After the fight: The psychology of post-fight blues
Notes: “The Psychology of The Post-Fight Blues” was originally written for Rough Asia and published on 15 March 2018. Photos in this article courtesy of Kyle Ching: instagram.com/muaythaixl
After a fight, I generally feel, well, I feel “shitty”. The shitty feeling sets in by the time I have returned to the hotel, and it can last for days, even weeks.
Regardless of the result, the fight is over, and I face a massive anti-climax. I’ve been focused on the fight for weeks,and now the fight is over. Who am I again, and what am I doing?
The rest of my life is a distant memory existing in fragments, and it’s hard to pick up the pieces and find meaning in them. Losing is easier in this respect because at least then I have a purpose: go back to the gym and work on whatever it was that I wasn’t doing effectively enough to win the fight.
Coach Steven “Spyder” Hemphill from the New Orleans Boxing Club once put it to me that “fighters give themselves bipolar disorder”. While from a diagnostic point of view, this isn’t quite right, the sentiment Spyder expresses is striking.
He described the massive highs and lows of the fight life as he experienced it himself as a multiple world champion, and as he has observed in fighters over more than forty years of coaching boxers and kick-boxers.
He describes the intense high of getting fit, shaping your game plan, working towards an event with your trainer and corner behind you. Afterwards, you can feel disorientated and without purpose.
There is no real reason to train and push, the focus of the gym is no longer on getting you ready. Life can be depressingly ordinary, consisting of work, bills to pay, and family demands. The contrast, says Spyder, is extreme.
I was describing the highs and lows of a fighter’s life to a former drug and alcohol counselor colleague of mine. She was struck by the similarities of what I was describing with what many of her clients who are misusing illicit substances experience.
“There can be a lot of drama associated with illicit substance use. The person using the drug may spend a day trying to obtain the substance – multiple phone calls, negotiations, possibly stealing something.
“There’s often a lot of creative problem solving, the rush of success, and the sense of achievement in reaching the end goal. It can be very satisfying even without the actual substance consumption. Compare this excitement with life during rehab: sitting at home or in a boarding house on government allowance with nothing to do all day. In addition, the person in rehab is often no longer associating with their former friends and contacts.”
The fighter is training for hours every day, studying the opponent, working out a winning strategy, refining technique, and working very closely with her or his trainer. Outside of training, the fighter is dedicated to rest and recovery, good nutrition and weight monitoring.
In the post-fight period, the fighter, like the person in rehab, faces a sudden loss of purposeful, focused activity. If the fighter is taking time off, they may also be distanced from their former social circle.
I do not mean to equate the activities – the differences are stark – but what I want to suggest is that the experience of low mood may well be a very human response to a sudden change in stimulus, and the removal of a purposeful activity.
In the sporting world, there is, I discovered, a name for prolonged low mood post-event: it’s called “post-major event depression” and it isn’t only fighters who experience it.
After the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, articles about “post-Olympic depression” featured in mainstream media publications, often featuring Olympic athletes who had come out about their experience of post-event low mood, and the sport psychologists who work with athletes before, during and after competition.
I read through stories in mainstream media and on forums and blog posts about athletes facing post-competition low-mood. (The word “depression” is often used, however, it has a specific meaning. I want to avoid using the term incorrectly, so it’s better if I use the term “low mood”.)
Recommendations for dealing post-competition low-mood generally entail healthy diet, yoga classes and planning ahead for life after the big event. While I don’t want to discount the value of healthy lifestyle and activity planning, I want to suggest that there is an opportunity for the individual to explore something profound about themselves. Yes, it’s a shitty, low state, but what if it’s also an opportunity?
In the words of Spyder, “martial arts is about self-development.” Stepping into the ring is stepping into a moment of truth – you’re about to see how you perform under pressure and in violence.
Having the courage to put yourself in that situation is one thing; coping with what you see is another, but a Nak Muay does cope with the raw insight they gain into their naked, imperfect self; they learn to accept and improve, and they are richer individuals for having ventured into a very tough place and come out the other side.
What if the post-fight anticlimax is a similar kind of gift? What if it’s actually a chance to explore who you are – and who you have become – outside of all the activity and rush and focus?
Maybe it’s an opportunity to reflect on those strengths and qualities within, which aren’t about to disappear like your 6-pack will during the non-training period. There are qualities of character that a person who has been in the ring will never lose, and those qualities will endure forever, even though the moments that helped build those qualities will not.
The post-fight slump you are experiencing may be the natural and inevitable return to base-line after having done something highly focused and hugely demanding. Because you got in the ring, what you just did was also a personal development opportunity.
Now that the fight is over, you have an opportunity to sit quietly with yourself and consolidate that personal development – before the next fight camp begins.