Get angry, and use it? When emotion helps us win

When the margin of victory is slim, elite athletes look to harness the power of emotions

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Sijara Eubanks, right, fights against Roxanne Modafferi during the second round of a women's flyweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 230, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Sijara Eubanks, right, fights against Roxanne Modafferi during the second round of a women's flyweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 230, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Mixed martial arts seems angry. It’s a literal cage fight, with knees and elbows flying alongside kicks and punches, and where hitting opponents when they’re down is part of the action.

Tempers flare even before fighters enter the octagon, with screaming matches and intimidation common during pre-fight press events.

UFC flyweight fighter Roxanne Modafferi takes an entirely different approach.

“I’m the happy warrior, so I smile at them and I wish them a good fight. And I say, `Let’s have a great battle,” Modafferi said.

But she’s watched all these other fighters fly into rages during the pre-fight.

“`I’m going to kill them, and I’m going to smash the skulls open.’ Like, oh, they’re for sure using anger, ” she said. “Like, when they start talking about how they’re going to mutilate, bloodily mutilate their opponents, I was like, OK, for sure that they’re using anger.”

Using anger as a way to get motivated to win, to get into the spirit for a fight — Modafferi calls that using the dark side.

“I know that my best friend, Serena, she always was like, I’m the dark side. I’m like, `All right, well, I don’t really agree with that,’” Modafferi said, “But they also say anger unhinges you, and you shouldn’t fight with anger. But then some people say, I use anger. I’m like, all right, what is this?”

Modafferi asked other fighters what they were feeling or trying to feel when they were actually in a bout. What she found surprised her.

“So nobody loses control and swings for the fences. It’s like everyone I interviewed feels aggression to go beat up their opponent, but they don’t actually feel angry when they’re fighting,” she said. “And that was like all across the board.”

Aggression and anger are not quite the same thing, she said. Aggression can motivate you.  Anger, on its own, can be a liability.

“For example, one guy, Shawn Dodoro, said he got hit really hard in training by some new guy, he got angry and then started fighting harder,” she said.  “But he kind of lost control.”

Modafferi, for her part, tries to feel nothing at all during a fight.

“I call myself a Jedi. You know, Jedi are supposed to feel no emotions when they fight. Look at the Jedi Code. It’s in there, if I look at the Jedi code, it’s in there” Modafferi said.

And she said all the trash talking other fighters do, even the “mutilate and kill your entire family” kind, may often be an attempt to get your opponent angry. Get in their head, that might cost them the fight.

“Sport fighters are trained to do these techniques in the heat of the moment. And I think that we have good control over our emotions and can use controlled aggression,” she said. 

When it comes to emotions in sports, the name of the game seems to be control. You ride the emotions, you don’t let the emotions ride you. 

We want ‘angry Joe’

In “The Last Dance,” the documentary series about the Chicago Bulls’ NBA championships in the 1990s, it’s striking how Michael Jordan seems to conjure wild excuses to get pissed off.

“Most people notice that he would be like, `Yeah, this guy shook my hand after a game, and that made me mad,” said Brian Baxter, a performance psychologist at AMPlify Sport Psychology in Portland, Oregon. “And then the next story was, `That guy didn’t shake my hand after a game, and that made me mad.’”

Baxter helps athletes harness their emotions to feel what they need to feel to perform their best. And sometimes, that feeling is anger.

“I’m working with a high school basketball player right now who [says], `People around me tell me that they want to see, you know, ‘Angry Joe’ and not just Joe, they want to see ‘Angry Joe,’” said Baxter, using an alias for the player. “And so he’s like, `I don’t know always how to get angry.’”

The athletes who come to Baxter have plateaued — no matter how much or how hard they train, they don’t seem to get the performance they want. That’s where the mental, the emotional side of things can tip the scales. 

One of the things that come into play here is something called the Yerkes-Dodson law, which speaks to the relationship between pressure and performance.

“The inverted U is how I learned it, which basically says that as arousal or anxiety increases, your performance increases to a point. And then it goes down, that looks like a bell curve,” Baxter said.

You want emotion, but not too much, to perform at your best. How much emotion is right varies for each athlete — but too much of it, too much intensity, and you start going down the bell curve. 

Harnessing the potentially volatile power of emotions to your advantage is a bit of a tightrope walk. And researching all of this is just as tricky.

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Inducing anger 

Grace Giles is a research psychologist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Soldier Center.

Giles isn’t interested in how anger and other emotions affect combat sports so much as how it affects actual combat. What war and sports have in common are stress and the things people feel when they’re under stress.

She tries to induce emotions in people to see how performance is affected. It turns out that getting someone angry in the lab without getting them too angry is tricky business. 

“We’ve had individuals leave the lab fairly upset, so we typically do kind of a negative emotion reversal and show a funny film clip at the end to make sure that individuals are walking out of the lab feeling a little better,” Giles said. 

Usually, the problem is the subjects don’t stay angry long enough for researchers to measure their performance while angry. Scientists use a method in which they show a certain film clip meant to anger them.

“It could be like a war clip, or a news report about bullying, or a war scene to get people to feel fear,” Giles said.

And then to stretch out that angry or scared feeling, they play music at certain tempos that research shows helps keep the feeling alive.

The emotions people feel or suppress can be useful or harmful in different situations and intensities. Giles and her team are trying to zero in on the emotional sweet spots of different aspects of performance: Do you need your anger at a three or at a seven  to perform your best?

Another wrinkle to all this is individual variability. The anger that fuels one soldier or mixed martial artist can burn down another. 

The happy warrior

Roxanne Modafferi, the UFC fighter, felt as if she had been in a bit of a slump lately. 

“My issue is that I’ve been training for this upcoming fight, but I’m not really enjoying it,” she said.

She wasn’t interested in trying to harness anger to get her back in the game, though.

“I’m kind of bummed out a lot because I don’t have the training partners that I used to have and a lot of other things I won’t tell you about,” she said. “But I’m like, man, I used to be so happy, and I feel like I wonder if I’ll have a better performance if I’m more happy.”

Modaferri had lost her September bout with Talia Santos.

“So I’m trying to make changes in my daily life and train more with friends to kind of, like, elevate my happiness level,”she said. “So I’m trying to do things to make me happier.”

To get happy, Modaferri did jiujitsu, another fighting practice. Training in jiujitsu wouldn’t help her that much in an MMA fight, where opponents can throw kicks and punches, because jiujitsu is a bit more like wrestling, all holds and submissions.

 Still, she thought, if it made her happy, it was going to be worth it.

“I miss jiujitsu, and you know, I don’t do it the way I like to do it,” she said. “I kind of blew off my practice to do the jiujitsu class, but I really wanted to do that. Probably wouldn’t help my fight preparation, but it made me really, really happy, like to tears.” 

Modafferi ended up losing her last fight, one that was long scheduled to be her retirement bout. But it was a close-on, split decision, and the Houston crowd watching gave her raucous applause. 

She thanked her team and fans for all their support over the years and for the “glorious battle.”

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