Opinion: one of the key reasons for the MMA fighter's success in the cage comes down to his ability to enter a flow state which optimises his physiological performance

Conor McGregor wins. As a fighter and now an Irish sporting icon, he is notorious in his ability to win and win against the odds. This is new for Ireland as a sporting nation because we are not used to winning and it’s a different feeling. For those who romanticise teams like the Mayo footballers and have a grá for our typical label as valiant losers, it can be uncomfortable. Among other things, McGregor’s knack for success is one of the underlying reasons why he splits public opinion down the middle. 

However, there is a lot to be learned from McGregor. He may be brash and outspoken, but he wins because his performances are masterful. When he fights, he is akin to an artist completely engrossed in their work. When he competes, he doesn’t strain and force. Instead he feels and flows. 

A TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who came up with the psychological concept of flow

It is his ability to enter a "flow state" which is the key to his performances. It’s a psychological state that optimises physiological performance. A flow state is similar to a trance and it’s what people refer to when they say they are "in the zone" or "in a groove" and McGregor is a master at achieving this state. 

The last person who displayed such levels of perfection under duress was Michael Jordan, but he played basketball which is a game. You "play" games, you can’t play mixed martial arts. It’s a form of advanced problem solving with dire physical consequences. 

If you really want to compare McGregor’s abilities to someone, you have to go back to Muhammad Ali. Equating the two always brings criticism, but take a closer look from just a performance standpoint. In the ring or octagon, they both seem to enjoy themselves. They move as if they’re weightless, while their opponents seem to move in slow motion. Both have a devastating highlight reels of knockouts. Moreover, both combatants predict with unnerving accuracy the round and time they will conquer their opponents. 

Their similarity in terms of their relaxed and careless nature when fighting is completely counter intuitive is what makes them great. However, they doubled down on this strategy by making special efforts to ensure their opponents could never engage a flow state. They did this by trash talking. This is why mental warfare has become such a staple of combat sports. By insulting your opponent and making them emotionally involved in a sporting competition, it renders then unable to relax and perform smoothly. It induces anxiety, overthinking and, most crucially, errors. 

Take for example José Aldo, the former UFC champion. McGregor spent the guts of a year on a world tour harassing and jibing the then kingpin. Some say this was all for show, but even when the cameras were turned off, McGregor would take the belt, throw a tirade of insults, claim he was the king of Rio di Janeiro, José Aldo’s home city, and continually shout "Éire" in the Brazilian’s face. 

Conor McGregor and José Aldo trade barbs in the run up to UFC 189 

The pressure built and built until fight night. Before the fight begins, McGregor is loose and relaxed, while Aldo is tight and pensive. 13 seconds later and McGregor had won. Aldo overstretched on a punch and was immediately countered. A man who previously was known as one of the pound-for-pound greats looked like an amateur embarking upon his first fight. 

McGregor eluded to his philosophy in his post-fight interview: "precision beats power and timing beats speed". As a competitor, he is very aware of the power of flow. He has studied the writing of Bruce Lee, a martial artist who was 50 years ahead of his time. Lee famously recounted that "water can flow or it can crash, be water, my friend". 

Waterworks: Bruce Lee

Nobody on the planet at the moment represents this philosophy like McGregor. Take his last UFC fight against Eddie Alvarez, for example. Alvarez had a game plan going in to move left and wrestle. With such a plan, he would be moving away from McGregor’s powerful left hand and taking away one of his opponent’s best weapons. By wrestling, he was moving the fight to the area McGregor was least comfortable. On fight night, Alvarez moved to his right and attempted to strike with McGregor. He suffered a technical knockout in the second round. 

Why and how does a fighter who has trained and prepared his entire life for combat drastically underperform when the lights shine the brightest? Pressure counts and McGregor counts on pressure. He seems to care least when it matters the most. He acts like a freestyle jazz musician with music flying from his fingertips, while the others are frantically trying to read the sheet music. He is totally attuned to "his" arena, wholly engrossed in the moment. 

This condition of flow is exactly what sport psychologists across the globe attempt to instil in teams and athletes: not to think, but to act. Like him or loathe him, there is a lot to learn from McGregor and his mental state, not only as a new breed of Irish sport star, but as a once-in-a-generation athlete who simply goes with the flow. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ