MMA psychologist: McGregor’s mastery of excuses will ensure he bounces back from defeat

Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz will meet for the second time on August 20 at UFC 202 in the T-Mobile arena Las Vegas in what is being anticipated as the biggest fight of the year, writes Ciaran O'Flynn.

McGregor has gained such a reputation for his trash-talking and bold predictions that he has been compared to the great Muhammad Ali on multiple occasions.

McGregor has constantly talked about his mentality being bulletproof and how he approaches the game differently to every fighter on the roster. However after losing the first fight to Diaz last March how will McGregor approach the rematch mentally?

We talked to sports MMA psychologist James Barraclough, the author of the MMA Sport Psychology Manual to get his take on McGregor’s mental approach.

Barraclough believes the loss to Diaz will have a positive effect on McGregor’s mind-set and says McGregor possesses traits familiar with some of the best athletes in the world.

Conor McGregor's overwhelming self-confidence will stand to him in preparation for the rematch.
Conor McGregor's overwhelming self-confidence will stand to him in preparation for the rematch.

“It could definitely be a positive. Looking at his comments on BJ Penn’s website, McGregor looks like he is demonstrating a sub-conscious trait that a lot of top athletes show called a self-serving bias. This means that these athletes will use what is essentially a defence mechanism by blaming something in the run-up to their performance for their loss. In McGregor’s case this was linked to his pre-fight nutrition.”

“I am forever, forever learning,” McGregor told ESPN. “I think in the last fight [against Nate Diaz in March], I mismanaged my weight. I was working with my nutritionist for the lightweight title fight to make 155 pounds. I was on track. Nine days out from the fight, I’m in phenomenal condition, and then the weight got changed [to 170] and all of a sudden I’m 10 pounds below and I’m like, I don’t need this diet because I need to eat up to the weight. So I threw that out. I disengaged from that. I started eating two steaks a day, two breakfasts. I’d have a coffee and some cookies with that, please, also. I’d be in the gym six to eight hours on fight week. I’ve got bags of energy. I can do this all day. But it came back and bit me in the ass. My body went into shock. I over trained and then mismanaged the weight, and it came back to bite me on the ass.”

“This may look like he is making excuses, but from a psychological point of view this is most definitely a positive. He is refusing to blame any lack of ability on his part and is ‘attributing’ failure to external and unstable factors according to Weiner’s Attribution Theory (1985).

“This is essential to an athlete’s confidence. The first statement about “forever learning” also demonstrates what is known as a ‘growth mind-set’ (Dweck, 2006) and shows that he is using the experience as a positive learning opportunity instead of as a setback.

“This is also a huge factor in motivation and maintaining high self-confidence. In the short-term, it may well have ‘brought him down to Earth’, but from the reports this was in a good way as it has helped him identify ways to improve and he has taken appropriate action to do so.

“The situation reminds me a little of Lennox Lewis’ two fights against Hasim Rahman, where in the first fight he was perhaps a little overconfident and perhaps even complacent. His loss gave him a ‘kick up the backside’ and huge motivation for revenge, which would have driven his efforts in training.

“McGregor has also (allegedly) come under criticism from sparring partner Chris van Heerden for having a video of them training together “cut to make McGregor look good”. This may well be the case, but again this would be good for McGregor’s confidence. This is a visualisation technique used by sport psychologists known as ‘performance accomplishments’, otherwise known as a personal highlights reel to remind them of how good they can be.

“This is less about trying to make van Heerden look bad and more about enhancing McGregor’s belief; it would make no sense whatsoever in putting in bits where the former had the upper hand. It may have been useful to discuss any perceived mistakes/weaknesses in the post-mortem of the first fight (such as what went wrong – for example, how did McGregor get into the situation where Diaz got his back and choked him and how could this be prevented next time) for this to be used in the tactical approach to the next one. Then this would not be mentioned as the second fight comes around – any important tactical/psychological elements should have been covered in the training camp.

“Another visualisation technique (mental rehearsal) could then be used for McGregor to ‘practice his lines’ – his tactics for the upcoming fight.”

Will Nate Diaz win again in the rematch?
Will Nate Diaz win again in the rematch?

Many people argue that Diaz will also have the upper hand in the rematch given the fact he only had eleven days’ notice for the fight but will the fact Diaz will have a full camp have any impact on McGregor`s mental preparation for the rematch?

Barraclough says: “I think this depends on how his coaching team handle the situation. Again, going back to Attribution theory, if they attribute McGregor’s loss to external/unstable factors then they can do the same with Diaz being victorious i.e. ‘he got lucky’.”

So what will a second loss to Diaz do to affect McGregor`s confidence?

“This could be an issue in the short-term as any top athlete is affected by losing. However, if he applies what I believe to be his approach to his initial loss to Diaz, then in the long-term it can make him an even better performer. He could also attribute a potential loss to external/unstable factors such as task difficulty (i.e. fighting out of his ‘normal’ weight), rather than ability.”

Dana White has constantly said McGregor was obsessed with this rematch at the same weight. After the first fight he replayed the fight 20 times before attending the post-fight press conference. What does this show about his mentality? Is this obsession a positive mentality?

“There is a good chance that McGregor has perfectionist tendencies (as many, many top athletes do). There are clearly documented links between perfectionism and obsessive behaviour. This may explain his drive to avenge his first loss and why he wants to do it at the same weight. Perfectionists have an inability to accept mistakes and will strive relentlessly to put them right.

“This can potentially be detrimental if it becomes all-consuming. Rugby union player Jonny Wilkinson has been noted as missing one or two kicks in training and then having to stay for hours to ‘put it right’. This can have negative effects in terms of potential overtraining leading to injury and possibly even burnout and retirement. On the other hand, it won England the Rugby World Cup in 2003! It really depends again on how he is managed by his team and most importantly how he manages himself.”

Ciaran O'Flynn writes for

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