific fighter to move toward enhancing that skill. At the broadest level, there are three behavioral components of fight performance that are affected by psychological factors: Thoughts (Cognition); Feelings (Emotion) and Physical (Somatic).

Skill sets usually focus in some way on regulating thoughts, feelings and physical responses, each of which can affect the others in different ways at different times. A negative thought like "I'm gassing- I won't make it to the end of the round" may lead to feeling discouraged and having physical sensations of fatigue. On the other hand, rehearsing confident thoughts like "I am strong and powerful and completely prepared for this match" may lead to feelings of excitement, which produce physical sensations of energy.

Some of the core skills are the ability to stay fully in the present moment (a state of “flow” or being “in the zone”), regulating arousal or intensity, confidence, focus/attention, and goal setting.

How much of a fighter’s win or loss would you generally attribute to the mental aspect of their game?

Over the years a lot of combat sport trainers and athletes have said that 80-90% of a fighter’s success comes from mental factors. Pat Miletich said it about MMA. Freddie Roach said it about boxing, and Dan Gable said it about wrestling. In reality, I guess there's no way to precisely measure these things, but it does all point to the fact that psychological factors are critical for effective fight sport performance. It may be particularly important at the elite levels because fighters are already matched up on size, experience and skill.

Are combat sports something you follow on your free time as well, or would that be too much “taking the office home” with you?

Sure, I follow them on my free time. I enjoy them and I learn from them. I do what I do in combat sports because I love the sports and I enjoy helping participants achieve their potential. My wife also enjoys watching mma.

What exactly is Crazy Monkey Defense and what is your affiliation with that program?

The Crazy Monkey Defense Program was created by Rodney King of South Africa (not the guy from LA). Rodney is an innovative martial artist, a skilled striker and has black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from Rigan Machado. The term “Crazy Monkey Defense” really just refers specifically to a striking defense in which your elbows and forearms are in constant motion shielding your face, so that your head is protected and incoming strikes are more deflected than absorbed. You see lots of guys use variations of it. Rampage is one example. But Rodney has evolved a program that goes beyond just the defensive maneuver. He has done the “competition” thing in the past, but he is interested now in transforming the way martial arts are taught, coached and experienced. He asked me if I would be willing to serve as the official Performance Psychology Advisor to the program. I agreed. Rodney collaborated in creating a training journal for martial artists. You can get it as a free e-book if you register on the Crazy Monkey Defense site (also free). It’s definitely worth checking out the CMD site. Rodney has some great training videos and some exciting new ideas about martial art training. (PV's Note - check out CMD on the web here.)

Two of your colleagues, Drs. Ted Butryn and Matt Masucci are working on an MMA Sport Psychology Research Study. As much as you are able, tell us about this study, what the goals of it are, and how you think it will affect combat sport psychology, since it is one of the first of its kind.

They are terrific guys and thoughtful researchers. They are interested in the stressors faced by MMA athletes, and how they cope with stress in their matches, as well as during training. They are interviewing fighters from across the US and Canada and doing follow-up interviews with some to see how things evolve over time. They presented preliminary results at the largest Sport Psychology conference in North America last September, and they hope the final published results will be of use to academics, coaches, and fighters.

Studies like this can obviously prove very beneficial – what kind of study would you like to see completed – what kind of study (and what kind of subjects) do you think would provide the most useful information?

In fact, I have recently collected data from about 400 combat sport athletes. People were very gracious about participating. I have a series of questions I would like to pursue, ranging from some basic science issues like understanding the link between recurrent concussions and depression, to exploring the role of mental toughness and to identifying strategies that successful competitors use for self-regulation and improvement in different combat sports. One very basic product I hope to generate is a brief paper-and-pencil instrument that combat sport competitors can use to assess their own strengths and growth areas in sport-specific mental skills. I don’t want to sell it, but rather to make it freely available to whoever would want to use it – maybe online. It will be a few months before I have the data analyzed to ensure the instrument’s reliability and validity. Then, I’ll have to think about the dissemination plan. I’m hoping some people will find it useful.

How have you seen your field grow in the past 5 years?

The field of sport psychology, generally, is growing. Psychologists have been studying sport performance since the late 1800s, but they really didn't begin performance consulting with athletes until the 1960s. The U.S. Olympic Committee only hired its first full-time sports psychologist in 1985.

The systematic application of psychology in combat sports is really just beginning. What we have seen over the past five years is some combat sport athletes who publicly have discussed their consultation with sport psychologists and the benefit they derived from that. So, I think competitors have become more interested and receptive to what sport/performance psychology might have to offer. That’s a good start. It helps to get us past the hurdle where people think sport psychology is only for people who have mental disorders. At the same time, it has opened the door to increase discussion about some very common problems that many people – including fighters – struggle with – including depression. There are tools that help combat sport athletes improve their competitive performance, but also enhance their quality of life. We’re making progress.

Where do you see your field going in the next 5 years?

Sport psychology still is not used as systematically or as effectively as it could be. With FILA's recent recognition of grappling as an international sport and the explosive growth of Mixed Martial Arts in particular, I hope there is an opportunity to make sport psychology a regular part of combat sport training.

I suspect the next five years will see continued growth in understanding and acceptance of psychology’s contributions to combat sport training and competition. We will probably see more competitors and more training camps making use of sport psychologists. I also hope the enthusiasm spreads to young sport psychology and sport science researchers who can help build our base of sport-specific scientific foundation of knowledge to improve performance.

You write a monthly column for Black Belt magazine – how do you think exposure like this helps your discipline and the fighters who study it?

Although the magazine is very popular among traditional martial artists, I’m not really sure how many people read the “Psyched!” column. But it’s the only martial arts or fight-related publication I know of that has a column dedicated to sport/performance psychology in every issue. My hope is that it exposes martial artists and fighters to some new ideas that can help to improve their performance.

Obviously, all of the information you’ve learned can’t be imparted in just a few days, but have you ever thought about offering a weekend clinic or seminar, for fight teams or individual fighters to attend, to help with some of the pre-fight and training techniques you offer? Or would such mass learning not be possible due to the personal nature of what you offer?

I do think it is possible to convey some basic skills and information in a seminar-type format. I am not opposed to the idea, but I just haven’t actively sought opportunities to do it. We have an awesome cadre of pro mma fighters here at my home gym, Gracie Tampa, and I am doing some overview seminar stuff for them, but I haven’t tried to market anything publicly.

Individually, on a short-term and/or long-term basis, what do you hope to accomplish within your field?

Well… in advancing sport psychology for combat sports, I don't have a specific "ultimate goal" in mind. I do the writing and work I do in this area mostly because I love the sport and I enjoy helping fighters achieve their potential. I'm not trying to build an empire or even a cottage industry. What I have been doing is just trying to share information and ideas about how psychological principles might contribute to combat sport training. As I said, I think that people know the mental side of the game is important, and they may even know how to discipline themselves and be tough, but they don't necessarily know how to assess and build a mental skill set to complement the strength, conditioning and fighting skills. Some don't even know that factors like concentration, confidence, relaxation, and mental toughness are skills that can be learned, practiced and developed.

So I guess my first goal is get more fighters and trainers to think systematically about their mental game in the same way that they think about fighting skills, conditioning and nutrition as parts of the big picture. Many elite-level fighters or fight camps have a strength and conditioning coach or a sport nutritionist that they consult with – but how many have a sport psychologist? Sure - psychologists can help people who are depressed or who have serious psychological problems, but those with an understanding of sport psychology can also do so much more – not just to provide treatment, but to enhance performance and to take their fight game to the next level.

My second goal would be to help encourage the next generation of sport psychologists – researchers and clinicians – who are interested in focusing on combat sports. There are a bunch of really interesting research questions yet to answer and, and there are increasing opportunities to help fighters and other combat sport athletes to achieve their potential.

Where did you come up with the monkey logo on your blog?

The monkey with boxing gloves is one of the old logo elements from the Crazy Monkey Defense program. Their artist and designer really does great work.

So far, what has been your most enjoyable experience as a combat sport psychologist?

I don't know that I can identify a single experience, but I always find it to be incredibly rewarding when I can consult with a fighter who is genuinely interested in improving his game or who is struggling with a particular problem that is holding him back – then he follows through on what we discussed and comes back to say: "That really worked" or "That was really helpful." This is one of the few things I do professionally where I get feedback at the individual level. For me, those are probably the best moments.

Thanks for all of your time – is there anyone you’d like to thank?

I’d like to thank the fighters and other combat sport athletes who have taught me so much about the sports and who have trusted me to support them. I am also grateful to those who participated in my research study. Combat Sports International helped out by providing a discount to people who completed the surveys. They were very generous. Kirik Jenness, President of MixedMartialArts.com also helped to get the word out. He is a true gentleman who is strongly committed to MMA, and has always been incredibly supportive of my efforts.

I have a blog/site where I have most of my past articles posted: CombatSportPsychology. If anyone is interested in MMA training in the Tampa Bay area, they should definitely check out my home gym Gracie Tampa. Rob Kahn owns the school, and Cristina Rodriguez (2007 World Grappling Games Bronze Medalist) manages operations. They have an awesome cadre of competitive grapplers, and fighters who I learn from everyday. Rob’s a Royce Gracie Black Belt, who is incredibly innovative. His jiu-jitsu game is phenomenal. Gabe Maldonado is one of a best striking coaches I ever had the privilege to work with. Jeremy “Buttercup” Thurlow has built a world-class strength and conditioning program for the school. They have had fighters on five seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” on Spike.

Grapplers looking for the best tournaments should definitely check out Grapplers Quest. Gracie Tampa’s manager, Cristina Rodriguez, is their new National Event Coordinator and definitely knows how important it is to competitors that events run smoothly, safely and fairly. Grapplers Quest aims to be the Nation’s top grappling promotion.

Thanks to everyone else who takes time to read this interview and other articles on my blog. It’s your interest that will help us collectively to move forward.


So there you have it. Again, thanks to Dr. Borum for agreeing to the interview - check out his blog from the link above, or the banner at the top of the main page.

Until next time...


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