Health and Beauty

How MMA Builds Trust, Emotional Regulation and Power

  • July 2, 2024
  • 15 min read
How MMA Builds Trust, Emotional Regulation and Power

Taking up MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) as a hobby might not seem like the obvious choice for a Nonviolent Communication peace weaver and tree-hugging hippy. But I’m finding it a valuable place for deep learning about myself and how I function in relationships, how I handle mental pressure, how I learn and more. I’ve been training for exactly two years now. There are some interesting overlaps between these two apparent opposites of violence and nonviolence, although it took me a while to reconcile. One paradox is the greater capacity you have for violence the less you need to use it because you are more secure in yourself.

MMA involves punching, kicking and wrestling your opponent in timed rounds until someone wins by submission, knock out or judge’s decision. On the face of it, it’s a vicious sport and not something I ever thought I would be remotely interested in. I’m a lover not a fighter. I don’t enjoy watching people get hurt. But I watched my gym mates train for a couple months, looking closely to see how often they actually got hurt and how hard they each trained. So when I decided that I wanted to retrain how my body responded to being hit, as a personal safety strategy, I had already built some trust with this group of guys and the supportive culture at this club. I wouldn’t have dared to try MMA with people I didn’t know. I don’t recommend it to women without this protective culture of respect and safety, because the people you train with will impact you both physically and emotionally.

Feeling like a dweeb but wanting to record that I’m here!

In my first class I felt out of my depth and conspicuous because I didn’t know how to put the gloves on or where to put my feet. It was uncomfortable feeling weak and ignorant. I wasn’t sure I could belong here. I found it hard to look at myself in the mirror while I was training because I felt like a fraud. What I saw in the mirror didn’t match my inner image of myself as a compassionate person, and also I didn’t look like a tough fighter either! But I pushed through and now, two years later, I can wrap my hands like a pro and easily partner with new guys and talk them through form and stance and technique on their first night.

Training session with Courtney and Annie, the two top female MMA artists in WA

Almost all my training has been with men, apart from a few women (mostly my guests) who’ve done a class or two and the occasional visiting female athlete. This is fine with me. It makes me tougher, and as a safety strategy it’s more realistic for me to ground-truth whether things work against men who are bigger than me. Sometimes all I learn is that I should run because I’m out-strengthed. I hope I never have to use these skills in real life, but at least I have something now. Whereas before I had no tools at all, not even defence. I’m getting a lot of practice at ducking punches, distance management and reflexes. Maybe one day that will save me. This year I’m starting to look at intentionally building my strength too. So far my strength has improved entirely by lifting and manhandling other adults.

Training with the guys

When I teach NVC, one of the key foundational concepts is consent. We are always seeking willingness in our interactions with ourselves and others. In a way, this is what NVC is about. How can we find solutions to conflicts where both parties can get their needs met and neither party is resentful? How can we identify our needs and check with ourselves if we are willing to try that strategy to meet them? How can we make requests of others where we allow the other person the space to say no instead of demand energy? How can we step into power-with not power-over? MMA is not necessarily power-with – that is a good training culture where everyone is encouraged to push their limits and also stay mindful of the capacity and goals of their training partner. But oddly, MMA is always about consent. Both parties are willing to be hit and kicked when they’re fighting. If either person taps during a submission, the fighting immediately stops. If one person passes out and can no longer give consent, the ref acts for them and stops the fight.

It’s been a powerful experience for me to spend my evenings agreeing to be hit BUT knowing I can tap out or call it at any time. To physically allow men into my personal space and to be in control of that. It’s been really useful for me to stop my training partner and say ‘hit me less hard’ and have them listen to me and immediately adjust their intensity. As a woman this is so huge. I can notice when I struggle with speaking up (I find it much harder to ask women to hit softer, I think because part of me is so inspired!). And my coaches will back me up if I’m unsure. It’s a very physical boundary-setting process. Years ago when I did a women’s tantra course, we did something similar where we drew a line around ourselves on the floor and other women role-played being people entering our circle with any request and we could choose to let them in or not. And if we said no, they had to back off. This was such a powerful activity, some of us were in tears with the grief/relief/rage of never having had our ‘no’ heard before. And I get to do it every week. What a gift.

A common thing for women when they’re learning to fight is apologising every time they land a shot. Some men do it too. We’ve been brought up with ‘don’t hit’ and to say sorry. I had to train myself out of that and now I laugh when newbies to it to me. That’s what we’re here for right now, to hit each other. I already consented to this. It also took me more than a year to really aim my punches at the face, because I’ve had decades of conditioning to not hurt people. That in itself is an interesting way to access my own strength and resolve. Can I override my own brain and hit you in a controlled way but sharp enough that you respect my punches?

Fighting a potent way to explore trust. Stepping into the cage, drilling punches or any kind of MMA training with a partner is an exercise in trust. We are both working at an agreed intensity level and even though we are both aiming to hit each other in the head, while we’re in training we’re tempering that so that we can also train tomorrow. At our gym we always use mouth guards (they have saved my teeth multiple times), shin guards and gloves but we rarely use padded head gear. So I want to know that the man who is hitting me can control the direction and power of his kicks and punches and can keep his word. I can adjust the training so that I can work with guys much heavier than me. I can trust myself and choose to not train with someone who I am not yet sure of or I have seen that he can’t do that yet. I’m also trusting that he can pay attention and that his ego is strong enough to be hit by a woman without hitting me back harder. Conversely, I don’t want to be overprotected or trained with limply. And as my skills develop I am expanding my capacity for intensity and technique. Good training is responsive, where you observe your partner’s level and current state and goals and adjust how hard and fast you go.

In general, I have learned to be wary of both small guys and very large guys. Small guys are used to using all their power against bigger guys and trying to prove themselves, and they don’t always adjust for my weaker build. Obviously, bigger guys can be a risk to me because as well as their stronger muscles they fall harder, they’re harder for me to physically control or lift and sometimes I just can’t reach my arms around for the hold I want. Long-armed guys can always hit me while staying out of range of my punches. Most average size guys are used to tempering their force and can train safely with me. All my most dangerous moments have been with guys my size or smaller, even though there are more men bigger than me in the classes.

The main benefit for me, and I see this for the guys as well, in using the body to regulate emotionally. When my son was struggling at school his OT suggested ‘heavy work’, deep pressure, touch and other sensory activities to help him modulate both high and low energetic states. One of the things she suggested (which he loved) was to literally lie him down and I would lie crossways over him and roll up and down to squash him from head to toe. A few months into jiu jitsu I realised that this is the adult version. Feeling where the ends of your limbs are, having someone put their whole body weight on your torso, lifting people up or levering them off you, being squeezed and squashed by consent in a safe context, hitting the mat when someone takes you down; these are all sensory experiences that give your body strong feedback and bring you back into yourself. I know that whether I’m feeling sad or tired or scattered or angry, going to jiu jitsu will help.

And MMA takes this to another level, especially for anger and fear. Training is basically role-playing moving towards and away from another human in turns. Obviously you don’t want to train in a rage, but I have found it immensely helpful to immerse myself in a physically intense class as a way to feel more grounded and settled. There’s something very useful about doing this with other humans too. It’s socially connected and we co-regulate each other. Together, we make agreements about how intense we will be and we track how the other person is going. I’ll back off if I see my partner is getting rattled. Twice I’ve left the class to calm myself, which is less than I expected for about two hundred MMA classes. On the whole it leaves me feeling more connected to myself, more present and less agitated. This emotional regulation aspect is what keeps me training regularly. I prioritise this in my week because it supports everything else I do. The physical fitness is a side effect.

An unexpected benefit to martial arts in general has been the learning process and observing myself as a total beginner. Some days I can feel my brain cells struggling to connect. Learning sequences is similar to learning dance steps. There are all kinds of ‘brain gym’ exercises designed to help children to link up both hemispheres of the brain by crossing over the midline. This happens all the time with punching, kicking and grappling, which is very integrating for the brain. I feel like I’m at a disadvantage with MMA because my brain processing power doesn’t always keep up. You have to react in less than a second. I tend to take a little longer to process information, which is why I like writing rather than speaking live. But I’m definitely improving. I have watched myself start from zero and build my skills and capacity, which gives me confidence to try other things I can’t do yet. It’s mentally fortifying. These mind mastery skills transfer over into leadership, parenting and business. I can start at any age and commit to steady improvement of any skill. I’m 41 this year and I frequently train with men almost half my age.

My manhandling muscles!

Another benefit I hadn’t expected is being celebrated by men for being powerful. I certainly didn’t feel this straight away and have had many, many moments of feeling weak and small. But because I didn’t start this thing in order to ‘succeed’ I gave myself permission to be shit at it. And because I train consistently, eventually even though I’m not strong or fast or naturally good I will hit a perfectly timed takedown or the mechanics of something will click and I get the satisfaction of the guys raising their eyebrows or high fiving me. And they have no idea how rewarding that is for the little girl who was always the last to be chosen for sports teams at high school. I remember my male team mates whining to the teacher because I was the only one left and they didn’t want me to drag the team down (to be fair, I did run away from the ball then). Now the other guys talk me up to each other and that delights me. I can feel it when I roll or spar with them; they respect me more the more I can control them against the wall or on the ground. My MMA skills have transferred to jiu jitsu and new men at the gym are often surprised to find themselves matched or dominated by a smaller woman. As well as training MMA almost entirely with males, I mainly roll with men in jiu jitsu too. It’s the first time in my life that men have respected me for my ability in any kind of sport.

Am I planning to compete in MMA? Nope. I’m doing this mainly for the mental and emotional benefits and I’m getting plenty of what I need in the relative safety of the gym. There’s a real injury risk to competing in this sport and I quite like my brain cells. I’m not gifted, strong, fast or young. I will continue to push my training edge with these men whom I trust. I don’t know how long I’ll do this for but it’s currently an important part of my week. I train jiu jitsu four times a week plus MMA classes on two of those nights.

Hauling crates of firewood easily

So did MMA change the way my body responded to being hit? Hell yes. I am much tougher, I flinch less, I catch falling objects more often (cups, balls, tree branches), my core is stronger, I’m sure my bones are stronger. I am grateful for my man-lifting muscles every time I haul a sack of chook food or a crate of firewood. After shouldering 70kg, a mere 20kg sack is child’s play. I’m 65kg, for context. I can access the fierce part of myself more easily and move between playfulness and fight. The guys love it when I push them in the face at the start of a jiu jitsu roll or slow-mo a punch to their ribs when I walk past.

Mother-son bonding, RNC at Rotto

I’m more able to access the masculine in myself. Not manly, but more regulated and integrated as a human. I’ve had a long haul as a single parent for fifteen years, where I have daily played the part of both mother and father, and I definitely feel more able to play the man’s role now when needed. It’s been a game-changer for my relationship with my teenage son. It’s completely shifted our dynamic towards a much healthier respect and mutuality. As a woman in the world, I just feel less vulnerable. Before martial arts I was always very aware of my weakness when I went out at night, and on a bad night even when I was home safe in my own bed. I’m still aware of my surroundings now but I will go for a night run if I want to and my body feels calmer at the pub. I can back myself up.

Unfuckwithable after a power week of seven classes, four open mats and three spars!

I’m grateful to the good men at my club who have trained with me, coached me, protected me and celebrated me. The world is safer with you guys in it. Thanks for supporting me and holding a safe space where I can transform myself. I see other gyms with a culture of domination and power-over and I am so lucky that this place with real integrity and respect is available to me. This week in my business coaching call we were invited to choose three qualities we want to bring into ourselves. I chose unfuckwithability, sovereignty and playfulness. MMA is life-serving for me because it builds my unfuckwithability like nothing else and brings so much richness and growth into my life. And that’s worth celebrating.

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  • So proud of you Rach, for your courage in exploring such seeming opposites as nonviolent communication, and MMA! It has taken me a while to get my head around the MMA, and seeing how the whole body movement, the centrality of consent, the particular trust and character of the gym and the gym managers that you are in, all make for a rather surprising outcome of grounding and empowerment.

    • Thanks Mumma.

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