The devotion to routine, staying present in the midst of chaos, and a relentless work ethic are the same things all athletes and gymgoers need right now.
You don’t need to be a fan of Georges St-Pierre to respect his accomplishments inside the ring or his mental toughness.
He is one of a handful of fighters in UFC history to hold titles in two divisions. He defended his welterweight belt a record nine times, holding the belt for over 2,200 days. Three-time Canadian athlete of the year and one of the most accomplished fighters of all-time, St-Pierre’s methodical and innovative approach to combat sports set him apart from the competition.
His devotion to innovating his training, finding ways to adapt to new styles and new fighters, and his relentless pursuit of excellence hold countless lessons for athletes and gymgoers, alike.
In St-Pierre’s book, The Way of the Fight, St-Pierre gives background to his ascent to the top of the MMA world. From being bullied as a child to some of the biggest losses of his career, St-Pierre’s book reveals what fueled his mindset.
While not all of us are planning on going into the octagon to choke someone out for a shiny belt, there are plenty of lessons in mental toughness that St-Pierre can teach us that carry off the mat.
Where to Buy – The Way of the Fight by Georges St-Pierre
The better you get, the more you realize you don’t know.
As you get stronger in the gym, as you progress up the ranks in your sport, the more you realize that you don’t know.
When you are outside the process, things look easy. Simple. But it’s once you become immersed in the process, you begin to realize that you’re still only scratching the surface.
One of the interesting paradoxes of mastery is that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.
- “MDs and PhDs live by the same rules: the more they learn about their field, the more they realize there is left to know. The good ones realize the beauty of this mystery, and they persist.”
Open your mind.
St-Pierre was fascinated by the power that gymnasts were able to create from awkward positions. He realized that being able to generate power from unconventional positions would be highly applicable to MMA.
Of course, he also knew that doing gymnastics would be met with derision from many in the MMA world.
- “I’m sure there are a lot of MMA guys and fans who think it’s stupid and wimpy to do gymnastics. At least I used to think that way. I disregarded gymnastics and believed it was for other people. I was closed-minded.”
The power of routine.
From day to day, St-Pierre’s schedule was remarkably consistent. The greats all understand that high-performance results can only come from a high-performance routine.
At the end of each day of training, St-Pierre would unfurl his gym bag and start preparing to repeat things the next day.
- “I walk into the apartment, head straight to the washing machine and remove the objects from my bag. I begin to prepare for tomorrow. Always tomorrow.”
- “Every single morning takes root the night before.”
You should only fear not trying.
How many times have you stopped short on making moves on your goals because you worried about failing? Or looking stupid? Or not performing up to the expectations of others?
St-Pierre understood that the only real failure is in not trying. In paraphrasing Aristotle, he outlines his focus on avoiding the regret of not trying as opposed to fearing failure.
- “Mediocrity is not about failing, and it’s the opposite of doing. Mediocrity, in other words, is about not trying.”
- “I’ve come up with my own cure for a closed mind: try it once, and see.”
Embrace the fear.
Fear is a natural response to stuff that is novel and new. The unknown. But fear is also the doorway to something better.
- “Fear is the genesis of most of the good things that have occurred in my life. Fear is the beginning of every success I’ve lived.”
- “Fear freezes your actions because it takes you into the world of what-if, and that’s the worst place anybody can be. This is when you start doing stupid things like predicting the future, or thinking your career as a mixed martial arts world champion is going to end suddenly. Forecasting doom and gloom is not only useless, but detrimental. It’s giving away all your power to fear and letting it take over your life.”
When fear locks us up, it’s usually because we are jumping around with our thoughts. We dwell on poor performances from the past. We stress about the implications about a loss in the future.
St-Pierre wasn’t immune to this kind of time-traveling with his thoughts. The way he took control of his fear was to stay present with his focus. This included deep breathing when he was under peak stress (between rounds of a major fight, for example).
- “If you find ways of staying in the present, fear can only help you.”
- “The first is just take a look around and remind yourself of where you are right now, and how everything is okay in this place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns about the future—I knew, for example, that I’d need surgery at some point—but it wasn’t the key thing right at that moment. Right at that moment the key was to take a deep breath.”
- “One of the most important things I do in between rounds is breathe deeply and slowly so I can relax.”
Innovate or die.
Getting better means being willing to adapt and innovate. Nothing in life or in the ring is stagnant. Either you are getting better or you are getting worse. There is no neutral.
Even the best of the best need to feel they are mastering their craft, even when they are at the pinnacle.
Innovation and change not only keep you from getting stuck in your comfort zone, it provides opportunities for improvement, which will keep you motivated and energized.
- “Innovation, to me, means progression, the introduction of new elements that are functional and adaptable to what I do. It’s all about making me feel better, whether through natural evolution or adaptation of previously unknown ideas. The reality is that innovation is a process, with its own rules and steps.”
- “Change is a great motivator, which is where all good training starts. When I get stuck doing the same thing over and over again, I need something new or I start developing mental fatigue. I need to feel like I’m constantly getting better.”
The curse of the victor.
Winners have a habit of halting their innovation once they win. It’s like they freeze in the headlights, terrified of innovating any further now that they are at the top.
The curse of the victor: You are expected to win now, so anything less is a complete loss. This fear has a way of locking up innovation.
- “Very often, we see leaders lose sight of how they got to where they are: by being and thinking differently from the competition. They make it to first place, and then their thinking changes from seeking innovation to seeking the status quo. They think, I made it to first place, so now I must not change a thing. But change is what got them to the top in the first place! This is because they’re focused on the positive result rather than on the process of success.”
- “You can’t simply enter [the octagon] and beat someone on instinct; you can’t go in with the same approach over and over because it worked last time.”
Just because you aren’t ready for success today doesn’t mean you won’t be ready later.
There will be times where you aren’t quite ready for your big goal. But just because you aren’t ready today doesn’t mean you won’t be ready tomorrow.
St. Pierre learned this the hard way, when he fought Matt Hughes, one of his idols, at UFC 50. In the moment before the fight, St. Pierre couldn’t look Hughes in the eye, his gaze instead cranked up to the rafters.
The fight was lost before it began. Hughes tapped St. Pierre out with ten seconds remaining in the first round with an arm-bar.
- “I believed deep inside of me that I’d be champion someday, but I also felt this wasn’t the right time… The importance of the feeling, though, is that it put me on a path. Luckily, I know that each journey begins with one step, and is followed by another.”
Champions are made in the dark.
How often have you been part-time with excellence? Or fair-weather, only investing yourself when conditions are perfect or when you are fully and completely motivated to do the right thing?
The hallmark of champions is that they are champions when no one is looking. When they are tired and have every excuse to mail in their effort. When no one is watching, when no one is there to judge them, except themselves.
What you do in the dark reveals what you can do in the light.
- “The real test is this one: When you’re alone in a room, when you’re in a private place and nobody else can see you, what do you choose to do? Eat well, or eat poorly? Exercise, or watch television? Practice something, or do nothing? The best version of the truth appears to you and you alone, when nobody else can see. This is the test of discipline, and it’s what makes the difference in your life. It’s what regulates your own system and guides it. The individual alone comprehends it.”
Where to Buy – The Way of the Fight by Georges St-Pierre
More Stuff Like This:
27 Key Lessons from “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford. Mumford helped Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan become more present and mindful through meditation. Here are some lessons from his book on mindfulness for athletes.
I also have an essential reading list for athletes. You can check out this list of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes.