How MMA champs fight anxiety with ACT and behavior analysis.

Photo by Justin Ng on Unsplash

Angela Cathey, MA, LPC & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D &

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Succeeding at professional sports is challenging both on physical and psychological levels. Today, we’ll discuss how professional trainers help top of the line Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters deal with the pressures of competition.

In a recent video by Brett DiNovi & Associates, Paulie Gloves, PhD, BCBA & Michelle Zube, BCBA discuss how top trainers use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and behavior analysis more broadly, with their fighters. Though many behavior analysts may struggle with the ‘psychological’ sounding jargon often associated with ACT (i.e., mindfulness, present moment, self-as-context); Paulie Gloves and Michelle Zube discuss how verbal behavior can help move fighters towards better engaging their skills. For example, fighters may use of self-statements to reorient their attention adaptively. Similarly, trainers may use well-timed verbal prompts with fighters to help them attend or distance themselves from their physiological, psychological, and ‘external’ environment.

During this video, Michelle Zube provides an apt analysis of these kinds of behaviors based on champion trainer Firas Zahabi’s descriptions of how he works with fighters. Firas Zahabi is shown discussing the importance of understanding one’s fear. Firas talks about the tendency of fighters to become hyper-focused, and sometimes paralyzed by, their fear of judgement. This can cause rigidity and loss of perspective at key moments during fights. However, Firas Zahabi’s verbal behavior regarding his training of fighters seems to suggest his own awareness of these moments and how he can, as a trainer, use prompts to shape adaptive present-moment focus. Firas further describes having fighters make statements such as, ‘This is only sparing.’ This simple change in verbal behavior is likely to reduce focus on judgment and support a fighters focus on those elements most important to the fight.

Later, Michelle Zube interviews the highly acclaimed Ultimate Fighter Champion (UFC) David Branch regarding his experiences across his career. For the unfamiliar, David Branch is a highly successful fighter who achieved a phenomenal string of UFC wins over the course of several years fighting. David Branch and Michelle Zube discuss David’s experience of public acclaim that may have led him toward painful loss. He and Michelle discuss how mass public attention may have reinforced a rigid self-concept and led to blind spots during a key fight. Branch recounts how he believed in (read ‘fused’ in ACT terms) with his strengths as a fighter to the extent that he failed to appropriately plan for his opponent’s strengths. Branch relates how this painful loss taught him to see that he is always vulnerable despite his exceptional strengths. Further, he discusses how he now uses this experience to keep himself training adaptively. Throughout the fighter’s account he demonstrates exceptional awareness of the importance of his verbal ‘psychological’ behavior about his training and the other fighter influenced his training and his recovery from this loss.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Angela Cathey, M.A. is a writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and Owner, Director, and Team/Leadership Development Consultant of Enso Group. Her background is in processes of change and intervention development. She has trained with experts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), cognitive-behavioral exposure-based treatments, and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Her interests are in process, innovation, and development of solutions for sustainable large-scale change. She has published in numerous academic journals on process, measurement, and intervention development. Enso-driven analytics systems are used to inform leadership and team building interventions, culture design, and research in the behavioral sciences. Angela can be reached at [email protected]. Stay up-to-date with Enso Group at and LinkedIn.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

*Paid content by Brett DiNovi & Associates.


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