Ask combat athletes what has led to their success, and it won’t take long to get the following answer: getting comfortable being uncomfortable. It sounds reasonable, but how do top competitors challenge themselves enough to ready their minds and bodies for highly “uncomfortable” conditions? A few of them shared their strategies.
1. The Aptly Named ‘Puke Drill’
Al Iaquinta, who fought for the UFC lightweight championship in 2018 and will be making his return to the octagon at Madison Square Garden in November, pointed to the “puke drill."
“It’s so painful,” Iaquinta said. “It’s miserable. But when things get tough, I lean on my experiences during the puke drill and know I can get through whatever a fight throws at me. It’s 30 seconds of live wrestling, then 30 seconds of pad work; three five-minute rounds with a minute of rest in between.
“You go back and forth between wrestling and punching and kicks. It would be one thing if you were competing with someone else going through the same things, but you’re not. You get a fresh guy every time. You’re exhausted and he’s full of energy. You have to dig really deep. You have no choice. It’s the most torturous type of training, but I know when I get through a hard puke drill and perform, I’m ready for anything in a fight.”
2. Crawl Until You Can’t Anymore
Clint Wattenberg — a two-time All-American wrestler at Cornell University, a former MMA fighter, and now the Director of Performance Nutrition at the UFC Performance Institute — said a recent Facebook entry from his college coach, Rob Koll, made him vividly remember where he learned to deal with discomfort.
“Rob posted a picture of his new wrestling room [at Stanford] and my former teammates started commenting on how painful the 'Koll Crawls' will be there,” he said. “That resonated with me and brought back some memories. Koll Crawls are basically baby crawls, back and forth across the room, over and over. You do it until you have nothing left; it feels like until you die.
“Koll Crawls were evil, although very productive when it came to building mental and physical capacity. I fell back on that training when things got tough in competition.”
3. The Usual Suspects, With Some Twists
Wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time wrestling World Championships medalist for Team USA, said his coaches push him to the brink, even against partners he typically handles.
“I wrestle guys I beat all the time, but not in the usual circumstances,” he said. “They rotate in fresh while I’m coming off a full practice and maybe a bike sprint. I’m at a deficit and it’s super difficult. I’m meant to struggle but perform anyway. The expectation is that even when the cards are stacked against me, I’ll find a way. If I can do that, I can perform in matches when the playing field is more level, even if I’m not at my best.”
On Any Given Day …
While Gwiazdowski credited activities like the ones he just described for pushing him to his limits of comfort, he emphasized that sometimes he walks into the wrestling room already feeling a bit off. And even without special drills, overcoming those feelings is just as significant.
“It’s not only about extreme cases,” he said. “There are days I don’t feel great and I know I need to pick my ass up and attack. I can’t let myself off the hook, because I could feel like that on competition day. We all have bad days and those days are important. I need to know because of my training I can bring myself to high-level performance in those situations, even when things aren’t close to optimal.”
4. Hit the Pavement
Two-time NCAA wrestling champion Kellen Russell said he was never a huge fan of running, but like most wrestlers, he didn’t have a choice but to hit the track, road, or stadium steps often.
“For me, it was the distance runs that were most painful,” he said. “It’s more mental than anything. You have to push through, and there were always guys who weren’t as good on the mat, but were strong runners. I hate to lose — in anything — so I wanted to beat those guys in running even though it hurt. A lot. It was about clearing my head, and continuing to put one foot in front of the other for what seemed like an eternity.”
5. Calendar to Courage
Gene Zannetti, a former college wrestler and the owner of Winning Mindset — a company that trains athletes, academics, and corporate executives in mental strength and confidence — recommended taking a daily approach to building comfort with discomfort.
Step one: Get a calendar. For 30 days, make sure you do and record one thing each day that scares you. Are you weaker at pull-ups or burpees than your friends or training partners? Challenge them to a contest. Are you unsure whether you can outrun a colleague in a sprint? Demand a race.
And don’t be limited to the athletic realm. Be courageous by speaking in a public forum or having a discussion with a friend you’ve been avoiding. According to Zannetti, when you intentionally and consistently place yourself in positions that make you nervous, you continue to expand your comfort zone. You’ll find that you’re strengthening your mindset and when challenges come your way, they will feel less and less overwhelming.
Hint: After 30 days, expect a tangible difference, and there’s no reason to stop there. Make the “Calendar to Courage” a habit for life.