Recently, I was a guest on a podcast. One of the hosts asked me about skills that I picked up during my career as a Combat Controller (CCT) that have transferred over into my current job as a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. Without much time to think about it, I quickly responded to him with a boring, generic answer about mental toughness and the ability to stay awake when needed.

During my drive home after the taping was complete, I couldn’t stop thinking about the question and my lame response.  With additional thought, I’ve realized that it was actually the mental toughness I built as an amateur fighter (before joining the service) that helped me thrive in the CCT pipeline and while deployed. I want to emphasize that this mental toughness was in fact built, not found somewhere within me, or somehow magically given to me upon winning my first amateur fight or even after passing through the pipeline. Mental toughness is a muscle, one that needs to be strained and ripped apart regularly, so that it will grow back stronger. The military and martial arts are particularly effective tools for shaping this growth. That being said, there were valuable habits, experiences, and lessons from my time in the military that seemed to accelerate the success of my post-military career.

During my two-year CCT pipeline, the seasoned instructors taught us a variety of methods to close with, overwhelm, and destroy those who wish us harm. But to be honest, very little of our tactics and Close Quarter Battle (CQB) training focused on hand-to-hand fighting. Combat Controllers would much rather take out their enemies with a bullet or a GBU-12 (a laser-guided 500-pound bomb).  Let’s face it, if you are a CCT and are close enough to use hand-to-hand combatives, it’s already a really bad day and things have gotten seriously out of control. All of this is to say that while my career in special operations certainly trained me physically, brutally so sometimes, it didn’t teach me any new MMA techniques that have helped me in the ring.

As I thought about it, I realized that the skills that I still utilize most are cerebral rather than physical. I have come to believe that the most transferable skill I learned in the military was to prepare and plan for my battles so that I am calm during a fight. There were two times in my life I can vividly recall experiencing utter tunnel vision where all I could focus on is staying alive. The first time was in my first amateur MMA fight. The second time is when I had my first High Altitude/Low Opening (HALO) jump at Army free-fall school. Luckily both of these terrifying events worked-out well for me, but that’s not how you want to deal with stressful or life-threatening situations.  Special Operation Forces (SOF) training teaches you that when you have planned and prepared for every eventuality, you can better handle these extremes.

(Photo courtesy of Connor Matthews)

Maintaining the ability to keep cool, calm, and collected by recognizing and analyzing a threat or danger is what keeps you alive.

Throughout my time as a CCT, I was continuously being put in to dangerous and stressful situations. Any given day at work could involve activities such as fast-roping out of a helicopter or a HALO night jump into the ocean. Eighty percent of our time was spent planning our missions down to the smallest detail, especially while we were deployed. You quickly learn that being a SOF operator doesn’t mean you can step off the bird at the objective while slinging lead downrange without a plan – like in the movies. This focus on planning and practice allows me to act and react like a professional in stressful environments. This habit has been a game-changer in the mental aspect of my fight game. It has helped me deal with the nervousness that often accompanies fighting in the arena in front of a crowd. I know when I get into that cage, I will do exactly what I have been training to do day in and day out.

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Prior practice makes for a perfect performance.

Just like my SOF training I now continually focus on the basics of my craft. As a young MMA fighter, I would often watch UFC superstars like George St. Pierre as he would land his famous Superman punch and I would attempt to replicate it. Unfortunately, those type of punches generally are not the type of moves that win fights. Rather, having strong, deep foundations in the basics and fundamentals is what consistently wins fights. As an operator, you always strive to pay attention to the smallest details. Whether that be as simple as dealing with a weapon malfunction or practicing team react-to-contact drills, they eventually become second nature when things don’t go exactly as planned. I have worked to incorporate these techniques into my MMA training and practice my basic fighting skills day after day.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Some of the most important preparation you can do is getting intel on your opponent. No two combat missions or fights are exactly the same. Doing as much recon and preparation as possible is absolutely crucial to success. In SOF it would be unthinkable to conduct a mission without rock-solid intelligence. Similarly, it is important to do recon in MMA. I have incorporated this into my fight preparation. I regularly find intel on my opponent online.  You can determine strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities from a short YouTube clip of a previous fight or sparring match.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

If I had an opportunity to go back and re-answer that question on the transferability of my military skills to the MMA, I would say that the most important would be preparing and planning. That being said, you always have to keep in mind the words of the great Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” All the preparation in the world will not guarantee victory, but it certainly improves your odds.

(Photo courtesy of Connor Matthews)

* The article was written by guest contributor Connor Matthews.