Ronda Rousey's Defeat and the Psychology of a Comeback

Sport psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow talks about Ronda Rousey's way forward after such a high-profile loss.

by Jeff Harder
Nov 19 2015, 4:01pm

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

What do you do when you've found out that you actually aren't invincible after so many proclamations to the contrary? How do you handle the glee over your professional destruction coming at you 140 characters at a time? And after you've had your worst day at the office, how do you get your mind right before punching the clock again?

Less than a week after UFC women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm destroyed the once-indestructible Ronda Rousey, the questions about the fighting future of MMA's long-reigning 135-pound empress after her first loss are snowballing. For answers, Fightland spoke with Dr. Jim Afremow, an Arizona-based sport psychologist, author of The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, and a mental performance coach for competitors across the sporting world. (One of his MMA clients, UFC bantamweight Scott Jorgensen, fights this weekend.) And for Rousey, the road to a resurgence starts between her ears.

Fightland: Over the last four to five years that Ronda's been competing in MMA, being undefeated was central to her narrative. When that's such a huge part of your athletic identity, how do you make sense of that first loss?
Jim Afremow:
Success is a double-edged sword. When we're successful, the demands that are placed on us become incessant: the better you do, the better you have to do—otherwise it feels like a disappointment. That can be overwhelming. I've worked with a lot of great athletes who have said, "I don't want to be number one. I don't want to be like Tiger Woods. I don't want to be like Ronda Rousey. I want to lead a normal life." It's counterintuitive, but sometimes when fighters do lose and that winning streak ends, subconsciously there's a little bit of relief. I almost felt that way with Fedor [Emelianenko]: he won and won for a decade, and when he finally got tapped out, he looked a little lighter for a moment, like, "Okay, now I don't have all those expectations and pressures and demands placed on me." It can actually be a relief and a way to start fresh. That's the opportunity that Ronda has now: in some ways it feels like all the glitter has been washed away, but she has an opportunity to write the most amazing comeback story in sports history, reclaim her belt, go on another historic run, and maybe transform herself as a person.

Sometimes a loss can be a personal catastrophe, but experiencing a loss can also demystify the false idea that it's a personal catastrophe. What makes the difference?
There are no bigger highs and no bigger lows than in mixed martial arts or combat sports—especially since you're only competing once, twice, three times a year. And when you train for a big fight and you have your camp, it's almost like what they call Ironman blues in the triathlon world: even when you do your best, you feel depressed afterward because you had your whole life organized around this one performance. We experience a natural letdown anyway even when we win. It's a double-whammy when you lose.

Most athletes at the end of a tough season, or a tough performance like Ronda's had, go through a natural grieving process. It's a psychological death, a death of our goal and of our dream. There's shock or denial, there might be some bargaining, there's definitely anger—she took the fight on somewhat short notice, so there might have been a little bit of "why did I take the fight when I could have used more time?" There's depression: "I could never undo what happened and I'll never finish undefeated." Eventually, it leads to acceptance, where you've got to accept what happened and make the best of it moving forward. That's a crossroads: either you're going to point fingers and not learn the lessons that need to be learned, give up on yourself and be self-destructive, or you're going to find a way to turn it into something more remarkable. Everything that happens to us in life is not necessarily good or bad. It's like electricity: she could either light a room with it or burn up. It's her call.

There was a fair amount of drama for Ronda before this fight: her coach declared bankruptcy, her mom said she wanted to hit him with her car, and there were the obligations that came with her broader celebrity. If you're Ronda, how do you figure out how much those out-of-the-cage circumstances factored into losing?
You could talk to Mom and Mom will say, "It's your coach's fault and you need to get rid of that guy." You talk to Coach, and it's like, "You didn't do this, you didn't do that." The problem when you get really great at anything is there's always going to be people that want to share their opinions. I'm biased, but ideally, you find a really good psychologist or sport psychologist—someone a little more neutral. They aren't necessarily going to give you answers, but they'll help you find your own answers.

Another idea would be to reach out to people who have been in similar circumstances as her. Young golfers might reach out to Jack Nicklaus and ask, "How did you handle losing that one US Open? How did you handle the negative media attention?" Kobe Bryant reached out to people like Michael Jordan, Rory McIlroy talked to people like Arnold Palmer, and I think that's really important. There are only so many people who can really get what you're going through.

I've never seen Donald Trump or Lady Gaga chime in to express their joy at seeing an MMA fighter lose, and that's just the tip of the iceberg of the derision Ronda faces online. When you're dealing with this breadth and volume of negative chatter on social media, how do you cope with those criticisms?
Fritz Perls, a famous Gestalt psychiatrist in the 1960s, was once asked about getting criticism and feedback from people and he said, "If one or two people call you an elephant, disregard it. But if a bunch of people call you an elephant, then maybe you need to buy a bag of peanuts." Part of Ronda's task as a person and as a professional is, "I'm getting criticized a lot now, and what's some of the legitimate criticism I'm receiving? If it's that I didn't show good sportsmanship, maybe I need to take that in and maybe I need to own that, and maybe I need to change that." But in terms of "she sucks," "she's overrated," "I'm glad that happened to her," that's the stuff you can disregard.

There's a personal side and there's a social side to all of us. Did she really believe that she's bigger than life and better than everyone? If that is the case, then this might be a growing opportunity for her to realize, "Okay, I need to feel bigger than life in the cage. But outside the cage, maybe this was a humbling experience, to realize that I don't walk on water." The sportsmanship is a piece I think she needs to take up a notch—shake the other person's hand and leave as friends. That's where she took a lot of heat, and I'll be honest, some of that is justified. Outrageousness pays off in sports, but if you're not winning, it's going to wear thin real quick. If she had won, she would have been given a free pass. But now its like, okay, you're going to pay a price.

We can pick apart her strategy, but we don't know what was going on in her head. Maybe they had a different game plan but she got out of it mentally and reverted back to old habits. The challenge moving forward for her is that great champions don't think about the outcome—they're so wrapped up in the moment. But when you lose and get your heart broken, it's really easy when you're in that moment again to start thinking about the outcome: you fight not to lose, or you try to force the victory and you get in your own way. I think that's going to be really fascinating moving forward, to see if she's still going to fight with that same measure of boldness.

I'm curious to hear what you made of Holly Holm's performance. She entered the UFC to a lot of acclaim, her first fight in the promotion was a pretty tepid decision win after which she admitted the nerves got the best of her, there was a broad consensus that she was being rushed into this fight with Ronda, she was a huge underdog—and she outperformed everyone else's expectations when it counted most.
She mentioned visualization—that's a mental skill we all have, but we don't always use it to full effect. She talked about visualizing herself knocking Ronda out with a head kick. It's amazing how many times I work with an elite athlete, they don't perform well, and I get a call afterward and I say, "Did you visualize yourself winning?" and they'll say no, or that they never saw themselves coming through in that situation they ended up being in. Say it's a swimmer who never imagined having the lead at the Olympic trials—well, no wonder why when you were in that situation you panicked.

Holly's challenge was that everyone was making Ronda bigger than life—she was fighting the legend of Ronda Rousey. Never put your opponent on a pedestal. Respect their game, but respect your abilities more than theirs. Too often it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where we look at other people and almost lose before we fight. I think Holly did a good job handling the size of the arena, the hoopla, everything leading up to the fight. When Ronda was coming at her and it wasn't working, you could almost see Holly grow two feet taller. Again, it could have gone the other way; if Ronda landed a couple of big shots or got her down, we'd all be saying she's unbeatable. But what we're all truly capable of doing is way more than we give ourselves credit for.

Anything else?

In our society, we're really good at building people up and tearing them to shreds. Ronda still went on an historic run that can never be taken away from her. She's done things that almost no one has ever done in sports or in life, she's probably set for life financially, and she has a great story. She needs to maintain that perspective, and she really should hold her head up high because she did what she set out to do—you could tell she was gunning for it. Again, maybe some strategic things need to be tweaked, but if you have the guts to go out there and go after it, that's the true victory. She was a champion in how she fought—she just didn't end the night as the champion. Everyone loves a comeback story, and that's what she should really fall in love with. In some ways this was the worst night of her life, and in other ways it's a great challenge: "How am I going to beat this girl? I can't wait to figure that out." That will help her to move forward.

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