UFC San Antonio: Cory Sandhagen understands how pressure can negatively impact performance
It's rare you'll speak to a fighter for any length of time and not hear them discuss the pressure they feel to succeed.
Mixed martial arts is a high stakes business, particularly at the highest level. Those who handle the pressure can become rich beyond their wildest dreams and earn fame beyond what they ever could possibly have imagined.
The opposite, though, can also be true. There have been many talented athletes who couldn't perform at the right time and who drifted away, soon to be forgotten, despite possessing enormous physical gifts.
According to Psychology Today, an athlete feels pressure for a variety of reasons, and it's very real.
Last year, Ran D. Anbar, M.D., wrote about the pressure athletes feel and provided tips to deal successfully with it.
"Sources of anxiety related to sports include worries that an athletic maneuver has not been mastered sufficiently, self-imposed pressure to excel, stress caused by aggressive coaching from a coach or family member, or worries about letting down teammates," Anbar wrote.
It's a battle many fighters face every day. Cory Sandhagen, one of the best bantamweights in the world, certainly understands the battle. Ranked No. 5 at 135 pounds in what is one of the UFC's best and deepest divisions, Sandhagen will face No. 3 Marlon Vera on Saturday in the main event of UFC San Antonio.
The division is so good and so deep that it's no exaggeration to say that anyone in the top five is good enough to win the championship at any given point. The key is putting it all together at the right time. And that's something Sandhagen fights every day as he prepares himself for battle.
"I've been able to hang in the top five for the last three, 3 1/2 years of my career," Sandhagen told Yahoo Sports. "That's not an easy thing to do in what is arguably the sport's best division right now. Most fighters understand that if you're there [in the top five, you're good enough to be champion], but I'm a very real, honest guy. Look at how many upsets there are in other sports."
In the first round of the men's NCAA tournament, No. 1 Purdue was ousted by No. 16 Farleigh Dickinson. In the NCAA wrestling championships, three-time champion Spencer Lee was upset by Matt Ramos in the semifinals, abruptly ending his collegiate career. Both happened last week.
Sandhagen is a bright, thoughtful guy who pays attention to what goes on around him in the world. And when he hears some of his peers trash talking or boasting about how well they'll do, it puzzles him.
"When I hear guys in the UFC or other fighters talk super confidently, it always interests me," he said. "I always wonder if they're lying to themselves or if they have some secret handbook the universe gave them where they can tell the future. In this sport, I really believe that, at the top, especially, anyone can beat anyone on any night. Sports are full of upsets all of the time.
"If you watched the NCAA wrestling championships last weekend, there were so many upsets over and over and over again. On a lot of different days, Spencer Lee beats that Matt Ramos. On that particular day, though, it wasn't his night. That's just the nature of the beast of what we're doing and the universe being chaotic. It's something I acknowledge and it's something I think almost makes you a little bit better because not everything is in your control and I'm totally OK with that."
He's worked as hard as he can to prepare himself to face Vera. That should be enough for him to win, but he understands that Vera has done the same thing and results in a short span are unpredictable.
But Sandhagen said he's aware that it's over the long haul where the truth lies. And he's willing to do what it takes in any area to give himself the best chance of winning on any given night.
He said he does "every single little thing possible" to set himself up. But it's why he has a love-hate affair at times with the sport.
"I hate this s*** sometimes, to be honest with you," Sandhagen said. "But I also love it so, so much. Not every day is like that, but when hormones and nerves and pressure hit you, it hits you like a train sometimes. Your mind will get impulsive and start to think a lot of negative things. I don't think anyone is immune to that. What helps make people go from good to great is their ability to deal with those things. You have to understand that you're human, also, and if you want something badly enough, it comes with a lot of consequences that you might not like."